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.

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What We’re Reading

More of “What We’re Reading” from the TSFR team, with a healthy dose of Egypt links at the bottom:

  • Learn your ABC’s with this Soviet-era erotic alphabet. This is interesting on many levels; in particular, consider that this was a policy by the USSR used to combat adult illiteracy: in other words, art, erotica, and a bit of sexism were combined in imagery as an educational policy. A friendly warning: do not open this at work. Do not open this around children, either.
  • More on protests in Brazil, from Nauro F. Campos. He concludes: “Against the stereotype of a laid-back and peaceful people, the historical record suggests the propensity to protest in Brazil is high and may have increased in the last decades. The current wave of protests has multiple causes but three important ones are corruption and inefficiency in public services delivery, political ineptitude and the electoral cycle. These make for the possibility that protests may well continue as the executive and the protesters push for political reform and improved public services against forces that are well represented in the legislature.”
  • Andrew Gelman writes in Slate about “researcher degrees of freedom” — reminding all of us to leave stargazing to the astronomers.
  • Why all Muslims are not terrorists, according to Bayes (and Phil Arena at the Duck of Minerva).
  • Sometimes it seems like Jordan might be one giant attempt to see how many things you can do to a state before it fails. The current episode: Syrian refugees. Lots of them.
  • Matt Yglesias wonders aloud about whether poor social mobility in the American South is associated with historical efforts to disenfranchise blacks: “If your poor population contains a very large number of African-Americans, then perhaps the only viable means of keeping the black man down are going to involve denying opportunities for upward mobility to poor people of all races. Strong public schools, economically mixed neighborhoods, dense cities, and other pathways of economic mobility would undermine the racial hierarchy, so they meet with unusual levels of resistance.”
  • Ahsan Butt has a clever new piece in International Organization arguing that the decline of U.S. intervention in Latin America in the 1930s is the cause of a bump in Latin American wars during that same time period. We don’t know if we buy his empirical story, but the piece is important because it has obvious implications for U.S. retrenchment today. It seems like trying to find analogous historical episodes of retrenchment is something both sides should be doing in making their arguments for U.S. policy, rather than arguing solely based on fuzzy concepts like “leadership.”
  • Selection effects and the Voting Rights Act: Justice Ginsberg’s dissent in Shelby County v. Holder argued, “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Former Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens weighs in on the case (including this particular argument) here.
  • Interesting empirical finding from India: “We find that increasing the political representation of Muslims improves health and education outcomes in the district from which the legislator is elected. We find no evidence of religious favoritism: Muslim children do not benefit more from Muslim political representation than children from other religious groups.” The paper exploits a regression discontinuity based on narrow electoral victories. If the finding is true, it seems like a coalitional story — where Muslim politicians are often part of a coalition that also represents poor Hindus — is likely part of the answer, although the draft has little explanatory narrative.
  • An opposition figure is gunned down in Tunisia with the same weapon used to kill another prominent politician earlier this year, further complicating Tunisia’s transition.
  • Fighting in Syria as diplomatic wrangling proceeds in New York.
  • Egypt!
    • Steve Negus at the Arabist on army chief General al-Sissi calling for mass demonstrations seeking a mandate against “terrorism” — code for the Muslim Brotherhood and allies. Negus argues this marks a strategic shift (“Unless he genuinely miscalculated the impact of what he said  — as we learned with SCAF, this is always a possibility when career military men enter politics — al-Sissi has diverged considerably from his July 3 strategy of having a civilian interim government out in front.”) and offers some possible explanations as to why this shift took place.
    • Steven Cook weighs in with a NY Times op-ed: “A Faustian Pact: Generals as Democrats”
    • Sinai continues to boil over following Morsi’s unceremonious ouster from Egypt’s presidency early this month.
    • If you can’t disperse ’em, massacre ’em (not an endorsement of said tactics): some images (many disturbing/graphic) from clashes at a pro-Morsi sit in on Saturday.
    • Speaking of terrible violence, Sarah Carr writes Saturday on state strategy, and parallels to Tiananmen: “It seems more and more likely that security bodies will act in the next few days. Yesterday night’s violence on Nasr Road demonstrates that they are incapable of acting with restraint or with any kind of sensible plan. That they are taking on a massive civilian sit-in spells disaster. But just for the record, I would like to suggest that there are ways to minimise [a Brit!] the deaths and injuries so that we do not replicate what happened in Tiananmen Square.”
    • Another piece by Sarah Carr, on al-Sissi’s speech and its reception in Egypt: “The general public was sold. It ran stumbling and screaming into Sisi’s protective arms and nestled in his bosom. Almost overnight, people mutated into barrel-thumping nationalists celebrating a victory against a foreign enemy, when no battle has yet been won and their enemy is one of them. Hot air — lots of hot air — has been blown into former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s corpse. Perhaps they are trying to blow his spirit into Sisi. Three years after the heady independent days of January 25, and Egyptians are once again seeking out the army strongman to hold their hand, and an enemy — invented or real, it doesn’t matter — to define and shape their cause. Like all nationalist movements, this is sentiment partly informed by fear and hate. There is nothing of real ideological substance here, no long-term goal other than either containing the Brotherhood or crushing the Islamist movement.”
    • Egypt’s foreign minister on Brotherhood participation, and potential repercussions if they fail to come into the political process following Morsi’s ouster, which the group has strongly opposed: “If they decide to withdraw from politics, it will be disappointing. If they decide to pursue violence, then you are looking at a completely different confrontation […] Even if I personally reject their positions or ideology, they have to find their place in Egypt’s political life.” But…
    • …see Ashraf Khalil on setting the legal basis for Morsi’s detention through investigation of espionage charges: On July 26, “an Egyptian judge announced the detention of deposed President Mohamed Morsi for 15 days while authorities investigate charges of espionage levied against him by the transitional government… The fact of Morsi’s detention is less surprising than the nature of the charges themselves—branding Morsi and the Brotherhood, in essence, as traitors. It is not the sort of maneuver that a government interested in reconciling with disaffected opponents would make. Friday’s ruling, combined with the pro-military protests called for the same day, have now set the stage for a sweeping crackdown on the Brotherhood that seems likely to drive the organization back underground.”

In Syria, It Takes Three to Tango

Mark Katz has an interesting post on his blog, which is repurposed from his 1982 book about Soviet military thought, but applies to Syria today. The operative part is here:

In wars between the people and a regime of extreme reaction, both radicals and moderates unite to fight the dictatorship, with each group hoping later to establish its preferred form of government (radical Islamist rule or some form of democracy). The radicals in such a civil war may well initially be a relatively small and weak group compared to the moderates fighting the dictatorship. However, the radicals stand a good chance of eventually coming to power despite their initially weak position. For while some external forces are supporting the dictatorship, others will support the radicals, making them stronger compared to the moderate opposition. When the dictatorship eventually falls, the radicals are often in a position to take power since they have received outside support from their allies while the moderates have received nothing. Either of these could come to power, and so external support of the radicals increases their chances of actually doing so. The Americans, of course, also have the opportunity of supporting the moderate opposition, but because of the rigidity of American thinking, the U.S. does not do this. This is an error that the radicals can take advantage of.

He adds several caveats, but he introduces the idea that this is not a two-player game but rather should be thought of as a three-player one. There are similar dynamics between Brezhnev-era communist struggles in the Third World and Islamist-tinged insurgencies in today’s Middle East, in that radicals were often the most organized and thus most poised to successfully overthrow a dictatorship because they enjoyed more outside support, while moderates tended to get sidelined by their external sugar-daddies (especially after the dictator was ousted). Should Assad fall tomorrow, one can imagine that Islamists would enjoy greater means to organize voters and rally Syrians around their cause than the moderate elements within the opposition, which are divided and underfunded.

Is Syria’s Civil War A Result of Too Little ‘Bandwidth’ in Washington?

A commonly heard refrain about why the Obama administration has not done X or Y in [insert global troublespot name here] is that there is just not enough bandwidth. Richard Haass, discussing how Iraq distracted us from other more pressing priorities with Diane Rehm, said, “Presidents only have so much bandwidth.” 

The administration’s mouthpieces are also fond of the web 2.0 metaphors in discussing U.S. relations with the world. Benjamin Rhodes on Africa: “[There’s bandwidth in] the relationship for a lot of cooperation, even when we have difference, and even within the Syria issue, there’s that bandwidth. And that’s the message that the leaders wanted to send.” Even Obama himself has employed the notion of freeing up “national-security bandwidth.”
 
Huh? I understand that there are only so many hours in the day. Bandwidth is treated by its users as a finite and depletable resource, like political capital or canola oil, that should be used prudently. But part of me feels this “bandwidth” metaphor is a cop-out. When are presidents’ in-boxes ever empty? Juggling the breakup of the USSR, Tiananmen Square massacres, South Africa overturning apartheid, an invasion of Iraq, a follow-up no-fly zone in that country’s north, and an economy crumbling around him, George Bush Sr. still found time to send U.S. forces into Somalia to save lives in a place barely anybody at the time had heard of and which was of zero strategic interest.
All of which is to ask: Have scholars ever tried to code “bandwidth” in any systematic fashion? In other words, is it possible to examine the number of other pressing issues (e.g. immigration reform, healthcare, SARS outbreak, etc.) an administration is juggling at the same time? If there are more than, say, a dozen, that might cause the system to short-circuit and lead to paralysis. Do we intervene less overseas or lean more isolationist when bandwidth is low? Discuss.

What We’re Reading

What We’re Reading

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.