Meta-Commentary

Syria (III)

Posted in politics, war by Adrian Arroyo on September 1, 2013

Arguing for a punitive strike on the grounds of credibility and norm enforcement may be politically advantageous for the administration, but on the merits the case seems a bit weak.

Credibility is confusing, the more so because it’s used in discussions about foreign policy as if everyone understands what it means. At first blush, credibility is an intuitive concept–if I say I’ll do something and I don’t, then my credibility suffers and people are less likely to believe me the next time I say I’ll do something. Simple.

However, we also recognize different “flavors” of credibility. If I’ve made two commitments–say, to alphabetize my enormous library by author and also to remain faithful to a single person so long as we both shall live–those commitments exist along separate credibility continuums. If I fail to do the former, I’m disorganized. If I fail to do the latter, I’m an adulterer. However, most folks would be uncomfortable with the proposition that people who fail to organize their libraries are more likely to be adulterers because they haven’t demonstrated “credibility” generally. At the same time, there’d be less pushback for the assertion that someone who’s cheated on a succession of partners can’t be trusted to make a lifelong commitment their spouse. “Dating” and “marriage” are associated continuums, while “marriage” and “library maintenance” are not.

As if that weren’t confusing enough, there’s also an “intensity of interest” factor. It’s reasonable to expect the seriousness of our commitments to align with their importance. Accordingly, If I fail to act on a commitment that’s critical to my interests, that damages my credibility a lot more than my failure to act on a relatively unimportant commitment.

All of these threads get jumbled up in discussions about credibility, with serious consequences. When Domino Theory advocates raised alarms about the Cold War balance of credibility between East and West, they helped lay the foundation for a disastrous intervention in Vietnam that cost 60,000 American lives. The logic, roughly speaking, went like this: if we don’t fight communism in Vietnam, it will embolden our enemies while simultaneously undermining the strength of our commitments in Europe. It’s a slippery slope argument that only hangs together if you ignore the “intensity of interest” factor.

In Syria, it’s not clear what credibility means. If the primary concern involves preserving the credibility of President Obama’s “red line” threat from last year, it’s not clear that we should do anything. The statement is a year old and it was made in the waning days of his re-election campaign. If, on the other hand, we think the use of chemical weapons undermines the credibility of the presidency as an institution and our broader regional commitments, then there’s a case for unilateral action. Finally, if the credibility at stake is that of the international norm against chemical weapons use, then we should be looking for a multilateral approach, per Fallows:

Their premise is that the use of chemical weapons is so heinous and unprecedented that, if allowed to go unpunished, it will change world relations in a disastrous way. Minor response: If this is so clearly true, then presumably someone outside the U.S. Executive Branch will agree. Starting with: the U.S. Congress, the U.S. public, NATO, the Brits, the Australians, the Canadians, the European Union, the Arab League. Someone in the civilized world. 

And that’s the crux of the issue–the arguments, means, and ends don’t really line up. The administration hasn’t made a good case for why US credibility is on the line in a consequential way, nor has it pursued a multilateral approach consistent with normative concerns. Instead, it looks like a hodgepodge policy designed in the face of events and around political liabilities.

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Syria (II)

Posted in politics, war by Adrian Arroyo on August 31, 2013

Briefly, there are four cases to be made for intervention in Syria:

  1. The “Responsibility to Protect (R2P)” case. Because Assad has failed to fulfill the basic duty of a sovereign–to protect his people–he is no longer entitled to the protections of sovereignty, and other powers may intervene to end the barbarism taking place within Syria’s borders.
  2. The “credibility” case. If the United States doesn’t react as promised to the news of chemical weapons use in Syria–which President Obama declared a year ago was a “red line” for him–how can our allies (and enemies) have confidence that we’ll honor other commitments in the region?
  3. The “international norms” case. While Syria is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention there is an international norm against their use that must be upheld. If Syria is allowed to buck that norm, then the norm is weaker going forward and other nations may be tempted to use these weapons in the future.
  4. The “security” case. The combination of a failing state, a stockpile of chemical weapons, and violent non-state actors has security implications for the United States that are dire enough to justify a military intervention aimed at securing those weapons.

Each case defines the conditions of victory and gestures at the means needed to achieve it. Given Syria’s demographic layout, an R2P scenario would involve a significant military commitment, either in the form of safe zones or outright occupation. Similarly, securing Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile would require–at least temporarily–the introduction of ground forces.

And, while administration sources have checked all four boxes, the main thrust of their argument for intervention centers on cases two and three: credibility and norm enforcement. President Obama said to Gwen Ifill:

We cannot see a breach of the nonproliferation norm that allows, potentially, chemical weapons to fall into the hands of all kinds of folks. So what I’ve said is that we have not yet made a decision, but the international norm against the use of chemical weapons needs to be kept in place.

In his Rose Garden statement this afternoon, the President reiterated his stance and sounded a note more in line with concerns about American credibility:

Make no mistake — this has implications beyond chemical warfare.  If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?  To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms?  To terrorist who would spread biological weapons?  To armies who carry out genocide?

While Stephen Walt, Daniel Larison, and Patrick Appel have poked holes in the logic of the this position, it’s politically advantageous ground for the administration to make a stand on. Cases two and three afford them maximum flexibility in defining means, ends, and rationale.

If Walt is correct and the Obama Administration finds itself backed into a corner by a red line they drew a year ago, they can launch a strike, claim victory, and depart the field. There are rules, we warned Assad not to break them, he did, we punished him, and now everybody knows we say what we mean and mean what we say. Moreover, they’ll be happy to leave the decision up to the legislature, as it gives them a way to de-escalate without appearing weak. However, if they truly believe in credibility and norm enforcement, we should see a sustained attempt to lobby congress in favor of a strike, combined with a search for allies to buttress the case that strikes are about preserving a rules-based international order in addition to defending American credibility.