Training to Fail in Syria

In a hearing with the Senate armed services committee earlier this month, General Loyd Austin, the commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), revealed that a $500 million program to train Syrians to fight the Islamic State (IS) in Syria produced only “four or five” active fighters. The plan unveiled in late 2014 to train local forces on the ground in Syria to fight IS was projected to have trained about 5,000 fighters by now. A Pentagon official assured the Senators that between 100 and 120 fighters are currently “getting terrific training,” but the committee was unimpressed.

It should be no surprise that this ill-conceived effort failed. Frankly, I’m surprised they could boast even four or five fighters at this point. Just last week, the Guardian reported that a Syrian rebel commander allied with the United States defected and gave six trucks and ammunition to the Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. The unit had returned from US-led training in Turkey only days before; the Department of Defense asserts that the report of the defection and missing equipment is incorrect.

The CIA has been funneling weapons into the region since at least 2013. Have we learned nothing from our efforts to arm the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan? Or from our more recent efforts to equip the Iraqi Army—a favorite target for looting by IS?

Let’s be clear: I do not think that the United States should be launching a major military operation to try to “stabilize” Syria. Are people being subjected to immense suffering there? Yes, they are—but it’s not clear who the “good” guys are, given that the Syrian regime has been just as brutal as IS in some cases. Given that a major intervention is not on the table, we should stay out of it. Flowing more weapons into the region can only prolong the fighting and thus the suffering of innocent civilians. Sending in some minor peacekeeping force to safeguard refugee camps won’t work, either—without a significant presence and comprehensive mandate to use force (unlikely in multinational peacekeeping operations), the camps can only be an easy target for the fighters.  Nor should we expect air strikes to work, either; France launched its first strikes against IS in Syria this week and I don’t expect them to have much of an impact, either.

I think this plan for arming the Syrian rebels reflects the Obama administration’s belief that it must be seen to “do something” in the face of the chaos in Syria. Given that there is no national will for a major intervention (rightly so, I think), the options are rather limited. Training rebels and supplying arms seems like the goldilocks solution, if you will: taking action, but action that’s relatively cheap, poses little to no risk to American military personnel, makes the administration look good if for some reason it succeeds, and provides an easy escape hatch if and when it fails. We’ll have to see how the situation unfolds over the coming months, but I don’t expect a resolution any time soon.

Policy Relevance and the Iran Deal

I just got back from a short trip to Washington, D.C., where I was reminded of an enduring debate among political scientists and policy makers: the relevance (or lack thereof) of political science to policy. I’m not going to rehash the most recent discussions, but I do believe that political scientists can and should strive to provide guidance to policy makers. My general impression, however, is that policy makers rarely listen to us on the big issues. I recognize that my opinion may be biased—perhaps what I really feel is, “policy makers don’t always do what I think they should be doing.” But I will admit I find it annoying that academics are admonished for not being policy-relevant when I know plenty of scholars who are working on important projects with policy relevance.

In this vein, I was very excited to learn that a prominent group of international relations professors recently took out an ad in the New York Times to argue that the recent nuclear agreement with Iran “Is in America’s national interest” and should be supported as the best option available for ensuring American security.  I agree with all of the provisions of their argument: the deal is not perfect, but jettisoning it would likely push the United States down a path to another ridiculously costly, wasteful, and unnecessary war in the Middle East.

What’s so interesting about this particular group of scholars is that they also sponsored a similar ad in September 2002 warning that war with Iraq would not be in the interest of the United States.  We know now that the policy makers chose to ignore the advice of the most prominent members of the international relations community in 2003; let’s hope they don’t make the same mistake in 2015. Perhaps the “problem” with political science and policy relevance is not that political scientists work on irrelevant topics, but that policy makers want academics to tell them what they already believe and want to hear.

Shifting perceptions of democracy

In the course of my research last week, I read a fascinating article about the malleability of the concept of “democracy.” In “The Subjectivity of the ‘Democratic’ Peace: Changing U.S. Perceptions of Imperial Germany,[1] Ido Oren argues that the criteria that we use to determine whether a state is democratic are in fact measures of how similar states are to the United States. That is, the way we think about and classify other states as democratic or not reflects a distinctly American understanding of what democracy is and how it operates. We in the United States define democracy in terms that make us seem most similar to states that we like and most distinctive from other states we dislike, and we adapt that definition as necessary to fit the geopolitics of the day.


Why does this matter? Well, for one thing, it has a major influence on the construction of the major datasets on democracy and regime type that political scientists use to study the role of democracy in international politics—for example, in studying the relationship between democracy and economic interdependence; between democracy and domestic economic growth; and between democracy and the likelihood of war (the so-called “Democratic Peace” proposition, wherein democracies do not go to war with other democracies). Oren points out, for example, that in most studies of democracy and in many datasets on regime type, the United States receives “virtually perfect scores on the democracy scale,”[2] across periods when the United States permitted slavery and did not allow women to vote (for example). Oren sees this as evidence that we have defined America as the ideal democratic system and projected these values backwards in our coding procedures. He notes in a footnote that a democracy index constructed by a Finnish researcher (that is not used in American studies of the relationship between democracy and conflict) consistently awards top marks to Finland, which ranked well above the United States![3]


To me, the most interesting part of the article was how the notion of what constitutes an “ideal” democracy has changed over time. Oren examined the way in which two leading political scientists of the late nineteenth century—John Burgess, founder of the first graduate school in political science at Columbia University, and Woodrow Wilson, future president—evaluated imperial Germany in terms of its democratic credentials. Both found much to admire in the management of the German state, including many elements that we would not necessarily associate with democracy today, and they were not alone in their admiration. While Burgess maintained his favorable assessment of Germany through World War I, Wilson changed his “coding” in response to the growing geopolitical conflict between the United States and Germany in the early twentieth century. Today, most people would probably classify Germany at the start of the twentieth century as distinctly un-democratic; Oren’s work suggests this is the product of our conflict with Germany and not a response to new information about the German state or an objective assessment of Germany’s political system.

[1] International Security 20, no. 2 (Fall 1995): 147-84.

[2] P. 150

[3] See note 9.