Archive | International Security

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.

Continue Reading

Why a Strategy of Deterring Weak Leaders from Using Chemical Weapons Means the US Should Attack Syria Even if it Strengthens Assad


The following is a guest post from my NYU colleague political scientist Peter Rosendorff.


The Senate is struggling to draft a resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria, and has announced a delay in the vote originally scheduled for Wednesday in order to permit the revived diplomatic process to potentially succeed. Presidents Putin and Obama are suddenly on the same page with respect to the elimination of Assad’s chemical weapons, and Syria may be going along with the initiative for now, probably to delay and dissemble.

The US Congress, following President Obama’s lead, is likely to eventually authorize the use of force, most likely in a contingent fashion whereby force will be authorized in the instance that the Russian initiative fails.

The US has to do something it doesn’t want to do: to deter future abusers of chemical weapons in other weak and fragile states, the US will probably authorize an attack on Syria. But an attack, paradoxically, will have the unintended and unavoidable consequence of strengthening Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power. However, it turns out to be the case that in order for deterrence to work, the US must sometimes strengthen strong dictators to deter the weak.

The authorization for the attack will require it be calibrated so as to damage the capacity for future chemical weapons deployment by the Assad regime, but not to alter the balance of power in the Syrian civil war. US policy has been to draw Iran and Hezbollah into a long, resource dissipating civil war, reducing their capacity to target the US and its assets abroad.  Any punitive action must also avoid strengthening the rebel opposition for fear of generating a “failed-state” scenario and engineering a safe haven for al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. Some have called this the “goldilocks” strategy – hit Assad not too hard and not too soft. Just right. (By the way, this is Russia’s primary concern as well – to ensure that a failed-state Syria does not end up emboldening Russia’s opponents in Central Asia, especially if Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile was to fall into rebel hands).

But any attack on Assad that leaves him in power actually strengthens his grip. He has thumbed his nose at the international community by violating a strong norm against the use of chemical weapons, especially against unarmed civilians.  By crossing Obama’s red line, he shows his opposition that he can withstand the wrath of the West, and the US in particular. And hence he can withstand the puny (by comparison) attacks by the rebel forces.  He signals his intent not to leave, not to negotiate and not to concede.

This would lead a calculating US to consider no attack at all.  No attack leads to the continued stalemate that is the Syrian civil war, and a continuation of current foreign policy. No attack upholds the current status quo with respect to the crisis, which arguably is the US’s preferred (all realities considered) approach (at an incredible toll in lives lost).

But the US will authorize an attack. And they must do so because they are engaged in another game of geopolitics with all the potential chemical weapons users and rogue states with domestic political crises readying to boil over – Iran and North Korea, among others.  The US commitment to enforce the international norm against chemical weapons must be followed through to deter these rogue states.

Continue Reading →

Continue Reading

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.]

Continue Reading

“Credibility” is not everything but it’s not nothing either

In the deluge of blogospheric commentary on the administration’s massive Syria problem, you see a lot of extreme positions on the question of whether it is important to use force to uphold Obama’s or the US’s “credibility.”  Advocates of intervention (who are relatively few) often argue that this is a critical consideration (eg, Walter Russell Mead, or John Kerry).  Opponents argue that maintaining credibility is in general a crazy reason to use military force (eg, Andrew Sullivan, Conor Friedersdorf, Jim Manzi, Stephen Walt, among many others).  Maybe it’s boring to say, but both extreme positions are wrong.  Credibility, or following through on previous diplomatic commitments, should clearly not be the only consideration but neither should it be completely disregarded.

Continue Reading →

Continue Reading

Why is Syria So Important to Russia and Putin?

Russia Syrian Game

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


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.

Continue Reading →

Continue Reading

Is UN Approval on Syria Imperative?

Yale law professors Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro argue that it is in a New York Times op-ed:

 If the United States begins an attack without Security Council authorization, it will flout the most fundamental international rule of all — the prohibition on the use of military force, for anything but self-defense, in the absence of Security Council approval. This rule may be even more important to the world’s security — and America’s — than the ban on the use of chemical weapons.

They are correct, of course, that evidence that Syria has used chemical weapons against its own citizens does not give the United States the legal right to engage in military action. I am a little less persuaded that bypassing the UN is as costly as they claim it is. Hathaway and Shapiro argue that the UN system deserves a lot of credit for preserving a norm that force is not a legitimate response to violations of legal rights:

For all its obvious failings, the United Nations system has made for a more peaceful world than the one that preceded it. No leader may claim the right to collect debts or gain thrones by going to war. States may fracture into smaller pieces, but they don’t get conquered. Gunboat diplomacy is also out of the question.

It is accurate that, as Martha Finnemore put it, the purpose of military interventions has changed over the course of history. It is much less clear how much of this is due to the UN system. Hathaway and Shapiro counter some of the obvious criticisms to that claim:

Others say it is legalistic, even naïve, to rely on the United Nations Charter, which has been breached countless times. What is one more, especially when the alternative is the slaughter of innocents? But all of these breaches add up — and each one makes it harder to hold others to the rules. If we follow Kosovo and Iraq with Syria, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to stop others from a similar use of force down the line.

You could add to this list of breaches any Soviet or U.S. intervention during the Cold War with the exception of the Korean war, which was authorized when the Soviet Union was temporarily absent from the Council in protest to the exclusion of the People’s Republic of China from the Security Council (Taiwan held the China seat at that time). As I have argued elsewhere (ungated, gated), the Security Council only started playing something that looked like its envisioned role after the relatively successful collaboration in the first Persian Gulf War. There is no evidence, for instance, that the U.S. even thought about seeking UN authorization for its intervention in Panama in 1989. The UN General Assembly voted that this intervention constituted a “flagrant violation of international law” but there is no indication that this mattered. President Ronald Reagan famously quipped about a similar UN vote on the U.S. intervention in Grenada that it “didn’t upset my breakfast at all.”

The point is not that it was right for the U.S. to circumvent the UN or to engage in the interventions that it did but that the UN cannot plausibly take credit for changing norms of intervention during the first 45 years of its existence. The UN was thoroughly dysfunctional in the area of conflict management. The end of the Cold War and the Gulf War experience made the UN more active. States saw domestic or international political benefits from asking for Security Council approval. Yet, there is no record of the UN actively restricting states from using force, let alone the United States. The U.S. either forged UN approval by threatening to go it alone or it went ahead without approval. It is not clear how avoiding the UN on Syria adds much information that should lead to substantial changes in beliefs about who will follow what rules.

I really wished there were a functional set of legal norms and institutions that could regulate the use of force. There are some norms that are obeyed and enforced quite well, such as the norm of territorial integrity. But the Charter system is dysfunctional as a legal system. Aside from the obvious problems with having five permanent veto powers that can block any collective action, the self-defense exception is prone to opportunism. Ever wonder, for instance, how the U.S. justifies its drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere? Well, we have declared a war on terror, which make these strikes acts of self-defense. One can agree or disagree with the validity of this argument but ultimately it matters little because there is no international legal institution with the jurisdiction to evaluate the merit of the claim (let alone enforce a negative finding).

The conventional wisdom is that UN authorizations are desirable but not imperative to U.S. foreign policy makers. This conclusion strikes me as correct. If you can get multilateral approval it is easier to get allies to support your actions and your domestic public may view an action as less costly and more likely to serve a good purpose. Multilateral interventions may also be more likely to succeed. It is worth compromising to get UN approval. In reality, however, the international legal system that regulates uses of force is not sufficiently functional to make UN approval imperative.

ps. Just to be clear: the point of this post is not to say that we should bomb Syria. It is an argument about the consequences of avoiding the UN if the U.S. decided to go this route.

ps2. Dan Drezner makes a similar argument here.

Continue Reading

Syria Authorization 2.0

News outlets including Roll Call’s #WGDB blog recently released the text of the Senate Foreign Relation Committee leadership’s draft authorizing military force in Syria. The draft, which will reportedly be marked up Wednesday, marks compromise language between Sens. Robert Menendez and Bob Corker. It begins with a long list of “whereas” clauses denouncing the ”abuses of the regime of Bashar al-Assad,” including “the brutal repression and war upon its own civilian population…. creating an unprecedented regional crisis and instability,” its “material breach of the laws of war” as well as the treaties and norms against chemical weapons declared by the United Nations, the U.S. Congress, and (for good measure) the Arab League.

Quick thoughts: The substance of the resolution is a collection of attempts to limit presidential discretion and at least one strange submission to it. Continue Reading →

Continue Reading

A Win for the WPR? No, but…

obama war cabinet syriaPresident Obama’s decision to seek congressional authorization for the use of force in Syria seems to have taken the political world by surprise. After all, when Obama intervened in Libya in 2011, he creatively evaded such an action, citing such rationales as UN resolutions, the “non-kinetic” nature of logistical support to NATO, and the proposition that the Libya operation did not constitute “hostilities” as envisioned in the 1973 War Powers Resolution. (For further details see my series of posts at the time, linked here.)  This time around, he has provided a draft resolution that even mentions the WPR.

The reaction shows the extent to which presidents have claimed—and Congress has abdicated— authority in this area, as I posted earlier today. The WPR has only been invoked formally once by a president (Ford, back in 1975).  There are many reasons for this, ranging from presidents’ claim of inherent war powers to the drafting imprecisions of the WPR itself. (On the latter, see my earlier summary here, and a longer discussion in a book chapter, here – go to Ch. 6, p. 192.)  No president—starting with Nixon, in his overridden veto message—has accepted the WPR as binding.

And nor did Obama, with respect to Syria. Continue Reading →

Continue Reading

Presidential Power and Congressional Cower

A few years ago, I wrote a book called The New Imperial Presidency, in which I built on ongoing events and new scholarship to trace the growth of presidential power after Watergate. I argued that this increased authority was both taken (by presidents) and given (by Congress). In short, ”The fact is that we have had an invisible Congress as much as an imperial President.”

Today’s New York Times provides the lead quote for the next edition of the book, courtesy of Rep. Peter King (R-NY), member of Congress for more than 20 years and former chair of the House Homeland Security Committee. To wit: “I strongly believe that the commander in chief has the absolute right to take military action.”

Assuming King meant just that, his strong beliefs are contrary to those who designed the American constitutional framework. For example, James Wilson—one of the key architects of Article II and “unity” (not unitary-ness…) in the executive—told the Pennsylvania ratifying convention on December 11, 1787, that “This system will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress; for the important power of declaring war is vested in the legislature at large: this declaration must be made with the concurrence of the House of Representatives…”

James Madison, writing as “Helvidius” in a series of letters attacking the Washington administration, piled on. “The received and the fundamental doctrine of the constitution,” he argued, is “that the power to declare war including the power of judging of the causes of war is fully and exclusively vested in the legislature: that the executive has no right, in any case to decide the question, whether there is or is not cause for declaring war.” (Emphasis in the original.) Indeed, “in no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department.”

A few years later, in a 1798 letter to Thomas Jefferson, Madison reiterated that “The constitution supposes, what the History of all Govts. demonstrates, that the Ex. is the branch of power most interested in war, & most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care, vested the question of war in the Legisl.”  A few years later, in turn, Jefferson told that Legisl in a December 1805 special message that “considering that Congress alone is constitutionally invested with the power of changing our condition from peace to war, I have thought it my duty to await their authority for using force in any degree which could be avoided.”

Now, the story is of course not so simple – we can argue about the definition of “war,” to start with, and President Jefferson himself was not always so considerate of legislative sensibilities and authorities. On the other hand, the Helvidius letters were prompted by Washington’s proclamation of American neutrality in the interminable Anglo-French conflicts - so about a decision not to go to war! even this, Madison argued, needed congressional sanction. (Which, in the end, was given.)

The point is that those framing this process as a presidential gift to be given have it backwards— even leaving aside the niceties of the law (the topic of my next post, stay tuned). A Congress with institutional pride (with ambition aiming to counteract ambition, in Madison’s famous turn of phrase in Federalist #51) would have acted on its own. Indeed, legislators who signed on to letters to Obama demanding that he reconvene Congress and ask for authorization were given credit for being assertive. Yet why were those letters written to Obama in the first place, and not to the House and Senate leadership?  If Obama’s decision yesterday made Congress slightly more visible, little credit for that appears to go to Congress itself.

Continue Reading

Expert Commentary on US-Russian Relations


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.


Continue Reading