Data on the relevance of political scientists to the NYT

Every couple of years, a journalist or a grumpy political scientist writes a piece bemoaning how irrelevant, technical, and specialized the field of… Read More

Conflict in the East China Sea: Home Board Game Edition

Don’t sink my battleship. (Photo by Derek Gavey) There was a near collision between a Chinese warship and a U.S. guided missile cruiser… Read More

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… Read More

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… Read More

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… Read More

“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. Read More

If science tells you you can’t predict something, is it no longer science?

The NYT ran an op-ed last week by philosophers of Science Alex Rosenberg and Tyler Curtain that said that (1) economics is not a… Read More

Threading needles in Syria

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. Read More

Militaries: An industry in decline

  Apropos of nothing in particular that’s in the news (except maybe this), here is a graph of how two… Read More

Is the US fighting one war, or four?

Linda Blimes and Michael Intriligator ask the surprising (relative to NYT, WP discourse) and interesting question "How Many Wars is the US Fighting Today?" in a short paper that is unfortunately gated.  The gist of it: In addition to these two large-scale conflicts [Iraq and Afghanistan, as of late 2011] the US is also fighting a number of unannounced and undeclared “wars”. These unannounced wars are fought mainly with air power and increasingly with drones rather than ground troops. If we define war to include conflicts where the US is launching extensive military incursions, including drone attacks, but that are not officially “declared,” then the US is directly involved in at least three wars – in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia – in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan. These unannounced wars follow in the tradition of many previous covert US military incursions, such as in Chile, Cuba, and Nicaragua. The difference is that advanced military technology now enables the US to fight such wars in a different way, which is far less transparent, and to sustain operations over several years. The comparison to Cold War covert "incursions" is apt, though I don't think they were far more transparent than our current drone wars.  Moreover, they were arguably less "U.S. wars" than Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia today, because in these recent cases U.S. military (and CIA) personnel are actual trigger pullers on a scale much larger than they were in Chile, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the like. But is it a war if one side doesn't have a lot of troops on the ground at risk of getting killed?  And what if the targets are technically civilians and not uniformed troops of the country where they live?  These are reasons why it's at least not perfectly obvious that these conflicts should be termed "wars" in the traditional sense.   So yes, there are some differences, but as Blimes and Intriligator suggest, there is at a minimum a strong family resemblance as well.  At great cost and a high level of mobilization, the US military is engaged in killing large numbers of presumed combatants (with much collateral damage) who live in countries whose governments may object to the practice.  That's plausibly described as a war. Read More