Threats of Force Don't Always Help

Paul Pillar

No matter how the next chapters of the Syrian chemical weapons story play out, a conclusion repeatedly being drawn from the story is that threats of military force work. Both those who have an innate fondness for the making (and executing) of such threats and the Obama administration—eager to describe its handling of the Syrian issue as a success—have their separate reasons for pushing this conclusion. Expect to hear it a lot in the coming days.

The conclusion is a simple one with intuitive appeal, flowing naturally to many people ever since as children they witnessed schoolyard bullies getting their way by threatening to beat up other kids. The sequence of events over the past month does make it appear that the threatened use of U.S. military force was a leading reason for the departures that Syria and Russia took over the past week regarding chemical weapons (although Eliot Cohen offers an interesting challenge to this view, noting other important factors that shaped the Russian and Syrian decisions). The danger of the commonly accepted conclusion comes from promoting a simple belief that “threats work” without considering all of the other reasons that lead them to work or not to work, and then to apply that belief to situations where they probably will not work. The situation most often invoked, of course, is Iran and the issue of its nuclear program. The simplistic belief about the supposed universal efficacy of threats of military force thus accentuates an already widely held and mistaken assumption that the more that Iranians fear a military attack the more likely they are to make concessions about their nuclear activities.

A large corpus of scholarly work has addressed the subject of military threats and sought-after political or diplomatic outcomes, a subject that usually comes under the heading of coercive diplomacy. This research by political scientists has not arrived at some single grand conclusion that military threats do (or don't) work. Instead, the research has concerned the numerous conditions and variables that increase or decrease the chance they will work. The political scientists have had plenty of material to examine; successful and unsuccessful examples of the use of threats can be found throughout history. This is true both of threats of armed force that never materialized and ones that did. In modern U.S. history, for example, the Vietnam War and especially the air war against North Vietnam was a large and conspicuous example of a failed attempt to use armed force to get an adversary to change its policies—in this case, to get the North Vietnamese to abandon its objective of uniting all of Vietnam under its rule.

Among the other variables that matter are whatever other pressures and constraints, besides the threatened military force, the targeted regime is experiencing. Failure to take such variables into account is a shortcoming of the frequent references to the air wars in the Balkans in the 1990s as supposedly having been successful in breaking the will of Slobodan Milošović. The references routinely ignore what else was going on at the time, such as what Croatian forces were doing on the ground in Bosnia. In Syria today, the Assad regime is engaged in an intense civil war and waging a struggle both domestically and internationally not only for its legitimacy but for its very existence. Nothing remotely resembling that is true of the government in Iran.

Of particular importance are the nature of the specific issues in dispute and what they imply for the priority that each side places on them, the determination of the target regime to maintain its stance, and how defensible that stance is internationally. Here again there is a big difference between the Syrian and Iranian situations. The Syrian regime not only possesses but also, it appears, lethally used a weapon that is the subject of a near-universal prohibition. The type of (not quite so universally prohibited) weapon that is supposedly the concern with Iran is one that Iran does not possess, has never used, and hasn't even decided to build. The Iranian program that is the focus of concern is one that the Iranians believe, strongly and correctly, they are entitled to maintain under international law and the relevant international control regimes.

An added aspect of the issue involved in the Iranian case is that to the extent there is any interest in Tehran in someday developing a nuclear weapon, probably the most important motivation would be a hope that such a weapon would help to deter foreign military attack on Iran. Threatening an attack is thus more likely to stoke than to diminish any interest in such a weapon.

Among the reasons that threats of armed force often not only do not work but may even be counterproductive—stiffening the resolve of the decision-makers on the other side—is that regimes do not like to be bullied. They are even more likely than schoolkids to push back, once they have gotten their nationalist dander up. Another, somewhat related, reason is that domestic politics are affected by such threats, with hardliners being empowered or incumbent decision-makers having to modify their policies to avoid losing out to the hardliners.

A little role-reversed thinking should make these dynamics easy for Americans to understand. What would be the political impact in the United States if it became the target of some other country's threats of armed attack? Would American hardliners cower and be silenced, and would there be a surge of sentiment in favor of making whatever concessions the threatener wants? Of course not. The result would be the opposite. One of the downsides of American exceptionalist thinking is a failure to understand how many foreigners' responses to what we do are basically the same as how we would respond to similar acts from them.

In Tehran, President Rouhani has to contend with his own hardliners. Bullying Iran with threats of armed attack does not help him to do that. The conventional American wisdom, now amplified by simplistic conclusions extracted from the Syrian episode, that threats of armed force will help bring about more accommodating Iranian positions on the nuclear issue is almost certainly wrong. Not only wrong, but counterproductive. That is all the more true because such threats feed the suspicions of Iranians, who already have been given ample reason to hold such suspicions, that the United States is interested not in an agreement but only in regime change.

Different elements in the United States will continue to push the mistaken conventional wisdom about the efficacy of threats for their different reasons. The Obama administration wants to continue to portray its Syria policy as a success and also wants to placate a rightist Israeli government that appears to have little compunction about starting wars. Many Americans, including many members of Congress, voice the conventional wisdom because they simply do not know better. Then there are those who do know better but continue to promote military threats because they do not want an agreement with Iran and understand how such threats may help to kill the prospects for one.

TopicsArms ControlCongressDomestic PoliticsDefenseHistoryInternational LawPublic OpinionWMD RegionsIsraelIranUnited StatesSyria

Highlights from our Syria Coverage

The Buzz

The ongoing crisis involving Syria, its deadly civil war, the release of chemical weapons and the various responses to fast-moving events have dominated the headlines for the past several weeks.

With talk of an American strike to punish the Syrian regime to Russian proposals to solve the crisis and ongoing diplomacy, covering this issue from all perspectives has become our mission here at TNI.

We are proud to present some of our best material on the subject. By no means comprehensive, our goal is to showcase to our readers the various perspectives on the crisis, the long-term consequences for U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East and beyond.

Syria: Vetting the Chemical-Weapon Plan By: Dina Esfandiary - The challenges will be great.

Doing Red Lines Right By: Benjamin Alter - Syria and Iran won't be deterred by vague commitments.

Obama's Goldilocks Syria Plan By: James Joyner - Diplomacy backed by the threat of a war that's not too big and not too small.

Syria: World Sees Way Out in Lavrov Proposal By: Nikolas K. Gvosdev - Caught between Obama's interventionism and Putin's defense of national sovereignty über alles, an international solution is attractive to many.

On Syria: Don't Take Regime Change Off the Table By: William C. Martel - An effective effort to prevent future chemical weapons use cannot exclude it.

Questions About War with Syria By: Paul J. Saunders & Ryan Evans - The Obama administration should clarify several matters before launching a war.

Holding Assad Accountable By: Orde F. Kittrie & Gregory D. Koblentz - Numerous legal and economic steps remain against the Syrian government.

Brzezinski on the Syria Crisis by Jacob Heilbrunn - An interview with the former national security advisor from June 2013.

TopicsFailed StatesRogue StatesSecurity RegionsSyria

Putin's Pertinent Points

Paul Pillar

Vladimir Putin's op ed about U.S. policy toward Syria unsurprisingly did not go down well with many American readers, principally because it was coming from Putin. They undoubtedly see an issue of whether Putin has the moral and political standing to be so preachy with Americans. As Steven Lee Myers reminds us in the New York Times, when Putin took back the presidency a year ago he “moved aggressively to stamp out a growing protest movement and silence competing and independent voices” and since then has “promoted nationalism with a hostile edge, passed antigay legislation, locked up illegal immigrants in a city camp, and kept providing arms to the Syrian government.” Speaker of the House John Boehner said he felt “insulted” by Putin's piece, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez said that upon reading it he “almost wanted to vomit.”

Okay, we don't like to be lectured to, about anything, by the ex-KGB man who is boss of Russia. But put aside the author's resumé and think about the substance of the article. There are, to be sure, some grounds on which to criticize it. Notwithstanding weaknesses in the Obama administration's intelligence case about the chemical weapons incident, Putin expresses too much confidence in the alternative hypothesis that Syrian rebels and not government forces used the weapons. He perhaps is also a little far-reaching in spinning out some of the more dire scenarios that could result from a U.S. military strike.

But much of the rest of what Putin is saying makes sense, and it would behoove Americans to think about it. He talked about the costs, which the United States would share, of doing end-runs around the United Nations Security Council on matters on which the council ought to be involved. He restated the principles of international law regarding use of military force and self-defense. He observed that in a world in which there is less respect for law and more reliance on force, there would be more people seeking to protect themselves by acquiring weapons of mass destruction. He noted how any military attack would claim some innocent victims and would constitute an escalation of the Syrian war. He observed that this war is not a struggle for democracy but instead a religiously-infused contest in which there are intolerant extremists on the rebel side. He pointed out how past U.S. reliance on brute force fosters negative attitudes toward the United States, and how it has failed to impart stability in the places it has been used in recent years.

The part of Putin's piece that Americans perhaps found more irritating than any other was his final comment about American exceptionalism. Americans get especially upset about this sort of comment because it sounds to them like an affront to the very nature of America and not just particular American policies. Probably an extra annoyance was Putin's final line invoking religion, especially coming from someone who used to work on behalf of godless communism.  

But what Putin actually said here involved one of his most valid and valuable points. He said that encouraging exceptionalist thinking is dangerous because countries differ from each other on all sorts of dimensions, and there is no basis for saying that any one country's differences sets it apart in a way that does not apply to any other countries. He was not impugning the motivation of exceptionalist thinking in the United States or anywhere else—he specifically said “whatever the motivation”—but instead was pointing out undesirable consequences of such thinking.

This closing part of Putin's article was a direct response to the closing portion of President Obama's speech on Syria on Tuesday. Even the final God-invoking line was a reflection of the Obama speech. Given that a “God bless” closing has become obligatory in speeches by U.S. presidents, why can't a Russian president invoke divinity at the end of his public statements, too?

What the U.S. president said about exceptionalism in that final part of his speech was shaky enough that it shouldn't need a Putin to expose the weakness of it. Mr. Obama said that when “we can stop children from being gassed to death”—never mind for the moment that a U.S. military attack would not be stopping any such thing—“we should act.” He said, “That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional.” Really? After all that has been said and felt through the years about an exceptional America, evoking a sense that this country represents a higher plane of basic goodness, what it comes down to is the will and wherewithal to fire off a bunch of Tomahawk missiles?

Exceptionalist thinking has more extensive and fundamental drawbacks than what is represented in this one paragraph in Obama's speech. Three years ago I enumerated some of those drawbacks. They include such things as an inability to understand the causes of anti-Americanism, an overestimation of the inclination of other countries to follow a U.S. lead, and a failure to understand the limitations of what the United States can accomplish overseas. These and other drawbacks are apparent in much discussion about the current Syrian problem.

It would be fortunate if this problem, and the embarrassment of having to rely on Putin to help get the U.S. fat out of this particular fire, had the compensating advantage of getting more Americans to think seriously about the downside of exceptionalist thinking. That is not likely to happen, even if the message were coming from a messenger less disagreeable than Vladimir Putin.

TopicsHumanitarian InterventionReligionWMD RegionsRussiaUnited StatesSyria

Obama's Divided Syria Speech

Jacob Heilbrunn

Does President Obama want to go to war in Syria for Sasha and Malia? In his address last night, Obama repeatedly invoked the gassing of hundreds of children in Syria to make the case for military action. He indicated that countenancing the Syrian regime’s deployment of chemical weapons on August 21 would mean that Americans eventually might become the target of such attacks. 

And he made the moral case for action. Obama was, in effect, admonishing Americans for their reluctance to intervene in the cauldron of religious and ethnic animosities that has transformed Syria from a repressive dictatorship into a country with violent factions trying to turn it back into a unified and repressive dictatorship. "What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?" Obama said. At the same time, he acknowledged that America cannot serve as the "world's policeman." Just a neighborhood watch committee?

And so Obama's speech had a distinctly schizophrenic quality. The first half or so sounded like a call to arms. The other half not so much. Instead, it grudgingly accepted that maybe diplomacy is the way to go. Whether Obama wants to admit it or not, Russian president Vladimir Putin has offered him an out from political self-destruction. Obama may owe the rest of his presidency, which was headed for a cataclysmic defeat, not in Syria, where America could basically have bombed with impunity, but in Congress, where the president keeps succeeding in adding to his roster of adversaries, to Putin. This time it wasn't simply many Republican conservatives who were about to repudiate Obama; it was also the antiwar Democratic base that he emerged from when he originally denounced the Iraq war as a “dumb idea.”

What Obama’s speech exemplified, then, are the contradictions in his own administration over the past few weeks when it comes to Syria. Secretary John Kerry has been freelancing, coming up with the idea of Syria handing over its chemical weapons cache, which Moscow seized upon, in an off-hand remark. Obama, too, has been improvising—he blindsided Kerry and Defense Secretary Hagel in coming up with the notion of going to Congress for a Syria resolution. Obama would do well to think about a reset of his own foreign policy team.

If Obama manages to get a deal, he could pull off a foreign and domestic success. But he would have to seek a far more cooperative relationship with Russia, which holds the key to the Syria conflict. He can’t, in other words, treat Russia as he does Congress—like a pesky nuisance that he condescends to speak to once in awhile. A new era of détente, based on common interests in stability abroad, needs to be inaugurated. Russia has no more interest in Islamic radicals obtaining chemical weapons than does America.

No doubt a fresh diplomatic initiative will attract the ire of the neoconservative wing of the GOP and inevitably expose Obama to charges of appeasement. Big deal. As opinion polls indicate, Obama’s time-out is what the public, weary of incessant wars in the Middle East, wants. International norms don’t have a domestic constituency. Americans are not willing to go to war for the Fletcher School.

In indicating that he will maintain America’s current military posture in the region, Obama made it clear that the threat of force will remain. It’s a credible one. Congress clearly has little appetite for voting, and a vote will probably never take place. America should bring the world together to condemn and penalize Syria for this action,” Oregon Sen. Jeff Markley (D-OR) declared. “Such an effort, however, is best pursued through international negotiation and diplomacy.” Senator Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appears to agree: “Our best course of action is to pause.”

If diplomacy is ineffective, then Obama will likely order a military strike and call it a day. To a degree that his detractors and supporters may both have underestimated, he is emotionally committed to the idea of the nonproliferation and abolition of weapons of mass destruction. It was underscored when Obama said, “To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain, and going still on a cold hospital floor. For sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.”

But Obama’s commitment to a red-line in Syria almost redlined him. He knows that if diplomacy does fail, it could result in the failure of his own presidency.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Syria: Deterrence Defanged

The Buzz

Whether or not President Obama actually enforces his “red line” by attacking Syria, his decision to seek authority to act from Congress, after his administration already conveyed its intention to strike, has seriously undermined American credibility. The Syrian regime and its Iranian backers – and U.S. friends and foes alike – have surely taken note.

After the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons outside Damascus on August 21, the administration quickly created the impression that it would respond with force, and soon. Following the House of Commons’ vote against any British involvement in a potential military action against Syria, the administration announced its willingness to even take unilateral action against Syria.

These declarations to back U.S. threats with actual action seemed commendable at the time, although Obama’s irresolution has since become increasingly apparent.

On August 31, Obama bowed to calls from members of Congress – Republicans and Democrats – that he obtain congressional approval before taking action in Syria. Any notions that the U.S. would intervene decisively, in a manner that might tilt today’s military balance in the rebels’ favor, were quickly dispelled: a limited, three-day strike employing only stand-off weaponry was envisioned. It would be, in the words of one U.S. official briefed on the administration’s options on Syria, "just muscular enough not to get mocked.” Nonetheless, mocked this proposed use of limited force certainly was.

In the face of these criticisms, reports on Thursday indicated that President Obama has ordered the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of targets in Syria. This order was prompted by intelligence reports suggesting that the Assad regime has been relocating troops and materiel as Congress debates authorizing action; common sense would also suggest that the regime would react in this way. Now, the regime has even more time to ready itself for the increasingly uncertain prospect of limited American intervention, because the Senate is expected to vote sometime this week and another one-week delay is expected on the House side.

Understandably, Obama punted to Congress in order to obtain political cover to act, given the significant potential for events and American involvement in Syria to go horribly awry and expand considerably in scope. An even more cynical reading is that Obama sought political cover to not act: if Congress refuses to authorize force, which is certainly possible – and, as matters stand now, likely – Obama does not intend to act, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said Friday.

This uncertainty concerning whether Congress will “allow” the president to act makes his threats to potentially employ force elsewhere – against, say, Iran – difficult to take seriously. Setting the precedent of seeking congressional support once fosters the impression that Congress will have a say – and potentially a veto – next time. There is a qualitative difference between the president conveying that he will use force in response to a given contingency, and declaring that he might act if Congress grants him permission to do so.

The president declared in his 2010 State of the Union address that “as Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: they, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise." This might have been taken seriously by Tehran then. Now, however, the Iranian regime would likely interpret Obama’s statement thusly: “…there should be significant doubt: they, too, might face growing consequences. That is a hope."

Israeli officials have argued that enforcing the president’s red line on Syria is essential to deterring Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. officials have argued similarly that a ‘no’ vote from lawmakers would embolden Iran and North Korea. Yet this is a problem of the administration’s own making. This lame attempt to pass the buck to Congress is the antithesis of strong leadership.

Beyond obtaining political cover for action – or inaction – Obama certainly had many other reasons to go to Congress. An NBC News poll released on Friday found that nearly 80 percent of Americans believe the president should obtain congressional approval before acting in Syria. Only 36 percent of respondents in a new Gallup poll also released on Friday support using force in Syria, the lowest level of popular support for any U.S. military intervention in the last 20 years. If he had chosen to bypass Congress, these factors alone would provide ample ammunition for Obama’s critics on the right. Additionally, bypassing Congress would have also left him vulnerable to criticisms from the left for acting unilaterally, à la George W. Bush.

If Obama intended to seek congressional approval to act in Syria, he should have discreetly put out feelers on Capitol Hill well before publicly creating the impression that he planned to use force. If obtaining sufficient support seemed unlikely, then the administration could have still announced that it intended to act, and settled for cobbling together a bipartisan group of congressional supporters to provide at least a sheen of political support and cover. Opponents of using force could have been urged to dampen or mute their subsequent public criticisms of the administration’s actions in Syria.

It is not necessarily always a problem for this or any president to seek congressional authorization to use force. (Of course, presidents are often able to use force abroad independently of Congress, and have done so more often than not.) Indeed, the president should, when practicable, attempt to solicit congressional support for launching military action. Ideally, he or she should try to achieve an at least somewhat consultative and cooperative relationship with Congress when it comes to employing military force.

However, sound statesmanship, encompassing the imperative of maintaining a credible deterrent capacity, necessitates that the president should never create the impression that he is beholden to the whims of Congress in acting as commander-in-chief. Unfortunately, this administration has indicated that this is exactly the case.

TopicsSecurity RegionsSyria