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.