What’s at stake with Syria? Reputation, Credibility, and Future Deterrence

The seemingly imminent intervention in Syria has recently been the talk of the town. As a nation, we appear overwhelmingly divided over whether a military response to President Assad’s use of chemical weapons is warranted. Public opinion on the why of intervention appears just as divided as on the question of whether we should act or not. Only a small number of arguments have focused on the long term credibility of the US deterrent, which, it has been argued, underwrites current levels of global stability. Moreover, insufficient attention has been paid to the cost to US reputation and credibility through the lens of existing theory or empirical evidence. Yet, it is this very long-term calculus which is necessary to determine whether it is  in America’s interest to intervene in Syria.

Undoubtedly, the administration must clarify its objectives in Syria before it can begin to discuss strategies. I argue that rather than focusing the debate on whether we can or should remove Assad or protect civilians, we should be focusing on whether we can deter the future use of chemical weapons and protect civilians from chemical weapons. This was the original red line, this was the reason we are even discussing intervention, so this should be the focus of any US response. Towards this end, all US military action has to do to be effective is impose high enough costs on the Assad regime so that the benefits gained from using chemical weapons are offset by military intervention, and be public enough that the costs incurred by Assad are transparent. Moreover, if intervention is about punishment and deterrence, it does not necessarily have to be aimed at military targets or erode Assad’s warfighting capabilities.

Assuming that this is the goal of intervention, the long-term implications of the US decision on intervention can be understood by extending the metaphor of the repeated “entry-deterrence” game, which models a monopolistic firm attempting to deter the entry of competitors into a market (see, for example, work by Tingley and Walter, 2011 available here). The idea behind the model is that by incurring the short term costs of punishing players who attempt to enter the game (for example, sacrificing profits by undercutting competitive prices), the firm builds a reputation for credibility, signaling to other potential players that any attempts to enter the market will bring higher costs than benefits, thereby deterring subsequent entry attempts. The monopolistic firm, by incurring short term costs for punishing competitors, sends a credible signal that it will punish players in the short term in order to preserve long-term benefits.

While the metaphor of monopolistic firms does not apply to the US, which is not trying to maintain a monopoly on the right to use chemical weapons itself, the logic of the game is identical: by setting red lines and threatening military action, the United States is attempting to deter the entry of other actors into a “forbidden market” (the use of chemical weapons). By failing to invest in reputation early, the United States is signaling that it will not act as a barrier to entry into this market. Even more damaging, by clearly stating the red line and then failing to carry out threats, the US signals not only that it will not act to deter when it remains silent, but that it will not act to deter even when it says it will. This not only increases the risk of the use of chemical weapons by other regimes in the future, but also increases the risk of interstate conflict in the future by increasing the belief that the United States will not carry out its threats.

Experimental evidence on reputation-building in these situations indicates that players who invest in their reputation early reap larger profits than those who do not (see figure 7 in Tingley and Walter, 362). This is because the credibility of their deterrent threat is established early, implying fewer attempts to enter the market by other players. Thus, in the lab at least, the long-term benefits of US military action have been established. This raises a number of important questions. First, how much do we (publics as well as politicians) discount the future? Are we willing to accept long term costs to save in the short term, especially if future costs are highly uncertain? Second, we must ask ourselves whether the United States should continue playing the role of the globe’s monopolistic firm (policeman) in an era where it is clear that no other actor has the capacity to overcome the barriers to collective action that it faces. Certainly, Americans have reason to be weary of war and wary of leaders who advocate for it, however we must always consider the potential long-term consequences of action (and inaction). The question we as Americans must ask ourselves is this: what do we picture our role to be on the global state in the future? Moreover, we must ask ourselves whether the chemical weapons taboo is worth enforcing. The answers to these questions are what should determine our decision to intervene.


Turkey: A Nation of Joiners

(Editor’s note: The following is a guest post by Candas Pinar, PhD candidate in Sociology at Yale University, focusing on state-society relations and political demography in the Muslim Middle East.)

Given the sheer breadth and volume of demonstrators and the rapid proliferation of political slogans across social media platforms, the Occupy Gezi movement would have us think that political engagement has always thrived in Turkey. But that hasn’t always been the case.

The United States has traditionally been described as “a nation of joiners,” a phrase used by Alexis de Tocqueville to capture the willingness of American citizens to form and join associations. Turkey, on the other hand? Not so much.

For decades, academics and policymakers have underscored the importance of a vibrant civil society for viable democracy. In the 1960s, Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba argued that the vitality of democratic institutions is dependent on a robust “civic culture,” which entails “civic cooperation and trust,” “expectation of fair treatment from government authorities,” “an emotional involvement in elections,” and “self-confidence in one’s competence to participate in politics.” More recently, Robert Putnam has written that “networks of organized reciprocity and civic solidarity” are what sustain democracies.

And for equally as long, these academics and policymakers have bemoaned the lack of such a civil society in Turkey. A 2011 report, prepared by the Third Sector Foundation in Turkey and CIVICUS, revealed alarmingly low rates of civic engagement in Turkey. In the past five years, only 12% of Turks engaged in political activism (e.g., signing a petition or attending a peaceful demonstration). And just 5% of Turks are members of civil society organizations, such as youth groups or trade unions. It was widely believed that democracy in Turkey could not take hold until citizens became involved.

Many point to the 1980 military coup as the cause of this widespread political disengagement. The coup came after more than a decade of sustained clashes between labor activists and student movements on the left and Islamists and ultra-nationalist groups on the right. Leftists and laborers sought to liberate Turkey from what they considered to be an unhealthy dependence on the capitalist West, and adopted guerrilla warfare to do so. Right-wing youth groups retaliated in kind, targeting schools and homes of prominent intellectuals. In total, approximately 5,000 lives were lost to the conflict.

During this period, the country was paralyzed. Martial law was declared and renewed every few months. Strict curfews were enforced. Universities across the country were shut down. In the name of “law and order,” the government banned all student groups, as well as teachers’ unions. The country was so divided that even a man’s facial hair revealed his political leanings (mustache = left-wing; sideburns = right-wing).

It was around this time that my own parents chose to emigrate to the U.S. to seek respite from the chaos. As university students, they were in the thick of it, whether they wanted to be or not. Their classes were often abruptly canceled because professors had been arrested. Social gatherings on campus were often forcibly dismissedwith gunfire. Childhood friends went missing, and resurfaced after years of imprisonment or torture. The military coup in 1980 brought an end to the civil unrest, but at great cost.

After the coup, parents strongly discouraged their children from becoming involved in politics. In the wake of such national turmoil, political activism – beyond the casting of a ballot – was thought to be dangerous and divisive. Not unlike personal traumas, national traumas stay with people. They become embedded in the collective consciousness of a nation. What happened in the ‘60s and ‘70s was not just an individual memory of those who experienced it, but a collective memory. Personal experiences with political activism – and the often deadly consequences it entailed – were transmitted from generation to generation, through story-telling, music, literature, and film.

Among subsequent generations, civic engagement and political participation dwindled. University students and leftists groups continued to organize annual Labor Day protests in Taksim Square, but most everyone else was too frightened or too disillusioned to engage.

Until now.

After riot police cracked down on peaceful protesters in Gezi Park more than two weeks ago, Turks were enraged. They cried. They shouted. And they joined.

Environmentalists joined. College students and their professors joined. Marxists, Kurds, and Alevis joined. Rowdy football fans not only joined; they mobilized. Doctors, lawyers, artists, and musicians all joined. Mothers and fathers joined. Grandmothers and grandfathers joined too. My mother – who was once so traumatized by what she had witnessed as a student – joined, in her own capacity. She attended a demonstration in Rhode Island, where my parents live now.

Images, videos, and anecdotes from Taksim Square continue to proliferate across social media sites. They reveal a strong and merciless state apparatus – police brutality against peaceful demonstrators, silencing of domestic and international media, and the detention of lawyers and doctors attempting to provide assistance to protestors. But they have also revealed an equally strong, revitalized civic culture in Turkey. Protestors, from all walks of life, organized trash disposal and street sweeping; provided urgent healthcare delivery for injured people, veterinary services for injured animals, and legal counsel for those detained; circulated and signed petitions; and held public piano concerts and yoga sessions. These are all concrete manifestations of the social cooperation and trust characteristic of an engaged civil society. We can still talk about the strong state in Turkey, but we can no longer call the civil society weak. No longer can we point to a disengaged public as the barrier to democratization in Turkey.

It’s still unclear what triggered the Occupy Gezi movement. Was it the park? The alcohol?

And we still don’t know how it will end. This past weekend in Istanbul has showcased the lengths the state is willing to go to in order to silence opposing perspectives. EU Minister Egemen Bagis and Prime Minister Erdogan have called the demonstrators “terrorists.” Reports of a draft law intended to limit social media content are emerging. And riot police, under government instruction, continue to disregard basic democratic principles, such as due process and medical neutrality. The current scene is beginning to look eerily similar to what happened four decades ago.

This is a dark chapter in Turkey’s history. But let us take a moment to recognize that the Occupy Gezi movement is testament to the renewed will of the Turkish people to engage, to care, to protest. Demonstrators continue to regroup in any alleyway or street corner that has been cleared of tear gas, and this shows that one thing is clear. Turkey is now, undeniably, a nation of joiners.

What We’re Reading

  • Some people use the word impossible when they mean improbable. Like this anonymous intelligence source: “The big thing that changed is an increase in the number of incidents,” the source says. “It’s impossible that the opposition is faking the stuff in so many instances in so many locations.” More on the Syria decision here.
  • Large protests are currently underway in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and other Brazilian cities against rising prices in public transportation and overall dissatisfaction with poor public service delivery in large metropolises. Some are calling it “the Brazilian Spring” and many say that protesters are inspired by the mobilizations in Turkey. Police repression has been strong: more than 190 people arrested in São Paulo, including 7 journalists. And this song effectively depicts the feeling of many taking part in these protests.
  • For even more on the Brazil riots, check out this tumblr.
  • “The unmanned aerial vehicle—the “drone,” the very emblem of American high-tech weaponry—started out as a toy, the fusion of a model airplane and a lawn-mower engine.” Fred Kaplan on the history of the drone.
  • Economist Robert Frank compares Sweden’s health care to Obamacare in the New York Times. “The encouraging news is that the Affordable Care Act was intended to foster the evolution of a new system that can capture many of the gains currently enjoyed by countries like Sweden. For that to happen, however, Congressional critics must abandon their futile efforts to repeal Obamacare and focus instead on improving it. Their core premise — that greater government involvement in health care provision spells disaster — lacks support in the wealth of evidence from around the world that bears on it. The truth appears closer to the reverse: Because of pervasive market failures in private health care markets, this may be the sector that benefits most from collective action.”

What We’re Reading

  • One of the most high-profile and devastating attacks by Indian Maoists occurred on the 25th of May, killing and injuring many Congress leaders, including the founder of Salwa Judum, a pro-government paramilitary force that fast gained notoriety for its abuses against civilians. Tusha Mittal at Tehelka highlights the ruthlessness of this militia after her trek into Chattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, the states which contain the heartland of the insurgency.
  • A Pakistani version of TV series Glee will hit local TV channels in the fall. “Like its smash hit forerunner, ‘Taan’ follows the lives and loves of a group of young people who regularly burst into song. But this time they attend a music academy in Lahore, instead of an American high school.” Plotlines include “love affairs between two men and between a Taliban extremist and a beautiful Christian girl.”
  • There’s a lot of work on unit cohesion and combat effectiveness. Probably less work on wife-swapping and combat effectiveness. Some in the Indian Navy may be exploring the topic.
  • Poverty ex machina? “A typical poor person is poor not because he is irresponsible, but because he was born in Africa.”
  • And, on the same topic, Matt Yglesias details the results of an experiment run by Chris Blattman, Nathan Fiala and Sebastian Martinez in Uganda. “Money with no strings attached not only directly raises the living standards of those who receive it, but it also increases hours worked and labor productivity, seemingly laying the groundwork for growth to come.”
  • Cass Sunstein describes the biggest Supreme Court decision you haven’t heard of, which increases executive power and the power and strength of Obamacare.
  • Is the Syrian Civil War the Spanish Civil War of our time? Harvey Morris examines the historical dangers of intervention and non-intervention in civil wars. The critical part of the analogy is whether the non-influence of Western democracies opens up room for the influence of other parties. It remains to be seen whether anyone is as interested in Syria as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were in Spain but some elements, namely Iran’s continued support of the Assad regime and Turkish and Saudi support of more extreme parts of the opposition, demand at least some consideration for the analogy. In any case, I doubt J.K. Rowling will be going to fight against tyranny in Syria.

Naming and Faming: Forbes’ Power Women

Forbes’ list of Most Powerful Women for this year is out and Angela Merkel has come out on top again, for the 7th time in the last 8 years. I was struck by the number of American women on the list simply by glancing at it. When I went through the entire list of 100 women, I realized that an astounding 58 were American. Does this mean that other countries are not producing ‘powerful women’?

Well, let’s look at how Forbes decides who is a powerful woman. According to the magazine, 250 candidates are picked each year, out of which 100 are picked across 7 fields – billionaires, business, lifestyle (entertainment and fashion), media, nonprofits and NGOs, politics and technology. Three variables are then used to decide one’s overall rank as well the rank within the category to which she belongs: money, media presence and impact. While money and media presence are calculated using fairly standard metrics (see here), ‘impact’ is measured by the “extent of their reach across industries, cultures and countries, numbers of spheres of influence and people they affect, and how actively they wield their power.” The extremely poor operationalization (if one can even call it that) of this third crucial variable ‘impact’ might be the reason why the list is so US-centric. Or maybe I have some idealistic conception of what ‘impact’ means in that it should affect the lives of people around the world, especially women, positively. Otherwise, I’d be hard pressed to believe that someone like Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, or Jenna Lyons, Creative Director of J. Crew, is actually influencing a wide spectrum of society in any manner, let alone positive.

Multiplicity (not starring Michael Keaton)

Duck of Minerva did a public service by hosting a debate between Matt Kroenig, Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann (see herehere, and here). The topic was nuclear superiority and crisis bargaining. Those are abstract words, but they are relevant for how we think about the United States’ ability to compel, say, North Korea in a crisis. But I think the debate should be of interest to anyone interested in applied methods in IR.

For me, Sechser and Fuhrmann’s arguments are the more compelling. In particular, they critique how Kroenig squeezes the appearance of more data out of a very small number of events:

Kroenig confronts a basic challenge in his empirical analysis: nuclear crises are rare.  Specifically, he has only 20 nuclear crises in his dataset (drawn from the ICB dataset). Yet he winds up with 52 observations, enough to generate a statistically significant correlation.  How does he obtain such a large dataset from such a small set of crises? The answer is that Kroenig simply duplicates each observation in the dataset, so as to double its size. A single observation for the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, now becomes two independent events in his dataset: a victory for the United States, and a defeat for the Soviet Union.  This is inappropriate: the two observations are measuring the same event. Kroenig is not actually observing more data here; he is simply reporting the same event twice.  This is equivalent to an exit poll that lists each respondent twice in the sample – once voting for candidate X, and once voting against candidate Y – and then claims to have twice the sample size.

As quantitative methods have pushed into new areas, including areas with very few observations, their employers have suggested greater confidence than is deserved about their findings. In fact, at some point, my guess is the whole enterprise of treating dyad-years as meaningfully independent observations will come collapsing around our heads. It’s been a while since I looked at it, but Erickson, Pinto and Rader have a paper that concludes “typical statistical tests for significance are severely overconfident in dyadic data.”

Political science’s great challenge is knowing what we know. Quantitative methods are not a panacea for this problem.

Re-Reading Juan Linz at the Fiscal Cliff, Contd.

I just saw that another person–in addition to Matt Yglesias and me–thinks Juan Linz’s old writing on the crisis-prone nature of presidential systems is increasingly applicable to the United States, despite the United States being a notable outlier in the original analysis. His name is Juan Linz.