Tag: Syria (page 2 of 5)

Obama's "Lack" of Strategy Towards ISIS

The last two days have seen a maelstrom of media attention to President Obama’s admission that he currently does not have a strategy for attacking or containing ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) in Syria.   It is no surprise that those on the right criticized Obama’s candid remarks, and it is equally not surprising that the left is attempting some sort of damage control, noting that perhaps the “no strategy” comment is really Obama holding his cards close to his chest.   What seems to be missing from any of the discussion is what exactly he meant by “strategy,” and moreover, the difficult question of the end he would be seeking.

Let’s take the easy part first. Strategy, at least for the military, has a very particular meaning. It is about ends, ways and means of a military character. Indeed, strategy, as distinct from operational planning and tactics, is about the overall end state of a war (or “limited” war).   The strategic goal, therefore, is about the desired state of affairs post bellum. It requires that one ask: What is it that I want to achieve? How would I get there through the use of force? “Strategy” is not tantamount to “planning,” and for the strategist, ought to be reserved for strictly military activities.

Once one identifies the desired end, one must then take this goal and break it down into more manageable pieces through another two levels: operations and tactics. The operational level concerns the middle term: it something beyond a particular tactic (say aerial bombardment of an enemy’s rear line), to something broader, say a collection of missions. All the operations ought to be directed toward some particular portion of the overall strategy.   At each level a commander is issued a set of commands, and each commander then takes her orders and operationalizes them into how she thinks to best achieve those orders (commander’s intent). She does so by consulting with a variety of reporting officers (weaponeers, logistics, lawyers, etc.) This is a hierarchical and a horizontal process, and it always feeds back upon itself to ensure those goals are in fact being achieved.   Or, at least, this is how the process ought to go.

It is, therefore, laudable that President Obama admitted that he does not yet have a strategy for dealing with ISIS in Syria. Why? Because, the desired “end goal,” of which any strategy necessarily requires, is not yet clear. Does the US want to “defeat” ISIS? Surely that is part of the equation, as Secretary of State Kerry called it a “cancer.”   Yet there is more to this tale than merely quashing a group of radicalized, well-organized and heavily armed nonstate actors.  The US military power could do this relatively quickly, if it desired to do so.   But this would not “defeat” ISIS in the way of seeking a better peace or achieving one’s end goal. For taking it out does not entail that justice and harmony will prevail.

This brings us to the second and more difficult question: What is the desired end goal? While I am not privy to the Commander-in-Chief’s thought processes, nor am I present with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in their briefings to the President, but as a student of strategy and an observer and academic, it appears to me that the President has not adequately formulated what this end goal ought to be yet. If one truly desires that ISIS is “defeated” this will take more than air strikes, it will take more than (whoever’s) boots on the ground.   It will take establishing the rule of law, providing for basic needs, such as food, security and water, as well as jobs, education, and infrastructure. For ISIS is not a traditional “enemy,” it is a monster made from the blood, havoc, insecurity and fear that have ruled Syria for three years. This new crisis over ISIS does not come from nowhere: over three million Syrians are refugees; over six million are internally displaced; and almost two hundred thousand have died. Bashar al-Assad’s crimes against humanity and war crimes provided the incubator for ISIS. Moreover, the world’s—not just the US’s—failure to do anything to protect the Syrian people and respond to Mr. Assad’s crimes generated an expanse for ISIS to grow and consolidate. That the international community manifestly failed in its responsibility to protect the Syrian people is obvious, and it is equally obvious that one cannot ignore a crisis and think it will just go away.

Recall that at the very beginnings of the Syrian crisis, up until the (in)famous “red line” of chemical weapons, the US could not garner support from its allies or from its own people. The geopolitical situation then, while heavily dictated by Iran and Russia, is not much different. To be sure, Russia is clearly on its own dangerous course in Ukraine, and Iran has ISIS in its backyard, but there is no upwelling of international support to this cause.

Secretary of State Kerry’s op-ed in the New York Times calls for a “global coalition” to fight ISIS. Whether he realizes that this threat is not just about ISIS, that ISIS is merely a Golgothan of the Syrian civil war, is yet to be seen. To actually “defeat” ISIS is to remove the need for ISIS. ISIS has merely filled a Hobbesian vacuum where:

“The notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have there no place [in a state of nature]. Where there is no common Power, there is no Law; where no Law, no Injustice. Force and Fraud, are in warre, the two Cardinal Vertues. Justice, and Injustice are none of the Faculties neither of the Body, nor Mind. […] They are Qualities, that relate to men in Society, not in Solitude” (Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter 13, para. 63.)

Yet if we view the fight against ISIS beyond the mere military victory, it is a fight against ideology, insecurity, and fear. Indeed it does require a global coalition, but one directed towards the establishment of peace and security in the Middle East – and beyond – and the protection of human rights and the rule of law. In this, it requires states to look beyond their immediate self-interests. Therefore, I am actually happy to see the President give pause. For maybe, just maybe, he too sees that the problem is larger than dropping tons of ordinance on an already destroyed nation. Maybe, just maybe, he sees that ISIS can only be defeated through broader cosmopolitan principles of justice.   If this is too tall an order, then he must tread very carefully while formulating his restricted and “limited” strategy.

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Wednesday Linkage

Editor’s note: this post originally appeared on my personal blog. It contains some links to posts that appeared here at the Duck.

1. An interview with Jim Fearon about Ukraine. Lots of good stuff here, both about Ukraine and in general. As you’d expect.

2b. Some thoughts from Branislav Slantchev about Russia’s Cold War Syndrome. c. Anna Pechenkina reacts. d. Slantchev responds.

3. Still want to read more about Ukraine? Okay, check out Taylor Marvin on why it doesn’t make much sense to use force in Syria in order to signal resolve. I agree. Using force in one crisis to influence perceptions about your willingness to do so elsewhere may make sense under certain conditions, but the crises would have to be pretty similar. Unlike some, I’m not convinced that failing to poke out the eyeballs of someone who flipped you off will lead the world to think that you wouldn’t lift a finger to stop someone from beating your children to death with a baseball bat.

4. Also, check out this nice post by Anita Kellog on what the crisis does (or does not) tell us about the impact of economic interdependence. Key quote: “In 2012 total trade with Russia (imports and exports) accounted for 26% of Ukraine’s economic activities, whereas this trade accounted for only 2% of Russia’s GDP.”

5. Assad announces bid for reelection. He’s, um, expected to win.

6. A call for partition of Central African Republic. Key quote: “‘The partition itself has already been done. Now there only remains the declaration of independence,’ said Abdel Nasser Mahamat Youssouf, member of a youth group lobbying for the secession of the north, as he pointed to the flag of what he said would be a secular republic.”

7. This isn’t everything you need to know about Israel and Palestine, the title notwithstanding, but it’s still a nice resource. Fairly comprehensive, but still concise. Worth assigning to students.

8. The Marshall Islands is suing the world’s nuclear powers (h/t Holly Gerrity). Key quote: “While the suit seems unlikely to end in any country being compelled to disarm, it will at the very least highlight the fact that while existing nuclear powers frequently invoke international law to argue for why countries like Iran shouldn’t have nuclear weapons, they tend to gloss over the other part of the deal—that they will work to fully eliminate their own arsenals.”

9. A trade spat between the US and Mexico over sugar (h/t Rebecca Johnson). Key quote: “John W. Bode, the president of the Corn Refiners Association, ‘The political influence of the US sugar industry is legendary…. They may be only 4 percent of US agriculture but when you look at political contributions, they account for a third.'”

10. Writing a great abstract (h/t Brent Sasley). A lot of good advice. Key quote: “The ideal abstract…has three parts. 1. statement of the area of concern or disputation 2. statement of the thesis or argument 3. implications for further research.”

11. Interview with GRRM. The whole thing is worth reading, but I found this quote to be of particular interest: “The war that Tolkien wrote about was a war for the fate of civilization and the future of humanity, and that’s become the template. I’m not sure that it’s a good template, though. The Tolkien model led generations of fantasy writers to produce these endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes. But the vast majority of wars throughout history are not like that. World War I is much more typical of the wars of history than World War II – the kind of war you look back afterward and say, ‘What the hell were we fighting for? Why did all these millions of people have to die? Was it really worth it to get rid of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that we wiped out an entire generation, and tore up half the continent? Was the War of 1812 worth fighting? The Spanish-American War? What the hell were these people fighting for?'”

11. John Oliver on India’s election.

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Public Opinion in the Midst of the Syrian Civil War

I have been an admirer of Sam Whitt’s work for some time.  He has always done interesting research, being one of the first to study and publish on Katrina and run surveys/experiments on divided post conflict societies.   Whitt and his colleague Vera Mironova, conducted a survey of civilians and rebels in Syria during the Civil War.  assad duck

This fascinating study points out many problems and issues the international community will face as it tries to push for a peaceful solution to the Syrian Civil War.  Moving beyond the civil-military gap and also the more modern socio-military gap, Mironova and Whitt identify what might be called the civilian-rebel gap.  In Syria, most rebels are focused on revenge and removing Assad from power while the civilians are tired of the fighting, starving, and want the conflict to end now.  These growing divisions are important to understand as the international community pushes for a solution to the violence.  Often scholars fail to investigate the within group preferences of a domestic population and avoid examining active war zones, Moronova and Whitt attempt to do both.

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Avoiding the Joint Security Trap (and Countering Conventional Wisdom)

Obama-Cameron

The diplomatic dustup over Syria brought Russia in from the cold but simultaneously froze any notion that western allies were getting their strategic act together. Nonetheless, although the mistakes in the U.S. and UK’s approach to building support at home and abroad for an intervention in Syria confused leaders and citizens alike, these mistakes should not be interpreted as an abrupt turn-around in their and their allies’ strategic thinking.

In fact the Europeans, even under a prolonged condition of austerity, are making progress filling in the capability gaps made clear in the course of the Libyan operation. Recent history has demonstrated that arguing the U.S. should keep its security blanket in place despite the end of the Cold War—out of fear that Europeans would not increase their own defense capabilities in kind—was mistaken. Still, austerity has prevented sufficient progress to avoid the joint security trap.

Were the Arab Awakening to go awry and were an al-Qaeda affiliate to begin setting up training camps and operating somewhere such as Yemen, the U.S. or possibly NATO would no doubt heed the call once more to deal with the threat.  But any future crisis in Europe’s direct neighborhood, somewhere like Tunisia, will require Europe to take the lead as the U.S. is likely to take a pass.  It is therefore in the joint interests of the U.S. and Europe not to reduce their mutual security at this critical juncture.

However Europe has yet to develop its own integrated, deployable, expeditionary military capability; instead a number of European allies à la the U.S. have been slashing their defense budgets under austerity.  But akin to the classic prisoner’s dilemma, if the U.S. and European allies do not coordinate their cuts and agree to begin “combining” what is left, both will become worse off and experience a mutual loss of security in lieu of cooperating.  In fact, at this juncture western allies are actually on the verge of becoming ensnared in the joint security trap. Continue reading

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Words of Mass Destruction in the Syria Debate

Note: This is a guest post by Ty Solomon, Lecturer at the University of Glasgow

Even though the war in Syria has been raging for the past two years, much of the global outrage that we now see has only erupted with the recent reports about Bashar al Assad’s government attacking civilians with chemical weapons.   Arguably, the past two long years of war has not provoked the same level of indignation as we are now seeing from world leaders and publics.  Why is it only now, with the use of chemical weapons – and not the use of “conventional” bombs and guns – have the US and UK governments seriously debated intervening?  The conflict has not necessarily taken a turn for the worse with the recent poison gas revelations.  By some accounts 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict before the chemical weapons attack, which itself is reported to have killed about 1,400 people  While indeed horrific, chemical weapons are not necessarily more deadly than “regular” bombs and guns.

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Cameron’s Respect for the House of Commons’ No Vote on Syria was a Good Day for Democracy

Jump to 1:13: It’s the best question asked during the GOP debates last year

Were any other Americans rather awestruck when David Cameron announced himself bound by the the House of Commons’ vote against attacking Syria last month? Wow. I found that so impressive – a due process binding executive war-making. Very nice. I am so used to strutting American presidents insisting that they can use force pretty much as they wish. Somehow the AUMF permitted Iraq and the drone war, and then came Obama’s insufferably condescending and monarchical comment in his Syria speech that even though he didn’t need Congress’ approval, he would deign to consult them anyway. Oh, how nice of you to remember the rest of us! Ech!

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The Scarcity of Politics in Cosmopolitan Theory: Part I

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Syria has raised several questions that pertain to morality, legality, and strategy in international relations.  Discussed extensively on the DuckOpinio Juris, The Monkey Cage, and elsewhere the situation in Syria has sparked a valuable debate on critical issues, both old and new. I would like to touch upon the implications of Syria for Cosmopolitanism. I think Syria has again highlighted the core dilemma of Cosmopolitan theory: the scarcity of politics. Protecting inalienable human rights requires applying normative cosmopolitan principles in practice. Application necessitates a departure from cosmopolitan normative theory towards cosmopolitan practice. And practice is inevitably political. Questions about when and how R2P applies, when intervention without Security Council authorization may be justified, and when a state looses its sovereign privileges when the government attacks its own people are about applied normativity. Cosmopolitan theory still offers relatively little on the politics of norm implementation.

At its, core, Cosmopolitanism asserts that there are “moral obligations owed to all human beings based solely on our humanity alone, without reference to race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, culture, religion, political affiliation, state citizenship, or other communal particularities (Brown and Held).”  Taking the inherent moral worth of the individual as its starting point, Legal Cosmopolitanism calls for the institutionalization of key cosmopolitan normative principles. Versions of Cosmopolitanism abound. I bracket these debates for the time being and recommend Catherine Lu’s article for a useful and critically-informed review. But there is consensus among scholars that honoring and protecting the individual is the core principle shared by Cosmopolitans of all stripes.

From Cicero to Kant, Pogge to Taylor, a lot has been said about the promises as well as perils of Legal Cosmopolitanism. But as As Garrett Wallace Brown notes in a recent article, we still have not moved “from cosmopolitan normative theory to cosmopolitan legal practice.” I think this is one reason why Cosmopolitanism seems to have little to say on the implementation of R2P. Thou shalt not kill may indeed be a universal norm. Yet how it is applied in practice by people and institutions varies. Shibley Telhami noted that the U.S. should not expect a “thank you” from the Arab world for intervening. This does not mean the Arab public opinion supports the use of chemical weapons on civilian populations. But it does suggest that the Arab world has a different understanding of how civilians need to be protected and criminal actions punished.

Cosmopolitan theory generally has a hard time tackling normativity in practice. It talks about our obligations towards global compatriots and calls for reforming existing international organizations to institutionalize cosmopolitan ideals. Yet it does not always tell us what our obligations are in practice and how they relate to our other moral duties, including those to the nation. It also gives us little policy guidance on institutional reform and on the role of the state in cosmopolitics. And the political implications of applied cosmopolitanism for democracy, moral diversity, and individual autonomy, to name a few important issues, sometimes remain unexplored. Of course, progress has been made and there is growing interest in applied global normativity. But I think IR scholars could offer additional insights that will inform theory and facilitate empirical research. I will sketch out some of my thoughts in Part II of this discussion. (Image source: https://criticalworld.net/cosmopolitanism/M. Roberts)

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How Could US Signals of Weakness bring Russia and Syria to the Table?

That’s essentially the question Steve Saideman asked here (and which he more explicitly asked on Twitter).

His answer, which I find problematic, is

But here is the big problem in all of this: perhaps much of IR is not about bargaining and persuasion about commitment and resolve. Perhaps much of IR is a conflict of interests, and that countries engage in conflict when their various interests cannot be resolved.

He goes on to say

The amateur game theorist might want to argue that this then is not chicken or prisoner’s dilemma but deadlock.  And they would probably be right–that much of what is important in IR is what shapes the preferences of the actors, which determines the game being played.  I guess my main point is that much of the time, we are not playing chicken, so perhaps Schelling’s insights might not be all that useful and could even be counter-productive.

Notice how Steve implicitly assumes that either Schelling is God or bargaining is irrelevant or even impossible. As Steve might say, if he found himself on the other side of the discussion, “Holy mother of false dichotomies, Batman!  Time for some perspective sauce!”

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Russia: Peacemaker

duck russia

There is an ongoing debate questioning if and how reputation matters in International Relations. The question is important right now in relation to the red line the United States setup regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria. I am not sure how reputation can matter if Russia is being held up as the mediator in striking a deal with Syria, Russia, and the West.
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Obama’s Dienbienphu Moment?

eisenhower

We have a pretty good literature on how presidents use and manipulate their information and propaganda advantages to move public opinion toward their positions on the use of force.  Both bottom –up, rational public arguments and top-down elite cueing models look at the institutional advantages of the presidency such as the bully pulpit, privileged access to information transmitted though classified intelligence and diplomatic channels, forging special access to the media, and the benefit of a history of Congressional and public deference to presidential leadership.

But, when and under what conditions does public opinion constrain presidential decision making on war and intervention? Continue reading

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The Complexities of Intervening in Syria

Syria

Well into the Syrian civil war the Assad regime has made a costly miscalculation by staging a significant chemical weapons attack. The U.S. and its allies have been wary of a full-scale military operation in Syria, but spurred by this attack they are now preparing to intervene. To succeed western allies must be focused not only on degrading Syrian capabilities but also on avoiding mistakes beyond the short term that they made in Libya and Iraq.

The U.S. needs to intervene with as much legitimacy as it can muster, which appears to have a fighting chance in Congress (though Congressional leaders would be unwise to hold any votes ahead of the impending report from UN weapons inspectors). But the Bush Administration’s legacy continues to take a toll when it comes to the credibility of the U.S., not only at home but around the world. David Cameron seriously miscalculated in this respect already, although odds are the House of Commons will back British involvement in a second attempt at authorization once the UN issues what is likely to be a game changing report. Despite Russia’s prevention of authorization from the UN Security Council, the growing certainty about Syria’s multi WMD use is sufficient justification in the eyes of numerous American allies starting with the French (a list that will grow with the declassification of additional evidence and the weight of the UN’s moral authority, if not in a UNSC resolution at least in a clarifying report).

The western operation, however, needs to go beyond a mere “shot across the bow.” To reestablish a deterrent effect for rogue regimes like Assad’s, the operation will need to be more decisive. Yet it is even more important for the West to degrade Syrian military capabilities enough to turn the tide in the war. Doing less would allow Assad to appear to be standing up to the West yet again. And whatever deterrent effect were regained, it would slowly fade as the civil war grinds on indecisively. Moreover the war has already spilled over the Turkish, Jordanian, and Lebanese borders, and is rapidly on its way to becoming a sectarian regional war that would harm the security interests of a long list of countries including the U.S.

Notwithstanding some high placed naysaying U.S. and western credibility are in fact at stake, not only in Tehran and Pyongyang but also in the redoubts of al-Qaeda’s increasingly active affiliates and Hezbollah–not to mention Moscow and Beijing. Most of all, the U.S.-led intervention as currently designed would be a missed opportunity to tilt events on the ground toward what is already a stated western aim: the removal of the Assad regime. The mass bloodshed and destabilization of a critical region need to be stopped, and the authority of the international community restored. Continue reading

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Clarifying Punitive Intervention

[Editor’s Note:  This is a guest post from Professor Anthony F. Lang, chair in International Political Theory and  Director of the Centre for Global Constitutionalism at the University of St. Andrews.]

Since I wrote my short defence of punitive air strikes against Syria last week in a post at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs , a number of commentators have given their own, more critical, accounts of this use of military force (see, for instance lots on Duck itself, such as Charli Carpenter; Stephanie Carvin on Opinio Juris ;  , and Dan Kenealy and Sean Molloy in The Scotsman.  I wanted to respond to some of the points made in these posts and elsewhere, not to end discussion, but to continue it. The following are specific issues that have been raised with my thoughts on them: Continue reading

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Make Love and War? Sex and Syria …

Among the more famous anti-war slogans in the US is the 1960s’ declaration of “make love, not war.” I found myself thinking about that phrase when a student sent me a link to the Daily Show on Monday – where Jon Stewart made some insightful comments about sex, gender, and the presumably impending military action in Syria.

And yes, I used the words “insightful comments” to describe something Jon Stewart said. Those of you who know me know how hard that was to say. But his description works for me …. and suggests that “make love not war” is actually a false dichotomy.

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Syria: in Defense of a Broad Military Authorization

Editor’s Note: as per my earlier announcement, I am phasing out of the Duck of Minerva. But my blogging won’t officially end for around another two weeks. That means that, although administrative inquiries should be sent to other team members, I have not gone cold turkey on the writing front.

I remain uncertain as to the wisdom of any kind of US-centered military action in Syria. But if the Obama Administration is going to act, then it needs a broad Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). Indeed, today has seen significant concern about the breadth of the proposed AUMF. Jack Goldsmith writes that:

(1) Does the proposed AUMF authorize the President to take sides in the Syrian Civil War, or to attack Syrian rebels associated with al Qaeda, or to remove Assad from power?  Yes, as long as the President determines that any of these entities has a (mere) connection to the use of WMD in the Syrian civil war, and that the use of force against one of them would prevent or deter the use or proliferation of WMD within, or to and from, Syria, or protect the U.S. or its allies (e.g. Israel) against the (mere) threat posed by those weapons.  It is very easy to imagine the President making such determinations with regard to Assad or one or more of the rebel groups.

(2) Does the proposed AUMF authorize the President to use force against Iran or Hezbollah, in Iran or Lebanon?  Again, yes, as long as the President determines that Iran or Hezbollah has a (mere) a connection to the use of WMD in the Syrian civil war, and the use of force against Iran or Hezbollah would prevent or deter the use or proliferation of WMD within, or to and from, Syria, or protect the U.S. or its allies (e.g. Israel) against the (mere) threat posed by those weapons.  Again, very easy to imagine.

As the history of the 9/11 AUMF shows, and as prior AUMFs show (think about the Gulf of Tonkin), a President will interpret an AUMF for all it is worth, and then some.  The proposed Syrian AUMF is worth a lot, for it would (in sum) permit the President to use military force against any target anywhere in the world (including Iran or Lebanon) as long as the President, in his discretion, determines that the the target has a connection to WMD in the Syrian civil war and the use of force has the purpose of preventing or deterring (broad concepts) the use or proliferation of WMDs in, to, or from Syria, or of protecting the U.S. and its allies from the mere threat (again, a broad concept) of use or proliferation of WMDs connected to the Syrian conflict.

Congress needs to be careful about what it authorizes.

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Syria and the problems of compellence

To my mind, the situation in Syria has prompted an incredibly thoughtful debate within the political science community, one that undermines the idea that scholars have become irrevocably detached from policy. Ian Hurd and Charli Carpenter have written excellent pieces on the legality of chemical weapons and military intervention.  James Fearon contributed this superb piece on the strategic dilemmas involved in the US response.  And once again, The Onion has shown us all that it is the smartest game in town when it comes to foreign policy.Much of the conversation has concerned the question of interventions in civil conflicts, asking under what conditions interventions are successful and if those conditions apply in Syria. But like Jon Western and others, I’m thinking about Syria not as a case of intervention in civil conflict and more about it as a case of deterrence and compellence.

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What Do International Law and Norms Say About Burning People Alive?

One line of discussion this past week has been whether it makes any kind of moral sense to think that  death by chemical weapon is so much worse than death by “conventional” weapons. Video imagery captured by BBC in the aftermath of another horrific massacre in Syria yesterday throws this into stark relief. At least ten children burned to death and scores others were left with horrifying injuries after a flammable substance was dropped on a school playground yesterday. Continue reading

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Intervention to Punish? Or to Protect?

stopsyriaTwo kinds of military intervention are being discussed and conflated by political elites (like Nicholas Kristof) and international diplomats. The first is an enforcement operation to punish a state for violating a widespread and nearly universal global prohibition norm against the use of chemical weapons. This is what Kristof refers to in the title of his Times op-ed, “Reinforce a Norm in Syria.”  The second is a humanitarian operation to protect civilians against a predatory government. This is what Kristof means when he compares proposed military strikes in Syria to intervention that happened in Bosnia and Kosovo and (tragically) didn’t happen in Rwanda.

Well, it’s useful to clarify which we are talking about since both kinds of operation involve very different tactics and different kinds of legal and moral reasoning. I discuss both at Foreign Affairs this morning:

[If punishing norm violators is the goal], the appropriate course of action would be to, first, independently verify who violated it…. Second, the United States would have to consider a range of policy options for affirming, condemning, and lawfully punishing the perpetrator before resorting to force, particularly unlawful force… Third, should the United States decide on military action, with or without a UN Security Council resolution, it would need to adhere to international norms regulating the use of specific weapons in combat.

But such a strike should not be confused with military action to protect civilians.   Continue reading

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If Syria Used WMD, It Violated International Law. But So Would a US Intervention.

In the New York Times yesterday, Northwestern University political scientist Ian Hurd lays down the law on Syria and intervention:

As a legal matter, the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons does not automatically justify armed intervention by the United States… Syria is a party to neither the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 nor the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993… Syria is a party to the Geneva Protocol, a 1925 treaty that bans the use of toxic gases in wars. But this treaty was designed after World War I with international war in mind, not internal conflicts.

[And] the conventions also don’t mean much unless the Security Council agrees to act. The United Nations Charter… demands that states refrain “from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” The use of force is permitted when authorized by the Security Council or for self-defense  — but not purely on humanitarian grounds.

Of course ethics, not only laws, should guide policy decisions…  if the White House takes international law seriously — as the State Department does — it cannot try to have it both ways. It must either argue that an “illegal but legitimate” intervention is better than doing nothing, or assert that international law has changed — strategies that I call “constructive noncompliance.” In the case of Syria, I vote for the latter.

Hurd is right about a great many things: that Syria’s obligations under treaty law are weaker than people want to think; that there are legal tensions here that the US cannot and shouldn’t try to wish away; and that a decision must be made between doing something and doing something lawfully; and that the robustness of international norms around both R2P and chemical weapons are at stake in how the US and UK frame the discussion.

But I think Hurd is both under-stating the case about Syria’s international legal obligations, and over-stating the case about US options in framing a potential military intervention. International law indeed is “changing” – but the relevant changes he describes apply to Syria’s responsibility to its civilians, not to the US’ right to reinterpret the UN Charter. And ultimately, as he points out, even Syria’s violations of law don’t make it lawful for the US to intervene without a Security Council resolution – however ethically right such an intervention may be. The two are really separate legal questions so I’ll address them separately below. Continue reading

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On Syria And Politician’s Logic

As a callow undergraduate, I kind of supported the Iraq War for all of the normal reasons; see The Republic of Fear and The Threatening Storm. (I say “kind of” because I was in college and, frankly, tuned out in favor of studying.) A little while ago, it struck me in one of those blinding moments of self-awareness that not only had I been wrong but that Get Your War On (probably NSFW, but basically R-rated) was more accurate than my quasi-sophisticated arguments (or the analysis in the New York Times).

Given that support for intervention in Syria hangs somewhere in the single digits, it’s at times like these that I wish that I wasn’t so convinced that the presidency is largely unresponsive to the public in terms of foreign policy. I do wish, however, that political science took the presidency a little more seriously and therefore had something a little more conclusive than the extant literature about why bombing Syria now seems more likely than not. As it is, the Yes Minister quip about “politician’s logic” (“we must do something, this is something, therefore we must do it”) seems like a pretty good working hypothesis.
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Not All Interventions are the Same.

It now looks almost certain that we will see a US military strike of some sort in Syria. There is a lot of angst out there about such a strike — what are its goals? What will it accomplish? and, Where will it all end? Many are asking “what the hell is the Obama administration thinking?” Many have already concluded that it will be a disaster.

This is a fair set of questions in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan. Erica Chenoweth is running a number of articles over at the Monkey Cage on what some of the political science research says when looking at the aggregate data with respect to third party intervention. It suggests that this isn’t going to end well. Maybe. But, there is a broader analysis and context that are also likely influencing President Obama’s decision.

First, not every intervention is the same — time to dust off that copy of Schelling. Continue reading

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