A Case for Modest Military Force in Syria

I wanted to explicate briefly a case for the modest application of military force in Syria, just because it seems that the blogosphere and opinion pages are over-representing arguments to do a lot or to do nothing. In a way this might be viewed as a counter to Eliot Cohen’s argument that “Syria will require more than cruise missiles.”

It goes something like this: Let’s assume that the Assad regime made an intentional choice to use chemical weapons. If so, let’s further assume they are doing so because they have determined chemical weapons are modestly more effective than conventional weapons to kill militants or to dissuade people from supporting the militants. They believe this will modestly increase the odds of regime survival.

If those assumptions are valid, then it could be rational to believe the modest application of military force—say cruise missiles against regime targets—might be useful. Such a use of airpower need not be decisive, it need only to modestly decrease the odds of regime survival. In other words, airpower needs to cost the Assad regime more than chemical weapons buy.

But shouldn’t we care about dead Syrians no matter if they die from chemical warfare or conventional weaponry? Yes, we should. But it seems likely the Assad regime has determined indiscriminate violence is necessary for regime survival. This means that only regime change as a policy has any possibility of stopping indiscriminate violence. And regime change only can stop indiscriminate violence if you believe that post-Assad, Syria will be relatively stable. It seems like 1980s Lebanon is the more likely analogy, particularly since many of the exact same players would have very similar incentives. This means further, that if you believe stability must be imposed by an outside presence, just as in 1980s Lebanon, the cost of peacekeeping to preserve stability is likely to be very high for outside powers.

Protecting Syrians from chemical weapons might be a distinct, worthwhile goal from protecting Syrians more generally. First, deaths from chemical weapons might be especially unpleasant. Second, it is very plausible that chemical weapons might disproportionately kill civilians (they drift into homes) and disproportionately kill kids (less exposure to kill than an adult). Third, if reasons one and/or two are valid, then it might be useful to attempt to delegitimize this class of weapon more broadly. If that is the case, it might be worthwhile to exert modest force (“cruise missiles”) even if it fails to alter the Assad’s regime’s calculation, so long as the force signals to other states that there might be costs to chemical weapons use. If you believe the Assad regime might have “priced in” the possibility of U.S. military action in the event of CW use, then compelling a change in behavior becomes more difficult, but dissuading future actors might still be a possibility.

A few final points on compellance. To be successful, it is important for Obama to signal that if Assad stops using chemical weapons, then the United States will cease punitive strikes. Otherwise, if Assad believes future U.S. military action is inevitable, then he has no reason to cease chemical weapons use. Often in compellance situations, there may be reputational concerns, but since the Assad regime says it is not using chemical weapons in the first place, it should be easier to back down on future chemical use.

There are a lot of assumptions built into this analysis, and if the Obama administration concludes some of the planks of this argument are not present, then this case for moderate military action quickly collapses. But if you believe the assumptions above, U.S. military power may be appropriate to prevent additional chemical weapons use.

Snowden and Rawls

Edward Snowden continues his journey down the Freedom House ladder. He left the United States (56 on on Freedom House’s 60-point civil liberties scale) for Hong Kong (51) then on to Moscow (19). In the last 24 hours, rumors have had him going to Venezuela (24) or Cuba (10), though the present top contendor is Ecuador (36), a middling protector of civil liberties. If he does make it eventually to Uruguay (58) or Iceland (60), then his earlier talk of Hong Kong’s  “spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent” will seem less instrumental than it currently appears. 

Setting aside Snowden’s current excursions along the despotism trail, I wanted to reflect briefly on whether it is possible to think through the ethical obligations of being a whistleblower. We live in a democratic society where we have decided to allow our representative institutions to make certain decisions on our behalf. Those institutions have decided certain aspects of governmental functioning can be secret. Secrecy is inherently in tension with representative government because the content of the secrets might inform the representation we choose. Recognizing that there is a tension, however, does not allow us to relieve that tension through unlimited whistleblowing.

The U.S. system has accommodated whistleblowing by accepting two channels in addition to the formal chain of command: the inspector generals at various executive departments and the U.S. Congress. All indications are that the Select Committees on Intelligence in both the House and the Senate were informed of the program, though Director of National Intelligence Clapper’s statements in unclassified sessions are understandably worrisome. In a March hearing of the Senate Intelligence committee, Clapper responded to Sen. Wyden’s question of whether the NSA collected “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans” by saying “no” and then adding “not wittingly.” Clapper has subsequently clarified his answer as the “most truthful” or “least untruthful” answer possible. All indications suggest that Wyden had been informed of the scope of the program in classified briefings, even if Clapper’s response in the March unclassified session is dubious.

The fact that two Senators—Udall and Wyden—were concerned about the program is not proof that the program should have been unclassified or eliminated. Wyden and Udall had both appropriations and legislative mechanisms they could have availed themselves of if they wanted to force greater disclosure of executive activity or restrict it, and if they were able to convince their colleagues of the validity of their concerns. They were unable to do so.

In addition to legislative oversight and inspector generals within the executive, there is an additional check on classified activities in this area: the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, which provides legal authorization for certain types of intelligence gathering activities, and was created by the eponymous Act. The consensus view in the media about the FISA court suggests it is an inadequate oversight body, largely because it rejects very, very few requests. I say suggests because there may be an important selection bias if reports are true that the FISA court often asks the government to modify or withdraw unsatisfactory requests. We do not have data on modification or withdrawals of FISA warrants, and if the FISA court routinely informs executive officials that a warrant will not be viewed favorably, it would be no surprise if the formal rejections are scant.

But, let’s imagine that one buys the argument that U.S. inspector generals, and the U.S. Congress, and the FISA court are all insufficient checks on the executive. Is there a right to whistleblowing other than through the channels established by law? I’m not certain. But to the extent that there is, it seems as if it must occur after established channels have been attempted. Why? I think whistleblowing only makes sense morally if is viewed as a type of civil disobedience.

I’m not a political theorist, so I go back to major works when I’m trying to think through something. And John Rawls has a long section on civil disobedience in A Theory of Justice. Rawls frames the issue: “At what point does the duty to comply with laws enacted by a legislative majority (or with executive acts supported by such a majority) cease to be binding in view of the right to defend one’s liberties and the duties to oppose injustice.” He defines civil disobedience as “a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government.”

So, sounds like whistleblowing. But are they the same? And does Snowden meet the definition? Rawls lays out several requirements, but two are especially germane to the Snowden case. The first is “that normal appeals to the political majority have already been made in good faith and that they have failed. The legal means of redress have proved of no avail.” It’s unclear in Rawls whether this is an individual or general requirement. Could Snowden, perhaps seeing the Wyden-Clapper interaction, determine normal appeals have failed, even if Snowden himself never pursued “the legal means of redress”? I’m dubious that Snowden met this requirement, but I can at least see what the argument on the other side looks like.

The other requirement is civility, met through publicity and nonviolence. Rawls is reasonably explicit on these requirements, and he goes further: civil disobedience expresses “disobedience to the law within the limits of fidelity to the law, although it is at the outer edge thereof. The law is broken, but fidelity to the law is expressed by the public and nonviolent nature of the act, by the willingness to accept the legal consequences of the act.” (Emphasis added.) Rawls goes on at some length, but the basic mechanism he outlines is that by accepting the legal consequences, it forces society to reflect on the rules it has enacted. If the society, even upon the reflection engendered by the act of civil disobedience, proceeds with the punishment, this suggests the convictions of the political community differed from the dissident, which happens in democratic countries. In Rawls’s words: “We must pay a certain price to convince others that our actions have, in our carefully considered view, a sufficient moral basis in the political convictions of the community.” Otherwise, individual’s nullification of rules they deemed unjust would lead to considerable social instability, even in a “nearly just” society. We would permit an individual to arrogate to himself governing authorities that were not vested in him.

I find exile, Snowden’s apparent choice, to be insufficiently similar to the requirement of acceptance of legal consequences, and hence the act is not civil disobedience by definition. It does not meet Rawls’s requirements of publicity, since it was only public after Snowden had escaped legal consequences. Even if I were to view Snowden’s actions as civil disobedience, it is still possible for me to view it as something that deserves punishment. By accepting punishment, the civil disobedient only forces us to face society’s rules squarely. The civil disobedient is not always right and so hence the civil disobedient should not always go unpunished. 

I do think this opens up interesting questions of whether an individual can ethically “shoot and scoot,” via civil disobedience followed by pursuit of political asylum elsewhere. By no means would these requirements prohibit asylum more generally. Snowden could have sought political asylum if he would have been badly treated in the United States for his political opinions. This is not what occurred. Snowden poor treatment  is a result of his violation of a non-disclosure agreement. His political opinions could have been expressed vocally without consequences, as is evidenced by his contributions to the 2012 Ron Paul campaign.

At the outset, I said secrecy is special because it is in tension with representative institutions. But it is special in another way, that complicates the acceptability of civil disobedience in such cases. Secrets once revealed cannot be un-revealed. They are forever public in a society free of censorship. I am troubled by this lack of reversibility. A “sit-in” or an unauthorized protest march does not permanently alter a social situation in ways that unified social action cannot fairly quickly repair. An individual that leaks state secrets—particularly in large quantity—might do lasting damage, something I think insufficiently considered in Rawls’s treatment several decades ago.

What We’re Reading

Bringing the State Back In (to the discussion on redistribution and innovation)


In recent months, the New York Times has published a series of opinion pieces that read like an abbreviated syllabus in comparative political economy. An analytic piece from late April chronicling the (perhaps) excessive generosity of Danish social democracy kicked off the discussion, prompting a response from Nancy Folbre as well as a “Room for Debate” roundtable on the sustainability of continental welfare states. The Folbre piece linked above makes brief reference to a recent(ish) paper by Acemoglu, Robinson and Verdier (ARV) which argues that while some countries may be able to combine robust welfare states with sustained economic growth, all countries can’t do so at the same time without retarding global innovation rates. They explain their argument succinctly in the short version of their piece:

The fact that technological progress requires incentives for workers and entrepreneurs results in greater inequality and greater poverty (and a weaker safety net) for a society encouraging more intense innovation. Crucially, however in a world with technological interdependence, when one (or a small subset) of societies is at the technological frontier and contributing disproportionately to its advancement, the incentives for others to do so will be weaker. In particular, innovation incentives by economies at the world technology frontier will create higher growth by advancing the frontier, while strong innovation incentives by followers will only increase their incomes today since the world technology frontier is already being advanced by the economies at the frontier.

America: enduring child poverty and substandard education so you don’t have to. You’re welcome, Sweden.

Thomas Edsall has a piece from April evaluating this argument in light of some countervailing claims, and it’s well worth a read. Whether redistributive incentives are really the key driver of cross-national innovation rates deserves serious critical scrutiny. It’s also worth thinking in normative terms about whether one might tolerate a slower iPhone development cycle (or even – gasp – a lack of iPhones altogether) for the sake of greater social equity.

That aside, however, the ARV model seems plausible. Anyone who has dug a bit into the literature on Varieties of Capitalism will recall the basic claim about innovation: both ‘cutthroat’ liberal market economies (LMEs) and ‘cuddly’ coordinated market economies (CMEs) innovate, but do so differently. LMEs, with their flexible labor markets and ubiquitous-but-impatient venture capital, make radical technological leaps, while CMEs are better at incremental advances. America develops the Fordist production system, Germany makes cars that don’t suck. The ARV model takes this observation to its logical conclusion: CME incrementalism relies on LMEs to expand the technological frontier. For those of us who would like to see a more robust safety net and more egalitarian distribution of post-transfer income, this is discomfiting.

I don’t have anything close to the formal chops necessary to critically evaluate the technical specifics of the ARV model. I would, however, make two observations about its real-world importance and applicability. First, as the authors briefly acknowledge, people have tried to test some of the implications of their thesis. Taylor (2004) and Akkermans, Castaldi and Los (2007) both use patent data to compare innovation rates between “cutthroat” LMEs and “cuddly” CMEs. The former article finds no discernible difference between them, while the latter finds limited and industry-specific support for the notion that LMEs innovate the fastest and/or most radically. ARV do cite both of these efforts, but don’t really address the complications they present to their central argument.

Second, and more crucially, much of the discussion around this question ignores the state’s potential to drive innovation through direct investment in science. ARV treat innovation as a function of incentive structures facing potentially innovative individuals or firms. “Cutthroat” economies, with their looser regulation and weaker redistributive regimes, provide innovators with stronger incentives to invest capital in risky-but-potentially-innovative ventures. State investments in R&D, though, could plausibly drive innovation on the supply side by providing resources in a manner divorced (or at least estranged) from market pressures.

To cite a few well-worn American examples, many of the technological advances crucial to the twenty-first century economy happened outside the private sector. The first general-purpose computer was developed to calculate artillery firing tables for the U.S. Army. The microprocessor was developed by NASA in order to miniaturize computers for guidance and navigation during the Apollo program. The packet switching network that became today’s internet was first developed by ARPA (now DARPA), an advanced research agency within the Pentagon. Today, the National Institutes of Health commits a budget of roughly $30 billion per year to biomedical research, including the kind of risky basic research that may not generate immediate commercial returns, but can lead to radical innovations over time. The NIH alone represents almost a third of the money spent on health research in the United States, and is likely the reason that America is a leading innovator in this sector. The National Science Foundation commands another $7 billion to fund research across scientific disciplines (with one, ahem, notable exception). More trivially, that self-driving car that Google has been promoting like mad recently? It also has its roots in a series of DARPA initiatives.

I don’t mean to suggest that the private sector doesn’t drive a substantial majority of innovation in contemporary developed economies. Even the NIH budget, colossal by any standard, represents less than half the capital devoted to biomedical research in the United States. Nor is all state-funded research created equal. Some work suggests that state subsidies of private sector R&D initiatives may crowd out, in whole or in part, private investment in similar projects (a cursory lit review indicates mixed evidence on this score). Still, if the concern is that more egalitarian societies might de-incentivize the kinds of risky bets that lead to radical technological leaps, that effect could be at least partially offset by direct public investment. It may yet be possible to subsidize school lunches without gutting technological progress.

What We’re Reading


  • Substitute political words for the medical words in this excerpt: “The current regime was built during a time of pervasive ignorance when the best we could do was throw a drug and a placebo against a randomized population and then count noses. Randomized controlled trials are critical, of course, but in a world of limited resources they fail when confronted by the curse of dimensionality. Patients are heterogeneous  and so are diseases. Each patient is a unique, dynamic system and at the molecular level diseases are heterogeneous even when symptoms are not. “
  • A military and strategic assessment of the situation in Syria from Yezid Sayigh at Carnegie. Brutally honest about the existence of good, clean options for the rebels and its potential allies–there aren’t any–it’s a nice companion/update to Dexter Filkins excellent overview of Obama’s options in Syria from the New Yorker a few weeks ago. The crux is that Assad’s position is slowly stabilizing, making a prolonged stalemate increasingly the likely outcome of the conflict.
  • From the Monkey Cage: Akis Georgakellos and Harris Mylonas with a great overview of the structural realignments in the Greek political system. Many Greeks are still in denial about the very real–and immense–changes to Greek political life. At the core, Greece has been transformed from a two-party electoral system with one-party governance into a fragmented electoral system with multiparty governance.

Why More Violence Means Less Support For US Intervention in Syria

President Barack Obama and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

(Editor’s note: the following is a post from regular Smoke-Filled Room contributor Lionel Beehner at the always-excellent Political Violence at a Glance.)

One puzzle about the conflict in Syria: as the fighting grows more violent and death toll climbs above 80,000, among Americans support for a limited military intervention has fallen. Last summer, nearly two out of three Americans supported a no-fly zone in Syria, according to a poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Recent polls (CBSReutersGallup), however, show that most Americans oppose any kind of military intervention (assuming there is no proof of chemical weapons use).

The sad reality is that the uglier a civil conflict gets, the less likely Americans will want to intervene to stop it.

Americans are generally wary of intervening militarily to save lives. Call it the “post-Vietnam syndrome.” Sure, they are occasionally supportive of sending humanitarian aid or engaging in missions with multilateral backing. But in Bosnia, for example, before the 1995 Dayton Accords were signed most Americans thought the United States had “done enough” and saw intervention as Europe’s responsibility. Moreover, less than half of Americans supported the 2011 NATO no-fly zone in Libya. Barely 50% backed NATO’s bombing of Belgrade in 1999. Interventions to oust dictators or respond to military coups are equally unpopular among Americans. The 1994 ouster of Aristide in Haiti by US forces, for example, had barely half of America behind it. Ditto the 1983 invasion of Grenada.

Americans are only slightly more supportive of interventions that have a tit-for-tat casus belli. The 1986 US attack against Libya, for example, or 1998 air strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan in response to attacks against our embassies in Kenya garnered 71% and 66% support, respectively.

Contrast that with the 90% support for the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, and 76% support for the 2003 Iraq War.

Paradoxically, the interventions with the greatest public support in recent memory were full-blown ground invasions, not limited interventions for humanitarian purposes, even though the latter poses less risk to American lives. There is, moreover, little correlation between American public support for an intervention and whether the operation actually succeeds or not. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were hardly military successes, even though they enjoyed high levels of initial public support. The First Gulf War, meanwhile, which was successful at repelling Saddam from Kuwait, only enjoyed tepid support at best (37% in favor of military action, inching up to 53% after the November 1990 UN resolution to use “all means necessary”).

After several months of punitive air strikes, the NATO interventions in Kosovo and Libya resulted in the eventual ousting of two dictators, Slobodan Milosevic and Muammar Qaddafi, respectively. The aftermaths of both interventions were not pretty, but their stated aims – to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe – were largely met. While the military objectives of humanitarian interventions are obviously more limited than those of full-scale invasions, by and large our track record of intervening for humanitarian purposes is better than our record for going in for other (less noble) reasons.

Another factor that makes US intervention even less likely: The public tends to show stronger support for interventions led by Republican administrations. Democrats typically intervene under less clear mandates for reasons not always directly linked to protecting US strategic interests. That is not to say that they intervene for idealist reasons while Republicans only intervene when US national security is at stake – after all, Bush Sr. intervened in Northern Iraq in 1991 to protect Kurdish refugees and the following year intervened in Somalia to save innocent lives. Obama, meanwhile, is the one who violated Pakistani sovereignty to take out Bin Laden (By the way, Americans remain very supportive of targeted killings by pilotless aircraft. The use of drones in Yemeni, Somali and Pakistani territory, despite their dubiousness under international law, enjoys 83% approval ratings, according to a February 2013 Washington Post/ABC poll).

In short, the American public remains a poor handicapper of how interventions will turn out – what’s popular isn’t necessarily what’s smart or doable. Aside from drone strikes, the bigger or riskier the intervention, it would seem, the higher the level of public support. Perhaps there is a rally-around-the-flag effect. Or perhaps we only select into interventions with ground forces when our most vital interests are at stake.

This effect brings us back to Syria. If an intervention there was sold as an effort to protect US strategic interests in the region – to weaken Iran and its Shiite proxies, perhaps – and not as a mission to prevent Muslims from slaughtering other Muslims, more Americans would probably rally around the cause.

What We’re Reading

  • Fair and balanced: “Over the past few months, the (state-run) People’s Daily in China has launched a lovely series called “Dishonest Americans.”  Supposedly this is meant to give Chinese readers a more balanced and “objective” picture of American life, when juxtaposed with their own overly rosy impressions. Or so the PD editor has claimed: ‘Most Chinese people think that Americans are honest, reliable, and righteous. However, once you live in that country for a while, you may discover the descriptions above are a bit misleading.'”
  • Mitra and Ray test a model for economically motivated ethnic violence in India: “The fact that Muslim expenditures display a significant and positive connection with later conflict, while Hindu expenditures have a negative link, suggests that (statistically speaking) Hindu groups have largely been responsible for Hindu-Muslim violence in India, or at least for violence driven by instrumental, specifically economic considerations.”
  • Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: “These poor-against-poor riots were not spontaneous, grassroots protests against the city’s shortage of work. Riots seldom were, in modern Mumbai. Rather, the anti-migrant campaign had been orchestrated in the overcity by an aspiring politician–a nephew of the founder of Shiv Sena. The upstart nephew wanted to show voters that a new political party he had started disliked bhaiyas[migrants from North India] like Abdul even more than Shiv Sena.” (Though, to be clear, in Boo’s book at least it seems as if these particular riots targeted anyone from North India in the slums, and while the character Abdul’s family happens to be Muslim, it’s not clear if his Muslim-ness is especially relevant to this riot.)
  • Paul Staniland examines cooperation between rebels and democratically elected governments in India over at the Monkey Cage. Make sure to check out his related working paper on the long-term consequences of government use of “non-state armed groups” as well. These groups, and especially their interaction with state actors, remain poorly understood but Paul is doing some great work to advance our knowledge.
  • How to Play Well with China: Fascinating look at US-China relations in the 21st century by Ian Bremmer and Jon Huntsman. It’s not necessarily a pessimistic piece but this part does not exactly inspire confidence: “In some ways, the stakes are higher for Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi than they were for Ronald Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev. There is no American-Chinese nuclear threat to focus minds on stronger ties, nor is there a Berlin Wall to separate the two countries’ fortunes. For better and for worse, America and China are bound together in a form of mutually assured economic destruction.”