The Skeptics

The Heroes of COIN

The Skeptics

The views expressed here are solely those of the author. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.

Spend a little time reading about the war in Iraq and you will discover that there were actually two wars: one before Petraeus, and one after he took command. The war before Petraeus, we are told, was characterized by frustrating efforts to use conventional tactics in an unconventional war. The war after Petraeus arrived was much better. Rather than continuing down an unsuccessful military path, U.S. and coalition forces implemented a new counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine that emphasized population security and efforts to gain legitimacy for the fledgling government. Petraeus’s great achievement in Iraq was convincing the military to turn on a dime in a chaotic and violent place. He persuaded a hidebound army to radically change its ways and achieved astonishing results. In a matter of months, he dramatically reduced the level of violence and provided badly needed breathing room in Iraq. A small army of COIN analysts, along with reporters like Tom Ricks and Linda Robinson, have chronicled and praised his efforts in Iraq.

Paula Broadwell tells a similar story about General Petraeus’s efforts in Afghanistan. According to her account, Petraeus arrived in Kabul with the same basic ideas that guided his previous efforts. “As he prepared to head to Afghanistan,” Broadwell writes, “Petraeus viewed the campaign in simple terms. The key to victory lay in protecting the indigenous population, not just in killing the enemy. That was the insight Petraeus stressed over and over.” Broadwell does not argue that Petraeus fully succeeded in Afghanistan, but she does suggest that victory would have been much more likely if he had arrived there sooner. She traces his intellectual evolution and praises his deep understanding of insurgency that led him to develop his set of COIN best practices. “One had to wonder what Afghanistan might have looked like, eight years after September 11, 2001, had these tactics been carried out from the beginning.”

Similarly heroic stories pervade the literature on past counterinsurgencies. The conventional portrait of Petraeus is strikingly similar to the portrayals of earlier leaders in the Huk Rebellion (1946–1956), the Malayan Emergency (1948–1960) and the period of major U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1964-1973). These wars are often cited by COIN analysts as evidence in support of the principles championed by Petraeus. In each case, observers criticize initial efforts as brutal and counterproductive because campaigns to root out and destroy insurgent fighters ended up alienating civilians and driving them into the arms of the enemy. And in each case, observers conclude that the tide turned only after the emergence of leaders with a deeper understanding of the political nature of insurgencies.

What explains this peculiar pattern? I suspect that analysts gravitate towards the heroic narrative because it is optimistic. It offers solutions consistent with core liberal values. It shows that military organizations can overcome their conventional biases and promote unconventionally minded leaders, and it promises that they can succeed by responding to legitimate public concerns instead of resorting to overwhelming violence. The heroic narrative is especially seductive today because it offers hope that we can overcome our blunders in Afghanistan and achieve something like victory.

But as I explain in the current issue of Orbis, the reality of past conflicts is nothing like the stylized histories that dominate the literature. In the Philippines, Malaya and Vietnam, a great deal of coercive violence was necessary to establish a semblance of political order. These conflicts were not counterinsurgencies, per se, but state-building wars in which fragile governments needed to establish control before they could worry about legitimacy. Whereas modern COIN theorists focus on population security and popular support, theorists of state building describe a bloody and protracted competition for power under near anarchy. Establishing a state means killing or co-opting one’s rivals and gaining the capacity to enforce laws. As Paul Staniland puts it, “We may think we can ‘win hearts and minds’ while establishing a strong state, but state formation is intrinsically about coercion and dominance.” Well-meaning efforts to gain legitimacy will be irrelevant if the government cannot demonstrate the ability to control the population. The upshot is that the heroes of late-stage COIN might actually depend on the earlier villains who do the dirty work of establishing a political hierarchy and coercing the population into obedience.

The other implication is that the United States should disabuse itself of the notion that there are technocratic solutions to the political problems of civil war. U.S. forces can still pursue more practical missions like counterterrorism. But the belief in so-called COIN best practices may cause U.S. leaders to overestimate their ability to control events in any war-torn country with a weak or nonexistent political order. State building is a long and brutal business, and efforts to win hearts and minds before the state has established control are likely to fail. The real heroes of counterinsurgency may be those who are willing to come to grips with that fact.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyMilitary StrategySecurity RegionsAfghanistanIraq

Bombing Iran Risks Mission Creep

The Skeptics

In an op-ed in today’s New York Daily News, my co-author Jonathan Owen and I argue that damage to Iran’s nuclear facilities from limited strikes would be modest, and likely require further strikes every few years or a long-term occupation on the ground. The better option at present is for the Obama administration to show restraint and continue to explore diplomatic options:

Unless Americans are willing to fight Iranians to the death — possibly every few years — Washington must stop polarizing the situation. Aggressive policies and rhetoric do not benefit our security.

Without demanding that Iran surrender on the issue of uranium enrichment, the U.S. — which accounts for almost half of the world’s military spending, wields one of the planet’s largest nuclear arsenals and can project its power around the globe — should lift sanctions, stop its belligerence and open a direct line of communication with Tehran.

The President has said repeatedly that “all options are on the table.” But contrary to popular belief, diplomacy with Iran is an option that has yet to be fully exhausted.

Left out in the final cut was the important point that if the United States was to go to war with Iran, U.S. soldiers will once again be asked to risk their lives by prosecuting a reckless war of choice against an enemy willing to accept high casualties. Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught policymakers that mission creep often drives seemingly easy and limited interventions toward prolonged wars of occupation and nation-building. Attacking Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would risk a similar, unacceptable mission creep.

TopicsMilitary StrategyNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesSecurity RegionsIran

Recalculating Romney’s 4 Percent Gimmick

The Skeptics

I have a new piece up at on Ron Paul and the Republican Party, focused in particular on the strong support that Paul draws from young people, with some additional speculation about where those young people will end up if and when Paul steps back from his very public role. My instincts are that these young people are motivated at least as much by the ideas that Paul espouses as by Ron Paul, the person. If I am correct, many of them are likely to remain active in politics. I close with a warning to GOP leaders that they would be making a grave error if they ignored this libertarian-leaning voting bloc. Unfortunately, that is what the GOP’s leading candidate, Mitt Romney, seems to be doing by pushing a short-sighted plan for boosting military spending at a time when the country is awash in debt.

I have always been puzzled by the fact that conservatives who rail against welfare dependency here at home miss the pernicious effects of security dependency among our allies. Tim Pawlenty didn’t get it. Neither does Mitt Romney. Rather than questioning the mantras that have guided U.S. foreign policy for over a generation, Romney simply assumes that the United States will remain the world’s policeman, other countries will continue to free ride on our security guarantees and U.S. taxpayers will happily foot the bill. He proposes spending at least 4 percent of GDP on the military’s base budget, plus whatever additional money might be needed to fight the wars that he wants to fight (for example, this one).

I commented on the 4 percent gimmick a few months ago, and now I have a bit more detail about Romney’s plan relative to the Obama administration’s latest ten-year projections. I alluded to these numbers in the piece and below provide some more detail. (I am grateful, as always, for the help of my colleague Charles Zakaib in sorting through these and in preparing the charts).


The chart above shows spending in nominal, current-year dollars over the next ten years. The Obama administration plans to spend $5.7 trillion between 2013 and 2022 (the blue bars). If Romney keeps his promise of 4 percent for defense, he will spend at least $8.3 trillion (using OMB’s GDP projections) over that same period, an additional $2.58 trillion (the yellow bars). His budget in 2022 would top $1 trillion and would be at least 61 percent higher than Barack Obama’s. He hasn’t said what other spending he will cut, or what taxes he would increase, to cover that difference. Until he does, it is logical to conclude that he plans to pile on more debt.

And we should remember that current laws call for even less spending than President Obama has proposed, but he has chosen to ignore the sequestration provisions of the Budget Control Act. GOP leaders in Congress seem equally disinterested in following through on their promise to kick the spending habit, and several have put forward plans to undo sequestration for the Department of Defense. Either way, the bottom line is more debt. As I speculate at, no wonder young people seem to like Ron Paul so much (and Mitt Romney so little).

Another way to demonstrate the absurdity of Romney’s plan is to control for inflation and compare it to future and past trends. Looking ahead, in constant, 2012 dollars, annual Pentagon spending will average $744.8 billion over the next ten years—again assuming the same GDP projections as Obama’s plan. That is 44 percent higher than Obama’s average budget (the bright pink line) over that same period and nearly 59 percent higher than sequestration (the dark red line).

Now consider how this compares with the recent past. As you can see, Romney’s 4 percent gimmick would result in taxpayers spending more than twice as much on the Pentagon as in 2000 (111 percent higher, to be precise) and 45 percent more than in 1985, the height of the Reagan buildup. Over the next ten years, Romney’s annual spending (in constant dollars) for the Pentagon would average 64 percent higher than annual post–Cold War budgets (1990-2012), and 42 percent more than the average during the Reagan era (1981-1989).


Mitt Romney may genuinely believe that today’s enemies are 42 percent more frightening than the big bad Soviets. He might believe that spending an average of $450 billion (in constant dollars) every year since 1990 has left the country dangerously vulnerable. If that is true, he should say so. More importantly, however, he should be compelled to answer the question on everyone’s mind: Where is he going to get the money to fund his Pentagon spending binge?

Image: Gage Skidmore

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsDefenseThe PresidencyPolitical EconomyPoliticsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Reagan Doctrine Redux?

The Skeptics

The Reagan Doctrine appears to be alive and well—at least in the White House. Just as Reagan looked for every opportunity to fund, arm and support opposition groups in communist-dominated countries in the 1980s, Obama and his foreign-policy team are ideologically committed to helping opposition movements working to overthrow authoritarian governments in the Middle East. And like Reagan, Obama faces the same three obstacles that made effective implementation of the Reagan Doctrine impossible.

First, Reagan faced an obstructive Congress, one that remained uninterested in letting the president engage U.S. troops in civil wars waged by groups that viewed the U.S. as a necessary evil (at best) and where the most likely outcome was a changing of the guard rather than a solution to violence and unrest. The result was that Congressional opposition stopped Reagan from doing all that he would have done if given the chance. True, Obama has had some Republican support on the question of arming Syrian rebels, but he faced the same sort of opposition with the Libyan situation that Reagan did with Central America, and he is guaranteed to encourage more Congressional opposition if he starts serious discussions about helping establish a humanitarian corridor in Syria. What is unclear is whether the current opposition stems from the realization that the United States has a terrible track record of success in such cases or because members of Congress are worried that the American people do not have the stomach for long-term conflicts for what they consider low stakes.

The public, indeed, represents the second obstacle. As I wrote in my last post, the American people have opposed most of the post–Cold War efforts to protect vulnerable populations when those efforts crossed what is often referred to as the “Mogadishu Line.” When humanitarian aid mutates into taking sides in ugly civil wars and internecine political battles, Americans start getting unhappy. The potential costs to the White House rise considerably at that point, making success less likely as public opinion-induced caution discourages the president from considering the full range of policy options.

Third, as several commentators on this blog and elsewhere have noted, Obama faces the sad truth about the state of the opposition in Syria as in most of these situations: it’s a hot mess. Ironically, a key element of the Reagan Doctrine was that the existence of a well-organized opposition movement was a precondition for considering U.S. support. In reality, however, calling almost any opposition movement well organized is a fantasy. No one knows what supporting any one of the many opposition groups in Syria would mean for Syria’s future, any more than the U.S. has been able to manage tribal politics in Afghanistan or the complex domestic politics in Iraq. In the end, support for Syria’s rebels, like Reagan’s support for the contras in Nicaragua or the mujahideen in Afghanistan, will assuredly have consequences that no one can predict. Many, if not most of them, will be negative.

The fact that the Reagan Doctrine is alive and well seems inarguable. The judgment that it will be just as difficult to implement also seems difficult to escape. The question that remains is: How do we feel about this?

Many look back at the Reagan Doctrine as an inspirational strategy for a dangerous time. Instead of passively accepting the world as handed to him or letting the Soviet Union take the initiative, Reagan looked for opportunities to further the American cause of freedom and self-governance where he had at least some chance of success. Intentions, not outcomes, seem more important for many on this issue. In the future, some may look back similarly and praise Obama who, as president at a time of massive global upheaval and change, decided to roll the dice and side with those fighting for freedom from oppression. Of course, many are likely to look back at Obama and conclude that, like Reagan, he tried to do too much with American power and wound up not only expending U.S. lives and U.S. treasure but also causing new problems and loss of lives overseas. Time will have to tell us which group is bigger in the end.

TopicsCongressGrand StrategyThe PresidencyHumanitarian InterventionSecurity RegionsLibyaSyriaMiddle East

Syria: Be Careful What You Wish For

The Skeptics

Calls are growing among both conservatives and liberals for a U.S.-led intervention—including possible military force—in Syria. As in the case of the 2011 Libya intervention, some advocates insist that the goal is to protect Syrian civilians from the onslaught of President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces.

Others, though, are more candid and admit that the real objective would be to overthrow Assad’s regime. An open letter that fifty-six prominent conservative political and foreign-policy activists—including William Kristol, Max Boot, Elizabeth Cheney and other intellectual architects of the disastrous Iraq war—sent to President Obama in mid-February was a prime example. Although that letter cited humanitarian goals, the signers had a much broader objective, arguing that the Assad government “poses a grave threat to national security interests of the United States.” (Assad’s principal offense appeared to be his links to Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.) The letter added that “immediate actions” should be taken to “hasten an end to the Assad regime.” Specific measures include establishing “safe zones,” from which Syrian security forces would be barred, and providing a “full range of direct assistance,” including “self- defense aid” (i.e. weapons) to rebel forces. Proponents also emphasized that the option of direct U.S. military action must not be taken off the table.

As the Libya episode demonstrated, the differing rationales are probably a distinction without a difference. Once the UN Security Council passed its resolution authorizing the use of force, the “humanitarian intervention” in Libya quickly turned into a campaign for forcible regime change. One would expect that an intervention in Syria—even one ostensibly for the protection of innocent civilians—would soon evolve in the same fashion.

There is no doubt that the Assad regime is brutal and repulsive. But before we embark on yet another regime-change crusade, it would be wise to pause and consider possible outcomes that might not be to our liking. Previous interventions in such places as Iraq and Libya have been notorious for undesirable, unintended consequences. Skepticism is warranted regarding calls for military involvement in Syria.

Western accounts of the bloodshed there are largely simplistic melodramas, with villainous Assad forces slaughtering innocent advocates of democracy. We’ve seen such grotesque oversimplifications of complex conflicts before, most notably during the 1990s in the Balkans. The actual situation in Syria is murky, with an armed insurgency directed against the Assad government. Given the complex ethno-religious makeup of Syria, we need to be extremely wary about viewing the violence there as a Manichean struggle between good and evil.

Syria’s population is divided among Sunni Arabs (a little over half the population), Christians (about 10-12 percent), Alawites, a Shiite offshoot (also about 10-12 percent), Druze (about six percent), and various, mostly Sunni, ethnic minorities, primarily Kurds and Armenians. The Alawite Assad family has based its power for more than four decades on the solid loyalty of its religious bloc in a loose alliance with Christians, Druze and, sometimes, with one or more of the other, smaller ethnic groups. What we see today may be largely a Sunni Arab bid to overthrow that minority regime—fueled in part because many devout Muslims consider Alawites to be heretics.

What is especially troubling is that while the Assad coalition is primarily secular, the ideological composition of the opposition is far more opaque. There certainly seem to be Islamist elements, although the extent of their strength is uncertain. The suicide bombings in the city of Aleppo in early February and other incidents also suggest a possible al-Qaeda link.

At a minimum, such uncertainty ought to cause would-be U.S. and other Western crusaders to hesitate. Advocates of the Iraq intervention insisted that Iraqis would greet U.S. and coalition forces as liberators and strew their paths with rose petals. More than 4,400 dead Americans, more than 100,000 dead Iraqis, and some $850 billion U.S. tax dollars later, it is painfully evident that such predictions were naive. Indeed, it is increasingly clear that even the basic goal of bringing democracy to Iraq is slipping away. The regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki grows more authoritarian by the day.

Likewise, the aftermath of helping Libyan rebels overthrow Muammar Qadaffi looks more and more troubling. One of the first actions of the new National Transitional Council was to begin implementing sharia law. Fighting has erupted in several places between rival tribes, and reports of corruption and brutality by the interim government are on the rise.

Helping to oust Bashar Assad might be morally appealing, but we need to beware of unintended consequences. If the aftermath is a turbulent, unstable Syria with a new government heavily influenced by radical Islamist elements, we are not going to like the outcome. And unfortunately, as in the case of Iraq and Libya, the intellectual architects of such a policy fiasco will avoid taking any responsibility for their handiwork.

Image: Day of Rage

TopicsDemocracyUNHuman RightsInternational InstitutionsInternational LawMuckety MucksGrand StrategyHumanitarian InterventionRogue StatesSecurity RegionsSyria

It’s Time to Cut Our Losses in Afghanistan

The Skeptics

The mayhem unleashed after the burning of Korans at a U.S. base outside of Kabul—intentional or not—has likely irreparably damaged the U.S. training mission in Afghanistan. Peace talks with the Taliban—a major policy shift for the insurgent movement—could be off the table, too. This is just the latest incident in the downward spiral of U.S.-Afghan relations. Washington’s policy must now shift dramatically toward an expedited withdrawal. The “hearts-and-minds” campaign was never likely to succeed in a country that views the United States as a guest who has overstayed his welcome.

Some political leaders and military commanders will argue that cooler heads must prevail and that a long-term strategy demands America’s indefinite presence in Afghanistan. They will argue that any drawdown must be based on conditions on the ground. But conditions on the ground do not warrant staying the course, only narrowing our mission and avoiding further tragedies.

Retired four-star general Jack Keane, who has traveled to Afghanistan four times within the past eighteen months, says of the outrage and rioting that America in fact has a good relationship with the Afghan people. “We’ve forged an unusually strong relationship with those people. We’ve done it based on the values of the American people and our sensitivities to their culture. That’s what is so frustrating about this.” With all due respect, General Keane and other like-minded observers are wrong. The mission is a waste of money, effort and, most importantly, lives.

Former heads of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal (retired) and General David Petraeus both emphasized the importance of winning hearts and minds of Afghans by treating them and their culture with respect. They believed the most helpful indicator of progress on the ground and the integration of political and military strategy is the protection of Afghan civilians.

But according to a recent report by U.N. mission in Afghanistan, 2011 was the fifth straight year in which civilian casualties rose. Of course, last year insurgents were responsible for 77 percent of Afghan civilian deaths. Despite this fact, after tripling the number of U.S. troops in that country—far fewer than the Pentagon asked for—President Obama made it America’s mission to protect the Afghan people.

A decade into the conflict, the Afghan government still remains incredibly weak, widely distrusted and underrepresented in poorly secured areas of the country. The roughly 180,000-strong Afghan army, whose performance and effectiveness remains questionable, has an officer corps teaming with ethnic fissures and competing subnational interests. Meanwhile, the Afghan police force has developed a reputation for desertion, illiteracy and rapaciousness. On top of limited and potentially unsustainable security improvements, the spiraling violence does not instill confidence in our victory.

Too many U.S. government planners forget that for Afghans we are their guests, and it is their country. We forget that back in 2010, Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai imposed a crackdown on alcohol consumption and closed a number of expat bars around Kabul because they were deemed offensive to Islam. The Afghan general who carried out the alcohol raids told the Los Angeles Times it was done for “Allah’s sake.” After that, violent demonstrations and intercultural hostility increased after Florida pastor Terry Jones promised to “stand up” to Islam and burn a Koran. The recent incident of U.S. Marines urinating on corpses was yet another provocative episode in the erosion of American-Afghan relations.

As I argued months ago, “Recent events in Afghanistan should be a wake-up call to how our ten-year occupation is actually being perceived. Rather than winning ‘hearts and minds,’ America’s civilizing mission has become increasingly associated with a Western cultural invasion.”

Many Afghans see outsiders constantly changing their mayors, their governors and their customs. They are told how to dress their women, what is culturally acceptable and what is culturally repugnant. Americans are infuriated when their politicians redistribute their taxes, yet they ignore how intrusive their own military and civilian planners have become to foreign peoples.

It’s no surprise that a report published last May by the Kabul-based Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit concluded that negative sentiments about democracy emerge from “the stated distaste among respondents for ‘Western culture’ and the potential threat it poses to ‘Afghan culture,’ traditional norms or values, and an Islamic identity.”

None of this should imply that the Quran burning or the grisly violence meted out against innocent people was justified. But the fact remains that America is widely scorned throughout the region—in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

According to a poll from last summer by the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of Americans want a withdrawal from Afghanistan immediately—not two years from now, not six months from now. Immediately. Americans may finally be realizing what George Mason University’s Christopher Coyne has argued, which is that the historical record indicates “that attempts to spread liberal democracy via military occupation will fail more often than they will work.”

More money, more time and more resources will not change these underlying realities. To continue to train and assist the Afghan national army and police when distrust remains this high risks more violent incidents like this and this and this. Rather than become Afghanistan’s perpetual crutch, Washington must cut its losses. The war is fiscally irresponsible and wasteful of U.S. taxpayer dollars. Most importantly, no more American or Afghan lives should be lost in pursuit of a strategy that is not in America’s national interest.

Image: Carlos Latuff

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDemocracyFailed StatesTerrorismSecurity RegionsAfghanistan

Don’t Arm Syria’s Rebels

The Skeptics

With the death toll in Syria now climbing above five thousand and graphic videos and images of the bloodbath flooding the Internet, some in Washington have called for arming the Syrian resistance. That option, compared to other alternatives like a NATO-led no-fly zone, seems antiseptic. But America’s arming of rebels will amount to contributing to a worsening situation without a means of reaching a peaceful end state. Restraint, however unpalatable, is the most prudent option in an increasingly intractable situation.

First, there is no clear group in the resistance for Washington to provide arms to, even if that were the policy option chosen. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has argued most forcefully for arming the rebels, said, “It is time we gave them the wherewithal to fight back and stop the slaughter.” But Sen. McCain stopped short of calling for the direct supply of weapons by the United States and didn’t mention to whom among the resistance he’d like to lend a helping hand.

No single group or leader speaks on behalf of Syria's resistance, especially in a country where political loyalty tends to hew to one’s ethnicity, religion, sect or clan. The Damascus-based National Coordination Committee (NCC), considered weak by some Syrian activists, is still willing to engage the regime in a power-sharing unity government.

The exile-based Syrian National Council (SNC) rejects all contact with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. SNC seeks recognition from the West, but it is viewed by some as a vehicle for monopolizing the uprising. The Free Syrian Army, a disorganized mash-up of disparate rebel groups and government soldiers who have switched sides, has declared its allegiance to the SNC.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has said it’s open to foreign intervention, at first looking to Muslim Turkey. Meanwhile, a large portion of Syrian Kurds see Turkey as a primary threat. These rifts persist amid reports of Sunni jihadists entering Syria from Iraq and fears that al-Qaeda may hijack what for many is a struggle for a democratic Syria.

Furthermore, as George Washington University Professor Marc Lynch and others have argued, “boosting rebel fighting capacity” is likely to crystallize Syria’s internal polarization and do little to weaken the Assad regime politically.

Flooding Syria with weapons, in a conflict the United Nations high commissioner for human rights has described as on the brink of civil war, might be used to justify a heavier government crackdown. U.S. assistance to rebels would vindicate Assad’s narrative that the revolt is a conspiracy of outside forces, including the U.S., Israel and the Gulf states. It could also stir Sunni elites in Damascus and the relatively quiescent Aleppo to rally around Assad, thus strengthening rather than weakening his support .

Lastly, the civil war won’t end after arming one side. The most infamous instance of backlash was from the U.S. arming rebels in Afghanistan in the 1980s, a country that later turned into an al-Qaeda sanctuary.

Today in Syria, the foreign frenzy of weapons pouring in has already resulted in a hot mess. Iranian and Russian arms, along with political support from Lebanon and Iraq, are going to the regime in Damascus and the large portion of minority Shia Alawites who support it. Arms and support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia back the majority Sunnis and other anti-Shia Islamist factions. Whatever this regional and international sectarian proxy war morphs into, Washington would do best to stay out of it.

Syria’s deepening slide into civil war looks likely and can be prevented only by either marshaling international opposition to the Assad regime, something Washington has already attempted to do, or encouraging more defections from within the regime with the promise of resettlement and amnesty. The current diplomatic policy of waiting for the resistance to congeal and pledging to guard minority rights is prudent and should be pursued.

Sending weapons to rebels might satisfy the outside world’s moral urge to do something immediately, but it also might add to the mayhem, increase the loss of life, and push Syria further away from a stable future. Restraint is the more difficult choice, but the one that serves both the American and the Syrian people better in the long run.

Image: freedomania

TopicsUNHuman RightsHumanitarian InterventionSecurity RegionsSyria

Would Haass and Levi Accept Their Own Proposed Deal?

The Skeptics

One of the more exasperating phenomena surrounding the question of “diplomacy” with Iran is that many of the people proposing diplomatic offers have outlandish suggestions for the contours of a negotiated settlement on the nuclear issue. The latest offering comes in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, courtesy of Richard Haass and Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Before the criticism, though, a bit of praise: Haass and Levi concede at the outset that

Iran will not do away with its nuclear program, which is simply too extensive and enjoys too much political support among Iranians. No Iranian government could forfeit the “right to enrich” and survive.

This is a refreshing and welcome reality check for the foreign-policy fantasists in the United States Senate, whom Paul Pillar has rightly criticized in these pages.

Setting that aside, however, the Haass/Levi proposal is almost certain to fail. The essential dilemma of U.S.-Iran diplomacy is that anything our domestic politics permits will fail and anything that might not fail is impossible because of our domestic politics. (If pressed, I am enough of a realist to guess that, even in a perfectly permissive domestic political environment, any deal we could offer would not be accepted and adhered to by Iran, for the simple reason that they have little reason to trust us.) Robert Wright has a useful rundown on some of the domestic political constraints at the Atlantic.

But despite not demanding outlandish things like foregoing any enrichment or ending any ballistic-missile programs, for all Haass and Levi’s recognition that either another Middle East war or a nuclear Iran would be a mess, they don’t propose a particularly irresistible set of enticements to Tehran. To wit:

the world should offer to dial back the most recent sanctions (including those not yet fully implemented) that target the Iranian oil and financial sectors. But no existing sanctions should be eased (or new sanctions delayed) as a reward for Iran's agreeing to talk, lest negotiations prove to be nothing more than a tactic. And sanctions aimed at firms and individuals involved in illicit nuclear activities—particularly those associated with military efforts—would need to stay. So, too, would other sanctions prompted by Iranian violations of human rights, support for terrorism, and threats to regional security beyond its nuclear program.

It is definitely sensible to insist that sanctions on illicit nuclear activities should remain in place, but the rest of this seems certain to produce little more than a yawn and a backhanded wave from Tehran. The paragraph is a bit confusing, but it seems like the ultimate payoff here is that the recent financial and oil sanctions would be lifted if the diplomatic process produced fruit. The phasing-in question is important here—maybe the most important piece. And what Haass and Levi suggest the the United States, with a much stronger negotiating position than Iran, should offer up front isn’t clear. Given the constant threats against Iran, if I were sitting in Tehran, I wouldn’t view this as a deal worth taking. There’s reason to believe that Ehud Barak wouldn’t take it, either.

So perhaps it bears asking of Haass and Levi, as well as all advocates of diplomacy with Iran: If the situation were reversed, would you take the deal you’re suggesting the United States should offer?

Image: Marcello Casal Jr\ABr 

TopicsNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesSecurity RegionsIran

A Responsibility to Protect?

The Skeptics

Intervention in Syria is either a dangerous idea, an opportunity to further the cause of democracy promotion or nothing less than the moral duty of the international community. The Obama administration continues to act cagey about the prospects of a successful intervention and the potential for geopolitical fallout from Russia, China and Iran. But given European pressure and the recent Libyan precedent, it seems more than possible that the United States will come to embrace some sort of military intervention in Syria as the love child of regime-changing neoconservatives and genocide-preventing idealists. The real question then will be: Can Obama sell a Syrian intervention to the public? And if so, how?

The likeliest pitch for Obama to use is some form of the responsibility-to-protect (R2P) ethic. Articulated after the international community’s tepid response to the Bosnian meltdown, R2P has become the liberal interventionist’s best friend, offering a justification for violating national sovereignty and taking foreign governments to task for failing to protect their people from violence. Obama used this line with Libya, arguing that:

To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and—more profoundly—our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. . . . Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.

And indeed, the loudest voices so far urging intervention in Syria belong to the R2P crowd (Washington Post editorial here, for example), thanks in part to confidence engendered by what they viewed as success in Libya. But the question remains: Will the public buy this argument?

Certainly, such “responsible rhetoric” resonates—at least on the surface—with the public. Though precise poll data are scanty, a couple of polls from the Pew Research Center illustrate that the public generally agrees that the United States has a responsibility to prevent genocide.  


Unfortunately for Obama, the American public was underwhelmed despite the rhetoric and the relative ease of the Libyan intervention. The latest poll shows that more Americans think that the United States should not have intervened in Libya (49 percent) than think the United States did the right thing by getting involved (37 percent).

Nor does the forecast for R2P look brighter when it comes to Syria, where despite the violence the word genocide won’t come in to play. A CNN/ORC poll reveals that 73 percent of Americans do not believe that the United States has a responsibility to do something about the fighting between the government and antigovernment forces.

More broadly, this disconnect between liberal presidents (Clinton and Obama) and the public is not new. Since the end of the Cold War, foreign-policy makers have searched for a new lodestone to guide decisions about intervention and war. The tendency to invoke the responsibility to protect—in Haiti, in Kosovo, in Sudan, in Libya, in Syria and so on—has by now become a predictable feature of liberal foreign-policy debate. This inclination, moreover, has not slowed or been greatly altered by 9/11 and its aftermath. Similarly, the gap between liberal foreign-policy elites and the public on R2P has also become a predictable feature of American foreign-policy debate. Obama can keep selling R2P, but unless he has another argument up his sleeve, the public is unlikely to evince more than lukewarm support for intervention in Syria.

Image: Tontinho

TopicsDomestic PoliticsGrand StrategyPublic OpinionThe PresidencyHumanitarian InterventionPoliticsSecurity RegionsLibyaSyria

Two Neglected Issues in the "Bomb Iran" Debate

The Skeptics

With only a few exceptions, there was little developed critical discussion in the run-up to the antiproliferation war against Iraq. By contrast, due in considerable part to the subsequent disastrous experience in that enterprise, a fairly healthy debate is now taking place about the wisdom and consequences of launching a Pearl Harbor-like military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Even at that, there are at least two areas that should be more fully considered in this discussion.

One has been deftly put forward in an essay on the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists website by Jacques Hymans. It is developed from his terrific new book, Achieving Nuclear Ambitions: Scientists, Politicians and Proliferation, which has just been published by Cambridge University Press.

The book and the essay examine a central conundrum: Why have so many determined countries had so much difficulty producing a nuclear weapon, and why have generations of prognosticators consequently been so wrong about the likely pace of proliferation? One example of error among a very great many: it is now nearly two years since Doyle McManus informed us in the Los Angeles Times that "most experts now estimate that Iran needs about 18 months to complete a nuclear device and a missile to carry it."

McManus stressed that Iran needed to overcome “technical bottlenecks, the exposure of secret facilities and equipment breakdowns.” Hymans, unlike the “experts” McManus consulted, goes much deeper, stressing the administrative difficulties of developing a bomb. These require “the full-hearted cooperation of thousands of scientific and technical workers for many years.” The task is “enormous,” and

the key driver of an efficient nuclear weapons project has not been a country's funding levels, political will, or access to hardware. Rather, the key has been managerial competence. Nuclear weapons projects require a hands-off, facilitative management approach, one that permits scientific and technical professionals to exercise their vocation. But states such as Iran tend to feature a highly invasive, authoritarian management approach that smothers scientific and technical professionalism. Thus, it is very likely that Iran's political leadership—with its strong tendency toward invasive, authoritarian mismanagement—has been its own worst enemy in its quest for the bomb.

The other consideration comes from my own work as developed in my book Atomic Obsession and as summarized for the Iran case in a recent post on the Guardian website.

The argument in its very basic form is that it really doesn’t bloody well matter whether Iran gets the bomb or not.

Although we have now suffered through two-thirds of a century during which there has been a near-infinite amount of hysteria about the disasters inherent in nuclear proliferation, the substantive consequences of proliferation have been minimal. Although the weapons have certainly affected military spending, diplomatic posturing and ingenious theorizing, they have had little substantial impact on history since 1945.

Those few countries that have taken the plunge have failed to find a plausible military use for the expensive trinkets. And even the deterrence value of the weapons has been questionable—the major Cold War participants, for example, scarcely needed visions of mushroom clouds to conclude that any replication of World War II, with or without nuclear weapons, was a decidedly bad idea.

For the most part, the few countries that have acquired the weapons have found them a notable waste of time, money, effort and scientific talent. They have quietly kept them in storage and haven’t even found much benefit in rattling them from time to time.

This was the experience even with the ultimate rogue state, communist China in the 1960s. John Kennedy reportedly considered a Chinese nuclear test “likely to be historically the most significant and worst event of the 1960s.” Actually, that designation should probably go instead to Kennedy’s decision to send American troops in substantial numbers to Vietnam largely to confront the Chinese “threat” that lurked there.

The Obama administration is notable for the apparent absence of anybody in a high foreign-policy office who clearly and publicly opposed the war on Iraq before George W. Bush launched his invasion. Maybe things are less heated on the Iran issue, but the bottom line hasn’t changed, certainly not at the top.

It was in the campaign of 2008, for example, that candidate Barack Obama repeatedly announced that he would “do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon—everything,” even as candidate Hillary Clinton insisted that Iran must be kept from getting the bomb “at all costs.”

Neither bothered to tally what “everything” might entail and what the costs might be, and both continue to make the same kind of pronouncements. But since the antiproliferation military effort in Iraq has led to the deaths of more people than perished at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, perhaps it is time to consider the wisdom of polices carried out under the obsessive sway of worst-case scenario fantasies.


TopicsNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesSecurity RegionsIran