Monthly Archives: February 2012

No Good Options in Syria, Including Inaction

On January 11, I criticized Marwa Daoudy’s argument against military intervention in Syria, and on February 6 I rebuked common arguments against humanitarian intervention generally.  While this choice of topics suggests an adventurist bias, I remain ambivalent on the question of whether (and how best) to intervene in Syria.

Is arming Syria's opposition worth it?

The most widely discussed option for doing so is using Syrian rebels and defectors as proxies by arming and supporting them, though one hears phrases like “safe havens” and “air support” in the discourse as well.  Advocates and opponents of intervention agree that the isolated and blood-soaked Assad regime is finished, despite the support it still commands among some minority communities in Syria.

Let us weigh the arguments, keeping in mind that this question is already more than hypothetical.

Marc Lynch, counseling prudence in a recent blog post, poses six important questions to those who would intervene: Whom to arm?  How would arms affect the opposition?  What is the endgame?  How would the regime react?  What if the rebels, once armed, fail?  What if they succeed?  His answers amount to four broad warnings: that arming the rebels will divide and corrupt them, that it will cause violence to escalate, that it will lead to mission creep, and that it will prolong the war by turning into a costly stalemate.

Roger Cohen acknowledges in The New York Times that such a stalemate is likely, but asserts that it is also necessary in order to force Assad to negotiate.  He is in favor both of arming the rebels and of establishing refugee havens in neighboring countries.

Professor Lynch’s concerns seem prescient.  I believe they are.  But most of them will not be fundamentally exacerbated by our arming the rebels.  The factors militating against arming the rebels—our lack of familiarity with the rebels, the potential for political ambition increasing in step with physical power, the potential for increased conflict, and the reluctance of rebels to disarm after they remove Assad—are problems we must confront regardless of whether we are the ones to arm them.

He lists three possible goals for arming the rebels, and dismisses each: if the weapons are defensive, they will inevitably sow instability.  If they are meant to enable the rebels to unseat the regime, then they are insufficient.  If they are meant to effect a stalemate and talks, the plan will backfire as the flood of weapons ignites a civil war and the chance for a peaceful resolution dies.

Civil war has already come to Syria.  Assad is already refusing to negotiate.  The international community may call for high-scale intervention in the future whether low-scale intervention occurs now or not.  Disunity and instability will attend any post-Assad scenario.  It is also by no means clear that simmering slaughter is preferable to all-out war in the long run.  1994 Rwanda reminded us that widespread savagery, at least sometimes, is possible without advanced weaponry.

There are also those who warn of boosting support for the regime by confirming narratives of a foreign insurgency engineered by the West.  This should only makes us hesitate to arm the rebels, though, if it means that doing so benefits the regime more than it benefits the rebels.

Unavoidable truths loom in Syria no matter what the world does:  Distrust and tension will prevail with or without Assad.  Instability will persist.  Many more Syrians are going to die.

The prerequisite for intervention should not be certainty of a perfect outcome, as some appear to think it should  We will carry regrets down any path we take.  Rather, we should ask, given what we know and can reasonably predict, whether the good we can do by arming Syria’s rebels outweighs the bad.

Jordan Plays Defense: Will it Be Enough?

King Abdullah II: Can he play defense?

Talk of the wave of change sweeping the Arab world sometimes makes it sound as though every country in the region has experienced seismic political upheaval.  Many haven’t, including Jordan.  But according to a recent New York Times article, the small kingdom’s peace may be short-lived.  The reasons for popular restlessness should by now be clear; the question, in Jordan’s case, is why nothing happened sooner.

In 1998, Glenn E. Robinson described the forethought and skill displayed by the Jordanian monarchy in pursuing a strategy of defensive democratization: “The regime undertook sufficient reform to ensure its political longevity, but without altering the core structures of power in Jordan.”  What was this reform, and will it see the monarchy through the Arab Spring?

Jordan is unique in several respects.  Its monarchy comes from the once-powerful Arabian Hashemite clan, ousted by the Saudis; it lacks the capacity to exploit much of its energy resources, unlike other Arab monarchies; it has made peace with Israel, despite the many “West Bank Palestinians” it hosts; and it is a staunch American ally.  It also lacks the epochal cities of which other Arab states can boast: Marrakesh, Aleppo, Baghdad, Cairo, Jeddah, Beirut.  Jordan is also smaller than any of the states that have thus far shown their rulers the door (none of which are monarchies); it has 60% of Tunisia’s population, and less than a third of Syria’s or Yemen’s, and less than a tenth of teeming Egypt’s.  Jordan’s population (6.3 million, 2.5 million of whom live in Amman) is smaller even than Israel’s.

Jordan’s small, tribal (yet urban and educated) population, lack of clear geographic or economic nerve centers, and U.S. backing may help explain the durability of its monarchy.  But the Hashemites have been anticipating, outpacing, and pre-empting liberalizing forces in Jordan for decades.  To them, the Arab Spring is just another season.

In 1970, Jordan crushed the PLO and drove it into Lebanon in what became known as “Black September” or, as the government poetically remembers it, “the era of regrettable events.”  Since then, however, its style has been more subtle.  Like the Egyptian regime, King Hussein tolerated the Muslim Brotherhood as an anti-leftist bulwark while banning other political parties and suspending parliamentary sessions.  Thus began a show of pluralism which ultimately strengthened the monarchy.

Parliament was reconvened in response to unrest in 1989 stemming from the decline of aid transfers from rich Arab neighbors, which had paid for subsidies and welfare programs Jordanians had come to depend on.  King Hussein’s call for elections may seem more like “reactive” than “defensive” democratization, but it pre-empted calls for systemic, regime-level change and created a new arena in which political energy could be expended, full of new targets at which to direct it.  In 1992, the King had a National Charter written, and new elections were held in 1993.

More recently, King Abdallah II (Hussein’s son and Jordan’s fourth Hashemite king) has granted still more concessions: prominent political figures and businessmen are on trial, and key subsidies remain untouched.  Also, Jordanians have witnessed the turmoil in Iraq and the bloodshed in Syria.  Not everyone wants to rock the boat.

Still, calls for systemic change are more audible than in recent memory.  “Our main purpose is to return authority to the people and to have a monarchy similar to that in Britain, a constitutional monarchy,” said a former Parliament member at a recent anti-regime protest in Karak, long a regime stronghold.

Can the monarchy last?  Can it oversee a peaceful transition to democracy?  The Hashemites have played this game skillfully, without some of the benefits other monarchies enjoy.  But the people are saying things they have never said before.

Update: My friend Jason Stern hears similar rumblings in Jordan.

The Longest War: What is Our Mission?

Last Sunday, the New York Times described the campaign of U.S. Army Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis to expose systematic embellishment by top military leaders of the status of mission in Afghanistan.  In Davis’ Afghanistan, in which he traveled and interviewed extensively, Afghan police have made secret pacts with the Taliban, U.S. forces barely control territory outside their own bases, and trust between American and Afghan soldiers is deservedly weak.

Yesterday, the newspaper ran a first-person piece by two special forces officers, an American and an Afghan, published (but not written) to contrast with the Davis story.  In their Afghanistan, the Afghan Army is disciplined, patriotic, scrappy, and eager for American tutelage.  They offer some criticisms, too; we need to better value and train military advisors, emphasize personal American-Afghan relationships, and recognize less measurable but more important metrics as indicators of success.  But the message is clear: we should not give up yet.

Ten years, four months, and one week

It is possible that both of these accounts are correct; Afghanistan is a big place, and events on the ground change quickly.  But Lt. Col. Davis’ main rhetorical question “How many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding?” confronts President Obama with a stark reminder of the consequences of prolonging the longest war in American history until 2014.

The answer depends on whether or not our mission in Afghanistan is vital, which in turn raises the question of what our mission is.  If the mission is to defeat the Taliban, and it is vital, then the answer must be: “As many men must die as it takes to defeat the Taliban, whether that mission is succeeding right now or not.”  But defeating the Taliban appears no longer to be our mission.  If it were, Mitt Romney would be right to charge that setting a date for withdrawal is foolish.

Instead, the Pentagon is focused on training the Afghan Army and national police to wield legitimate, monopolized force on behalf of a legitimate, effective central government.  Policy analysts and academics have proposed several compromise strategies, including decentralized as opposed to centralized governance and containment as opposed to eradication of the Taliban.  Total victory is no longer spoken of; the best the President could do in his State of the Union–“The Taliban’s momentum has been broken”–  was widely dismissed as wishful.  (Having campaigned on a platform of refocusing on the good war in Afghanistan rather than the bad war in Iraq, the President is heavily invested in an honorable drawdown that looks something like a victory.)

Defeating the Taliban is also arguably no longer vital.  America attacked the Taliban because it was providing safe harbor to al-Qaeda, which is now already in retreat in much of the world and is certainly no longer based primarily in Afghanistan (most of its leadership is in Pakistan, with other franchises emerging elsewhere).  Even if a strong, secular, friendly federal state emerged in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda would continue to exist.  One might argue that al-Qaeda is sure to flood back into Afghanistan when American forces depart, and that may be true.  But it’s difficult to see how prolonging our presence will permanently change that reality, especially now that the Afghans and al-Qaeda know our departure date.

Our soldiers are dying.  This war is long.  Neither of these things alone mean that we should end it.  But what are we trying to accomplish?

Five Bad Arguments Against Humanitarian Intervention

The question of humanitarian intervention is complicated even if we pretend it is not.

NATO bombs a Serbian ammunition depot in Bosnia, 1995

A U.S.-led humanitarian intervention in Syria remains unlikely, even as sanctions intensify and the Free Syrian Army’s struggle against the al-Assad regime increasingly resembles a civil war.  China and Russia recently vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution against the regime, true to Russia’s word.  The veto, along with ongoing carnage in Homs, has refocused the world’s attention on the savagery in Syria.

America’s military will likely remain on the sidelines this time.  Despite what its March intervention in Libya might suggest, America remains averse to armed conflict.  Many favorable circumstances surrounded the Libya foray; these are absent in Syria. So emerges the difficult question: do we intervene?

Robert Pape’s nuanced New York Times op-ed establishes a potentially useful rule, or at least a significant independent variable, for determining the viability of humanitarian intervention: control by opposition forces of a large region of the country.  This condition was met in Libya, he writes; in Syria, the extent of the Free Syrian Army’s foothold remains unclear for now.

That Pape opposes humanitarian intervention in Syria (for now) does not make him unusual: see my earlier post on this matter.  What makes him unusual is that he does so intelligently.

Below are five much less intelligent but much more common ways to oppose humanitarian intervention.

1.      Recalling That the United States Has Done Bad Things Before

“What about the Native Americans?  What about Vietnam and Cambodia?  What about slavery?  What about Abu Ghraib?”

Good questions.  What about them?  Would you have opposed moving to stop those atrocities or not?  If so, then you’re categorically opposed to humanitarian intervention.  If not, then you support it sometimes and need to explain why you oppose it in this case, as Pape does.  If you’re just bringing these episodes up in order to question America’s right to impose humanitarian intervention elsewhere, then remember that many of America’s past crimes are crimes of passivity.  What about Rwanda?  What about Darfur?  If you believe these outrages should have been prevented (and know of a country without sin that can cast the first Tomahawk in America’s stead), speak up now.

2.      Pointing Out That the United States Does Not Intervene Every Time Bad Things Happen

“What about North Korea?  What about Zimbabwe?  What about Saudi Arabia?”

Pointing out that we do not consistently invade or not invade every unhappy place on earth does not, on its own, constitute an argument against humanitarian intervention.  The question, then, is why these other cases are being raised.  If they are being raised to argue that the United States should never intervene abroad, period, then so be it: Rwanda and Cambodia are our success stories.  If the point is that the United States always should, then more interventions are being argued for, not less.  If neither of the above points is being made, as is usually the case, then no point is being made at all.

3.      Grumbling That the United States Has Ulterior Motives

OK, I take that back.  Someone might also bring up other unsavory regimes to make a different point: that the United States is hypocritical for seeking to bring down one evil regime while it protects, arms, and funds others.  This is a sound argument for some purposes, but not for opposing a given instance of humanitarian intervention.  No country needs impeccable moral credentials in order to do the right thing today, and no country will ever have them.

Alternatively, it might be argued that while the intervention is the right thing to do, we are doing it for the wrong reasons (often “oil” or “imperialism”).  This also does not delegitimize the intervention itself.

4.      Warning That Things Will Go Wrong

As Pape shows, this argument can be made well.  Having researched the role of air power in the past, he writes that it “alone would probably not be sufficient to blunt the Assad loyalists entrenched in cities, and a heavy ground campaign would probably face stiff and bloody resistance.”  It is true that, unlike Qaddafi’s vulnerable and isolated attack force, al-Assad’s forces are difficult to bomb.

To be credible, though, this argument must come with an acknowledgement that nothing about the future is certain, and that inaction has its own consequences.  Syria is no exception to this rule: civilians will die with or without an intervention, and the international community is responsible both for what it does and for what it does not do.

5.      Eye-rolling

This is an easy one, and you don’t need to know anything to do it.  Most opposition to humanitarian intervention takes this form.