Good news! Sage Press has generously decided to ungate all of the Sage Press articles referenced by Erica Chenoweth in her recent series of posts on military interventions here at The Monkey Cage. They are now available free to all (for I believe the next 30 days) here:
Erica, Erik, and several scholars over at the Duck have done a great job of rounding up and discussing political science research on intervention that might be relevant to the likely US attack on military installations in Syria. I think I agree with Erik, however, that the cases typically studied (frequently peacekeeping operations) probably don’t have a lot to tell us about this one.
As explained by administration officials—in remarkable detail— they are thinking about this as a punitive action to impose costs on Assad for violating an international norm that they believe is important to uphold. Degrading Assad’s military capability is also mentioned, but seems to be secondary or rather the means by which costs are to be imposed, rather than the core objective. So the most relevant comparison cases would be punitive strikes designed to “reestablish deterrence,” such as, in part, recent Israeli interventions in Gaza and southern Lebanon; the US strikes against a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan and al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in 1998 in reply to embassy bombings; the US air attacks on various targets in Iraq in 1998; perhaps Reagan’s bombardment of Syrian positions in Lebanon in 1983 after withdrawing the Marines from Beirut; and, going farther back, the US’s graduated bombing campaigns of North Vietnam, which were carefully designed to try to send the sort of signals that the Obama administration now wants to send to Assad, but which didn’t work so well.
See Wallace Thies’ book for an analysis of this last case. He found, if I recall, that the North Vietnamese didn’t really get the careful, contingent messages the Johnson administration was trying to send. I’d add that they did correctly get that bombing was not very costly for the US and thus didn’t convey a willingness to actually invade the North. That would be all the more so in the case of Obama and Syria, since his officials have been very clear that they do not intend an intervention in the sense of using force to give a decisive advantage to one side (as in Kosovo or Bosnia). I can’t think of a case where the idea was to use force to thread such tiny needles.
Needle 1: The attack can’t be so large that it kills so many civilians that the reaction is, You killed almost as many as the gas attack did! (And you can bet that the Assad regime will do what it can to make it so attacks do kill, or appear to kill, a lot of civilians.) Further, at least according to Max Fisher’s reporting, the administration doesn’t even want to cause the Assad regime to collapse completely, because they imagine that the best endpoint is not rebel victory but some kind of negotiated power-sharing deal. (At least that’s how I interpret Fisher’s explanation of what they are thinking).
But, as many have pointed out, the attack can’t be too small, or it looks pathetic and pointless, and you have Assad still there thumbing his nose at you. This needle eye is so small that it may not exist.
Needle 2: The strike has to serve its purpose for enforcing an international norm against the use of chemical weapons, but at the same time not really take sides in the civil war, or commit us more seriously to military action on behalf of the rebels.
- Ian Hurd has an interesting op-ed in the New York Times today on the various legal aspects of a possible Syrian intervention (I assume that the NYT editorial staff made up the inflammatory title). Charli Carpenter has a slightly different, and in my view more persuasive, take.
- Jonathan Mercer has an insightful piece in Foreign Affairs on the folly of going to war for the sake of reputation.
- Stephen Walt argues in the NYT Room for Debate that whether Syria used chemical weapons should not affect U.S. policy.
- Peter Feaver offers an explanation for why Assad would launch a chemical attack.
I am sure there is more. Please add in comments.
The empirical studies that Erica Chenoweth has highlighted in the past few days give ample reason for pause about the likelihood that a U.S. led military intervention will reduce civilian killings or end the war in Syria. That said, I am somewhat skeptical that we can generalize from these studies to the case of Syria.
All of these studies investigate whether the likelihood of some outcome (high civilian killings, ending a civil war, etcetera) becomes more likely when an intervention has taken place than when it has not. The answer for the most part is that on average few good things happen post military intervention. There is the obvious problem that one can only uncover correlations this way. For instance, it may be that interventions only take place in the worst conflicts.
There is an even more basic problem. As Jon Western points out, there is tremendous variation in the scope, size, and purpose of interventions. Conflict situations similarly differ enormously. The correlations are thus average associations between a very heterogeneous “treatment” (interventions) among very heterogeneous units of analysis (cases of civil war/conflict). Think of it as trying to estimate what effect medicine has on your health when we group together patients with different diseases and thus different medicines. We may find a positive effect of “medicine” but we don’t know if this was because all medicines on average improve health or if there are some that work exceptionally well while others leave patients worse off.
The victims of the chemical weapons attacks in Syria have suffered immeasurably. Yet, many more have been killed and maimed by conventional weapons. Why are we so much more outraged when people are killed by chemical weapons than when they are killed in a more conventional way? Why should Assad be able to kill hundreds of thousands with conventional weapons without a U.S. military intervention but a much more modest attack using chemical weapons crosses the proverbial red line?
The answer, at the surface, is that there is a taboo on chemical weapons usage and that it is in the U.S. interest to enforce this taboo. If Syria uses chemical weapons and remains unpunished this may set a dangerous precedent. Moreover, once the U.S. has made a commitment, its own credibility would be undermined if it takes no enforcement action.
Yet, what is the rational basis for such a strong norm against chemical weapons? Some writers such as John Mueller (in Foreign Affairs), Nick Gillespie (Reason), and John Glaser have called for erasing the red line. They argue that it is not at all clear that chemical weapons when used, such as in World War I, were more hurtful to civilians or military personnel than conventional weapons. Indeed, chemical weapons could potentially make for more humane warfare given their potential to incapacitate armies without killing them.
Most of the recent news regarding UN peacekeepers has been bad, ranging from their responsibility for a cholera epidemic in Haiti to their failures to reduce violence against civilians in The Congo, Sudan, and elsewhere. Nevertheless, a forthcoming article in the American Journal of Political Science by Lisa Hultman, Jacob Kathman, and Megan Shannon shows evidence that increased numbers of military and policy forces in a peacekeeping mission are correlated with fewer civilian killings in Africa. Below is the abstract:
Does United Nations peacekeeping protect civilians in civil war? Civilian protection is a primary purpose of UN peacekeeping, yet there is little systematic evidence for whether peacekeeping prevents civilian deaths. We propose that UN peacekeeping can protect civilians if missions are adequately composed of military troops and police in large numbers. Using unique monthly data on the number and type of UN personnel contributed to peacekeeping operations, along with monthly data on civilian deaths from 1991 to 2008 in armed conflicts in Africa, we find that as the UN commits more military and police forces to a peacekeeping mission, fewer civilians are targeted with violence. The effect is substantial—the analyses show that, on average, deploying several thousand troops and several hundred police dramatically reduces civilian killings. We conclude that although the UN is often criticized for its failures, UN peacekeeping is an effective mechanism of civilian protection.
There is of course always the possibility that this correlation does not represent a true causal effect. I agree with the authors that there is no evidence that the UN increases troop levels when violence is low but the opposite may be equally problematic: the UN may increase troop levels after episodes of unusually high violence that would have subsided with or without an increased UN presence. Nonetheless, this issue can be dealt with (for the most part) by modeling the dynamics correctly. The authors perform a large number of tests and the finding appears to be robust. In all, then, this is some much needed good news for UN peacekeeping and more importantly for civilians in conflicts such as the Congo, where the UN has recently increased its military presence including a much more forceful mandate.
Apropos of nothing in particular that’s in the news (except maybe this), here is a graph of how two measures of military effort have evolved from 1945 to 2007, by region. (I’m working on a project that has gotten me mired in available data on military spending and force sizes, and I just thought this was interesting.)
The black line is the average across countries of military spending as a percentage of GDP, using the Correlates of War (COW) estimate of total spending divided by World Bank GDP figures (which only start in 1960). The red line is the average across countries of armed forces per 1,000 population, again using COW estimates.
You see really striking long-run declines in the West, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and Asia. In these areas it almost looks as if demobilization from World War II has taken place gradually and over 60+ years. In Latin America and North Africa/Middle East, you see pretty striking declines since the end of the Cold War, and perhaps some decline in subSaharan Africa since around 2000.
Why the long-run declines? Many factors, surely, but on the international side it’s plausible to credit the disappearance of intense conflict among the militarily strongest states, which completely dominated international politics before 1946. US-Soviet conflict was pretty intense into the mid-1960s, but since then the major powers have been less and less concerned about being invaded by each other. I’d credit the nuclear revolution above all else, although there’s a lot of debate on this question and even without nukes there are probably other things that have been pushing in the same direction. Such as, perhaps, democracy …
On the domestic side of things, there is pretty good evidence that the spread of democracy has been a significant factor. Not worth getting into the details here, but if you look at the data country by country you find that on average, when countries transition to democracy their military spending and army sizes go down, quite substantially.* In fact they tend to go down when they transition from very autocratic to only somewhat autocratic (that is, to “anocracies”, or semi-democracies using the Polity data). The effect of a democratic transition on arms levels in the state in which the transition occurs looks to be larger than the effect of transitions in neighbors on a state’s own military spending, although this is hard to be sure about statistically due to endogeneity issues. I would guess that most of the democracy effect is a domestic matter—for instance, autocracies want bigger militaries to help put down domestic opposition or to pay off cronies, or democracies want smaller militaries to lower coup threats—but some of it might also be an international effect. That is, if democracies want smaller militaries then this could reduce the demand for big armies in their neighbors.
The graph also shows some interesting variation across regions. E. Europe/FSU and N. Africa/Middle East stand out for high levels of military spending during the Cold War, though both now appear to be converging towards the rest of the world (except maybe for army sizes in the Middle East).
Update: Mark in comments asked what the data for the US looks like, so at risk of the Wrath of Gelman I’ve added these to the graph for the West. We spend and hire considerably more than other countries, both in absolute terms (which is well known, I think), and relative to GDP and population (maybe less so). Note also the upward movement following 9/11, especially in military burden.
Cleaner pdf version here: milburbyregion
*This is based on models with country and year fixed effects, so it’s probably not just that there is a coincidental global trend up in democracy and down in arms spending. Benjamin Goldsmith reported the same pattern concerning democracy and the military spending in his 2003 JCR article “Bearing the Defense Burden,” (gated), looking at data from 1869-1989 (though he didn’t include time fixed effects in his model).
The Duck of Minerva is hosting an interesting debate about explanations for the Iraq war based on two recently published articles in International Organization and International Security that the publishers have agreed to make freely available. You should go read the whole thing here and here.
Contrary to widely shared views according to which the war was caused by misperceptions and other irrational behaviors on the part of Saddam Hussein and the Bush Administration, we argue that the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq can be accounted for strictly within a rationalist framework.
Their story goes something like this. Rogue states may have incentives to develop nuclear weapons but they also have incentives to hide this because the United States may launch a preventive war. The events of September 11 decreased the trust the U.S. government had in the intelligence community’s ability to detect an Iraqi weapons program. It also increased U.S. resolve to prevent a nuclear Iraq. Inspections failed to settle the matter and so the U.S. launched the war based on imperfect information. Saddam was unable to credibly communicate that he did not in fact have a nuclear weapons program.
This is a smart theory and their forthcoming article generalizes it although I am not sure why Debs and Monteiro argue that this theory does not also provide a rational justification for invading Iran. They claim that the cost of a preventive strike would be too high. But how could a strike on a few nuclear facilities (with much information) be too costly when invading and occupying a country for nearly a decade is not? Of course, one could argue that the occupation rested on incomplete information or miscalculation. Yet, occupying and democratizing Iraq was part of the plan from the outset. It is not clear how Debs and Monteiro’s theory explains the occupation part of the story.
[..] that one can pose a rational model that predicts preventive war does not make it the right model or necessarily do justice to the facts of the case.
There are two general issues raised by his response. The first is whether this is the right model for the case? The second is whether even if Debs and Monteiro get the strategic context right, they may have wrongly concluded that the decision-making process was rational. Instead, cognitive biases may have led leaders to selectively sample information, overestimate the efficacy of military occupation, and so on (and not just on the U.S. side).
Note that even if their model is the right one and the decision-making process was rational, the conclusion that the war was rational still depends on assumptions about a particular set of parameter values (perceived cost of Iraqi militarization, impatience, resolve) of the Administration. That is: using the same theory but a different Administration we might conclude that not invading Iraq was the rational thing to do. That is not a critique per se but a qualification of what rationality means in this context. As they say, go read the whole thing.
As I announced yesterday, I plan to do a series of blog posts on what we know about how to improve the human rights of people abroad and how this knowledge can help us do a better job in the future. I will focus a lot on international human rights institutions, which are treaties, like the Convention Against Torture, in which states enter into legal obligations to protect a particular set of rights as well as the associated institutions that help enforce those obligations. These institutions vary from powerful international courts, such as the European Court of Human Rights, to relatively toothless UN monitoring bodies.
Whenever I teach about international human rights institutions my first task is to lower expectations. International human rights treaties inevitably contain language that expresses lofty ideals and grand ambitions. The point is not just that these goals are unlikely to ever be fully attained but also that treaties are a very limited policy tool. If we wished to give policy advice to governments interested in improving their human rights record, we should tell them to democratize, to develop economically, to create a strong independent legal system, and to stop having civil wars. Signing treaties does not enter the top ten of most important things countries could do. Indeed, countries like the United States have a relatively good human rights record without ratifying many human rights treaties.
So, why do we care about international human rights treaties and associated institutions? To start with, it turns out that we have very limited foreign policy tools to help countries become economically developed stable constitutional democracies that do not have civil wars. Even very expensive and intrusive tools, such as military interventions, more often than not fail to achieve those goals. Violating human rights is often central to a government’s strategy for staying in power or it may be central to the domestic power of an agency over which the civilian government has imperfect control (police, military, paramilitaries, etcetera). This is not behavior that is easy to change.
Ultimately, we all have a professional and ethical responsibility for the consequences of our work. For statistical forecasters, I think this means, among other things, a responsibility to be honest about the limitations, and to attend to the uses, of the forecasts we produce. The fact that we use mathematical equations to generate our forecasts and we can quantify our uncertainty doesn’t always mean that our forecasts are more accurate or more precise than what pundits offer, and it’s incumbent on us to convey those limitations. It’s easy to model things. It’s hard to model them well, and sometimes hard to spot the difference. We need to try to recognize which of those worlds we’re in and to communicate our conclusions about those aspects of our work along with our forecasts. (N.B. It would be nice if more pundits tried to abide by this rule as well. Alas, as Phil Tetlock points out in Expert Political Judgment, the market for this kind of information rewards other things.)
However, he takes issue with Salehyan’s claim that forecasters somehow get more attention from policy makers:
In my experience and the experience of every policy veteran with whom I’ve ever spoken about the subject, Salehyan’s conjecture that “statistical forecasts are likely to carry greater weight in the policy community” is flat wrong. In many ways, the intellectual culture within the U.S. intelligence and policy communities mirrors the intellectual culture of the larger society from which their members are drawn. If you want to know how those communities react to statistical forecasts of the things they care about, just take a look at the public discussion around Nate Silver’s election forecasts. The fact that statistical forecasts aren’t blithely and blindly accepted doesn’t absolve statistical forecasters of responsibility for their work. Ethically speaking, though, it matters that we’re nowhere close to the world Salehyan imagines in which the layers of deliberation disappear and a single statistical forecast drives a specific foreign policy decision.
He concludes that:
Look, these decisions are going to be made whether or not we produce statistical forecasts, and when they are made, they will be informed by many things, of which forecasts—statistical or otherwise—will be only one. That doesn’t relieve the forecaster of ethical responsibility for the potential consequences of his or her work. It just means that the forecaster doesn’t have a unique obligation in this regard. In fact, if anything, I would think we have an ethical obligation to help make those forecasts as accurate as we can in order to reduce as much as we can the uncertainty about this one small piece of the decision process. It’s a policymaker’s job to confront these kinds of decisions, and their choices are going to be informed by expectations about the probability of various alternative futures. Given that fact, wouldn’t we rather those expectations be as well informed as possible? I sure think so, and I’m not the only one.
The full post is available here.