Aid to Syrian Rebels: How Does It End?

Paul Pillar

The Obama administration's proposal to spend $500 million on training and equipping “appropriately vetted elements of the moderate Syrian armed opposition” leaves unanswered some of the same questions that always have surrounded proposals to give lethal aid to Syrian rebels. Some of those questions involve the challenges in determining who qualifies as a “moderate.” “Vetting” sounds so much easier to do than it actually is to do. It is very difficult to do with anything that is even half as jumbled, confused, and extremist-ridden as is the current armed opposition to the Syrian regime. It is interesting how many of those in Washington who are quick to lambaste the national security bureaucracy for supposedly being unable to perceive and predict accurately who is doing what in the Middle East seem to have ample confidence in the ability of that same bureaucracy to “vet” Syrian rebels.

“Moderate” presumably refers to long-term political objectives rather than to current methods, given that anyone who is engaging in armed rebellion is by definition using non-moderate methods. The principal difficulty in identifying those political objectives stems not from faulty information or analysis today but rather from the impossibility of predicting the directions that groups or leaders, facing changed circumstances, will take in the future. History is replete with examples of leaders whose trajectories once in power could not have been extrapolated from what they did or said while they were still rebels.

Another complication is that fighters and the arms they carry have a way of moving from group to group. There already has been some of this movement in the Syrian civil war.

One hears the argument that the presence of many nasty and immoderate people in the Syrian opposition is all the more reason to aid moderate groups, so that fighters will gravitate toward the moderate groups rather than the extreme ones. But if allegiance and political inclination can be transferred or bought this easily, this calls into question the validity of any “vetting.”

The most fundamental question about any aid to Syrian rebels is exactly how this type of support advances whatever is our own political objective for Syria, or at least makes more likely an outcome of the war that is more rather than less consistent with U.S. interests. The White House statement about the aid proposal says the assistance is intended to “help defend the Syrian people, stabilize areas under opposition control, facilitate the provision of essential services, counter terrorist threats, and promote conditions for a negotiated settlement.” That sounds reasonable enough, although the nature of the objective concerning a negotiated settlement is unclear given that we never appear to have rescinded explicitly the previously stated objective that Assad must go.

Perhaps some aid to the rebellion would shift the momentum on the battlefield enough for some figures in the regime's camp to support a negotiated settlement more than they do now. If that is to happen, however, rather than aid to rebels being just one step in a new spiral of escalation, a more complete pro-negotiation strategy will have to become apparent, with everything that entails particularly for the roles of Russia and Iran.

We also should be wary of a dynamic we observed with some of our client groups in Afghanistan. When a group realizes that it is being aided only because of its role in an ongoing war, it has an incentive to keep the war ongoing. And that means it is more likely to oppose negotiations, at least under any terms that are reasonable and feasible, than to support them.

Meanwhile, we have the irony of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad reportedly conducting air strikes against positions of the hated ISIS group in Iraq. The Iraqi prime minister says he didn't ask for the strikes but welcomes them. Some of the same Washington hawks who have been most gung-ho about toppling Assad have also been gung-ho about doing what Assad's own forces are doing in Western Iraq. You can't tell the players in the Middle East without a scorecard. Or rather, the line-ups are so confused even with a scorecard that we need to think again about trying to play whatever is the game that's going on.

It is unclear how much of what the Obama administration has been doing lately in Iraq and Syria, including this proposal to give lethal aid to Syrian rebels, it would have done without the political pressure from critics to “do something” in those countries. Both the administration and its critics need to keep end games and broad strategy in mind and continually to ask themselves—as well as making more clear for the rest of us—how any move today will make more probable a desired end state in either country.       

Image: Wikipedia. 

TopicsSyria Iraq RegionsMiddle East

China's South China Sea Strategy: Win the Perception Battle

The Buzz

Editor's Note: The following article first appeared at the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute blog here

With the United States once again preoccupied with events in the Middle East China has made another strategic adjustment to its claims in the South China Sea. It seems clear by now that Beijing has found a new way to bolster its position in what Stratfor analyst Robert D. Kaplan has dubbed Asia’s Cauldron. China’s plan: why provoke your neighbors with raw military might, or the outright taking of claimed territory, when you can use oil rigs and maps to achieve the same strategic aims?

While China’s crafty placement of an oil rig off Vietnam’s coast—with fears several more might be in the offing—has been in the news for the past month or so, it is Beijing’s latest ploy that should make Asia watchers more concerned.

According to various reports the PRC “has published its first official vertical national map incorporating the vast South China Sea, with equal weight given to both land and sea, in its latest move emphasizing its claims of sovereignty over the disputed waters.” While Chinese maps have been used before in various claims of sovereignty (recall Beijing’s passport photo controversy a few years ago), this adds a new twist. According to an article in the South China Sea Morning Post past official maps “were horizontal and focused on the country’s vast land area. And the country’s sea areas and islands in the South China Sea were often featured on a smaller scale, in a separate box-out in a bottom corner of the map.” This new map, which went on sale last Monday shows “the islands and claimed waters in the South China Sea have been given the same amount of weight as China’s land areas, and are featured on the same scale in one complete map.” The report goes on to detail the area of the map concerning the South China Sea being “more prominent in the new map and is marked out by a nine-dash demarcation line. China claims all the islands and their adjacent waters encompassed by the line are part of its sovereignty.” (Note to readers: looking at the map, it’s actually a 10-dash line now)

For China, such a strategy is in line with past attempts, not only to slowly change facts on the ground and in the water, but to change perceptions regarding various territorial claims. Doing and acting as if you have sovereignty over something goes a long way to driving the narrative towards your own perspective. Sending an oil rig well within another country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), constantly utilizing non-naval maritime assets (rightly dubbed “small-stick diplomacy”) to solidify claims, issuing regulations over various parts of vital commerce such as fishing in disputed territories and now using maps all make it quite clear what China’s strategic plan for the South China Sea is. It’s quite simple really: don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk. They say possession is nine-tenths of the law. For China, outright possession could spark a war. So winning in multiple domains that have less of a chance to spark a conflict like maps, oil rigs, using non-naval assets and regulations put China in position to inch its way towards possession in the one place that might just count the most: the perception game.

So should the Asia-Pacific and wider Indo-Pacific be concerned about such a move? What about the United States?

For ASEAN countries, and those for whom China’s nine or ten-dash line appears right off their coastline, the challenge is quite clear—and what to do about it should also be clear as well. Such nations must protest in every possible way. One strategy that might be possible is what the Philippines has done—what pundits have called “lawfare.” Manila has appealed to the Permanent Court of Arbitration—essentially an attempt by the Philippines to use legal maneuvers and international law to shame the Chinese into some sort of compromise. One possible strategy could be to take this to the next level. All of the various claimants to different parts of the South China Sea could collectively ask for international arbitration—banding together to test China’s South China Sea claims. Call it the biggest class-action lawsuit of all time. This might be the only way nations impacted by China’s claims will be able to push back. Lawfare just might be the best way to achieve such a goal.

For Washington, the challenge is quite clear: Beijing is bent on changing the status quo, in this case, one map at a time. The trend lines are also clear. While America does not take an official position on such claims, Washington does have a big stake in the outcome. With $5 trillion worth of sea-borne trade passing through Asia’s Cauldron, Beijing claiming 90% of South China Sea is a direct threat to the very concept of the maritime commons in which all nations benefit from. If Beijing were to overturn the almost timeless concept that oceans are not national territory but part of the commons all nations are free to utilize, a dangerous precedent would be set. Who is to say Beijing would not enact such a precedent again (think East China Sea) or that other nations in other parts of the world would use such a trend to their own advantage (think Russia in the Arctic). All nations who value the global commons share a stake in seeing them survive Beijing’s latest challenge. No map or otherwise should be allowed to chip away at something so important.

Image: U.S. Navy/Wikicommons. 

TopicsSouth China Sea RegionsChina

Japan's Article 9 Challenge

The Buzz

Throughout the postwar period, the Government of Japan's (GOJ) definition and interpretation of collective self-defense and Article 9 of Japan's constitution have played a crucial role in how its leaders develop and employ military power. This issue also has had significant implications for its political and security relationship with the United States.

Japan has arguably been alone among sovereign states in self-imposing a ban on exercise of the UN-sanctioned right of "collective self-defense," despite recognizing that it too possesses this right. The crucial factor has been the government's official interpretation of Article 9 of the constitution, which basically renounces war as Japan's sovereign right and forbids it from threatening or using force to settle international disputes.

That Japan's constitution has never been revised is widely known; but the GOJ's interpretation of Article 9 has changed significantly over time, however. Indeed, there is precedent for effective 'reinterpretation' of Article 9 in response to changing circumstances within and outside Japan. After the Korean War, Tokyo effectively (re-)interpreted the definition of the term "war potential" prohibited by Article 9 to allow "that which does not exceed the minimum necessary level for self-defense." This paved the way for the establishment of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in 1954. By 1957 even nuclear weapons were deemed constitutional, provided they stayed within the scope of the new interpretation - i.e., of "minimum necessary level for self-defense" - a vague concept subject to political interpretation. These weapons have been eschewed, however, primarily for domestic political reasons. Other weapons GOJ defined as "offensive" (kogekigata), such as aircraft carriers, ICBMs, and strategic bombers, in contrast, were - and still are - deemed explicitly unconstitutional.

So, while the actual text of Article 9 remains unchanged, its interpretation has in practice been shaped by changing external conditions, weapon technologies, and shifting political winds at home. Also relevant today, there is precedent for prime ministers personally spearheading shifts in reinterpretation - in contradiction of the powerful bureau effectively tasked with interpreting Article 9: the Cabinet Legislation Bureau (CLB). For example, as Richard Samuels notes, early in the Cold War, motivated Prime Ministers Yoshida Shigeru and Kishi Nobusuke (Abe's grandfather) effectively shaped significant changes in policy by pressuring CLB bureaucrats. The results? The SDF itself and nuclear weapons, respectively, were deemed "constitutional." Restrictions have in effect been further loosened over time. Most recently, some critics have called Japan's past replenishment operations in the Indian Ocean and air transport operations, as well as its involvement in anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden de facto exercise of the right of collective self-defense. In effect, what has already taken place at these key inflection points is "constitutional reform through reinterpretation" (kaishaku kaiken).

Despite being unable to generate sufficient support for constitutional revision and moving instead to 'reinterpretation,' domestic political winds still do not appear to be shifting in Abe's favor. Public opinion is mixed, at best. A mid-June Kyodo poll revealed that 55 percent are opposed (up from 48 percent in May). Although the tactic is controversial, even some opponents concede that Abe's push to reinterpret Article 9 by Cabinet resolution is within his right as a democratically elected leader, particularly one whose views were well-established before the LDP's landslide 2012 election victory brought him to power.

Nor is support for reinterpretation of the constitution limited to so-called "hawks."  Although the specifics of proposals differ, the idea of moderate changes to interpretation and/or revision of Article 9 itself has support across the political spectrum. The key points seem to be how to revise the constitution/reinterpret the constitution - and on these matters views vary widely. Although exercise of the right of collective self-defense is often presented by analysts as a simple binary choice for Japan - 'yes' or 'no' - the practical significance of any reinterpretation will be contingent on its specific content.

In May, the Abe administration listed more than a dozen scenarios for threats that it argues Japan could address more effectively by exercising the right of collective self-defense. These include: defending US ships on the high seas, protecting foreign troops involved in UN peacekeeping operations, minesweeping operations in international sea lanes (e.g., the Strait of Hormuz), and shooting down a North Korean missile fired at the US. As the intense negotiations between leaders in the LDP and its far more cautious New Komeito coalition partner suggest, however, even if Abe pushes through reinterpretation the Cabinet resolution itself and subsequent legislation will be watered down. For example, in response to New Komeito resistance the Cabinet set aside the issue of participating in UN-sanctioned collective security operations requiring military force. It has also incorporated more restrictive language on three new conditions for exercising the right; e.g., the right is to be exercised only when there is an "impending danger" threatening "Japan's existence" (kuni no sonritsu). 

Bringing balance to the force[s]?

There is strong support for reinterpretation of Article 9 in Washington, where Japan's self-imposed ban on exercising the right of collective self-defense has for decades been seen as a major obstacle to expanded and more effective alliance cooperation. Accordingly, in April President Obama praised Abe "for his efforts to strengthen Japan's defense forces and to deepen the coordination between our militaries." Many supporters view reinterpretation as major progress toward a more "equal" (taitona) alliance and toward mitigating longstanding 'abandonment' fears in Tokyo. Timing is also key. Tokyo and Washington are negotiating the first revision of the Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation since 1997, with the explicit objective of "expanding security and defense cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond."

Beyond the alliance: concerns abroad

Whereas Abe's efforts have received public support from US treaty allies Australia and the Philippines, recent statements from Beijing and Seoul, as well as editorials in media in both countries, provide grounds for concern that reinterpretation may exacerbate regional tensions. China's foreign ministry has said China will be "highly vigilant as to Japan's true intentions."  Less diplomatically, earlier this week the deputy chief of the PLA's General Staff placed reinterpretation in the context of what he called a resurgence of Japanese militarism and efforts to accelerate Japan's "military buildup" (kuochong junli) and "to destroy the post-war international order" (pohuai zhanhou guoji zhixu). Seoul's official position appears moderate: it acknowledges collective self-defense as Japan's sovereign right but stipulates that it will not tolerate SDF involvement in a potential conflict on the Korean Peninsula without a direct request from Seoul.

Regardless of the specifics, reinterpretation without effective engagement with neighbors may backfire, making Japan more insecure. As former deputy minister for foreign affairs Tanaka Hitoshi, who supports a limited reinterpretation, has argued, "security policy changes not coupled with diplomacy may [.] worsen the overall regional security environment."

A 'game-changer'?

Reinterpretation of Article 9 to allow for the exercise of Japan's right to collective self-defense has the potential to spark major changes in Japan's security policy and political and security relations with other countries - above all the United States, but also US allies such as Australia and the Philippines. Much will depend on the actual content of the Cabinet resolution, as well as how the reinterpretation itself is interpreted in subsequent legislation and security policy decision-making, especially concerning the forthcoming US-Japan Guidelines revision. A June 16 preliminary draft of the proposed Cabinet resolution notes "fundamental changes in international conditions surrounding Japan" (wagakuni wo torimaku kokusai josei ga konponteki ni henyo shi) and states that "no country can protect peace by itself" (dono kuni mo ikkoku nomi de heiwa wo mamoru koto ha dekizu). This suggests the Tokyo government will present collective self-defense as needed to meet the condition of 'minimum necessary level for self-defense.'

Yet how much will change in practice is unknowable at present. Resistance from the Japanese public, opposition parties, and even within the ruling coalition, together with foreign reactions, is sure to play a significant role in determining Japan's path forward - a path that is not - despite all the effort by the Abe administration - all that clear. 

Dr. Adam Liff is a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center. This autumn he will become a postdoctoral fellow in the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program and an assistant professor at Indiana University's newly established School of Global and International Studies (SGIS). Dr. Liff is also a former SPF Non-Resident Fellow and Pacific Forum CSIS Young Leader. This article was first published by CSIS: PACNET here

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsJapan

Bipartisanship and U.S. Foreign Policy

The Buzz

Depending upon who you speak to, both partisanship and bipartisanship can be dirty words in U.S. politics, including when it comes to foreign policy.  In a way, it is appropriate—not to mention quintessentially American—that there is such dissensus over whether a bipartisan foreign policy is necessary or even desirable.

Perhaps the real question, though, is whether the presidency and the Congress ought to agree on foreign policy, for it is these two organs of government—each allocated by the constitution certain powers over foreign policy—through which the political parties exercise their influence.  It is only in the context of political relations within and between the presidency and Congress that partisanship and bipartisanship become operative concepts.

Realist scholars of international relations from George Kennan to Henry Kissinger to Stephen Krasner have long argued that Congress is ill-suited to foreign policy-making.  Individual congressmen are responsible to narrow constituencies of electors, perennially up for re-election and thus hopelessly short-sighted.  Against the wishes of the Framers of the Constitution, the Seventeenth Amendment ensures that the Senate is little better than the House: members of both chambers often seem more interested in their own careers than in defending truly national interests.  Why allow the partisan muckrakers in Congress a say in foreign policy when their branch of government is so badly designed for it?

Instead, realists tend to believe that foreign policy should be the preserve of the president.  As a unitary actor, the presidency does not have to compromise with itself as does Congress.  Moreover, presidents are dependent upon achieving a decisive hunk of the national electorate, not a paltry slice of it; they thus have incentives to cater to the nation at large in words and in deeds.  At least in theory, the office of president carries with it the legitimacy to remain aloof from short-term partisan bickering.  Given that he (one day she) symbolizes and embodies the entire nation, surely the president should be allowed to conduct foreign policy as he sees fit?

Seen from this perspective, bipartisanship means a dilution of the national interest and the triumph of politics over hard-headed calculations.  In fact, though, broad consensus between the presidency and the Congress—or, more accurately, the two parties controlling these institutions—is extremely important for U.S. foreign policy.  As Charles Kupchan and Peter Trubowitz reminded readers of Foreign Affairs in 2007, the issue at stake is (in Walter Lippman’s words) one of “political solvency.”  That is, the nation’s ambitions on the international stage must tally with the stomach of its political representatives.  When foreign policy is solvent—when goals and objectives do not exceed domestic appetite—then presidents can rely upon the political foundations necessary to carrying out the business of promoting the national interest.  When foreign policy is insolvent—when chief executives try to punch above or below the weight expected of them by domestic actors—then presidents will find themselves constantly looking over their shoulders, hamstrung in undertaking international diplomacy.

Today, President Obama’s foreign policy looks politically insolvent.  Some Republican law-makers criticize the president’s agenda of downsizing the military’s overseas footprint while others from both sides of the aisle argue for greater economies in defense spending.  Just in the last few weeks, divisions have emerged over the appropriate tools with which the United States should fight insurgents in Iraq.  More broadly still, it is unsettled whether the Greater Middle East (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria), East Asia (the East and South China Seas) and Eastern Europe (Ukraine) constitute core areas of strategic concern.

Interestingly, the general public often is more united when it comes to foreign policy.  Partisan differences are evident in public opinion polls, but they are modest.  The problem is that Congress and the political parties that control it are much more able to torpedo Obama’s foreign policy agenda than “the people” are able to buoy it.  Even withstanding the presidency’s considerable powers over foreign policy, Congress constitutes a formidable backseat driver.  It is therefore Congress that needs to be assuaged if the nation’s external relations are to be placed on a sound footing.  And in an era where no party reliably can command a permanent majority in either chamber, this must mean bipartisanship.

Vigorous debate over foreign policy is essential in a democracy.  But a stable and practicable foreign policy is also to be valued.  For better or worse, and despite the well-worn obstacles to its realization, bipartisanship still offers the best route to this outcome.  It might be too late for President Obama, but his successors should take note.

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

The Bias for Action in U.S. Foreign Policy

Paul Pillar

A “bias for action” has long been a buzz phrase in the business world. Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their best-selling book In Search of Excellence put the phrase at the top of their list of attributes of what they considered to be outstanding firms. For an individual hoping to make it big in business, it's not a bad phrase to keep in mind. Ambitious executives do not make names for themselves by saying they will take whatever organization they are responsible for and try not to screw it up. They make names by shaking things up. Moreover, the businesses with the most dramatic and admired garage-startup-to-behemoth histories necessarily had a bias for action.

Even in business, however, the behavior implied by the phrase has limitations. What is good for the rising career of an individual executive is not necessarily good for the firm. And for every Apple or Amazon we have heard about, there are many more companies we have not heard about in which the leader's bias for action led to unprofitable business lines, financial overextension, or other failures that caused the firm to crash and burn.

Applied to foreign policy, the soundness of behavior implied by a bias for action is even more questionable. Perhaps it is most valid when trying to build an empire. Otto von Bismarck, for example, had a bias for action when using wars against other European states as a means for putting together the German Empire. But for most states at most times, that is not the case. It is not the case for the United States today. The United States has a responsibility, to itself as well as to world order, less to build a bigger empire than to avoid screwing things up. And when the United States screws up, things can get very bad, not only because as the world's only superpower it is more powerful than anyone else but also because with global involvement it has a lot of vulnerabilities that other states do not have. Crashing and burning is not an option.

Even without the influence of business gurus such as Peters and Waterman, a bias for action is nonetheless at least as apparent in U.S. foreign policy as in commerce. One reason is the political pressure on leaders to be seen to be “doing something” about overseas problems. The partisan incentive to criticize opponents for doing nothing intensifies this pressure. In the United States the tendency is further exacerbated by a broader inclination to believe the United States ought to be able to solve any problem overseas.

We need to remember that a bias for action is exactly that: a bias. That means it is antithetical to an objective, unbiased assessment of what would be best for the United States to do or not to do. And that is not good. A bias for action has some of the qualities of the “ready, fire, aim” method of approaching a problem.

We can see some of these tendencies in the development of recent policy toward the turmoil in Iraq. The Obama administration's dispatch of a few hundred U.S. military personnel, although they will be serving legitimate purposes, is probably best understood as a response to the pressure to do something. It probably was the minimum military measure the administration could get away with without incurring intense accusations of doing nothing.

I was asked the other day to define U.S. objectives regarding the situation in Iraq. There are two ways to answer a question like that. One is the conventional way, which is the way any president or senior official would be expected to answer it. That way would mention things such as seeking regional stability and quashing terrorist threats against Americans.

The other way is to ask ourselves what are the most significant respects in which U.S. interests have been affected, for better or for worse, by developments in the Middle East over the past decade or so. Then our objective should be to repeat or build on what has affected our interests for the better, and to avoid repetition of the sorts of things that have affected them for the worse. By far the most consequential development for U.S. interests in the region was the Iraq War—and its effects on U.S. interests were overwhelmingly negative, with the thousands of Americans killed, the tens of thousands injured, the trillions of dollars in economic costs, and the stimulation of sectarian warfare and terrorism that we face today. The number one objective for dealing with a situation like the one in Iraq is to avoid doing anything that could lead to a mistake similar to launching the Iraq War.

No president, of course, could get away with defining U.S. objectives that way. It would sound too passive, and it would not embody a bias for action. It would not pass muster with Peters and Waterman, and it certainly would not pass muster with political critics. That's too bad, because it is a very legitimate way to define a prime objective. It takes account of the most important ways in which U.S. interests have been affected, and it takes account of how in any unbiased analysis of how to pursue and protect those interests there is no reason either action or inaction should be favored.                 

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsUnited States Iraq RegionsMiddle East