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We Want a Syria Solution That’s Feasible and Legitimate. Here’s Why It’s Hard to Have Both.

This is a guest post by David Held, Professor of Politics and International Relations at Durham University, and Kyle McNally, a Researcher and PhD Candidate at Durham University.

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There has been a great deal said, and written, about Syria in the last month.  A general consensus recognizes that there are no good options but that something must be done.  But the problem goes even deeper than this.  In many cases, the feasibility of a solution is inversely related to its legitimacy.  That is to say, for many options, the more likely the potential solution is to be implemented, the less legitimate it is, in global terms.

Take, for instance, the example of US military strikes. This is certainly feasible.  But were Obama to launch missiles into Syria, he would face widespread condemnation from the world community; such an action, it has been argued, would be a violation of international law and would undermine the credibility of the United Nations system.  In short, it lacks legitimacy.  By contrast, consider a military strike by an alliance such as NATO.  This would have more legitimacy, but it is not feasible given the opposition to military strikes among key NATO members.

There are options that would have more legitimacy: such as the creation of a safe zone for humanitarian aid delivery, peacekeeping forces on the ground, a political or diplomatic resolution to the crisis, and a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration campaign to transition the country back into stability.  These would necessarily have to be a project initiated and implemented by the United Nations, so right away it’s clear these are not very feasible.

The challenge, therefore, is to find an option that does not compromise legitimacy for feasibility.  Perhaps by clever diplomacy or perhaps by a ‘rhetorical’ stumble, one such option may have presented itself last week, when the Russian Foreign Minister, Lavrov, capitalized on what appeared to be a flippant remark made by John Kerry only hours earlier.  Kerry, with a tone of sarcasm, said that the Assad regime could avoid military strikes if they surrendered their stockpile of chemical weapons.

The US State Department quickly tried to back off this position and explained it as a ‘rhetorical argument’; however, the wheels of diplomacy were already in motion.  Russia quickly presented this to the Syrian government, who have since accepted the deal in principle.  With US-Russia agreement on the basic terms of the deal, the world now waits to see if Assad will cooperate and abide by the requirements they have set out.

Questions linger as to how this deal will be brokered into implementation—principally, questions over the use of force if Assad does not comply, and what role the UN Security Council will play in the end. As of now, this approach enjoys the legitimacy of the international community, strengthens international law, and at least for time being might even be feasible.

Beyond this, the civil war will continue to rage and the options here look even more dire. The truism that there is only a solution through politics remains.  Perhaps with the doors open to Moscow and Tehran, there is scope for more political manoeuvring, manoeuvring that might lead to a transformation of the Syrian regime and the ultimate removal of Assad. But this would still leave a war torn country bitterly divided with factions and jihadists still at war with each other, and armed greater than ever before.  Introducing democracy in such a context, while desirable in principle, is improbable and can even be dangerous; without the grassroots development of a culture of citizenship, democracy can simply magnify identity politics.

If a deal on Syria was to occur, and peace achieved, the conditions might be created for freedom to begin to flourish.  Infrastructures of freedom, embedding freedom of the press, association and expression, could begin to be built.  Civil society associations might be entrenched and activists encouraged to create links across sectarian divides on the many common issues all such people share: the need for security, subsistence, schooling, jobs and so on.  With such institutions in place a culture of politics might begin to flourish which separates ethnic and religious identities from constitutional structures and autonomous political processes. The separation of both rulers and ruled from the state – a critical condition of modern political structures which imposes the rule of law on all – could begin to be set in place. But we are a long way from here.

If the latest Russian-American deal on Assad’s chemical weapons sticks, diplomatic circles across the world may well celebrate this as a great victory.  Putin’s Russia will be emboldened in the international system and politicians will deliver polite speeches trying to take credit for the success.  Meanwhile, the killing fields remain undisturbed and in desperate search of an alternative politics – one that is both feasible and legitimate.

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The Confusing State of US-Russian Relations

I was honored to be invited last week by the New American Foundation president Anne-Marie Slaughter to submit a contribution to her new Weekly Wonk Newsletter.  Here’s the first couple paragraphs of what I wrote:

It is hard to imagine a more interesting—and confusing—time to take stock of modern U.S.-Russian relations. My Twitter feed is currently ablaze with reports of the possibility that the #US will adopt the #Russia plan for solving the current #Syria crisis. At the same time, Vladimir Putin has just critiqued President Obama on the op-ed page of  The New York Times.  These seemingly unexpected and contradictory developments reflect the fact that there are two fundamental realities shaping the bilateral relationship today today: Russian domestic politics and the fact that both nations continue to have a series of shared and conflicting international interests.

First, the recent direction of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin in terms of the domestic political sphere is anathema to most of the values that the United States professes to support in its friends and allies: a free press, fair and competitive elections, civil rights for minorities, an independent judiciary, and so on. It seems that hardly more than a few weeks can go by without something happening in Russia that reminds American policymakers of how different the two regimes can be. The recent flight from the country of the distinguished economist Sergei Guriev and the trialconviction, and releaseof recent Moscow mayoral candidate and opposition leader Alexander Navalny are but two examples, as are recent laws against “homosexual propaganda.” This is not to say that the United States does not cooperate with foreign regimes that have less than stellar democratic records. At the same time, though, the post-Cold War history of U.S.-Russian relations has been filled repeatedly with the promise of Russia becoming “more democratic” and of potential “resets.” To the extent that this promise isn’t fulfilled, the relationship (rightly or wrongly) suffers.

Then there is Vladimir Putin’s standing in his own country. Putin has enjoyed periods of time, especially in the first decade of his presidency, when he was a genuinely popular leader. He gave Russians a flourishing economy, rising oil prices that helped the country escape from Western loans and IMF bailouts, and much needed stability after the Yeltsin years. Today, however, Putin is less popular.  Economic growth has slowed, and the Kremlin has done little to diversify their economy beyond extractive industries. The perception of corruption among the ruling elite is widespread.  The growing middle class in Russia has become disillusioned with the impunity of its self-enriching leaders, and the newest generation lacks the memory of why Putin was embraced in the first place.

All of these factors have added up to a situation where Putin II needs to reach farther to affirm his legitimacy than Putin I ever did. And one way Putin has been doing this, borrowing from a familiar theme in Russian political rhetoric that reached its height during the Cold War years, is by casting himself as a defender of Russian values against Western—particularly American—encroachment. It’s a rational strategy, but Putin also seems to take a certain glee in needling his U.S. “partners,” as evidenced most recently by his reactions to the Edward Snowden affair and his NY Times op-ed.  Scapegoating the West is an easy way out in difficult times, as evidenced by Putin’s rush to denounce protesters who took to the streets of Moscow following claims of fraud in the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections as being instruments of “foreign agents”. And as long as Putin and his surrounding ruling elite are running the show in Russia, U.S.-Russian relations are going to face an uphill struggle.

The rest of the piece can be found on the Weekly Wonk’s website here, or, if you prefer, at Time Magazine here.  And for those of you who want even more on US-Russia relations, I also appeared on the Weekly Wonk’s new podcast to discuss the topic; I come in around the 13th minute.

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All this has happened before … and it will happen again: Syria, US “outside options,” and the Security Council

The path to where the U.S., Russia, and Syria are now—with an initial US/Russia agreement on a plan for disarmament of Assad’s chemical arsenal, to be put before the UNSC — has been idiosyncratic to the point of good comedy.  But where they have ended up should be starting to look familiar, and arguably tells us something about the structure of post-Cold War international politics.

Way back in 2001 the Monkey Cage’s very own Erik Voeten published an article (gated) in the American Political Science Review called “Outside Options and the Logic of Security Council Action.”  He noted the large increase in multilateral cooperation through the UNSC after the end of the Cold War.  For example, between 1990 and 1998 the UNSC approved 31 peacekeeping operations (PKOs) and passed 145 resolutions under Chapter VII (which can authorize use of force).  By contrast, from 1945 to 1989 there had been only 15 PKOs and 22 resolutions under Chapter VII.  One major, relevant change was that the veto has been exercised much less often.

During the Cold War, veto threats by either side came along with the implicit understanding that acting unilaterally could lead to a dangerous escalation between the US and the USSR.  With the collapse of the USSR, all kinds of US threats to intervene—often against regimes it doesn’t like for one reason or another—have become more credible.  However, the US, the rest of the Permanent Five on the UNSC, and a lot of other countries all would, in general, prefer that US or US-led military interventions be approved and sanctioned by the UNSC.  The other veto players, and especially Russia, want to be able to constrain and influence US use of force.  US administrations, on the other side, want formal authorization because they correctly see this as reducing the costs of intervention and also as a way to increase domestic support from an intervention-averse US public.

Voeten’s article observes that this configuration of preferences, capabilities, and the institution of the UNSC sets up a typical bargaining situation:  The US and the rest of the P5 both have reasons to want an intervention, should it happen, to go through the Security Council, but they always have conflicting preferences over the terms.  In many cases, of course, Russia would strongly prefer no intervention at all, but at least a deal in the UNSC preserves the apparent authority of the institution, where Russia still has the symbolically important veto.  According to Dmitri Trenin, this is an important consideration for Putin in the current crisis.

Multilateral cooperation through the UNSC thus often take the form of the US, sometimes with allies, threatening to intervene without UNSC authorization.  This is the “outside option,” and it stands behind negotiations over whether there are terms for a UN resolution that both the US and the “constrainers” would both prefer to its exercise.  Usually this leads to intervention or multilateral action with UNSC authorization, as in Bosnia or Haiti.  But sometimes not, as in Kosovo or Iraq.  So the way this episode with Syria is playing out has basically happened before, and there are good reasons to expect that it will happen again, sooner or later.

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That Op-Ed by Putin: Where Is He Right, and Where Is He Wrong?

Here’s my quick and dirty run-down of Putin’s op-ed published in today’s New York Times. In some places, I assess whether his statements are accurate in terms of what political science research has said. In other places, I just look at it from a logic perspective. His statements are in quotes, and my responses are below.

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A Plea for Caution from Russia, by V. Putin (published in the print edition of the NYT on September 12, 2013, page A31).

“Recent events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders. It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies. Relations between us have passed through different stages. We stood against each other during the cold war. But we were also allies once, and defeated the Nazis together. The universal international organization — the United Nations — was then established to prevent such devastation from ever happening again. The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.”


MEH. This is an oversimplification of the League’s collapse and the UN’s role in world politics. Arguably its collapse began when countries initiated wars of aggression—particularly the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, during which the Italians used mustard gas on civilians. Haile Selassie, then Emperor of Abyssinia, came before the League to issue an emotional appeal for action to roll back Italian aggression, but none was forthcoming. This effectively killed the foundational doctrine of the League—collective security—where aggression was supposedly outlawed and theoretically deterred through universal military response to the aggressor. Ironically, then, the UN is in a bit of a paradox. The UN is concerned with two levels of peace—inter-state peace, which Putin references above, and intra-state peace, which he summarily ignores. Yes, it’s illegal for countries to go to war with one another when the UNSC flatly rejects it. On the other hand, it’s also illegal for leaders to commit indiscriminate murder against their own people (hence the R2P doctrine). This means that the UN is in a bind. Its presence as a force to check aggression against ones own people is thwarted by Russia’s insistence on placing the legality of UNSC’s veto player doctrine above the legality of punishing leaders who commit crimes against humanity.

 

“The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders.”

PROBABLY TRUE. Research is all over the map on the question of how limited military actions affect humanitarian conditions and escalation of conflicts. However, I am more persuaded by prior studies that show that on average, military interventions actually exacerbate killings (at least in the short term), lengthen “spells” of repression, and often lengthen civil wars themselves. Extremely robust multilateral interventions—involving boots on the ground and multidimensional efforts to reform political, economic, and social conditions—can halt these killings. But that’s not what the Obama administration is considering, nor is it plausible in this case given Russia and China’s objections.

 

“A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.”

PROBABLY. Previous research shows that weaker states often use asymmetric capabilities to attack their more powerful rivals, and this often occurs in direct retaliation for military actions. Weaker powers know that they cannot confront stronger powers using conventional military force. However, weaker powers also know that sponsoring terror attacks is relatively cheap and low-risk (since they can always deny it), that stronger powers cannot prevent every terror attack, and that stronger powers tend to overreact to terror attacks, which can ultimately weaken them. Think about the series of events surrounding the Lockerbie bombing—Libya’s retaliation for Reagan’s strikes on Benghazi and Tripoli (which was, by the way, retaliation for a Libyan-sponsored terror attack on American officers in a German nightclub).

 

“It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.”

QUITE LIKELY. My thought here isn’t based on research as much as my sense that a strike on Syria would preclude any chance for us to work with the Iranians or the Russians on anything in the near future. Part of the reason Putin has been so unrelenting on Syria is his displeasure with UNSC Resolution 1973. With its aftermath, the Russians felt they were felt tricked into withholding their veto and the result was a back-door regime change campaign in Libya. The Iranians have been launching one hell of a PR campaign lately, but a strike in Syria would probably heighten their security concerns rather than diminishing them. Moreover, Assad has repeatedly invoked threats to the Israeli-Palestinians peace process as something of a deterrent against a US strike, implying that if the US does strike, his regional allies will retaliate against Israel. If this happened, it could certainly be quite the distraction from the peace process.

 

“It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”

GIVE ME A BREAK. First of all, it depends on which laws you’re talking about (see my discussion above). Assad has broken a considerable number of international laws—as has Russia—over the course of this crisis. And second, the international order is based on the balance of power in the system, which seems to be quite stable at the moment. Although the United States has not been taking a forward military posture in the Middle East lately, objectively its hard power assets remain considerable. If there is one stable rule in international politics, it’s the one Thucydides wrote about in 431 BC: Great powers do what they will while the weak suffer what they must. If anyone knows that, it’s Putin.

 

“Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria.

IT DEPENDS. There are plenty of people there still fighting for democracy—some still using nonviolent means, believe it or not!—while armed rebel groups there are doing what armed rebel groups do pretty much everywhere else. Most civil wars of this nature don’t wind up as democracies regardless of who wins, but that’s besides the point. The most pressing concern is to stop the killing. Actually no one has a very good sense of who the “good guys” are in Syria these days. Putin certainly doesn’t know who the good guys are, given that he has supported the first side to commit indiscriminate murder from the very beginning.

 

“But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations.”

YES, BUT SO WHAT? The Obama administration’s strike on the Syrian government’s assets would allegedly be so limited that it would not affect the balance of power on the ground. And even if the strike did give the Qaeda fighters better chance against the Assad government, it would give similar advantages to secular rebels groups.

 

“This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.”

UM…How about all of those foreign weapons supplied to the regime? When states fund incumbent regimes, the likelihood that the rebels receive state support goes up dramatically. C’mon, Putin. Don’t you remember the Cold War? It’s true, though, that external support generally increases incentives for rebel groups to emerge, while increasing the likelihood that they abuse civilians.

 

“Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.”

YEP. It’s a problem. There are no easy, short-term solutions, though, and Putin is being disingenuous here when he implies that a U.S. strike (or lack thereof) will alter this situation.

 

“From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.”

BLAH BLAH BLAH. Russia’s attempt to push for “peaceful dialogue” occurred while Russia was sending arms to Assad and blocking the all of the UN’s attempts to resolve the conflict. Syria is on trial now for its own violation of international law. Again, see above.

 

“We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.” 

THAT IS TRUE. In the absence of a UNSC resolution, a U.S. military strike would be illegal.

 

“No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists.”

FEW ARE BUYING THIS. In fact, there is every indication that the UN—the law-enforcing body Putin so clearly respects—will point the finger at Assad’s government in the report it will release on Monday.

 

“Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.”

I DOUBT IT, on two fronts. First, Putin seems to be conflating militants here. There are Al Qaeda types in Syria, who seem to be preoccupied with Assad at the moment. Then there are Al Qaeda types in Lebanon, who recently fired rockets into Israel. Second, if such an attack is in the works, I highly doubt that Israel is “ignoring” it.

 

“It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”’

IT DEPENDS. Pew polls suggest that people still have fairly favorable views of the American government, although some see it as something of a bully (this is especially true in the Muslim world). On the other hand, Putin doesn’t really seem to care much about how “millions around the world” view it either. Global popularity may help a country get what it wants, but it is not a vital interest.

 

“But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.”

KINDA. Although major military adventures weren’t too successful in the end, some have argued that special operations missions and targeted killings of Al Qaeda affiliates have been quite effective, actually.

 

“No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect.”

MUCH OF THIS IS TRUE. No military strikes, regardless of how “surgical”, can avoid collateral damage. It’s important to keep in mind that even when we’re talking about “humanitarian interventions,” we are talking about killing other people. Unfortunately systematic research on precisely how many people die in such strikes is hard to come by. Why? Because governments don’t keep track of how many civilians die in such strikes.

 

“The world reacts by asking: if you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security. Thus a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction. This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you. We are left with talk of the need to strengthen nonproliferation, when in reality this is being eroded.”

AND WE’RE BACK TO IRAN. It’s difficult to fully understand what’s going on in Iranian leaders’ minds at the moment. But working together on nonproliferation—including the Iranian issue—will be difficult if Putin withdraws his cooperation from U.S. efforts. I do think that the claim that inaction in Syria will embolden Iran is overstated, though. The U.S. has been much more considered and consistent as to its interests regarding the Iranian nuclear program than Obama has been vis-à-vis Syria.

 

“We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.”

A WELCOME IDEA INDEED…if Putin is sincere, that is.

 

“A new opportunity to avoid military action has emerged in the past few days. The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction. Judging by the statements of President Obama, the United States sees this as an alternative to military action. I welcome the president’s interest in continuing the dialogue with Russia on Syria. We must work together to keep this hope alive, as we agreed to at the Group of 8 meeting in Lough Erne in Northern Ireland in June, and steer the discussion back toward negotiations. If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust. It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues.”

TOTALLY. To me this is the most promising aspect of the current negotiations. If the US and Russia can work together on this problem and find a way to get to common ground, it may build trust and provide opportunities to do more together—both on Syria and elsewhere.

 

“My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too.”

WHY EXTERMELY DANGEROUS? Studies show that nationalism (and other forms of identity) are only really dangerous when leaders take advantage of these symbols to pursue policies that are dispossessive and dehumanizing, and predatory. I don’t know of any studies that argue that self-congratulatory nationalism alone leads to violence.

 

“We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

NO OBJECTION HERE.

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The Nobody’s Fool Problem and Escalation of U.S. Aims in Syria

Just a second.  A couple of days ago, no one was even talking about disposing of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and Syria signing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).  The military and the administration were not saying “We are going bomb the chemical weapons depots in an effort to eliminate his stockpiles” because this was seen as unlikely to work and very dangerous to boot—bombing these places might release a lot of poisonous gas.  The point of the planned strike was to try to demonstrate to Assad and other potential bad guys in the future that there could be a serious cost to using chemical weapons.

Flash forward to now, and a major part of the Serious Commentary by the President, the Secretary of State, members of Congress, and members of the commentariat is all about Whether we can trust the Russians and Assad, Whether it’s technically feasible to disassemble and dispose of Syria’s stockpiles, Whether Russia and Assad arestalling” or “playing Obama for time”, and Whether any deal will be sufficiently “verifiable.”

What?  Those questions might make sense if the original aim had been to actually disarm Assad of chemical weapons, but that’s definitely not what the administration or, I think, practically anyone was imagining.  The concern was about his and others use of the weapons.  So on that score the question should not be whether you can implement and verify disarmament in a civil war zone—which doesn’t sound likely, or not in the short run anyway – but rather whether you can verify that he hasn’t undertaken more attacks with chemical weapons.  For some scale of attack, that’s obviously feasible, as the events of August 21 show.  (I was trying to make this point, mixed in with some others, here and am trying again after reading the reactions to the president’s speech and the Russian initiative.)

So what’s with this worry about Russia and Assad tricking Obama by “stalling” and “playing for time”?  Stalling for what purpose?  So he can keep carrying out massive chemical weapons attacks while the Security Council negotiates?  If his regime is saying “we’ll disarm, accept monitors, and sign the CWC,” does it seem likely that he would then continue to carry out massive gas attacks traceable to his military?  If he did this, Obama would be in a better position than ever to get support for punitive strikes.  Basically, this reflex “I’m nobody’s fool” reaction misses the point that the Russian proposal and Assad’s apparent acceptance of the approach is already a probable win on the question of continued use of poison gas by the Assad regime. (It’s not a certain win because nothing is certain.  For instance, maybe Assad doesn’t fully control his own military in this area, or maybe he later finds himself in a situation where he thinks he either uses the weapon or almost surely loses power.  But I have a hard time seeing how this move – even without disarmament – doesn’t amount to a concession that makes it harder for Assad to continue to use chemical weapons at level that is traceable to the regime.)

At least for Obama and Kerry, as opposed to the commentariat, you could say that they have strategic reasons to pivot immediately to questions about verifiability and timing and so on.  Pocket what amounts to an unexpected concession without appearing to notice that there was a concession, and move immediately to seeing what more you can get on the issue of disarmament.  But we should not miss that despite the foreign-policy-zombie-like warnings about not being played by Russia or Assad, in fact there has been a big escalation of U.S. aims here, from the goal of stopping and deterring chemical weapons use to the goal of disarmament.  If seriously pursued, this new goal will open up a whole new set of possible paths to intervention.

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Don’t be so quick to place politicians’ views of “national interests” above the mood of the public

In a news/opinion article entitled, “What Obama Really Thinks About Syria: The president’s TV interviews reveal the naked truths behind his posturing,” William Saletan writes:

Public opinion trumps national interests. When asked whether he would strike Syria without congressional support, Obama told ABC: “Strikes may be less effective if I don’t have congressional support and if the American people don’t recognize why we’re doing this. So I haven’t made a final determination in terms of what next steps would be.” On NBC, he said he would lobby Congress, deliver a TV address Tuesday night, and “I’ll evaluate after that whether or not we feel strongly enough about this that we’re willing to move forward. … I’ve made my decision about what I think is best for America’s national interests, but this is one where I think it’s important for me to pay close attention to what Congress and the American people say.” That sounds like a bald admission that he’s willing to let public opinion override national interests.

But we should be careful about so quickly opposing “public opinion” and “national interests.” As political scientist Benjamin Page wrote a few years ago, there are systematic differences between the attitudes of the public and of U.S. foreign policy elites:

Large majorities of Americans favor several specific steps to strengthen the UN, support Security Council intervention for peacekeeping and human rights, and favor working more within the UN even if it constrains U.S. actions. Large majorities also favor the Kyoto agreement on global warming, the International Criminal Court, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the new inspection agreement on biological weapons. Large majorities favor multilateral uses of U.S. troops for peacekeeping and humanitarian purposes, but majorities oppose most major unilateral engagements. . . . Analysis of more than one thousand survey questions asked of both the public and foreign policy officials over a thirty year period by the CCGA (formerly CCFR) indicates that significant disagreements between officials and the public have been very frequent . . . Over the years, however, there have also been many disagreements over Defense issues (the public is more reluctant to use troops and more opposed to military aid and arms sales), and even more disagreement on international Economic issues: citizens are more worried about immigration and drugs, and much more concerned about the effects of trade on Americans’ jobs and wages.

Perhaps most relevant to Saletan’s discussion above, Page concludes that this is more of a problem with the experts than with the public, concluding:

Most gaps between citizens and officials appear to have more to do with differing values and interests than with differing levels of information and expertise. To the extent that this is true and that Americans’ collective policy preferences are coherent and reflective of the best available information, there would seem to be a strong argument, based on democratic theory, that policy makers should pay more heed to the public’s wishes.

An interesting insight in Page’s paper is that policymakers may prefer unilateralism because they can envision themselves making the policy and would like more freedom of action. In contrast, citizens in general have a more distant perspective that might actually be more realistic—-given what we know from research in psychology about “the illusion of control.”

What Saletan calls “a bald admission that he’s willing to let public opinion override national interests” might better be characterized as a wise decision to go outside the unilateralist foreign policy consensus.

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Try bargaining before fighting

This, or something like it, is a very good idea, wholly independent of whether you can get Russian agreement and participation.  Much better to make a reasonable demand of Assad—such as verifiably destroy your chemical weapons, and/or sign the CWC —and then strike if he doesn’t comply than to just jump to a punitive spanking.  If he says Ok and complies, then Obama will have achieved the goal of stopping further use of chemical weapons in Syria and also of upholding and furthering a global norm against their use.  If Assad says No or says Yes and then goes ahead and carries out more gas attacks, then it is much easier to make the case and probably get more domestic and international support for a punitive strike.

Administration officials are reportedly worried about whether this could work because it would be hard to verify compliance:

“If Assad said he was turning this stuff over, how would we know if he has really complied?” asked the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence issues.


You wouldn’t know if he had turned it all over, but you would be able tell if he or his minions carried out more major gas attacks.  It would be great if you could get an outcome where he actually doesn’t have any chemical weapons, but that’s not even what the punitive strikes already envisioned were supposed to bring about.  The point was to lower the likelihood that they would continue to be used (and/or deter others …).  So verifying compliance on that crucial question shouldn’t be any more of an issue than it already was.

The use of military force is costly and risky for both sides, usually, and this means that there should be deals both sides would prefer to rolling the iron dice (I wrote about this here, gated though).  In some cases, one or both sides has no interest in trying to find such a deal because it anticipates that the adversary would subsequently be in a position to renege on the deal without significant consequence.  For example, the George W. Bush administration didn’t want to try to cut a deal with Saddam Hussein because they didn’t think Saddam could be trusted not to use an end of the sanctions regime, etc, to re-arm and get a nuclear weapons program going again.  Roosevelt and Churchill made unconditional surrender their war aim because they didn’t think any deal with Hitler would be stable in the long run. When these are the concerns, you get wars of regime change.  Here, by contrast, making the deal doesn’t increase Assad’s capability to break it and get away with it in the future.  So it’s a different sort of situation and one where a bargain should be feasible.  But a bargain requires a proposal.

[By the way:  In the International Relations literature, Andrew Coe has an interesting account of the 2003 Iraq war that stresses how commitment problems made bargaining beside the point for the Bush administration.   Alex Weisiger’s new book Logics of War:  Explanations for Limited and Unlimited Conflicts argues that big, destructive wars are usually wars of regime change driven by commitment problems like those just mentioned.  The situation is different here both because it’s not clear that the administration would want the Assad regime to disappear if the only route was total collapse, and because what they want him to do (stop using chemical weapons) doesn’t involve the sort of commitment problem that drives wars of regime change.]

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Why is Syria So Important to Russia and Putin?

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The following is a guest post from UCLA political scientist Daniel Treisman.

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As the White House rounds up support for a military strike against Syria, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has made no secret of his disapproval. What lies behind the Russian position? Why is Putin so seemingly attached to Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad?

It is tempting to attribute Moscow’s resistance to US intervention to some kind of psychological hangup—say, wounded pride at Russia’s fallen status or an atavistic Cold War mentality. To former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, quoted by Peter Baker in the New York Times, Putin is “about lost power, lost empire, lost glory.” President Obama recently took to analyzing Putin’s “slouch.”

Yet, in fact, there’s a logic behind Putin’s position on Syria that is really not that hard to understand. It has more to do with realpolitik than psychology.

Some have pointed to Russia’s economic interests in Syria, but these are actually quite modest. Trade between the two countries is inconsequential. In 2011, Russian exports to Syria came to $1.93 billion, about 0.4 percent of the total. Imports from Syria were just $306 million. As of 2009, Russia had an estimated $19.4 billion of investments in the country, although that might have risen since then.

Syria matters slightly more for Russia’s weapons producers, who have excellent channels of communication with the Kremlin. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s estimates, Russian arms exports to Syria in the five years from 2008 to 2012 totaled about $1.1 billion (at 1990 prices) out of a worldwide total of $35.2 billion. Contracts for future supplies come to several billion dollars. Russian companies would also like to develop Syria’s oil fields. Still, all considered, Moscow’s economic stake in the country is relatively small.

Nor does Putin’s position have much to do with the naval station at Tartus that Syria has provided Russia for the past 40 years. Of course, Moscow would like to keep this last remaining naval foothold in the Mediterranean, and it has planned for some years to refurbish the port. But at present facilities there are very limited. The station can accommodate no more than four medium sized ships at once.

Putin’s real motivation in opposing US involvement in Syria’s civil war is simple: he strongly objects to US policies of regime change, especially when backed up by military force. There are two main reasons. First, he is intensely aware that many in Washington would like to see his regime changed. Although overthrowing Putin is not an objective of US policy, he resists any extension of the practice.

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How Much Does Public Opinion on Syria Matter? How Much Will It?

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The chart above comes from Google Trends, and the message is clear: even at the height of the US’s ostensible march towards military engagement in Syria – remember, all signs pointed towards military action last weekend until Obama’s surprising decision to seek Congressional approval – more Americans were using Google to get information about Miley Cyrus than Syria.

I was moved to compare the two after some discussion on Twitter this evening prompted by Larry Sabato’s reporting of a Reuter’s poll showing support for military action in Syria hovering somewhere around 20-30%.

The question I want to raise is the extent to which this might ultimately matter. There are two ways to think about this. The first is whether public opinion is going to influence whether the US actually launches hostilities against Syria. Here, I think public opinion mattered in so far as it may have played a role in getting Obama to seek Congressional approval in the first place – although personally I think the lost vote by Cameron in the UK was probably more important – but at this point the ball is probably in Congress’s court. It is certainly possible that a huge swing in public opinion could have an effect on the forthcoming vote, but my guess is 20% support vs. 40% support doesn’t make all that much difference at this point. The Senate is likely going to vote to approve in any case, and the House dynamics are going to follow district level concerns more than national ones. I’m sure we can find a few people who might flip because of trends in national public opinion, but I’d need to be convinced by someone who knows more about individual US legislators than I do that this could actually swing a vote.

But the more interesting question is whether the low public support for military action would actually have an effect down the road on either Obama’s ability to govern or the political fortunes of individual legislators. Here I am skeptical – conditional on this being the limited, aerial engagement that is being discussed now and not having some unexpected escalation occur – that Americans will actually not care all that much in the future if Obama launches a limited number of missiles at Syria. (hence the teaser figure above).

Consider the following thought experiment: if Benghazi had not taken place, then would there be any discussion of the rest of the Libyan events playing a role in American public opinion today? And Libya will – most likely – end up involving more military involvement than seems likely in Syria.

Then perhaps ironically, from a public opinion standpoint what now seems to matter here is the fact that a vote actually has to be taken in Congress more than the action that might result from that vote. As Sabato pointed out to me in a conversation we continued off of Twitter, it is possible that the vote could cost certain incumbent House Republicans in the coming 2014 primaries. And the point has been repeatedly raised that it would be a major political setback for Obama were he to lose this vote in Congress. So in a sense, we go through the looking glass: foreign policy has the potential to “matter” from a public opinion standpoint only because it has been converted into domestic politics: Is Obama losing strength in the second term? Are certain conservative members of the House conservative enough? My guess is these questions will reverberate in American political discussion longer than whether it was appropriate for Congress to authorize (should it choose to do so) and the President to execute low-scale military action despite underwhelming support on the part of the American public.

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Expert Commentary on US-Russian Relations

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As the US heads towards action in Syria that will clearly not be authorized by the UN Security Council, we are reminded once again of the importance of the US relationship with Russia. With this in mind, I wanted to alert readers to a new webpage that has been put up by the Carnegie Organization of New York as part of their Perspectives on Peace and Security, called Rebuilding the U.S.-Russia Relationship. Here you can find short statements on the US-Russian relationship from a wide range of Russia experts.

I was invited to participate in this exercise, and am providing my answers below; the full set of responses can be found here.

Q: Why does the US-Russian relationship matter at this time?

A: At the most basic level, these are still the two countries with the largest nuclear arsenals in the world, and overtly hostile relations between them are therefore not particularly good for anyone.  In a more pragmatic sense, there are many ways that Russia can help (or hinder) U.S. foreign policy interests, and vice versa.  Both countries are interested in how events unfold in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the trajectory of international terrorism, and the long-term rise of China.  And of course both countries continue to be interested in developments in Europe, even if not quite to the same extent as during the Cold War.  In many (but of course not all) of these cases, cooperation between the United States and Russia can help both countries achieve important goals.  Finally, the United States has long been seen as a friend of the Russian people by certain segments of the Russian population, especially those with more liberal political outlooks; some of these people may be the leaders of Russia in the future.  What the United States does today vis-à-vis Russia and the way it treats its own citizens may affect how those citizens feel about the United Statesin the future.

Q: What can and should both countries do to “fix” the relationship?

A: Clearly, dialogue between the two countries is important if relations are going to improve.  But it may be time to think about the difference between getting things fixed in the short term and in the long term. Clearly, both sides face temptations to use their relationship to play to their own domestic audiences, and President Putin has undoubtedly made antagonizing the West a part of his strategy for maintaining support at home. In the short term, in the aftermath of the public decision to cancel the summit, the United States may find it can best advance its foreign goals by quietly re-establishing contact with the Russians at lower levels. (And to be clear, I think tying the future of U.S.-Russian relations to the fate of Edward Snowden would be a mistake.) But in the longer term, the United States may want to consider ways to convince Putin that there are consequences to “playing the American card” so often for domestic consumption, especially in terms of using it to demonize his opponents at home as somehow un-Russian. Taking a firmer stance with the regime now might end up paying dividends down the road, although this will of course be tricky in practice.

The full set of responses can be found here.

 

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