Special Operations and War on the Cheap

My book Cheap Threats:  Why the United States Struggles to Coerce Weak States is now available for pre-order from Georgetown University Press and Amazon.  In Cheap Threats, I argue that the United States struggles to use threats[1] effectively against weak states (like Iraq, Libya and Haiti) because it has adopted many strategies that render the use of military force relatively cheap.  Because force is cheap, the threat to use force does not convince weak targets of the United States’ compellent threats that the United States is highly motivated.  These targets will resist in the face of a cheap threat–even one issued by the state with the world’s most powerful military–because the cheapness of U.S. military action suggests that the United States lacks the motivation to pursue a long and costly victory against them.  In other words, by making the use of force cheap, we have made threats against weak states less effective.[2] This is a problem because the United States often chooses to launch costly military operations when the threat of force alone is insufficient to change the targeted state’s behavior.

How can I possibly argue that the use of force is cheap for the country that spends nearly as much as the rest of the world combined on defense each year? The first chapter of the book explains in detail the strategies that the United States has adopted to minimize the human, political, and financial costs of employing force—including the use of deficit spending to fund major military operations like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I won’t repeat these arguments here, except to highlight one of the major cost-minimizing strategies that I discuss in the book: the transformation of the American military since the 1970s.

Before 1973, the United States relied on some type of conscription, i.e., compulsory military service, to fight its wars. After the backlash against selective service in the Vietnam War, during which privileged young men were better able to escape the necessity of military service, the United States eliminated conscription and has since relied on an all-volunteer force (AVF). This has led to an increase in education, retention, and professionalization in the service, but the U.S. military is not a representative institution: new recruits are disproportionately drawn from the lower socio-economic classes; the southeastern states tend to be over-represented; minorities are over-represented in the enlisted ranks while whites dominate the officer corps, etc. As a result, the wealthy, educated individuals who are most likely to be members of the decision-making class (members of Congress, scholars at think tanks, i.e., those responsible for making decisions about when and where we fight wars) are insulated from the burdens of military service and increasingly unlikely to have any direct connection to the military themselves. In addition to opting for a volunteer force that shields the vast majority of the American public from the privations and sacrifice of military service, the United States has also relied increasingly on private military contractors to perform functions formerly reserved for the military. The casualties suffered by these individuals are not counted in official figures, which helps to further insulate the general public from the true human toll of America’s military conflicts.

Why does this matter? It matters because strategies that minimize the impact of the use of military force on the American population make it much, much easier for policy-makers to choose to use military force. (Can we imagine that the George W. Bush administration would have been able to sell the war in Iraq if conscription had been in place in 2003?) The AVF makes it much less politically costly to use force, and hence makes it more likely that force will be used. My book demonstrates, however, that such strategies that make the use of force cheaper also undermine our ability to successfully threaten weak states with the use of force.

An op-ed by former Army Captain Matt Gallagher in last Sunday’s New York Times highlights an important and related trend: the growing national obsession with special operations forces (Army Rangers, Delta Force operators, Navy SEALs, etc). “The mythos of Special Operations has seized our nation’s popular imagination, and has proved to be the one prism through which the public will engage with America’s wars…We like our heroes sanitized, perhaps especially in murky times like these.” In the midst of an overall downsizing of the U.S. military, the number of special operations forces continues to rise. Perhaps more importantly, these types of forces conduct their missions in the shadows, with limited Congressional and public oversight of where they are sent (139 countries in 2015, many of these for training missions). Out of sight, out of mind.

As the American public becomes increasingly enchanted with the myth of the commando running secret missions in bad neighborhoods while bathed in the green glow of night vision goggles, it is pushing the United States further down this path of seemingly cheap, low-commitment, sanitized military force. As Cheap Threats argues, however, this will continue to undermine our ability to wield threats of force effectively.



[1] For example, the United States might threaten a small state with air strikes if it does not admit weapons inspectors.

[2] The theory I advance in the book suggests that threats against more powerful states will be more effective because they are more costly to issue and to execute. See the book for a more thorough explanation.

Intelligence and Truth about Syria

I promised myself at the start of 2016 that On Security would not devolve into On Syria, All the Time, but today I cannot resist the opportunity to discuss a piece by Seymour Hersh in the January 7 issue of the London Review of Books. If you are looking for a different perspective on the United States’ Syria policy, this is the article for you. If you think that Assad must go and that the United States cannot cooperate with Russia, then this is definitely the article for you, because it exposes why these and other assumptions are hindering our ability to combat IS in Syria.

The article is really about two related themes: efforts by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to funnel intelligence to the Syrian Army via Germany, Israel, and Russia that would enhance its ability to fight IS and related groups in Syria; and the consequences of failing to pursue closer cooperation with both Russia and China to combat IS and related terrorist groups. The article highlights efforts by Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) from 2012-2014, to warn the Obama administration about the consequences of its insistence that Assad must go. Hersh notes that, “his agency had sent a constant stream of classified warnings to the civilian leadership about the dire consequences of toppling Assad. The jihadists, he said, were in control of the opposition. Turkey wasn’t doing enough to stop the smuggling of foreign fighters and weapons across the border.” Flynn claims that these warnings “‘got enormous pushback’ from the Obama administration. ‘I felt they did not want to hear the truth,’” he said.

This “truth” was the fact that there was no effective “moderate” opposition on the ground in Syria and that toppling Assad would invite a takeover by extremists. It was in the wake of these assessments that the JCS decided to share intelligence about jihadist groups via other militaries that had direct contact with the Syrian forces. Hersh notes, “There was no direct contact between the US and the Syrian military; instead, the adviser said, ‘we provided the information…and these countries could do with it what they chose, including sharing it with Assad…The JCS could conclude that something beneficial would arise from it—but it was a military to military thing, and not some sort of a sinister Joint Chiefs’ plot to go around Obama and support Assad. It was a lot cleverer than that.’”

In some ways, it is surprising to read that the US military was indirectly channeling intelligence to the Syrian Army, given that the public policy of the US government remains that Assad and his regime must go. It may surprise you to know, in the current climate of media coverage, that Syria actually cooperated with the United States quite a lot on anti-terror efforts after the September 11 attacks, even after George W. Bush decided to target Assad for some of his “axis of evil” rhetoric. The article does not paint a flattering picture of the CIA’s efforts to funnel arms and training to the illusory “moderate” opposition (discussed here), and it goes into too much detail to summarize succinctly here. Suffice it to say, Flynn’s tenure at DIA did not survive his truth-telling crusade. According to Patrick Lang, retired Army colonel who had served in DIA, “Flynn incurred the wrath of the White House by insisting on telling the truth about Syria…He thought truth was the best thing and they shoved him out.”

The rest of the article challenges the dominant narrative on Russia and the United States’ refusal to cooperate with it on Syria. To a lesser extent, it also explores the limits to US cooperation with China. All three countries, in Hersh’s view, share a similar interest in combating Islamic terrorism and extremism, and yet cooperation on these challenges remains remarkably limited—part of which he attributes to a persistent, Cold War-era “us vs. them” mentality. If transnational terrorism really is the greatest threat that the United States faces, then why are we allowing Russia’s actions in the Ukraine to stand in the way of cooperation that would likely prove greatly beneficial in the fight against IS? Is it because terrorism really isn’t that big of a deal? Or because we’re convinced that cooperating with other strong states threatens our own position atop the global hierarchy? The latter is an interesting question and one about which international relations theory has developed a variety of perspectives, but I will save those for another day.

“The four core elements of Obama’s Syria policy remain intact today: an insistence that Assad must go; that no anti-IS coalition with Russia is possible; that Turkey is a steadfast ally in the war against terrorism; and that there really are significant moderate opposition forces for the US to support.” Hersh accurately sums up the state of US policy on Syria at the start of 2016, and his article provides persuasive evidence for why all four of those elements are either counterproductive to the effort to fight IS (Assad must go, no cooperation with Russia) or simply inaccurate (Turkey as ally, moderate opposition). I am inclined to agree with this assessment, as is much of the defense intelligence community, apparently.  But what chance does the “truth” have when the people in charge don’t want to hear it?

Iran Nuclear Agreement: Diplomacy Bears Fruit

Over the weekend, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certified that Iran had met all of its commitments to roll back and limit its nuclear programs under the terms of a U.S.-backed deal reached last summer. In exchange, some economic sanctions have been lifted and the West will unfreeze roughly $100 billion in Iranian assets. The lifting of these sanctions should open up new opportunities for investment in Iran’s economy, particularly in oil. The deal also included a prisoner exchange in which five Americans were freed from Iranian custody.

Under the terms of the agreement, Iran has shipped 98 percent of its nuclear fuel to Russia, shut down a reactor designed to produce plutonium, and dismantled more than 12,000 centrifuges used in the production of highly enriched uranium, among other initiatives. The New York Times has a great series of graphics explaining how the deal limits Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon here.  It is important to note that most aspects of the American trade embargo remain in place.  This nuclear deal lifts many international sanctions on Iran’s oil and financial industries, which will provide the country with much-needed cash in a period of low oil prices.

There are, of course, no guarantees that this agreement will permanently eliminate Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon. The long-term success of the agreement depends on the IAEA’s ability to access and monitor sites in Iran to verify continued compliance. This proved to be a major stumbling block in US-Iraq relations in the 1990s, but it should be noted that the Iraqis never did succeed in restarting a program capable of producing a nuclear weapon during all those years of fighting about IAEA inspections. (More on this in my forthcoming book, Cheap Threats, which I will be discussing on the blog in the coming weeks.)

As I argued this fall and as the Obama administration has consistently asserted, this agreement is the best available means for curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The administration should see the successful implementation of this agreement as a major foreign policy achievement—one that took years of painstaking negotiations without the instant gratification of bombing or other short-term military instruments. Critics assert that the deal leaves the United States and its allies vulnerable, that it does not do enough to disarm the “rogue” Iranian regime, that negotiating makes the United States look weak…there is no shortage of articles (or Presidential candidates) criticizing it. Are there reasons to be concerned about Iran’s foreign policies? Absolutely—but the same can and should be said about its rival Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s compliance with the agreement also dovetails nicely with last week’s discussion of North Korea and the concept of rationality. Critics have long alleged that Iran, like North Korea, is a rogue nation with crazy leaders bent on hastening the arrival of the apocalypse. This deal demonstrates that it is possible to negotiate with regimes that we do not necessarily understand and that do not necessarily share our own views of the international system. Of course, comparing Iran and North Korea is a little like comparing apples and oranges, and North Korea has successfully manipulated international negotiations to its own benefit on several occasions. We can, however, take this agreement as evidence of the promise of diplomacy in a world that CNN would like us to believe is teetering on the brink of meltdown.

North Korea’s Latest Provocation

North Korea claimed on January 6 that it had conducted an underground test of a hydrogen bomb. If this claim is true, it would mean that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has advanced beyond the production of the more basic atomic weapons it has tested in the past. At this point, scientists are still collecting data to try to determine what actually happened. Most seem to dispute the claim that North Korea successfully tested a true hydrogen bomb, although they may have succeeded in testing a “boosted” atomic weapon, which is far less advanced and far less destructive than an H-bomb. Experts currently estimate North Korea’s test had a yield of roughly 6 kilotons; a Soviet test of a hydrogen bomb in 1961 produced a blast of 50,000 kilotons. (A yield of 1 kiloton is equivalent to the explosion of 1,000 tons of TNT. “Real” hydrogen bombs produce a staggeringly large explosion.) The New York Times has a great series of graphics explaining the basic science behind the different types of weapons here.

Interestingly, North Korea also released footage last week claiming to show the recent successful launch of an SLBM, or submarine-launched ballistic missile. Experts now claim that the video has been doctored with images from 2014, and that the heavy manipulation of the footage was an attempt to obscure the fact that the test seems to have been a failure.

These tests coincided with the January 8 birthday of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. It is not unusual for North Korea to launch provocative military displays around key calendar dates or for its leader to use such displays to try to shore up his own power. What is somewhat unusual about this latest provocation is the fact that China has joined the international community in condemning the nuclear test. China has also indicated that it would support punitive action by the UN Security Council—presumably, additional sanctions. China has been reluctant to break ties with North Korea in the past and tends not to be thrilled about Security Council sanctions in general, so this may be a significant development in the international campaign to contain the North Korean regime.

I am always struck by the extent to which news coverage and commentary on North Korea refers to the country and its leader as delusional, insane, or irrational. We have a history in the United States of labeling certain leaders of other countries as crazy and treating them as such—Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein are two obvious examples. This has the unfortunate consequence of leading us to believe that such leaders do not respond to international pressure (convenient if you are trying to drum up support for a regime-change campaign), and to both over- and underestimate their competence. That is, we view such leaders as both possessed of the ability to wreak unparalleled destruction in the international community and incapable of responding to the basic strategic realities of international politics.

Since 2001, the United States has invaded or overthrown the regimes of several countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya—none of which possessed nuclear weapons. It has, however, refrained from invading North Korea, which has both one of the worst human rights records of any state on earth (far worse than that of Libya, which everyone was so eager to liberate in 2011), and (as of 2006, i.e., after the U.S. invasion of Iraq), a small arsenal of nuclear weapons. I don’t think this is a coincidence and I certainly don’t think North Korea views it as one, either.  We may have a hard time viewing Kim’s behavior as “rational” in terms that fit with our own worldview, but it is a dangerous oversimplification to view him as a deranged clown and doing so can distort our long-term strategy for managing North Korea.



Review: Restraint by Barry Posen (or, the On Security gift guide)

Still looking for a last-minute gift for your Dad, your poli sci roommate, or your aunt who listens to NPR? Or perhaps for something to read on a long flight or train trip home for the holidays? Might I suggest Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, by Barry Posen,[1] the Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of the Security Studies Program at MIT. In this book, Posen explains how the grand strategy of “Liberal Hegemony” has come to dominate the American security establishment since the end of the Cold War, explains why this grand strategy is “more active, and more militarized than seems necessary” (23) given the high level of security that the United States enjoys, and outlines his argument that the United States should adopt a grand strategy of “Restraint.”

Posen defines grand strategy as, “a nation-state’s theory about how to produce security for itself” (1). I think we can be a little more specific. A state’s grand strategy includes both that state’s understanding of its goals and the principal threats it faces, and the means—both military and non-military—by which the state plans to achieve these goals and protect itself from the identified threats. During the Cold War, the United States pursued a broad grand strategy called “Containment,” aimed at forestalling Soviet advances around the world (and in some formulations, rolling them back). When the Soviet Union dissolved at the end of the 1980s, the United States suddenly found itself searching for a new grand strategy to guide its foreign policy, and Liberal Hegemony eventually bubbled up to fill this vacuum.

Restraint is well written and very accessible for those who do not happen to be experts in political science or security studies. Posen tells a convincing and compelling story about how Liberal Hegemony has become the consensus on American grand strategy in the post-Cold War world. Both of the major political parties now agree on the vast majority of the principles embodied in Liberal Hegemony: the belief that the United States should maintain its position atop the global military hierarchy, that it should use its military might to promote liberal values like democracy and free markets, and that the principle threats in the world arise from rogue, failed, and/or illiberal states. Yes, the political parties do disagree on some specifics—notably the role of international institutions—and not everyone thinks we should be keeping all Muslims out of the country as Donald Trump has recently suggested, but with the possible exception of Bernie Sanders, there are no serious candidates currently running for President from either party who are questioning any of these core principles. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton proved herself to be a key champion of Liberal Hegemony during her tenure as Secretary of State.

Posen argues that instead of Liberal Hegemony, we should pursue a much more restrained grand strategy that acknowledges that the United States is actually very safe. The most important threats to the United States will emanate from strong and powerful nation-states or peer competitors, not from floundering failed states. The United States should pull back from the activist foreign policy that has characterized the last twenty years and has made the United States a more attractive target for terrorism. We should scale back our military commitments overseas, stop stationing so many troops abroad, and instead rely on a maritime, i.e., naval presence, around the world to provide security for global commerce and to facilitate counter-terror and counter-proliferation efforts. In sum, we can continue to enjoy a high level of security at much less cost and without angering so many people around the world. Posen also includes a detailed analysis of the implications of Restraint for key regions around the world.

I enthusiastically recommend this book. I suspect, however regretfully, that Posen’s ideas will have a hard time making headway in Washington. There are a couple of reasons for this: 1. The political consensus on Liberal Hegemony is firmly entrenched within both parties, within the national defense industry, and within much of the military leadership. Liberal Hegemony also permeates the so-called mainstream media to an extent that events and arguments that challenge its bedrock assumptions go unreported or simply do not make it into the discussion. 2. Washington is not staffed by people who want the United States to “do nothing” in international affairs. That is, one does not rise through the ranks at the State Department, the Department of Defense, or any of the other braches of the foreign policy bureaucracy (or even the dominant think tanks) by arguing that the United States should refrain from using its power. That is simply not the message people want to hear, and more importantly, I don’t think it’s the message believed by the kind of person who works eighty hours a week for several years (or decades) for a chance at a political appointment. Arguments for restraint are more often believed by the kind of person who finds herself in academia, writing books and blog posts.

[1] (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014).

The Politics of Climate Change

The 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, otherwise known as the Paris Climate Talks, is currently underway in Paris, France. The goal of this conference is to build on previous negotiations to reach an international agreement that will limit the rise of Earth’s temperature to 2°C by the year 2100 by establishing limits and/or reductions on the emission of greenhouse gases. The conference has a great website where you can learn more about the negotiations, their history, and the science behind the UN’s targets here. According to the UN, if current emission rates continue, Earth’s temperature is likely to rise by 3.7-4.8°C by the end of the century. To stay within the 2-degree increase, emissions must be reduced by 40-70% below 2010 levels by 2050. (Scientists believe that global temperature increases above 2°C will have dire consequences, including an increase in disastrous weather events. More information here.)

When I was teaching international relations as a graduate student at Columbia and as an assistant professor at UMass Amherst, climate change was often the issue in which students were most interested, and about which they were most often frustrated. Climate change is happening, they would argue—why can’t the United States and world leaders do something about it? Today I’m going to focus on three explanations from international relations theory about why this is such a difficult problem for the international community to tackle. This list is by no means exhaustive, but I think it covers three of the main obstacles.

1. Uncertainty over the trajectory of emissions and over the impact of the proposed solutions

Even if we, like the vast majority of scientists, acknowledge that climate change is a real phenomenon influenced by greenhouse gases produced by human activity (like burning fossil fuels), there is inherently a lot of uncertainty about how much the climate will change, how this will affect humans, and whether and to what extent the curbing of future emissions will mitigate the worst of the projected outcomes. This matters both in terms of trying to coordinate the behavior of multiple states and in terms of the policies pursued by the leader of any individual state. Any time we ask organizations or individuals to tackle hypothetical problems that may be realized at some point in the future by applying a solution that may or may not have the desired outcome, it’s going to be difficult to coordinate behavior—particularly when states face many pressing and immediate problems that are actually happening, right now, and when many of the officials responsible for setting national policy probably won’t be in office long enough to see the results of either implementing or failing to implement an agreement. In a world of uncertainty, it’s much easier and politically much safer to go for short-term solutions to immediate problems. This is true regardless of whether the officials in question are elected or not.

2.  Unequal distribution of the costs and responsibilities of climate change

One of the thorniest issues in tackling climate change is the fact that poor, developing countries are likely to suffer most from the impacts of a changing climate, but they are least responsible for current levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These countries are also the least capable of coping with the natural disasters, famine, etc., that experts believe will accompany climate change, and they are also the least well equipped to make the changes to their economies that will help reduce global emissions (for example, investing in renewable energy sources rather than burning fossil fuels). One of the major components of the agreement being hammered out in Paris is a pledge of aid from developed countries to help poor countries cope with climate change. Similarly, climate change negotiations have often become hung up on questions of responsibility and fairness: the countries that have already developed (the United States and western Europe, for example), had the luxury of burning all the fossil fuels they wanted in the 19th and 20th century and are now asking that developing countries not avail themselves of this path to development. It’s not difficult to understand why this is hard for developing states to accept: they are least responsible for climate change, will suffer from its effects the most, and to top it all off, are being asked to pursue future development under terms more restrictive than those faced by the world’s largest emitters (China surpassed the US as the world’s largest emitter in 2007).

To try to combat these inequities, past climate change treaties—including the Kyoto Protocol of the 1990s, the first attempt at limiting emissions under the auspices of the UN Framework—set different targets for emissions reductions for different countries. Rich polluters like the US were expected to shoot for greater reductions in emissions than developing countries. This was the key issue that blocked ratification of the Kyoto protocol in the United States. Although the President has the authority to negotiate and sign treaties, the Senate must approve (ratify) a treaty for it to go into force for the United States. In the 1990s, senators refused to okay the Kyoto protocol because, they argued, the emissions targets would have placed the US at a competitive disadvantage relative to other states that were not being asked to cut back their emissions as much.

3.  Enforcement

Related to the last point above: there is no international government with the ability to enforce international agreements as there is in domestic society. In international relations, we refer to this as “the condition of anarchy in the international system.” Adherence to emissions targets, and even the accurate reporting of national emissions, are on a voluntary basis. Yes, there are intergovernmental groups like the UN, but the UN does not have the ability to punish lawbreakers the way that the police and courts do in domestic society. For example, if and when a state violated its emissions target as set by the Kyoto protocol, it was punished by being required to make additional reductions to its emissions. So, if you broke the rules, you were asked to follow the rules even more closely in the future.

This is not a unique feature of climate change agreements but rather a general problem with the making and enforcement of international agreements. You may find people out there arguing that we live in a world of international laws and regulations, but the reality is that when a state—particularly a powerful state—violates its commitments to an international treaty, there’s not much that other states can do about it.

The difficulty of enforcing international agreements means that everyone has to worry about the possibility that other states will cheat on their obligations. This is a very real obstacle to attaining an effective agreement to reduce emissions: if I think my nearest competitor is going to cheat and continue to pollute at current rates rather than spend the money to change production methods or switch away from fossil fuels, then I am going to be sorely tempted to cheat on my own commitments. Cheating becomes even more attractive when we realize that the emissions generated in one state do not simply stay in that state but instead float up into the sky contribute to the overall level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Knowing that all the signatories face these incentives to cheat, states may be reluctant to sign onto an agreement and actually commit to the required changes.

In sum, there are reasons to be cautious about the prospects for a successful, effective agreement resulting from the Paris climate talks. Even President Obama, who gave a speech at the start of the negotiations and pledged US support for reducing global emissions, admits that he would be unable to get any signed agreement past the Republican-controlled US Congress. Obama has still made pledges to cut US emissions, but the unwillingness of the United States to become a signatory to this latest treaty certainly won’t help its prospects for success.

The State in the “Age of Terror”

In recent years, it has become fashionable in the field of international relations to argue that “the state” is in danger of falling into irrelevance as international organizations (IOs) like the United Nations and transnational groups like al Qaeda come to dominate international politics. I have always found these arguments unconvincing. The state is and is likely to remain the most important actor in international politics for the foreseeable future. (When scholars in international relations talk about “states” they are usually referring to what we would call “countries,” so, France, the United States, Syria, and Rwanda are all “states” in these terms. The term “the state” can also refer to the specific apparatuses of power that enable a state to exercise control—so, “the French state” could include the military, the bureaucracy, the legislature, etc., depending on the context.)

The recent terror attacks in Paris highlight not the growing power of transnational terrorist groups but the continued prominence of states. How can that be? You ask. Haven’t I been reading everywhere that these attacks signal an alarming and sophisticated shift in strategy by groups like IS? Isn’t life as we know it in western states more vulnerable than ever?

First: I don’t think that the attacks signal a major strategic shift for IS. For this to be true, there would have to be evidence that the group is reallocating a major amount of resources and personnel to attack western targets. IS still asserts and behaves as if its primary goal is to control territory and establish its own system of government (or state, if you will) in Iraq and Syria.

Second, and this is related to the first point: These attacks don’t strike me as particularly sophisticated or resource-intensive. From what we know, small groups of attackers conducted suicide bombings at the Stade de France, committed shootings at several locations around Paris, and trapped individuals inside the Bataclan theater while armed with automatic weapons and more bombs. The vast majority of the civilian casualties were sustained in the Bataclan theater, which is not surprising: the terrorists trapped a large number of people in a confined space and were armed with automatic weapons. The fact of the matter is that we now live in a world awash with relatively low-tech but effective automatic weapons (AK-47s), the result of decades of military aid that the United States and others have been funneling to so-called allies.

To me, what the attacks most closely resembled were the kind of mass shooting events that have sadly (ridiculously!) become relatively commonplace in the United States. (“But unlike IS terrorists, those people aren’t trying to destroy our way of life!” you say? Excuse me, but how are shootings at movie theaters and women’s health clinics and civil rights protests NOT attacks on the American way of life? And yet in the wake of those tragedies CNN does not go to DEFCON 1 and convince you that you are about to be assassinated by the angry bearded guy holed up down the block.) The point here is not to devolve into a complicated discussion about the terrorists’ tactics but to point out that these were not very sophisticated attacks. Yes, they were carried out in a short time frame, but that was not because a series of explosive devices was pre-set to detonate at the same time—luckily a much more difficult feat to pull off and one that would have signaled a higher level of planning and coordination.

What we have seen in the wake of the attacks, however, is the assertion of the state.  Within days, the French state had located multiple suspects, conducted more than a hundred raids, and tracked dozens of individuals into neighboring countries. That is the kind of sophisticated surveillance and coordinated application of violence that a state, and only a state, can manage at this time. (You may wonder why the state failed to pick up on the attacks in advance—an important question, but it may be a long time before we have a good answer to this.) The Belgian state told its people to stay in their homes for days as they hunted down additional suspects, and these people complied. Rightly or wrongly, the people of western Europe did not turn to the European Union (EU) but to their own states to demand protection. Suddenly, state borders began to matter a lot more than the doctrines of free trade and free transit that the EU has worked to implement. Even in the United States, there have been calls to ban immigration, and particularly to shut out Syrian refugees.

This does not imply that the state is the only actor in international politics, that states are infallible, or that the exercise of state power is always justifiable on moral or ethical grounds. But I do think it is important to recognize that the attacks on Paris did not threaten the survival of the French state, just as the attacks of September 11, 2001, did not bring down the United States. For most states, and particularly for states in the wealthy western world, terrorism simply does not threaten the survival of the state, period. After terror attacks, the most significant erosions to the American way of life that we have endured are the ones we have inflicted on ourselves, like the Patriot Act or the prison at Guantanamo Bay. For better or worse, the state is here to stay.

It’s Time to Get Angry with the Saudis

In the wake of the attack on Paris (and the attacks on Beirut and elsewhere that, not surprisingly, failed to prompt most people to change their Facebook photos or post on Twitter), there has been an outpouring of emotion in the western media. It is reasonable to feel a sense of sadness, fear, and shock in the face of terrorist attacks that kill innocent people. Terrorist attacks are, after all, intended to provoke feelings of fear and panic among their audience. The question on everyone’s mind seems to be: What should we do about the Islamic State and Syria?

Patrick Cockburn has written for the London Review of Books what I think is the most straightforward and accurate assessment of the situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq. If you read nothing else about the fight against IS, please read this, even if it means you do not finish reading this post! The piece predates the Paris attacks, but its conclusions are still sound. Cockburn writes, quite correctly, that the current US strategy of air strikes and the insertion of special forces to advise friendly forces in Syria has already failed. Incremental increases to an already failed strategy do not translate into success, they translate into a more expensive failed strategy. “By October the US-led coalition had carried out 7323 air strikes, the great majority of them by the US air force, which made 3231 strikes in Iraq and 2487 in Syria. But the campaign has demonstrably failed to contain IS.” Another thousand strikes will not do the job, nor would sending 5,000 or 10,000 ground troops.

Cockburn is also correct in pointing out that the United States and its allies have backed themselves into a corner by insisting that Assad must go. This leaves us with essentially no one to support other than the Kurds. (Never mind that by supporting the Kurds we are also angering Turkey, a longtime US ally in the region.) While they have had some success in defeating IS, the Kurds have no interest in taking over and ruling Syria—they want to carve out and maintain an autonomous region for themselves. Why does this matter, you say? It matters because this is a civil war that will only be resolved militarily when one side decisively defeats and disarms all the opposition. Otherwise, any gains will be temporary. Russia, however, is not bound by the same restrictions. Russian air strikes will not be a magical solution, either, but by aligning themselves with a functioning force on the ground—the Syrian military—Russia has a chance of using its air power to coordinate with those forces and possibly defeat IS and affiliated groups. Even then, the chances of success are not great. Cockburn writes: “It is a genuine civil war: a couple of years ago in Baghdad an Iraqi politician told me that ‘the problem in Iraq is that all parties are both too strong and too weak: too strong to be defeated, but too weak to win.’ The same applies today in Syria.”

[By the way, if you’re thinking about the 2011 intervention in Libya and wondering why we can’t simply apply the same strategy in Syria, an idea that sadly I think French President Hollande may have in the forefront of his mind, too: the air strikes succeeded in defeating Qaddafi and his forces only because they were working in conjunction with motivated rebel forces on the ground. As I noted above, given that we will not support the Syrian military, there is no similar partner with which the US and France could coordinate their air strikes in Syria. More importantly, the NATO campaign over Libya should not be held up as a model of anything other than the foolhardiness of blindly pursuing regime change in poorly understood societies. That campaign may have ousted Qaddafi, but it left a chaotic power vacuum in its wake. A discussion for another day, perhaps.]

In the wake of the attack of Paris, one of the dominant emotions we have been witnessing is anger: anger at the long-suffering refugee communities fleeing IS atrocities; anger at the intelligence lapses that might have facilitated the attack in Paris; anger at President Obama for failing to protect America (originating mainly in the ridiculous statements of Republican Presidential candidates). If you want to get angry, it’s time to start directing your anger at the Gulf States that are supporting IS, either by funneling money to the forces directly or by failing to stop their citizens from funding these groups. “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” according to a 2009 cable from the State Department.  Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates are also major sources of funding for IS and similar groups. As Charles Pierce argues in a great piece at Esquire, putting pressure on these American “allies” to stop aiding Sunni terrorist and insurgent groups in the region may be the only way to defeat IS.

Fortunately, Obama seems to agree with me about the perils of sending significant ground troops into Syria. (Although, worryingly, he does promise an “intensification” of the present strategy…so, more guns to the good guys and more advisors? He also asserts that the present strategy “is the one that is going to work,” so he and I do differ on that.) Refusing to send combat troops is prudent; nothing significant has changed about the risk that the United States faces from transnational terrorism. But see above: incremental increases to a failed strategy produce a more expensive failure, not strategic success.


Economic Sanctions: The Iran Case

On November 2, the New York Times reported that Iran has begun the process of decommissioning thousands of centrifuges used for the production of highly-enriched uranium in compliance with the deal it reached with the international community this summer.   Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has endorsed the deal (with some conditions), but there is still some wrangling within the Iranian government over the execution of the deal. Under the terms of the deal, Iran must also convert one of its nuclear facilities into a light-water reactor (less useful for the creation of materials that could be used in a nuclear weapon), and it must make a series of disclosures about the nature of its nuclear activities. After the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verifies that Iran has fulfilled its responsibilities under the deal, the comprehensive economic sanctions against Iran will be lifted.

I have been thinking a lot about how this case will be viewed by scholars of economic sanctions. Will we think of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as a case in which economic sanctions were successful? How would we know?

The term “economic sanctions” can refer to a wide range of punitive measures, and can include the freezing of a foreign leader’s assets, penalties imposed on a country’s financial system, banning the export of luxury goods to a country (a tactic we’ve tried with North Korea), and more comprehensive measures designed to stop the flow of goods into or out of a country. Different types of sanctions are supposed to work in different ways. For example, sanctions imposed against an enemy leader are intended to punish that leader or force him/her to change his/her behavior; the logic behind more comprehensive measures is that a population forced to suffer under heavy trade sanctions will pressure their government to change policies or perhaps overthrow the sitting regime. The United States currently has economic sanctions of some type in place against dozens of countries and non-state actors (like criminal organizations). The Department of the Treasury maintains a list of current sanctions here, if you would like to take a look.

Measuring the effectiveness of economic sanctions as an instrument of foreign policy is actually quite difficult. It can be relatively easy to measure the direct impact of sanctions—say, how much oil we are preventing a country from selling in a given month or year—but it is much, much harder to determine the extent to which sanctions influence the political behavior of other states. Just because the United States imposes sanctions and then the targeted state subsequently changes its behavior, this does not necessarily mean that the sanctions caused the change in behavior. It is just as possible that the change was due to domestic political factors in the targeted country, for example.

The best and most comprehensive study[1] on economic sanctions of which I am aware estimates that sanctions are effective—meaning they had some impact on the desired change in target behavior—in roughly one third of cases in which they are applied (and in some of these cases, additional instruments were also used against the target state). Sanctions tend to work best when the sanctioner makes relatively modest demands and when many countries cooperate to target the sanctioned country.

I don’t know how the Iran case will be recorded, and I think it’s far too early to make a confident assessment. First, we would have to agree about the purpose of the sanctions to assess whether they have been effective or not—were the sanctions intended to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons indefinitely, or were they designed to compel Iran to reach an agreement with the international community about its nuclear program? In the case of the first goal, we will be waiting forever to determine whether the sanctions worked (or at least until such a point when we could confidently declare that they had failed). In the case of the latter, we will need time to assess how the sanctions influenced the thinking of Iran’s top decision makers. That information may be very difficult to obtain. Leaders often have an incentive to publicly claim that sanctions (or other coercive instruments) did not affect their calculations, lest they appear weak to domestic or international rivals. We will have to wait and see, but if we do find out that the sanctions played a role in Iran’s decision to reach the agreement this summer, then I think this case is likely to be cited as a significant success for economic sanctions.

[1] Gary Hufbauer et al., Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, 3rd Edition (Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2009).

Syria and the Scope of the “National Interest”

Last week, the Obama administration announced that it would be sending a small number of Special Operations forces to Syria. These troops will “work with resistance forces battling the Islamic State in northern Syria but will not engage in direct combat.” The deployment is open-ended and will be accompanied by the movement of attack planes and fighter jets to Turkey to support ground operations in Syria.  (Why we’re sending the fighters is unclear—are we worried about Russian planes? The Islamic State certainly won’t be launching its own fighters anytime soon.)

Sigh. This is a terrible idea and it makes Obama look somewhat ridiculous after having promised at least 8 times not to send ground troops to Syria. I wish I could say that this move surprised me.  I had been hoping that we would have the good sense to avoid further escalation in Syria, but that would have required a degree of coherence and prudence on foreign policy from an administration that has demonstrated itself to be incapable of such behavior.

This strategy will not work. First of all, who will these troops even advise? We have already discussed the abysmal failure of the plan to train rebel forces. The United States has claimed that we don’t like Assad’s regime, and we don’t like IS and al-Qaeda affiliates for obvious reasons, so that leaves…who, exactly? Do we really think the Kurds could win this fight and successfully govern Syria when the smoke clears?

Second, and more importantly: sending 50 advisers will have no real impact on anything that happens in Syria, except for possibly prolonging the fighting.  There is a nasty sectarian conflict unfolding on the ground over who will govern Syria, and we are not going to resolve that conflict by sending 50 advisers and a few aircraft. Remember how well our plans for Iraq went? Even after spending hundreds of billions of dollars, deploying more than one hundred thousand troops, and sacrificing the lives of thousands of Americans, Iraq remains the most dangerous country in the world for civilians. (In case you’re wondering, Syria, Gaza, Nigeria and Pakistan make up the rest of the top 5.)

But sure, send 50 advisers—what’s the worst that could happen? The worst that could happen is that this opens the door for additional commitments in Syria without having any positive impact on the fighting (and possibly making it worse). At this point, the best-case scenario is that the advisers have no impact on the fighting and come home after a few months, having achieved…a political victory for Obama? That seems unlikely, given that both Democrats and Republicans are criticizing this strategy.  I’m not sure what the Obama administration hopes to gain from this.

What this policy does highlight, however, is the extent to which our conception of the “national interest” and what it includes has become so bloated as to be essentially meaningless. Why does it matter to the United States who governs Syria? Why have we now defined the United States’ national interest as essentially “anything that happens anywhere?” We have become so caught up in our self-image as the world’s liberal policeman and the world’s greatest military power that we now seem to believe that we can and should dictate the outcome of any fight anywhere in the world. Our experiences in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan demonstrate that our ability to control events in other countries is much, much more limited than we would like to believe, and yet we continue to insert ourselves into these fights (while promising that our efforts will be limited) and we continue to delude ourselves into thinking that leaving a few thousand troops on the ground in Afghanistan will result in a lasting and democratic peace there.

“But what about the people who are suffering in Syria?” you say. “Isn’t it in our interest to help them?” I hate to break it to you, but there are people suffering at the hands of their own governments or as the result of domestic unrest all over the world. The fact that this is true does not mean that it is the responsibility of the United States to fix those problems, and intervening with such limited force as we are using in Syria can often have the unintended effect of prolonging the fighting, i.e., increasing net suffering. It is the responsibility of the United States government and the U.S. military to protect the United States and its citizens.  There are plenty of people suffering here in the United States, and I would rather spend our resources on them than on another limited intervention in the Middle East that will at best have no impact on total human suffering in Syria and at worst drag us into another bloody and costly quagmire.