The Credibility Myth

One of the most frequent critiques leveled at President Obama is that he has diminished the United States’ international “credibility.”  For example, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has argued that Obama’s decision not to bomb Syria after the use of chemical weapons there in 2013 damaged U.S. credibility.  These critics argue that the United States must follow through on its commitments today so that its threats will be credible (and thus effective) tomorrow.

I have a new article published today at War on the Rocks explaining why these arguments about America’s credibility and reputation are misguided.  You can read the article here.

America’s Reputation: Syria and Ukraine

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.

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[1] 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.[2] (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”[3]: “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?



[1] Alan J. Kuperman, “Obama’s Libya Debacle: How a Well-Meaning Intervention Ended in Failure,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2015).

[2] 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.

[3] A term totally devoid of meaning, despite its buzzword status around the Beltway.

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?

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.


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.

Wishful Thinking: Russia and Ukraine

George Soros had an article about Ukraine in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books[1] that captured many of the dominant attitudes about Russia’s foreign policy and what we should do about it. His main argument is that the EU should be funneling a lot of money to the Ukrainian regime to allow it to resist the forces of evil from within and without, and that we should maintain and if necessary increase economic sanctions on Russia to (punish? deter?) aggression.

The article captures the zeitgeist on Russia and Ukraine, and it presents us with many opportunities for discussion, not the least of which is that rich people should probably not assume that they are masters of all disciplines simply because they are very good at one thing. But that’s a discussion for another time.

The two most important issues I see with this argument are: 1. We really have no idea how to “funnel money” to other countries to make them pursue the particular economic and political pathways we want.[2] If we knew how to do that, pretty much every country in the developing world would have an open, functioning economy and thriving democracy. 2. Economic sanctions rarely, if ever, work to achieve political outcomes, and when they do, they work best against relatively small and isolated states. There’s plenty of research on this in political science, and plenty available in the realm of common sense if you stop and think about it: probably the most effective sanctions regime in place today (“effective” if we’re talking simply about actually stopping the flow of goods and services to a country) is the one against North Korea (and even that’s not perfect), and that hasn’t worked so far; decades of sanctions did not dislodge the Castro regime in Cuba; and I could go on, but I suspect I would lose you, dear reader. I was dismayed when the United States slapped sanctions on Russia in response to the incursion into Crimea and more recent fighting in Ukraine. They really don’t work very often as instruments of foreign policy, but they like drone strikes at least allow the administration to appear to “do something” in the face of behavior it finds unacceptable. I’m also puzzled about why Soros argues that falling oil revenues in Russia are evidence that current sanctions are “biting,” when everyone knows global oil prices are in the toilet.

For me, Soros’s argument about Ukraine also highlights the difference between policy and political science. Political science is (at least in theory) a discipline[3] whose practitioners apply consistent theoretical frameworks to understand the world around them and to develop recommendations for how to respond to the world. Policymakers do not have to apply these consistent frameworks to their thinking, and it is glaringly obvious that they do not. Soros’s piece, for example, berates the EU for its shoddy management of the recent debt crisis in Greece (an EU member state), but his main recommendation is for the EU start shoveling (more) money towards a non-EU state. How exactly is that going to happen given the incentives that prevented the EU from providing a timely and generous bailout for one of its own members?

At its core, Soros’s piece is also based on the assumption that Russia is inherently aggressive and that its advance must be halted lest all of Europe (and eventually the United States) fall to communism. No, wait—not communism, because the Cold War is over, right? Indeed this piece smacks of orthodox Cold War reasoning. There’s no evidence that Russia and/or Putin have grand designs about taking over the world. Russia is a state with a faltering oil-based economy trying to make limited territorial gains it views as essential to its own security. “But they’re intervening in Syria!” you say? So is France! So are we! So is Saudi Arabia, which has been funneling money and arms into the region for years! Why aren’t we getting all wound up about Saudi Arabia’s efforts to dominate the Middle East, but we think Russia’s behavior is evidence of a plan to take over the world?

I’m not really doing justice to Russia here, I admit—I’ll take up the issue of Russia’s foreign policy behavior and why we should stop acting as if a New Cold War and/or WWIII is dawning in a future post. For now, let me say that Soros’s recommendations for Ukraine are founded on nothing more than wishful thinking and a weird nostalgia for Cold War-era resistance to Russian “aggression.” The “loss” of Ukraine (to what? The dark side?) will not lead to a “failed state,” nor would “saving” it lead to some magical transformation in European politics or a change in Russia’s behavior.


[1] “Ukraine and Europe: What Should Be Done?” New York Review of Books, vol. LXII, no. 15 (October 8, 2015).

[2] Unless we’re talking about funneling money to an established dictator to maintain his/her hold on power—there’s been some success with that in the past.

[3] I’ll admit that here I’m talking about international relations as a field within political science; this is distinct from “international relations” as a multidisciplinary field or degree in which students study economics, political science, languages, etc.

Banner Image: Imperial War Museum, London

The image currently serving as the blog’s banner comes from the following photograph taken by my husband Robert P. Chamberlain:
DSC_0743The two signs that feature in the banner are part of a larger assembly of signs that stood at various “no-man’s-land” locations during World War I.  They featured in a special exhibit on the Great War at the Imperial War Museum in London, UK, in the summer of 2014 to mark one hundred years since the start of the war.  I visited the museum that summer as part of a research trip to the British national archives in service of my current project on British and French decision making in the Second World War.

This past March, I travelled to Paris, France, to visit the National Archives and the archives of the Foreign Ministry for the same project.  As part of the trip, my husband and I visited the Musée de l’Armée at les Invalides (better known to school tour groups as the site of Napoleon I’s tomb).  We spent a considerable amount of time at the “Two World Wars” exhibit, which focused on the French experience.

What was most interesting about the French exhibit was that it covered the period 1871-1945.  That is, for the French, the history of the world wars begins with the French defeat in 1871 in the Franco-Prussian War.  The British exhibit at the Imperial War Museum begins, as one might expect, with the events in the summer of 1914.  The contrast between the two approaches to the same conflict prompted me to think about the very different ways in which different countries can understand the same events, and the way in which those events can come to have very different meanings in the context of different national cultures.  I think about the American impression of the world wars (and what I was taught in high school history courses):  we have a vague belief that the United States swooped in to win the First World War for the good guys, and a much stronger sense of our “Saving Private Ryan,” guardian-of-freedom triumph in the Second World War.  This is not to diminish the United States’ contribution to either of those conflicts, but I doubt that the average American knows that the vast majority of German soldiers killed in WWII died fighting Soviet forces on the Eastern Front or that the French lost more than 10 times as many military dead as did the United States in absolute terms during the First World War.  I had never even heard of the Franco-Prussian War before graduate school.

The exhibits I visited over the past two years suggest that the British and French see the world wars as intimately connected, and the French view the 1871 conflict as intrinsically tied to the other two; I think the United States tends to view the two world wars as relatively disconnected events that happened “over there” in the first half of the twentieth century.  Differences in national memory and national legend can, I think, affect the ways in which we perceive both past and current events in international politics.

In other news, the United States has decided to suspend the program for training Syrian rebels; instead, we are going to be identifying appropriate indigenous forces to give American equipment.  The New York Times notes that, “failure on the battlefield or the loss of weapons that could fall into the hands of extremists could result in a cutoff of military equipment, officials said.”  Well as long as we’ll be cutting off additional transfers of weapons after the equipment has fallen into the hands of extremists, what could go wrong?

Peace or Justice in Syria?

Let’s follow up on last week’s post about the conflict in Syria. I briefly discussed France’s decision to launch air strikes against IS targets; the following day, we learned that Russia has entered the fray and begun bombing Syria, too. Predictably, the US reaction has been quite negative. The Pentagon asserted that the strategy was “doomed to failure.” There also seems to be some confusion over whether the Russian strikes are targeting IS specifically or anti-Assad forces in general. The New York Times reported on October 1 that Russia’s targets included at least one of the rebel groups trained by the CIA (remember them from our discussion last week?). American officials maintain that the strikes targeted rebel groups fighting government forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a longtime Russian ally.

The negative reaction from the United States is no surprise—after all, we want to be the only ones running around bombing the bad guys whenever we feel like it. And apparently we think that funneling hundreds of millions of dollars in arms and military training into the conflict (the U.S. plan to date) is acceptable, but directly and openly using force to influence the outcome of the conflict is not.

But I digress. John Kerry has said that the United States is open to working with Russia on ending the conflict, but only “under amenable terms,” which presumably means some type of negotiated settlement preferred by the United States.  I am reminded of one of my favorite pieces by Richard K. Betts, “The Delusion of Impartial Intervention.”[1] It was written during the Balkan crises of the 1990s, but it is as relevant today as it was then. Betts argues that, although justice and peace are desirable, they don’t always coincide. If your primary goal is peace, i.e., an end to violence, you may have to accept a peace that is imperfect from the standpoint of justice; conversely, the pursuit of justice and fairness can hinder efforts to end violent conflict. It might offend our sensibilities, but if our primary goal is ending violence, then we should back the stronger side in the conflict and enable it to defeat the weaker.  What usually happens, however, is that we intervene on the side of the weak, which prolongs the fighting unless the intervention is backed with enough force that it can overwhelm the capabilities of all the belligerents.

This may shock and offend the well-informed American reader, in part because much of the rhetoric attached to American foreign policy these days asserts that the United States is omnipotent and should be able to impose its will on any and all outcomes in international politics. This in turn leads us to expect that we should be able to force a “just” solution to the fighting in Syria. Given the amount of resources the United States is willing to commit (and I think we have already committed too many), the truth is that we are long past the point where we can achieve both peace and justice in Syria. Given a choice between the two, the more humane option and the one most likely to minimize the total suffering of the Syrian people may be to seek peace, even a peace that is imperfect and unjust. Assad is a nasty guy and his regime has done some terrible things (and probably will again), but facilitating “regime change” there would leave us with a power vacuum and no end to IS atrocities. Russia’s effort to reinforce Assad’s power and to help him wipe out opposition forces may not fit neatly with our ideals, but the alternative—a continuation to the violence and/or capture of the state apparatus by IS forces—would probably be worse.

[1] Foreign Affairs 73, no. 6 (Nov/Dec 1994): 20-33.