In addition to publishing my book, I have also been working on another very big project over the past nine months. Starting today, I am taking maternity leave from the blog and from my other work to focus on my growing family. I expect to return to regular posting this summer, but I may pop back occasionally before then. Thank you for reading On Security and I look forward to returning to this space in due course.
Monthly Archives: March 2016
Iranian Perspectives on the Nuclear Deal
The nuclear agreement that the United States reached with Iran last fall was not without controversy; I argued then and continue to believe that implementing this deal was and is our best option for limiting Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Iran has made significant progress on implementing the terms of the agreement, despite the continued efforts of the Republican-controlled Congress to undermine it. (The specifics of the deal are rather complicated; although many international sanctions were lifted against Iran in the fall—particularly those affecting the oil industry—many sanctions that are part of U.S. law remain in place, and Congress seems determined to maintain these existing sanctions, regardless of how this would hamper efforts at reconciliation.) Some observers viewed the gains made by moderates in Iran’s elections last month as evidence that the nuclear deal may be helping to marginalize more hard-line conservative forces in the Iranian government, as Obama and many others had hoped it would.
This weekend, the Opinion page of the New York Times featured a project by photographer Ako Salemi, who photographed and interviewed people in Tehran and Mashhad about their opinions of the nuclear deal. In keeping with one of the themes of last week’s post, it provides us a unique window into how Iranians view the nuclear agreement and its impact on Iran’s membership in the international community. We should not assume that this represents a random sample of Iranian opinion, but Salemi does manage to capture an interesting cross-section of Iranian society.
It is clear from the interviews that not everyone views the deal as likely to have a positive impact. Rahman Sanaie, a janitor who lives in Iran, asserted that, “Nothing will change in my life, maybe only a slight increase in my salary. I hope it will bring peace for my country.” Amir Hosseinzadeh argued, “The deal has no effect on my life and gives me no hope for my future, either. I think only rich people will see changes in their life. Just look at the increase in the price of beef.” Feryal Mostofi, a businesswoman living in Tehran, was somewhat more optimistic. “I think the renewed cultural dialogue between Iran and other countries is one of the most important benefits of this agreement. It is useful for Iranian women to come out from this isolation and become more active in business.” Many other perspectives are represented among the photographs and I encourage you to check out the project for yourself. It is a vivid illustration of the richness of political dialogue in another country at a time when we are tempted to view other societies as homogenous and monolithic.
China on Trump
On Monday, the Global Times—China’s state-run, English-language newspaper—ran an op-ed about Donald Trump and the violence that erupted at one of his Chicago campaign events last Friday. It’s worth a read, not only because it makes startlingly accurate assessments of Trump’s appeal, but because it provides an outside perspective on the U.S. political process.
Describing the recent violence at Trump rallies, the op-ed notes that, “Fist fights among voters who have different political orientations is quite common in developing countries during election seasons. Now, a similar show is shockingly staged in the US, which boasts one of the most developed and mature democratic election systems.” (This is true—research consistently demonstrates that democracies in developing countries and states undergoing the transition to democracy are more prone to electoral violence than stable democracies in wealthier countries.) The piece then assesses Trump’s rise: “At the beginning of the election, Trump, a rich, narcissist and inflammatory candidate, [sic] was only treated as an underdog. His job was basically to act as a clown to attract more voters’ attention to the GOP. However, knocking down most other promising candidates, the clown is now the biggest dark horse…. Despite candidates’ promises, Americans know elections cannot really change their lives. Then, why not support Trump and vent their spleen?” The op-ed then assesses what this means for democracy in America: “The rise of a racist in the US political arena worries the whole world. Usually, the tempo of the evolution of US politics can be predicted, while Trump’s ascent indicates all possibilities and unpredictability. He has even been called another Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler by some Western media. Mussolini and Hitler came to power through elections, a heavy lesson for Western democracy.”
When debating and formulating American foreign policy, observers, scholars and practitioners devote an enormous about of energy and attention to efforts to understand the beliefs and actions of other countries. We focus on questions like: why would Iran pursue a nuclear weapon? Will the United Kingdom leave the Euro zone? Is Kim Jong-Un going to invade South Korea within the next year? Most of us rarely, however, think about how other countries perceive our own country and its political system, and how these perceptions might influence policies towards us. Did you know, for example, that international polls reveal that the rest of the world considers the United States to be the greatest threat to world peace? This really shouldn’t be surprising given how many countries the United States has invaded, attacked, or bombed over the last fifteen years, but we rarely think of ourselves in these terms.
The Global Times op-ed closes with a warning: “The US had better watch itself for not being a source of destructive forces against world peace, more than pointing fingers at other countries for their so-called nationalism and tyranny.” Indeed, the United States often tells other countries how to run their domestic politics, and sometimes it even invades other countries to make them free for democracy. One of the biggest points of irritation in the US-China relationship in recent years has been the United States’ finger-wagging insistence that China must clean up its act on human rights and treat its ethnic minorities with more respect. Watching the rise of Donald Trump—a rich, racist, misogynistic narcissist (fascist?) who seems poised to seize the presidential nomination from one of America’s two major political parties—it is not difficult to see why China and other outside observers might find it difficult to tolerate such a scolding from the United States.
 In case you’re wondering, the United States received 24 percent of the vote, with Pakistan garnering a distant 8 percent and China 6 percent. Americans, by contrast, ranked Iran the top threat.
Cheap Threats Has Arrived
It’s here! My first book, Cheap Threats: Why the United States Struggles to Coerce Weak States is now available for purchase through Georgetown University Press and Amazon. The book focuses on the following puzzle: The United States has the world’s most powerful military and has demonstrated a willingness to use its military power on many occasions (in fact, the book demonstrates that the United States always follows through on its compellent threats). Why, then, would a small, weak state choose not to comply when the United States threatens it with military force to try to convince it to change its behavior? In other words, when the United States says to a weak state, “admit weapons inspectors to your nuclear facilities or we will bomb you,” why would this state choose to resist?
In Cheap Threats, I draw on game theoretic logic about costly signaling to argue that target states resist compellent threats issued by the United States when these threats are cheap to issue and to execute. I demonstrate that the United States has developed a method of war-fighting that limits the costs (human, financial, and political) of employing military force, and thus the threat to employ force is not a convincing signal that the United States is highly motivated to exact compliance from the targeted state. In other words, targets resist in the face of threats that are relatively cheap to execute because the cheapness of the force does not signal that the United States is highly motivated. A target expects that the United States will carry out the threatened action and then give up as the costs of continuing to coerce the target state become too high.
How can I argue that the use of force is cheap for the country with the world’s most expensive defense establishment? Cheap Threats demonstrates that the United States now has a model of warfare that relies on an all-volunteer military (no politically costly conscripts to send overseas) supplemented by private contractors who rely on advanced technology to attack targets from a distance (precision air power and drones, for example), and that we pay for our wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) with deficit spending. We have effectively insulated the vast majority of the American public from the costs of employing force, and we even shield our own soldiers from many of these costs by opting for “standoff strike” operations like we saw with the 2011 Libya intervention, which was conducted entirely from the skies.
To make the case for my theory, I evaluate an original dataset of compellent threats in all international crises in which the United States was involved from 1945-2007. I also examine in detail four prominent cases in which the United States employed threats to coerce an adversary: the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1991 Gulf War, the 2003 War against Iraq, and the 2011 Libya intervention. The Iraq chapters draw on new caches of documents and recordings seized after the 2003 invasion of Iraq to probe Saddam Hussein’s decision making (spoiler alert: he’s not as crazy as you might have thought!), and the Libya chapter traces the course of the U.S. decision to intervene and Qaddafi’s continued resistance. I also take a look at many competing arguments about threat effectiveness. I find, for example, no support for the argument that states determine whether to comply with threats based on the United States’ reputation for acting in past crises. In other words, the United States does not need to take action simply for the purpose of reinforcing a reputation for toughness.
Need more convincing? Read reviews of the book and see a list of contents here.
 A “compellent threat” involves the use of a threat of military force to convince a targeted state to change its current behavior. A “deterrent threat,” on the other hand, is a threat intended to prevent future behavior (nuclear deterrence would fall into this general category). Cheap Threats focuses only on compellent threats.
 The book explains why the costs that the United States incurs when issuing and executing threats, not those incurred by the target, make a threat effective in changing a target’s behavior.
Evaluating Clinton’s Experience: The 2011 Libya Intervention
The front page of Sunday’s New York Times was dominated by a lengthy article (the first of two) about Hillary Clinton’s role in the 2011 decision to intervene in Libya. “As she once again seeks the White House, campaigning in part on her experience as the nation’s chief diplomat, an examination of the intervention she championed shows her at what was arguably her moment of greatest influence as secretary of state. It is a working portrait rich with evidence of what kind of president she might be.” Indeed, there is no case more important if we want to understand how Clinton would conduct her foreign policy if elected President, aside from her decision to vote in favor of the 2003 Iraq War.
If you haven’t read the piece, I encourage you to do so. It paints a fairly accurate picture of how the United States decided to intervene in Libya: very hastily, without a clear understanding of the conflict on the ground, at the urging of European allies, and with Clinton’s support playing a pivotal role in pushing for the intervention. Robert Gates (then Secretary of Defense) claimed that Clinton’s support tipped the vote “51-49” in favor of the intervention and was a key factor in overcoming President Obama’s hesitation about the operation.
It just so happens that I wrote an entire chapter on the Libya intervention in my new book, Cheap Threats. The Times’ description of the run-up to the intervention is fairly accurate, but it makes some glaring omissions: there was no convincing evidence that the impending massacre of civilians in rebel-held Benghazi, which was used as the pretext for the UN resolution and the launch of the no-fly zone, would have occurred. Political scientist Alan Kuperman wrote an extremely important and convincing article for Foreign Affairs making exactly this argument. Leaving that issue aside, the intervention was initially sold to the US public as necessary to protect Libyan civilians. But in the aftermath of Qaddafi’s overthrow, we did absolutely nothing to stop the rebel forces from liquidating entire villages of people that had been loyal to Qaddafi’s regime, or to stop the competing factions from seizing and destroying Libyan infrastructure. (It’s not surprising that this gets little attention from the Times given that it and most American media outlets devoted very little coverage to the violence that unfolded on the ground in Libya after Qaddafi’s overthrow—one had to look to European and Middle Eastern news outlets for this information after America’s attention went elsewhere. I await the second installment in the series to see whether these omissions will be rectified.) Even more ridiculous in the context of this “we must save Libyans” crusade is the fact that, around this time in early 2011, Bahrain was actually mowing down protesters in the street, not simply threatening to do so, but we never debated intervening in Bahrain because we have important military bases there. The point is not that we should have sent more force to pacify Libya (or Bahrain)—the point is that we could have and should have foreseen that our interference would destabilize both the country and the surrounding region.
It is clear from the article and from Clinton’s insistence that she wants to put boots on the ground to expand the campaign against IS in Syria, however, that the lesson she took away from the 2011 Libya intervention is not that we should have stayed out of it, but that we should have done more. In the summer of 2011, when rebel forces were gaining the upper hand against Qaddafi, she praised the intervention as a model of “smart power”: “This is exactly the kind of world that I want to see where it’s not just the United States and everybody is standing on the sidelines while we bear the cost, while we bear the sacrifice.”
Except that we didn’t really sacrifice anything to make that intervention happen (other than the stability of North Africa). This is exactly the point I make in my book: the 2011 Libya intervention is a prime example of how the United States has developed a model for the use of military force that relies on precise, standoff strike technologies to minimize the human and political costs of using force—with the result that we have actually undermined our ability to wield force effectively. The Libya intervention was conducted entirely from the air and involved the extensive use of drones. Furthermore, the Obama administration asserted that it did not need Congressional approval for the operation because it was so limited—the lack of boots on the ground meant that it did not “count” as a war and thus it did not need Congressional approval. This is very troubling: once the Executive has asserted a right to a particular power in foreign policy, it is unlikely to be taken away. The next President can point to the Obama administration’s assertions to justify all manner of international action without the need for Congressional oversight.
Reading between the lines of the article, Clinton comes across as anything but “experienced” in this case: she rushed to push intervention in the face of very limited and conflicting intelligence about the situation on the ground in Libya, she allowed herself to be swayed about the coherence of Libya’s opposition by a very small number of men claiming to represent this opposition (recalling how the George W. Bush administration allowed itself to be duped by a single human source who fabricated information about the Iraqi regime in the run-up to war in 2003), and she pushed (despite objections from military officials and members of the State Department) to funnel arms to the fractured Libyan opposition—arms that are now in the hands of al Qaeda and IS and helping to sustain insurgencies across North Africa. Make no mistake: this intervention was a disaster and one whose consequences we will continue to suffer in the coming years—if not the coming decades. It was a disaster not because we didn’t send enough forces to get the job done, but because we never should have gotten involved in the first place.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, then director of policy planning at the State Department, described exactly what type of president Clinton would be: “when the choice is between action and inaction, and you’ve got risks in either direction, which you often do, she’d rather be caught trying.” How many Iraqs and Libyas are we going to “try” before we learn that regime change is a foolhardy endeavor that inflicts massive suffering on civilian populations (regardless of how precise our weapons are) and unleashes far-reaching consequences over which we have limited control?
 Alan J. Kuperman, “Obama’s Libya Debacle: How a Well-Meaning Intervention Ended in Failure,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2015).
 Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was a major proponent of intervention in 2011, admits that “We did not try to protect civilians on Qaddafi’s side,” but the article does not follow up on this reality.
 A term totally devoid of meaning, despite its buzzword status around the Beltway.