What’s at stake with Syria? Reputation, Credibility, and Future Deterrence

The seemingly imminent intervention in Syria has recently been the talk of the town. As a nation, we appear overwhelmingly divided over whether a military response to President Assad’s use of chemical weapons is warranted. Public opinion on the why of intervention appears just as divided as on the question of whether we should act or not. Only a small number of arguments have focused on the long term credibility of the US deterrent, which, it has been argued, underwrites current levels of global stability. Moreover, insufficient attention has been paid to the cost to US reputation and credibility through the lens of existing theory or empirical evidence. Yet, it is this very long-term calculus which is necessary to determine whether it is  in America’s interest to intervene in Syria.

Undoubtedly, the administration must clarify its objectives in Syria before it can begin to discuss strategies. I argue that rather than focusing the debate on whether we can or should remove Assad or protect civilians, we should be focusing on whether we can deter the future use of chemical weapons and protect civilians from chemical weapons. This was the original red line, this was the reason we are even discussing intervention, so this should be the focus of any US response. Towards this end, all US military action has to do to be effective is impose high enough costs on the Assad regime so that the benefits gained from using chemical weapons are offset by military intervention, and be public enough that the costs incurred by Assad are transparent. Moreover, if intervention is about punishment and deterrence, it does not necessarily have to be aimed at military targets or erode Assad’s warfighting capabilities.

Assuming that this is the goal of intervention, the long-term implications of the US decision on intervention can be understood by extending the metaphor of the repeated “entry-deterrence” game, which models a monopolistic firm attempting to deter the entry of competitors into a market (see, for example, work by Tingley and Walter, 2011 available here). The idea behind the model is that by incurring the short term costs of punishing players who attempt to enter the game (for example, sacrificing profits by undercutting competitive prices), the firm builds a reputation for credibility, signaling to other potential players that any attempts to enter the market will bring higher costs than benefits, thereby deterring subsequent entry attempts. The monopolistic firm, by incurring short term costs for punishing competitors, sends a credible signal that it will punish players in the short term in order to preserve long-term benefits.

While the metaphor of monopolistic firms does not apply to the US, which is not trying to maintain a monopoly on the right to use chemical weapons itself, the logic of the game is identical: by setting red lines and threatening military action, the United States is attempting to deter the entry of other actors into a “forbidden market” (the use of chemical weapons). By failing to invest in reputation early, the United States is signaling that it will not act as a barrier to entry into this market. Even more damaging, by clearly stating the red line and then failing to carry out threats, the US signals not only that it will not act to deter when it remains silent, but that it will not act to deter even when it says it will. This not only increases the risk of the use of chemical weapons by other regimes in the future, but also increases the risk of interstate conflict in the future by increasing the belief that the United States will not carry out its threats.

Experimental evidence on reputation-building in these situations indicates that players who invest in their reputation early reap larger profits than those who do not (see figure 7 in Tingley and Walter, 362). This is because the credibility of their deterrent threat is established early, implying fewer attempts to enter the market by other players. Thus, in the lab at least, the long-term benefits of US military action have been established. This raises a number of important questions. First, how much do we (publics as well as politicians) discount the future? Are we willing to accept long term costs to save in the short term, especially if future costs are highly uncertain? Second, we must ask ourselves whether the United States should continue playing the role of the globe’s monopolistic firm (policeman) in an era where it is clear that no other actor has the capacity to overcome the barriers to collective action that it faces. Certainly, Americans have reason to be weary of war and wary of leaders who advocate for it, however we must always consider the potential long-term consequences of action (and inaction). The question we as Americans must ask ourselves is this: what do we picture our role to be on the global state in the future? Moreover, we must ask ourselves whether the chemical weapons taboo is worth enforcing. The answers to these questions are what should determine our decision to intervene.

A Case for Modest Military Force in Syria

I wanted to explicate briefly a case for the modest application of military force in Syria, just because it seems that the blogosphere and opinion pages are over-representing arguments to do a lot or to do nothing. In a way this might be viewed as a counter to Eliot Cohen’s argument that “Syria will require more than cruise missiles.”

It goes something like this: Let’s assume that the Assad regime made an intentional choice to use chemical weapons. If so, let’s further assume they are doing so because they have determined chemical weapons are modestly more effective than conventional weapons to kill militants or to dissuade people from supporting the militants. They believe this will modestly increase the odds of regime survival.

If those assumptions are valid, then it could be rational to believe the modest application of military force—say cruise missiles against regime targets—might be useful. Such a use of airpower need not be decisive, it need only to modestly decrease the odds of regime survival. In other words, airpower needs to cost the Assad regime more than chemical weapons buy.

But shouldn’t we care about dead Syrians no matter if they die from chemical warfare or conventional weaponry? Yes, we should. But it seems likely the Assad regime has determined indiscriminate violence is necessary for regime survival. This means that only regime change as a policy has any possibility of stopping indiscriminate violence. And regime change only can stop indiscriminate violence if you believe that post-Assad, Syria will be relatively stable. It seems like 1980s Lebanon is the more likely analogy, particularly since many of the exact same players would have very similar incentives. This means further, that if you believe stability must be imposed by an outside presence, just as in 1980s Lebanon, the cost of peacekeeping to preserve stability is likely to be very high for outside powers.

Protecting Syrians from chemical weapons might be a distinct, worthwhile goal from protecting Syrians more generally. First, deaths from chemical weapons might be especially unpleasant. Second, it is very plausible that chemical weapons might disproportionately kill civilians (they drift into homes) and disproportionately kill kids (less exposure to kill than an adult). Third, if reasons one and/or two are valid, then it might be useful to attempt to delegitimize this class of weapon more broadly. If that is the case, it might be worthwhile to exert modest force (“cruise missiles”) even if it fails to alter the Assad’s regime’s calculation, so long as the force signals to other states that there might be costs to chemical weapons use. If you believe the Assad regime might have “priced in” the possibility of U.S. military action in the event of CW use, then compelling a change in behavior becomes more difficult, but dissuading future actors might still be a possibility.

A few final points on compellance. To be successful, it is important for Obama to signal that if Assad stops using chemical weapons, then the United States will cease punitive strikes. Otherwise, if Assad believes future U.S. military action is inevitable, then he has no reason to cease chemical weapons use. Often in compellance situations, there may be reputational concerns, but since the Assad regime says it is not using chemical weapons in the first place, it should be easier to back down on future chemical use.

There are a lot of assumptions built into this analysis, and if the Obama administration concludes some of the planks of this argument are not present, then this case for moderate military action quickly collapses. But if you believe the assumptions above, U.S. military power may be appropriate to prevent additional chemical weapons use.

5 Political Scientists on the Crisis in Egypt: Consequentialism over Idealism

In the aftermath of the July 3rd military intervention that removed the elected Islamist government from power, the political crisis in Egypt shows no signs of abating. The events which led to the second military intervention to oust a civilian government in just two years is the culmination of a severely flawed process of political transition which utterly failed to account for the consequences of an idealistic and misguided rush to electoral politics. The reason, it appears, is the persistent inability to understand the strategic dynamics of political transitions and the continuing insistence on courses of development grounded in a “logic of appropriateness” that seems to equate electoral institutions with democracy. While this is a continuing fault of policymakers and activists, the academic record is somewhat stronger on this ground, despite the fact that it is largely ignored. While structural theories of democratization continue to be the vogue for the international community, it is the process-based accounts of democratization, emphasizing strategic choice, that provide the keys to understanding the failure of Egypt’s political transition of the past two years.

In 1999, Robert Bates remarked:

A major reason for the relatively democratic outcomes [in Southern Africa] is that the new regimes left the former repressors in possession of a political hostage; the private economy… Should the [retreating] tyrant and his followers own industries or banks, should they control capital, physical or financial, should they, in short, possess economic power, then those seeking their political surrender should respect their rights (1999, 83-4).

Bates’ comment, which forms the core of his explanation for successful democratization in South Africa and Namibia, constitutes an argument that successful transitions cannot lead to the replacement of one ruling group with another, for democracies are never born of revolution, but rather that successful transitions must seek to incorporate elements of the old regime into the new. This argument is also made by Adam Przeworksi in his strategic-choice account of democratization, Democracy and the Market (1991). Przeworksi’s account of transitions identifies splits within two opposing camps and predicts that successful democratic transitions are born of alliances between reformers within the old regime and moderates within the opposition, against their hardliner and radical counterparts. In both formulations, democracy is impossible without participation of the old regime.

In the Egyptian transition, this did not happen. The coalition underpinning the old regime, a combination of military and commercial power, fractured in February 2011. As a result, the military overthrew the civilian commercial elite and extended their hand to the opposition. However, the second stage of the transition caused the collapse of the process. The opposition insisted on the punishment and marginalization of the old regime, and increasingly after the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral victory, the moderate opposition. While in revolutionary contexts, such as Iran in 1979, moderates find themselves without an ally owing to revolutionary bloodshed, Egypt experienced little revolutionary violence; the military continued to play a dominant role as powerbroker and members of the old regime retained their economic “hostages;” Egypt did not experience a true revolution. Two years later, facing a similarly intransigent challenge from the Brotherhood, “Reformers” and “Moderates,” the groups responsible for the ousting of Mubarak, united once again to oust a hardline regime that was as authoritarian in tendency as that of Mubarak.

If Egypt is to successfully complete its transition towards a more democratic form of rule, the Muslim Brotherhood, as Przeworksi’s “Radicals,” can have no leading position carrying the state forward. This is where the conclusions of Przeworksi clash with the liberal ideals of international democracy activists arguing for a greater role for all Egyptians in the path forward. As Przeworksi argues, democratization is possible only if “(1) an agreement can be reached between Reformers and Moderates to establish institutions under which the social forces they represent would have significant political presence in the democratic system, (2) Reformers can deliver the consent of the Hardliners or neutralize them, and (3) Moderates can control the Radicals” (1991, 68). In the Egyptian context, only condition (2) was fulfilled. Rather than tread carefully to ensure equitable representation and guarantees for vulnerable groups and to protect a centrist “core,” impatience both within the Egyptian secular opposition along with international observers (especially in the United States) led to an emphasis on a rush towards participation before the scope and terms of contestation had been decided upon. The “Radicals,” representing a more unified bloc than the disorganized “Moderates,” gained control of the process and progressively sidelines moderates, manipulated electoral rules, and mounted an attack on a judiciary which largely carried over from the old regime. This attempt at consolidating power was doomed from the outset. Participation was opened before the basic institutional infrastructure of the system could be determined, and an under-informed electorate was pressured to support a constitution that was ill suited for the promotion of meaningful democratic politics. Constitutions should not be selected through majoritarian politics.

Such an observation dovetails nicely with the core arguments of Robert Dahl (1971) and Samuel Huntington (1968), both of whom argued that institutions of contestation must precede the expansion of participation. Such a trajectory of political development characterizes early democracies, such as Britain and the United States, along with certain colonies, most notably Mauritius, and even such repressive regimes as South Africa. In fact, in 1984, Huntington, in a rare moment of forward-looking insight, predicted that South Africa was on a path towards democratization. In 1999, Bates’ remarks validated this observation. By gradually expanding participation, newcomers to the system, “invaders” in the parlance of evolutionary game theory, cannot destabilize the system due to their small numbers in an already consolidated system. Instead, they must accommodate to the equilibria already specified by the system in place. By collaborating with remnants of the old regime, coalitions of compromise were required and radical politics eschewed.

What does this imply for Egypt? First, Przeworski and Bates both explain the trajectory of Egyptian political development from February 2011 through July 2013. The failure of the “Moderate”-“Reformer” alliance took the form of demonstrations against military rule and the demand to turn politics over to the opposition before the constitution was written led to the emergence of “democracy without guarantees” and an attempt to monopolize the system by the radicals. In turn, this attempt threatened the power and privilege of the military and the economically powerful remnants of the old regime. In response, these remnants (Ar: fulul) manipulated the economy and eventually intervened outright to depose the Muslim Brotherhood. However, this leaves Egypt in much the same position it was in two years ago, with a military regime facing a decision about where to go next. The solution being pushed by many in the liberal camp would entail an essential repetition of the process which failed previously. Perhaps the Brotherhood has learned its hard lesson, but I suspect their reaction to a second chance would be an attempt to cut a narrow deal with the military at the expense of the rest of the population. An Islamist-dominated process in Egypt, because of its polarizing tendencies, is doomed to authoritarianism.

If Egypt decides to follow the policy prescriptions stemming from the conclusions of Huntington, Dahl, Przeworski, and Bates, then Egypt’s future would entail a strongly managed transition negotiated by leaders of the moderate opposition and the military. They would decide on the ultimate form of the state and write a constitution that would establish the institutions necessary to ensure such a state, and then would impose it on the rest of society. Elections would only be held after the imposition of a new constitution. Entry into the system would be somewhat guarded so that no group could enter the system and undermine it from within, leading to the prohibition on participation of some forces, notably the Brotherhood, during the transition. This is not to say that individual members of the Brotherhood should be barred from participation, which would push them towards renewed radicalism, but rather that the organization must be politically demobilized and individuals remobilized in other frameworks specified by a new constitution. One solution would be a constitutional clause mandating separation of religion and the state (Turkey), another would be a ban on religious parties, which is currently being considered by the interim administration. The remnants of the old regime would have to be integrated into the new state and their basic privileges protected alongside new rights and protections for groups composing the moderate opposition. Finally, the new process must guarantee the rights of individuals rather than groups.

Such a prescription is not a panacea, and it will undoubtedly be received with discomfort, if not outright revulsion, by pro-democracy activists and policymakers. In fact, outspoken voices across the globe have been advocating precisely the opposite, demanding the reincorporation of the Muslim Brotherhood! Moreover, the violence that has gripped Egypt in recent days has gravely damaged the cohesion of a moderate coalition and increased moderate sympathy for radical positions, once again polarizing Egyptian politics. Furthermore, it has lent credence to a false narrative that equates Mursi supporters with pro-democracy activism, leading liberals to support the continuation of a process which has done nothing but undermine political liberalization in Egypt. While this violent repression has served little constructive purpose, the alternatives being advocated, ranging from the reinstatement of Mursi to reconciliation and reincorporation of the Brotherhood, will not put the country on track to democracy. The only solution is to begin again with closer attention to the possible consequences of constitutional decisions and recognition that constitutions reflect the interests of their writers.

The consequences of the rush to elections and universal inclusion have made themselves felt in Egypt and beyond. Similar transitions are in danger in Libya and Tunisia. Unlike the others, however, in Egypt the military is ideally situated to manage a transition to political democracy due to its corporate identity, cohesion, and general dislike of civilian politics. While they would be, as Barbara Geddes argues in her analysis of authoritarian breakdowns (2004), the most suited force to lead a state to democracy, the generals must not succumb to the pressure of idealists to exit politics until a new system is in place, as this would be just as damaging as a decision to remain in politics in the long term. Simultaneously, they must not antagonize those inclined to support their intervention by continuing their offensive against Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations. For as the continuing stalemate, marked by mutual recriminations, reveals, the Egyptian state cannot get on without the military in an active stewardship role in the short term, even if they cannot prosper under military rule in the long term.

Speculation on India-Pakistan Violence

Overnight 5 Indian soldiers were killed and another injured in an ambush along the Line of Control separating Indian- and Pakistani-administered Kashmir. Since 2003, the Line of Control has witnessed a mostly intact ceasefire. Indian officials publicly claim that some of the attackers were in Pakistan Army uniforms. People are angry, with some calling for the end of the ceasefire. What happened and why did it happen?

What happened? Without being overly pedantic, and in no particular order, it seems like three possibilities are most likely:

  • A group of mujahideen got lucky, and except for whatever “steady state” support provided by the Pakistan Army, the Pakistan military was not a major player in the episode. The reports of a Pakistan Army uniform are either incorrect or are reports of a uniform procured second-hand.
  • A local commander, in an action coordinated with militants, decided to take action with limited approval from senior commanders in Rawalpindi.
  • Rawalpindi, perhaps on its own initiative or perhaps responding to a request from a local commander, authorized the action.

I think we can dismiss as unlikely that the civilian Nawaz Sharif government authorized the action. More on that later.

Why did it happen? Again, a few possibilities.

  • No real reason. This really only makes sense under the “militants get lucky” scenario.
  • Something vaguely to do with Afghanistan, where India also suffered an attack against its consulate in Jalalabad on Saturday, August 3. As with past attacks against Indian interests in Afghanistan, there is widespread speculation that Pakistan was involved in the Saturday attack. For the longest exposition of a link between Afghanistan and last night’s LoC violence, see Praveen Swami’s post today. I think the connections are tenuous, though in the long run, if you assume a finite supply of Pakistani jihadists and if the war in Afghanistan is winding down, it certainly is possible that more will go east from Pakistan than north.
  • A tit-for-tat for an alleged Indian commando raid that snatched five men from Pakistan’s side of the Line of Control earlier this month. For the longest exposition of this hypothesis, see a different Praveen Swami post today. This might be consistent with other, recent rounds of cross-LoC violence, which also had this tit-for-tat feel.
  • Someone is trying to sabotage any peace process that might be brewing between Nawaz Sharif and Manmohan Singh. Indian and Pakistani diplomats were supposed to resume talks early next month, with an eye toward a planned meeting between Sharif and Singh on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly at the end of September. Such “spoiling” behavior has also been characteristic of past peace processes.

What is clear is that starting with the Jalalabad attack on Saturday and the LoC attack last night, it’s been a bad few days for India-Pakistan rapprochement.

Phil Schrodt, Not a Huge Penn State Fan

Phil Schrodt’s goodbye missive to life as a professor is worth reading for several reasons, but his broadside at Penn State is especially breath-taking:

While I have been fortunate in my set of departmental colleagues at Penn State, the institution as a whole is phenomenally weird, following a North Korean governance model without the transparency, and with an Office of Sponsored Programs—OSP, the Office for the Suppression of Productivity—that has the tapeworm as their mascot. In discussing my decision to leave with a colleague who is an ardent supporter of the system, I referred to PSU as “an authoritarian hellhole,” which elicited the reply “Well, it is that…” Suffice it to say that the serial pedophile Jerry Sandusky found a welcoming and protective environment at Penn State not out of luck, but rather as an all-but-inevitable consequence of the institutional culture.

Forecasting and Ethics, Ctd.

A few additional thoughts (original thoughts here) inspired by posts on Duck of Minerva and Dart-Throwing Chimp.

First, I just want to agree wholeheartedly with Jay Ulfelder’s conclusion on Dart-Throwing Chimp:

Look, these decisions are going to be made whether or not we produce statistical forecasts, and when they are made, they will be informed by many things, of which forecasts—statistical or otherwise—will be only one. That doesn’t relieve the forecaster of ethical responsibility for the potential consequences of his or her work. It just means that the forecaster doesn’t have a unique obligation in this regard. In fact, if anything, I would think we have an ethical obligation to help make those forecasts as accurate as we can in order to reduce as much as we can the uncertainty about this one small piece of the decision process. It’s a policymaker’s job to confront these kinds of decisions, and their choices are going to be informed by expectations about the probability of various alternative futures. Given that fact, wouldn’t we rather those expectations be as well informed as possible?

And I just want to underscore something that Daniel Nexon on the Duck referred to as the peformativity problem, referencing some interesting work in economics. I do agree that an interesting intellectual question is if political scientists ever get good at forecasting–a big ifand those forecasts do generate policy interventions, then the forecasts might become self-defeating or self-fulfilling. The goal is for them to become self-defeating, but one could imagine the opposite: military intervention or aid could destabilize a perilous society or warnings of risk could lead to better data collection which could lead to categorization of a problem as being more serious than in an area without warning. Either self-defeating or self-fulfilling predictions present a host of empirical problems. It’s worth a longer discussion, but I think it’s worth starting the discussion. My hunch is political science is shifting methodologically to a fight between the forecasters (probably bolstered by big data) and the causal inferencers. The issues associated with causal inference have been fleshed out in some detail, but the issues associated with forecasting are still relatively unexplored. Let’s start exploring.

Forecasting and Ethics

Idean Salehyean has a provocative post over at the Monkey Cage arguing that forecasting is not a value neutral enterprise. If we forecast some outcome, we should expect policymakers to take some steps as a result, and those steps may or may not be acceptable ethically. Okay. But not forecasting may or may not be acceptable ethically either. I’m a bit of an ethics novice, so I assume people are coming at morals from either some consequentialist or deontological frame. It’s difficult for me to see how forecasting is directly a rights or rules violation, so we’re automatically in some realm of consequentialism when we are worried about forecasting. And once we are down that path, we have to explicitly consider the counterfactual of not forecasting. And not forecasting when one has some ability to do so might lead to bad moral outcomes.

We probably aren’t in the business of chaining Nate Silver, Andrew Gelman, and Gary King to their desks to forecast genocide even if it would achieve salutary consequences (probably for good deontological reasons about letting people make choices about their lives). But I think Idean Salehyean’s point ends up being a banal one because more or less everything we do is not value neutral.

Nothing is special about forecasting, I would stress. Observational studies—the democratic peace, for instance—might lead one to conclude that democracy should be spread, by force if need be.

We are inhabitants of the world. We happen not to be particularly influential inhabitants so the chain of causation from our studies to positive and negative consequences is lengthy. We shouldn’t be paralyzed or fascinated by our presence in the moral universe.