Archive | War

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.


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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5 Articles on Military Interventions

So maybe we are going to intervene in Syria, and maybe not.  Either way, these articles are right on point.

Thanks to Cambridge University Press for ungating these articles for the next two months.


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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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Threats and Credibility: How Obama’s Decision to Seek Congressional Authorization for Syria May Have Been a Game Changer

The following is a guest post from University of Wisconsin-Madison Ph.D candidate in political science Roseanne McManus.


In August 2012 and March 2013, President Obama referred to the use of chemical weapons by Syria as a “red line” and a “game changer.”  The evidence appears to indicate that Syria disregarded these warnings, using chemical weapons on a small scale in March 2013 and on a larger scale in August 2013.  However, now Syria has expressed at least initial willingness to give up its chemical weapons.  My research on the conditions for effectiveness of statements of resolve sheds light on the reasons for this change.  Specifically, it suggests that Obama’s threats have recently become more effective because seeking approval from Congress has resulted in a greater observable ability to follow through on them.

A fair amount of political science research has already been devoted to the question of how tough statements can effectively convey resolve to adversaries, despite the incentives for leaders to exaggerate their resolve.  The most prevalent current theories suggest that it is the costs of backing down from resolved statements that prevent leaders from making statements too casually and thus render statements more credible.  These costs might include damage to a leader’s or nation’s international reputation or a decline in the leader’s domestic support.

Clearly, these types of costs exist in the Syria case.  Obama was hammered in the media and by other politicians for his weak response to Syria’s first use of chemical weapons.  Many of Obama’s critics explicitly mentioned the loss of US credibility as a cost of Obama’s inaction.  The fact that backing down from his statements would be domestically and internationally costly for Obama should have been obvious to Syria from the outset.  Yet, Syria did not heed Obama’s warnings.  This suggests that we need to bring other factors into our analysis.

My research, available here, shows that factors related to the costs of backing down are rather poor predictors of whether statements of resolve will be effective at influencing the outcome of international disputes.  Much better predictors are factors related to whether a leader has the observable ability to follow through on statements.  While many theories tend to take a leader’s ability to follow through on statements for granted, I argue that there can be substantial risks and obstacles to following through, such as domestic actors who can block or forestall action (known in political science as veto players) or the danger of domestic backlash if a conflict goes poorly.  Therefore, statements of resolve will only be effective if adversaries can observe that a leader has the ability to overcome these risks and obstacles.  My statistical analysis shows that US presidential statements of resolve have a greater influence on dispute outcomes when the president has a greater ability to follow through on his statements due to a secure political position and/or hawkish domestic veto players.

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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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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.

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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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“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.

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“Why States No Longer Declare War”

Yesterday in this space Eric Grynaviski argued that “we [the United States] need declarations of war.” Given that Grynaviski is also suggesting that innocents inside of Syria be able to “exercise a veto over U.S. policy (if feasible),” I think it’s safe to say that his views are far from the mainstream of U.S. thinking. This is fine—it’s good for scholars to think outside the box—but I think it means that his view of “need” is pretty theoretical.

In any case, I thought it would be helpful to point to this paper (link to preprint here) from Tanisha Fazal, “Why States No Longer Declare War.” Fazal argues that “one set of norms—the rise of international humanitarian law—generates unintended consequences that include disincentives to comply with the long-held norm of declaring war.”

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The Real Reason We Need Declarations of War

This is a guest post by my colleague Eric Grynaviski.


With Obama’s request for Congressional approval for any action in Syria, the war powers debate is once again front page news. Some at the Monkey Cage,  Forbes , the Nation, and  Huffington Post have suggested that Obama should seek an explicit declaration of war; elsewise he is ignoring the constitutional role of Congress in foreign policy. Their concern is democratic control over foreign policy.

But this concern misses another reason that declarations of war are important. As I argue in a recent article in International Theory, declarations of war were historically about something more: providing public justifications for war.  More important than simply saying “there is a state of war” is giving reasons why that war is justified.

Historically, this is what declarations of war did.  They were a set of reasoned, conditional demands that another state must meet to avoid the use of force.  And by making these demands explicit, states, empires, and other communities fulfilled an obligation to each other: to use public reason to resolve conflicts before turning to violence.

In Rome, for example, leaders would first create a list of demands its enemies needed to meet for war to be avoided. They would deliver these demands to their enemies, which were open to discussion and debate by foreign embassies. Then, their enemies had about a month to comply. If the enemy refused to comply, Rome would move to a state of war, announcing this by throwing a bloodstained spear into the enemy’s territory. Declarations of war were invitations to debate the cause for war as well as ultimatums that limited the cause of war to a well-specified set of demands.

Thinking of declarations this way satisfies two moral intuitions.  The most important is that discussion and debate between enemies is a hallmark of civilized international behavior.  Cicero, an earlier defender of declarations, wrote that “there are two ways of settling a dispute; first, by discussion; second, by physical force; and since the former is characteristic of man, the latter of the brute, we must resort to force only in case we may not avail ourselves of discussion.” In other words, states have an obligation to meet and discuss issues that risk war and try to reach agreement. This definition of declarations as reasoned and conditioned is included in the Hague Convention Relative to the Opening of Hostilities (1907).

The second intuition, which is more modern, is that neutral states should have the right to judge others’ decisions and when their liberties or interests are affected—and perhaps even to control or at least influence those decisions.   This idea underlies the Hague Convention as well. One French drafter of the convention explained that citizens in belligerent states as well as neutrals are entitled to an explanation, because they are entitled to judge and dispute that explanation.

Why does all 0f this matter today?  First, this conception of declarations of war leads to a different set of questions through which any attack on Syria should be evaluated.

  1. Is the demand conditional? Is there a clear set of demands through which Assad can avoid an attack?

  2. Has the Obama administration provided clear ways for Assad or neutral governments to discuss the demands? Is the administration willing to listen and debate with others about U.S. justifications for the use of force, or is it simply posturing to enhance the legitimacy of a future intervention?

  3. Has the Obama administration provided clear ways for those most affected by any plausible attack—presumably innocents inside of Syria—to evaluate the attacks, influence their course, or exercise a veto over U.S. policy (if feasible)?

If the Obama administration has met these obligations, then the U.S. government has declared war (at least in fact if not in letter), and done so in keeping with the spirit of international law.

Second, this conception rightly focuses us outward, rather than inward.  The current debate only focuses on the question of “who declares”—Congress, as the Constitution states, or the president, as has often been true, at least de facto.  But this other conception—with its emphasis on stating conditions and providing justifications—focuses on “why declare.”  Answering this question then enables others—not least Syrian innocents—to better evaluate whether they would endorse military intervention by the U.S.

A final point underscores the need for any declaration of war, period.  The refusal to declare war appears to have a strong racial basis. The United States has a long history of declaring war against white, European states such as Britain, Germany, and Spain, as well as Mexico (Santa Anna came from a Spanish family). These declarations usually are reasoned, conditional statements. Wars against non-white, non-European peoples, in contrast, rarely involve declarations of war (e.g., the Barbary States, Native Americans, the Philippines (1899), Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and many others). A quick analysis, in fact, likely would find that white and European are necessary conditions for U.S. declarations. The link between U.S. policies over time to denigrate non-white peoples, such as Native Americans, and the refusal to use public reason to address them may betray the legacy of race in foreign policy decision-making that has recently come to interest International Relations scholars. Refusing to address the Syrian people today, by assuming that the proper crowd to assess claims about war are in the Beltway rather than overseas, continues that legacy.

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