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.

The Bargaining Problem in Libya: Peace versus Justice?

I have recently read the post ICC Sheriff Too Quick on the Draw by guest contributors Leslie Vinjamuri and Jack Snyder for The Duck of Minerva blog and I couldn’t agree more. Actually, I had many discussions on the topic of Libya and asserted the same preoccupations put forward by the two scholars, but never took the time to bring them to this blog, what I intend to fix right away. I shall reinforce the argument presented in their post and add my own conclusions and further a bit more into consequences of the bargain problem to the achievement of conflict resolution in the Libyan case. Let’s hit it.

Since the beginning of the uprising in Libya and the western commitment to help the insurgents get rid of Gaddafi, clear signals were sent regarding a possible prosecution of the de jure leader by international law, namely by the International Criminal Court. On May 4th, Luís Moreno-Ocampo, ICCs chief prosecutor, went to the United Nations Security Council to report on the investigations by the body on Libya, and what he has found is that “crimes against humanity have been and continue to be committed in Libya” – this should be no surprise to anyone but to Gaddafi and his entourage. What isn’t being noticed is that, this and the following statement of intentions to prosecute issue pre-trial arrest warrants to three key people on the Gaddafi government is a big kick in the nuts for everyone really worried about the outcome of the conflict and the end of violence between warring parties.

One supposedly doesn’t have to be a great mind to understand what stalemate and deadlock are. But it seems that countries and bureaucrats involved in decision-making within the UN aren’t aware of those concepts. First and foremost, stalemate means that you are in a “can’t-help-it-situation” and, by default, breaking the stalemate is much more difficult than avoiding it. Stalemates also have the property of being very dangerous when survival is the issue at the end of the day. Here rational choice theory applied to political violence comes in to explain what are the incentives, motivations and limits to the fulfilling of options by the players. To better put it, the idea of taking this to politics and conflict resolution (supposing you are into resolving the conflict), is to avoid pushing the players to positions unacceptable for them, in which no cooperation (in a game theory sense, not in a institutionalist one) is possible, and therefore “play” with incentives and punishment to compel parties to stop violence.

What is happening in Libya is exactly the contrary. While Western efforts do not seem to assure the end of the conflict by force, the incentives given to Gaddafi to step down are also very scarce. Actually, they point to the contrary: peacefully exiting power is the worst thing he could do – for him and for his friends. Even after No-fly zone and No-fly zone +, no palpable result for the conflict seems to be in the horizon, specially if the rules of the game (such as “we’re not going to directly bomb Gaddafi”) are maintained.  The situation becomes a stalemate, in this case, because at the same time the Western supports the Libyan rebels and embraces their principle of not reaching an agreement with Gaddafi and demanding to see him completely extricated from any decency, but they don’t grant the necessary measures to achieve those aims.

Just for the sake of it, I’ll list some thinkable (even if partially flawed) possibilities: 1) significantly arm the rebels, allowing them to break the stalemate themselves by forcing military defeat through a protracted war; 2) bomb the hell out of Gaddafi’s Libya, producing unequivocal military defeat of the Colonel’s forces; 3) quietly, precisely and quickly kill all the core members of Gaddafi’s government; 4) bring full Western engagement to Libya, landing a massive army with the objective of disabling Gaddafi’s military and political power by occupation, and, by the gates of one of his palaces, arrest him out of throne. Let’s quickly run them one by one.

1) Arming the rebels: this is already happening, but not enough to fulfill their needs; conflict is far from being defined and it seems more and more to be leading to a military equation very hard to solve.

2) Bombing the hell out of Gaddafi’s Libya: does anyone feel comfortable with doing it?

3) Quietly killing Gaddafi and his guys in a decapitation strike: we still have the “we won’t kill Gaddafi” rule in order.

4) Bringing full Western engagement and occupying Libya: anyone remember Afghanistan? What about the big economic crisis?

Phew. Quickly enough. Well, have we run out of options then? No. We still have the possibility of finding a viable negotiated exit, by pressing (but not too much) Gaddafi out of power. How? By balancing incentives and punishment to make him feel that stepping down without creating more resistance is the less-than-worst situation, and – here comes the important bit -, less-than-worst but still acceptable. It is possible and much cheaper (politically, economically and militarily), as well as in terms of the lives lost and the collateral damage produced.

So, what’s all the fuss about having Gaddafi prosecuted as a war criminal? No fuss, at least for me and you, in the short term, unless you are: a) a taxpayer or in the military service in Europe or in the the US; or 2) if you are Libyan! Ok, maybe you are.

The main problem with the ICC prosecution of Gaddafi is the signal it sends. Basically, what it says is: “Hey, Gaddafi, step down and your future is spending the rest of your life in a small cell in the Netherlands”. How this contributes to making him peacefully step down is what I don’t see. If he knows this is what awaits him outside Libya, it’s hard to tell whether he’ll prefer this or death, and if he prefers death how much damage he will produce to the country and how much cost he’ll impose for the West while pursuing it. For what we know about these guys and especially the Colonel (Lockerbie anyone?), I’d bet he’ll drag everyone and everything he can with him while holding on to the intent to survive, especially because he knows he’s going down either way. Because people act like this. People suck.

By allowing the ICC to proceed with the prosecution, UNSC limits steeply its possibilities. It reduces the probability of a negotiated exit and the space for maneuver, raising the stakes for Gaddafi and his friends but pushing it too far. While raising the stakes is what we need, it needs to be done considering how we allow the gambler to fold and withdraw without breaking chairs and tables. While combining “the promise of relief and the threat of punishment”, it is possible to bring players to a rational choice of stopping it. Just remember that this exact same type of strategy worked very well just a few years ago to bring Gaddafi back in from the cold of international pariah status, reversing his nuclear policies and establishing a working relationship with the West.

And to answer the title’s question: in Libya, we shall have peace or the absence of it. No justice is likely to be made, as it happens mostly with any war crimes. This might sound a bit like reverse advertising, but hopefully the relevant authorities will decide on solutions other than the Worst Case Scenario for Libya.

Which by the way, bringing back an old friend of the blog – our Worst Case Scenario is: Gaddafi is prosecuted by the ICC, and immediately escalates conflict in the Libyan civil war. With help by the West staying equal or not changing steeply, protracted, violent and harsh conflict settles in, scaling massive scourges of war to the country, with consequences to the region. NATO and EU are pulled into deploying full resources to avoid total madness in Northern Africa, just by the gates of Europe, while still more than sufficiently engaged in Afghanistan and barely surviving the financial crisis.