If you have been following the blog for the past few months, you will know that I have been thinking a lot about accountability and sacrifice in the context of the United States’ current wars. Donald Trump recently drew fire for (among other things) comparing the sacrifices that he has made in the last fifteen years to the loss of a young Army Captain killed in Iraq in 2004. Trump’s comments may have been distasteful, but the truth is that the vast majority of Americans have not sacrificed anything in service of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, either. I have a new article at the National Interest exploring the implications of this fact for America’s foreign policy and for American democracy available here.
I am currently working on an article about the role of reputation in international politics—that is, how a state’s reputation for action (or inaction) affects its ability to get what it wants from other states. We are often told that the United States must act in a certain situation to preserve its “credibility” for future crises. The Vietnam War was frequently justified along these grounds: if the United States did not uphold its commitment to South Vietnam, then the Soviet Union would not take its threats and promises seriously in other cases. More recently, President Obama was criticized for not taking action against Syria after chemical weapons were used against civilians in the summer of 2013. Critics argued that the failure to take action against the Assad regime emboldened Putin to invade Ukraine. According to Marc Thiessen, “Putin believes there will be no real costs for his intervention in Ukraine because there were no costs in Syria.” My work on compellent threats demonstrates that reputation does not actually operate in this way, and I hope to be able to point you to the finished article soon.
In the meantime, however, I can point you to a fascinating article on this topic that ran in The Atlantic in March. One of the biggest challenges we face when studying the use of threats in international politics is assessing why a particular threat works (or doesn’t) to influence a state’s behavior. This is especially tricky in the case of deterrence, in which one state issues a threat to persuade an adversary not to undertake a particular course of action. How can we tell that the threat has worked? If we observe that the adversary chooses not to undertake the proscribed action, that could mean that the threat was effective in influencing the target’s behavior—or it could mean that the target never intended to take the prohibited action in the first place, and thus the threat didn’t actually change the target’s behavior. To be really sure that the threat had influenced the target, we would want to know exactly how the decision makers in the target state assessed the threat and whether it caused them to change their state’s policies as a result. We might want to interview the targeted leader, for example, but it is likely to be nearly impossible for a researcher to get such access. Even if we could interview the targeted leader, she may have strong incentives not to admit that a threat influenced the state’s behavior—otherwise she may look weak to her political rivals and to regional adversaries. We might be able to rely on documents or memoirs published long after a particular crisis has passed, but this doesn’t help us much in the short term (and nor can we be certain that memoirs are accurate or that we have access to all the relevant documents).
In other words, it is extremely difficult to determine whether and to what extent a threat influences another state’s behavior. Often we must settle for observing a state’s behavior as an imperfect measure of threat effectiveness. To get back to that article I mentioned: Julia Ioffe interviewed several individuals with access to Vladimir Putin about how he interpreted the United States’ decision not to take action against the Assad regime in 2013. She asked whether Obama’s decision not to use force after the chemical weapons attack encouraged Putin to invade Ukraine. The overwhelming response: absolutely not. “No one sees Obama as a weak president, and no one saw that moment as a moment of weakness” according to Igor Korotchenko. “You shouldn’t think of Putin as such a primitive guy. It’s totally clear that the Syrian and Ukrainian crises had nothing to do with one another,” said Fyodor Lukyanov.
This article provides rare and fascinating insight into the mind of one of the United States’ adversaries. No, it is not an interview with Putin himself, but it is about as close as we can get under the circumstances. The view from Moscow is that the United States’ inaction in Syria in 2013 had absolutely nothing to do with the decision to invade Ukraine and that bombing Syria would not have convinced Putin to refrain from acting. Arguments about reputation and credibility have some intuitive appeal, but they do not stand up to scrutiny.
In the midst of the furor about Donald Trump’s various remarks last week, you may have missed the fact that the United States launched air strikes against Libya starting on August 1. (One of the most unfortunate features of our presidential election cycle is the staggering amount of time and attention that it steals from governing, both in terms of actual policy making and media coverage of the governing that actually does take place in the midst of this electoral circus.) The air strikes will be part of a “sustained operation” to help forces loyal to the (current) Libyan government make a decisive advance on the coastal city of Sirte, which has been the site of fighting between IS and government forces for several weeks.
The United States has launched air strikes against Libya a few times since the 2011 intervention that eliminated Qaddafi and his regime. This is the first time, however, that the strikes are being touted as part of a “sustained operation” there. According to public reports, American special operations forces have been advising fighters on the ground in Libya since December. It is unclear whether they are still there and if so how many, but U.S. ground forces are not openly participating in the battle for Sirte. This also constitutes the first time that the United States has openly chosen to back a side (the Government of National Accord or GNA) in what is effectively a Libyan civil war. There are hundreds of rival militias currently fighting for control of Libya and for the opportunity to be the western-backed force that will defeat IS. Even if a temporary attack on IS in Sirte succeeds (a big “if”), it is not clear how this strategy will help to unify the rest of the country. If this operation succeeds, will the United States then help the GNA to wipe out the various factions that do not recognize its authority?
I have written about U.S. policy in Libya many times, both in my book and on this site. I wish I were surprised that the United States has chosen to go down this path again, given the fact that we created the chaos that we are now trying to contain. IS was able find refuge in Libya because the 2011 NATO intervention eliminated the government and showered munitions on the population without any plan for the aftermath. Obama has recently claimed that this failure to plan for the aftermath in Libya was the “worst mistake” of his presidency. Despite this admission, Obama continues to conduct his foreign policy in a way that makes little strategic sense: he has consistently stated that he wants the United States to withdraw from the Middle East, but he has also launched limited strikes against various targets that can at best temporarily quash one problem while generating three more, with 2011 Libya as the classic example.
This unwillingness to plan for a longer occupation is actually part of the plan, because Obama explicitly wants to avoid committing American ground troops to another endless occupation in the Middle East. And therein lies the fundamental flaw with the so-called “Obama Doctrine”: using force in this relatively cheap, limited manner will not generate stable political outcomes. It can (and most likely will) make the situation worse in ways we cannot foresee right now, but it will not make things better over the long run and it will commit American forces to another conflict at a time when we are incapable of terminating any of our rapidly multiplying international commitments.
Someone who is notably not admitting that the Libya intervention was a colossal mistake is the American perhaps most responsible for orchestrating it: Hillary Clinton. Will the next President have a more sensible strategy for American involvement in the Middle East in general and Libya in particular? I am sorry to say that all the evidence currently points to “no.”
 I can’t say I disagree, although I would also rank the fruitless troop surge in Afghanistan among the worst of his major policy decisions, and the combination of the dozens of bad decisions embodied in the drone campaign should also rank alongside these major errors.
In her first major parliamentary appearance since assuming the role of British Prime Minister, Theresa May recently won a vote to renew Britain’s commitment to nuclear weapons. The British parliament voted on July 18 to replace Britain’s aging fleet of nuclear-equipped submarines, and this vote is being viewed as an effort to cement the United Kingdom’s status as a major player in international politics in the wake of the recent vote to exit the European Union. May asserted that it was time for the UK to be “stepping up” to meet its responsibilities to NATO and to meet threats to Britain’s security head-on. Given the possibility of increased nuclear threats in the future, “it would be an act of gross irresponsibility to lose the ability to meet such threats by discarding the ultimate insurance against those risks in the future.” The vote to renew the submarine program also highlighted strains within the UK. The Trident force is based in Scotland, but the Scottish population widely opposes the nuclear program and has threatened to hold another referendum on independence in the wake of the Brexit vote. It is not clear where the Trident force would go if the Scots do vote for independence.
The Trident submarines have been Britain’s only nuclear weapons force since 1998, and one is always at sea ready to launch a weapon if necessary. The nuclear-equipped submarine fleet is considered the ultimate nuclear deterrent: capable of staying at sea continuously, they are nearly impossible to detect and track and thus they grant near perfect certainty that one would be able to retaliate against a nuclear attack on one’s homeland. One of May’s first acts as Prime Minister would have been to write a letter outlining the conditions under which the commanders of Trident submarines on patrol would be authorized to retaliate with nuclear weapons in the event of a nuclear attack on the United Kingdom that rendered the British government unable to make the decision. Every new Prime Minister writes such a letter and it is destroyed when the individual leaves office.
Does the possession of nuclear weapons signify great power status? Maybe it did at one time—back in the Cold War when the US, UK, France, China and Soviet Union were the only states that possessed these weapons. Now, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel also wield these weapons without obvious great-power status. As Ian Jack points out, the UK is largely dependent on help from the United States to construct its Trident submarine force. Why could the UK not simply rely on its American ally to provide a nuclear deterrent, especially given the high cost of building and maintaining this program? Does Britain truly view these weapons as necessary for its survival, or is it about clinging to the United Kingdom’s status as a major player on the international stage? In other words, in the twenty-first century, do nuclear weapons serve any useful strategic purpose or do they function mainly as symbols?