Putin: The unlikely liberal-internationalist

Putin’s op-ed on Syria is the subject du jour. The article is meant as a reminder to Americans that they need to uphold the order they helped create in the post-WWII, and that this requires self-restraint and respect for international law. Bypassing the UN Security Council and going against the express opposition of public opinion and leaders the world over could throw the whole system out of whack, he tells us. Pursuing diplomacy and not unilateral force in Syria will help build trust and bolster the international legal system. How dare he?! That’s John Ikenberry’s schtick!

This is probably a Russian leader’s most awkward attempt at communicating directly with the American public since Konstantin Chernenko sucker punched Joan Rivers on the Johnny Carson show.

All kidding aside, Putin’s op-ed doesn’t hold a candle to Khrushchev’s 1959 Foreign Affairs article on Peaceful Coexistence, where he not only berated the US for being too aggressive and unwilling to cooperate on disarmament and to refrain from interfering on the affairs of other nations, but added insult to injury by suggesting that this was the case because America was too chicken to let history play out on its own terms.

A Kübler-Ross model for International Politics?

The Syria situation is moving too fast to allow for careful and thoughtful analysis and commentary (or at least that’s the most generous reason I can think of for the poor quality of coverage). But instead of sticking my head in the sand, I want to stick my neck out and offer up a couple of predictions regarding this new proposal by Russian FM Sergey Lavrov. Lavrov suggested that Syria will hand over its chemical weapons, doing away with the rationale for an attack.

As I have already hinted I predict that the proposed deal will fail to resolve the crisis. It will fail not because it’s a terrible idea or a disingenuous proposition, but because it’s “just too good to be true”.

Why it’s a good idea

Right now, Syria’s chemical arsenal is more a liability than an asset. These chemical weapons were first sought as a deterrent against Israel, but Israel is far from being Assad’s main concern right now. Also, giving them up would not leave Syria completely incapable of inflicting damage on Israeli cities. Having their delivery capabilities (which probably would include the capability to deliver conventional ordnance as well) destroyed by an American strike would make Syria much more vulnerable.

As far as the US is concerned, if I’m right and Obama doesn’t want to get involved in Syria in the first place or if the goal is to prevent against use of chemical weapons against civilians, even an imperfectly executed handover/destruction of chemical weapons accomplishes more than an attack would.

Why it probably won’t work

Bargaining and Signalling

It won’t work because finding a peaceful solution to problems isn’t just about being able to point out a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s about getting the players there. One obstacle might be that even though the players prefer a mutually cooperative solution, they might suspect that the other prefers to cheat. For fear of being suckered, no one cooperates.  Under conditions of uncertainty, the greater the payoffs from cooperation, more likely players are to cooperate; but the greater the costs of being deceived, more likely they are to play it safe. Cooperation can be hard to achieve even when all parties want it. A slightly different formulation is what we have come to call the “bargaining model”: states that prefer a peaceful bargain might end up going to war over an issue if they can’t agree on who’s the strongest or the most resolute. If only there were a way to tell truth and lie apart…

Rationalist International Relations scholars tell us that players who are intent on cooperating should be able to signal that intent to others. Seeing as how cheaters would have an incentive to misrepresent their intent (bargaining states have incentives to play up their strength and resolve), talk is cheap and signals must be costly to be convincing — actions must be so costly that an actor wouldn’t undertake them unless they were serious about cooperating. We can see this at play explicitly in British, French and American claims that for the Russian proposal to be taken seriously they need a credible signal that proves that this is not just some delaying tactic. The problem here is twofold.  First, Western powers are essentially asking Assad to agree to a strict and internationally supervised program to destroy his chemical arsenal, and are asking Russia (and China) to give up opposition to the use of force and/or international sanctions if Assad fails to comply with that plan. This isn’t just costly, it’s probably prohibitive and thus unreasonable. These things take a lot of time to set up and execute, would put a toll on the government and open it up to scrutiny in ways that handicap it vis-à-vis the rebels. Russia is also unlikely to want to give Western powers carte blanche at the UNSC. Second, and related, Assad and Russia can’t be certain that Western powers will be content with the relinquishing of chemical weapons. They have, after all, suggested that Assad should abdicate power. After going to great lengths to credibly demonstrate that the US can attack Syria even without support from the UN Security Council, European allies, the US Congress or the American people, there is little Obama can do to assure Assad that it won’t just decide to bomb him anyway. “Bombed if you do, bombed if you don’t”, isn’t very conducive to cooperation.

Denial and Anger

This mutual perception of insincerity will only be reinforced if there is no space for actual bargaining.  While Obama and those who oppose military force might be satisfied with diplomacy and could be willing to accept an imperfect deal, the hawks in the Administration and in the public will probably be assuaged by nothing short of what they’re putting on the table. Deluding themselves that they are bargaining magnanimously but in absolute denial that they might be contributing to the failure of a peaceful resolution, the Russian and Syrian response will do nothing but anger them further and prove to them that Assad isn’t to be trusted. They don’t believe any deal is possible anyway (Kerry said so himself).

Depressing predictions

In the next few days and weeks we’ll probably see the following:

1 – Administration officials claiming that diplomacy is only taking place because of the threat of force, and that the threat needs to be maintained if not increased. (ed. While I was writing this Obama came on TV and beat me to it. Gee, thanks, Obama…)

2 – The talks will fail to secure total and immediate compliance.

3 – When talks fail, we’ll hear things like “I knew it all along”, “it was too good to be true”. And these voices will go right back to pushing for an attack, but with probably even more expansive goals next time around. Some of the more dovish voices will argue that increasing the threat level might produce better results at the negotiating table, but that the “window of opportunity” is short and closing fast.

4 – Despite the failure in continued negotiations and whatever happens after (an attack might still follow, but it might not), if the internal situation shifts in Syria and Assad concedes in any way the US will claim credit, saying that the threat (or eventual use) of force was decisive.

Saving Face, Saving Lives and Saving Private Ryan

The drums are still beating and the attack on Syrian military targets is imminent, we are told. Even if Congress votes no, the Administration can still make the case that a strike is well within the power of the Presidency, and Obama’s public address might be geared toward just that. The only possible game-changer now is the proposal fielded by Russian FM Sergey Lavrov, by which Syria would hand over its chemical weapons. I think the proposal is daring but unlikely to succeed for reasons that I’ll discuss in a post in the very near future (spoiler alert, it’s not because nobody is sincere about wanting it). Before that, I want to take a minute to highlight some of the most egregious claims that are being made concerning the objectives and nature of the attack and the likely consequences of action or inaction in the absence of a deal.

Deterrence, Compellence, and Punishment

The first thing I want to nag about is that some people keep mistakenly framing it as a compellent strategy. At this point, after a deterrent threat (a threat of punishment to dissuade an actor from engaging in a specific course of action, like “don’t use chemical weapons or we’ll get you!”) has been made (more than once) and failed (chemical weapons were used), an attack would be best characterized as the fulfillment of the threatened punishment for the sake of establishing the credibility of future threats. These future threats can be either deterrent (like “don’t use chemical weapons again or we’ll get you!”) or compellent (“give up power” or “stop killing civilians”). Punishment for failing to comply the first time around in this case is directly tied into the deterrent threat that seeks to dissuade the Syrian army from using chemical weapons again in the future. But it is not meant to compel anyone to do (or stop doing) anything. This is not just a scholastic or semantic quibble. Whether one is using these terms in conscious reference to Schelling’s framework or not, it matters greatly whether the goal is deterrence or compellence, because the requirements for effective threats and signals will differ, as will the general prospects for success.

Credibility is on the line

The question then becomes one of whether it is necessary to follow up on the threat to make future threats credible or whether threats are made credible or incredible by the nature, capabilities and interests of the actors involved in each particular case, not the past behavior of a state in a different context (reputations are tricky and they matter less than capabilities and interests). The jury is still out on this one, though I tend to agree with Jonathan Mercer and others who argue that reputation concerns are often misplaced. If you’re a Middle Eastern leader and you’re skeptical of American capacity or willingness to bomb your country you’re obviously not paying enough attention to your surroundings anyway.  You might also have reasons to believe that, good or bad, but in any case bombing Syria most likely won’t change your mind. If you think Assad will infer from US failure to make good on their threats this time means that he can do something really crazy like attack Israel or Turkey (or France!!) you are underestimating Assad’s grasp of US strategic interests and/or the strength of different normative commitments.  Violating a weak norm that the US has shown time and again to be ambivalent about is one thing, to violate norms that are more entrenched (though still quite often ignored) like sovereignty is a whole different ball game. If we think of international norms as following a hierarchy of sorts (a lexical order in Rawlsian terminology), protection of civilians against chemical weapons is definitely second (or fifth, sorry human security advocates…) to sovereignty, especially if we’re talking about the sovereignty of a friend or ally. Assad knows that quite well.

What will Iran think??

Along these same lines, if you happen to believe that “all options are and should be on the table” with regards to the Iranian nuclear program or that it is (way past) time to attack Iran and that the US has a strong normative and/or strategic interest in non-proliferation, then you shouldn’t worry too much about Iran making the wrong inferences either. Leaders in Tehran know the stakes are higher for both parties (the US definitely places nuclear non-proliferation higher than protection of civilians in the aforementioned hierarchy of norms) and that the context is very different. Some might have their doubts about US willingness to follow through and bomb their nuclear facilities or worse, but is hard to see how that could be inferred from US inaction in Syria. As lessons from history go, officials in Tehran are probably still more impressed by Osirak and Operation Orchard, when Israel took out Iraqi nuclear facilities in 1981 and Syrian in 2007, and by Saddam’s and Qaddafi’s ultimate fates–one who failed to develop nuclear weapons, and another who eventually gave away their pursuit in exchange for rapprochement with the West. Before the war, Libyan diplomats negotiating concessions from the US complained that the limited carrots they had received in turn for abjuring nuclear weapons were reason for mockery from their Iranian interlocutors.

Saving lives

The first claim being made by most proponents is that the attack is about saving lives. However, in its current form (as it is being sold to the American people and the international audience) the attack is not about saving lives at all, it’s about making sure that people don’t die in a very specific way. Is it an especially horrific death? Yes, compared to expertly administered lethal injection (also technically a chemical weapon if you think about it) or even to a bullet in the head. Not necessarily, compared to having your limbs torn off from the nearby detonation of a mortar (or cruise missile, for that matter) or being shot in the gut and then slowly bleeding out (as in the classic Saving Private Ryan scene), or compared to burning or suffocating to death from white phosphorous or other incendiaries (the latter is also frowned upon, but used relatively often, including by US and their allies in recent and ongoing conflicts). Anthony Lang, to his credit, pledges agnosticism on this question, but fails to realize that a negative answer invalidates the moral case for punitive action altogether and even an inconclusive answer makes the moral case very weak.

This will spiral out of control!

The last problematic claim concerns the consequences of a limited attack. As noted by a thoughtful former Administration official that shall remain nameless, some opponents of the attack have suggested that attacking Assad will not only do no good but also inevitably invite retaliation from Syria (or Hezbollah). The problem, he noted, was that there is little logical reason to believe he would do that. If faced with a limited US action that is not meant to upset the overall balance of forces on the ground it would be irrational for Assad to then do something that would precipitate further US aggression. This would explain why Syria has refrained from retaliating Israel’s repeated strikes against Syrian weapons convoys and shipments from Russia and Iran. The problem, of course, is that while there is good reason to suspect Assad does not have incentives to escalate even further, there is always the possibility of inadvertent escalation. Beside friction, the fog of war (complexity and uncertainty leading to mistakes)  and mission creep, one other possible way this might play out is that if Assad places high strategic value on chemical weapons (precisely as deterrent against Israel and the US), there is the risk that the threat of wiping out his delivery capabilities would put him in a “use ’em or lose ’em” situation that favors preemptive use. While I find this unlikely, it’s not a risk to be taken lightly. We now know that impending NATO attacks led Milosevic to accelerate the ethnic cleansing campaign, and the prospect of a NATO intervention seems to have had a similar “last ditch” effect on Qaddafi. Defenders of both operations argue that the eventual removal of both tyrants probably saved many more lives, but that’s a debatable proposition. In any case, if the US isn’t ready to escalate to the point of producing regime change and stepping in to secure the peace, then it definitely should not take that risk.

In short, doing nothing is unlikely to affect US credibility, and doing something shouldn’t really make Obama, liberal hawks or humanitarians sleep better at night. Doing something will not inevitably mean doing more and more and still not doing enough, but it very well might.