Don’t escalate the fight against ISIS.

 

President Trump has identified ISIS as his highest priority and, acting accordingly, has deployed 1,000 Marines to Syria, pledged future support to Iraq, and requested an additional 5 billion dollars to help escalate the fight.

 

There are good reasons for the United States to be concerned with ISIS. At its height, some estimated that ISIS controlled approximately 35,000 thousand square miles including such major cities as Mosul, Ramdi, Falluja, and Raqqa. Outside of the Middle East they have inspired similar style caliphates, such as Boko Haram, as well as terrorist attacks against the west.

 

Yet, it is still not clear that it is in America’s interest to get furthered involved in this fight. This is because there are other groups in the region who have a stronger incentive to defeat ISIS and, by most metrics, appear to be doing just that.

 

According to IHS Conflict Monitor, ISIS lost approximately a quarter of its territory in 2016. Ramdi and Falluja were recaptured and ISIS is on the verge of losing Mosul and Raqqa. Their reduction in territory was accompanied by an estimated loss of 50,000 fighters.

 

Their financial problems are mounting as well. It has been reported that the Caliphate’s monthly revenue and oil production are down 30 percent and salaries have been cut nearly in half.

 

All of this has resulted in a lowered morale, an increase in infighting, and a rise in desertions.

 

American air strikes certainly played a role in creating this situation, yet it is probably not in America’s interest to get furthered involved in the conflict. ISIS is already battling a long list of enemies in the region that include the Assad regime, the Russian, Iraqi, Jordanian, Iranian, and Turkish governments, the Kurds, various Sunni rebel groups, Hezbollah, and basically most of the Muslim population at this point. All of these groups have different reasons for getting involved in the conflict, and at times their regional interests conflict with one another, yet all have an interest in defeating ISIS. Despite the complicated politics of the region, they have been working together to do this. To give just a few examples, Russia and Turkey have fought together in Al Bab, Iran has deployed its military to support the Assad regime and Iraqi government, and a variety of local militias which include Arabs, Syrian Christians, Turkmen, and Kurds are working together in taking back Raqqa.

 

ISIS poses the biggest threat to the region, not America. Therefore, it should be the regional forces that take the lead in defeating them, not some country on the other side of the world. Despite not always being well coordinated, this is what is happening. The Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian governments as well as the various local non-state entities have all made serious advances into former ISIS territory and have seriously reduced ISIS ranks. With the momentum for an ISIS defeat growing, the United States may be tempted to rush in and tip the balance, but it would be wise not to interfere. Further American involvement would reduce the incentive of the local forces to continue their fight against the organization as well as possibly producing unintended consequences. It was after all the American invasion of Iraq and the de-Ba’athification of the Baathist regime that lead to the creation of ISIS in the first place. There is no way to know how an American escalation of the fight will complicate the current conflict and with ISIS on the ropes, the United States would be wise to leave well enough alone and continue to let the local powers take the lead in defeating ISIS.

 

Brian Clark is a foreign policy researcher living in Beijing, China. He blogs about international politics at www.managinghistory.com

Trump’s transition team and terrorism.

Trump’s transition is taking shape and it doesn’t look like any political bridges will be built, at least not through who he appoints in his administration. Matt Apuzzo and Mark Landler have an interesting article in the NYT discussing the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama as attorney general, Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas as C.I.A. director and Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn as national security adviser.

These three don’t mince words when discussing Islam and terrorism. Some of the quotes and positions attributed to these three are outright ridiculous.

For example,

General Flynn similarly favors the immigration ban and has expressed support for the idea of forcing Muslims in the United States to register with the government. He once erroneously wrote on Twitter that Shariah, or Islamic law, was in danger of taking over the country.

As well,

Mr. Pompeo has said Muslim leaders contribute to the threat of terrorism by refusing to repudiate it, although Islamic leaders and advocacy groups have done so repeatedly, and often. “Silence has made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit in these acts and, more importantly still, in those that may well follow,” Mr. Pompeo said in 2013.

From reading the article, it’s clear that all three nominees share the idea that there is a special relationship between Islam and terrorism. As William McCants, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution states, “The thinking here is that…religion is the key factor that influences everything else.”

This is what is bothersome about these appointments. I’m no apologist for Islam. There is a good amount of evidence to support the argument that Islam has a unique relationship with terrorism. Most, if not all, recent large-scale terrorist attacks have been done in the name of Islam. I don’t know of any modern Christian equivalent to 9/11 and I’ve never seen a headline about a Jew beheading a journalist in the name of Judaism. And it is not just those who commit terrorism but the sympathetic outlook of many Muslims. You can find plenty of similar survey data but here are 2010 results on Muslim views of Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden. Indonesia, usually offered as an example of the compatibility of Islam and modern governance, had 25 percent of surveyed Muslims express confidence in Bin Laden.

views-of-bin-laden

My take on how to approach the relationship between Islam and the terrorism is to remind myself that (1) Muslim attitude can be differentiated by area and (2) the issue of Islam and terrorism is relatively new. Two antidotes generally shape my thinking.

Regarding the first point, the Muslim community in the United States is, on average, well adjusted. There have been several spectacular attacks like San Berdino and Orlando, but overall Muslims living in the United States are fairly well assimilated. In terms of terrorism, Muslims have been responsible for approximately 6 percent of all terrorist attacks carried out in the United States from 1980 to 2005.

See the data provided in Omar Alnatour’s Huffington Post article here, which states “According to the FBI, 94% of terrorist attacks carried out in the United States from 1980 to 2005 have been by non-Muslims.” This is misleading considering in 2015 there are only 3.3 million Muslims of all ages living in the United States and represents 1 percent of the overall population. This is the largest it has ever been so it seems that Muslims do cause a disproportionate amount of terrorism compared to other groups. But there is comforting data of American Muslim views towards terrorism. Less than 8 percent of American Muslims consider suicide bombings sometimes or often justified for defending the religion. That number is larger than we would like but it is not benchmarked and I don’t expect it to be significantly different from a similar style question posed to American Christians.

american-muslim-views-towards-terrorism

The other perspective I keep in mind is a long view of history. Islam hasn’t always been linked with terrorism or has been illiberal. Although not perfect, Islam has been relatively tolerant towards other faiths, most notably Judaism. Radical Islam didn’t really emerge until the work of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), an Egyptian cleric who made his name by discrediting Arab leadership advocated a holy war against the post colonial regimes. But we didn’t see any serious amounts of Islamic terrorism until the 1970’s, with the Al Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and this was a response to the failed state building process of postcolonial Arabia and the success of Israel.

My point is that Islam is a little over 1,600 years old but Islamic terrorism in any serious form is only 40 years old. If the problem was “Islam” why don’t we have 1,600 years of terrorism? It seems to me that the religion didn’t change but the culture in which it is interpreted and practiced has. Like all major religious texts, the Koran has a large amount of ambiguous and culturally backwards passages that lend themselves to explanation. Just as you can find a passage advocating (2:244) you can also find a passage for tolerance (2:256).

How do we persuade Muslims to focus on the latter and not the former? Probably do the opposite of what Trump and his new cabinet members want to do. What motivates Islamic terrorism is an underlying sense of alienation in a context of economic, cultural, and political stagnation. Islamic terrorism is an attempt of asserting one’s identity as a response to the failure of Islam to offer any viable alternative to the modernity (i.e. the west). I’ll write more on this in a later essay, but for now read Bernard’s Lewis’s piece here.

So the issue is not only do we have someone who claimed Islam is cancer as a future National Security advisor, he is part of an administration which ran on a platform of 1) extreme vetting (or a ban, not sure what he wants at this point), 2) bring back waterboarding, 3) retaliating against terrorist by bombing their families, 4) frame the issue of terrorism as Islamic terrorism. If you agree that the root of Islamic terrorism is estrangement from the modernity, you will also agree that these policies and appointments only exacerbate the issue. The shape that Trumps administration is taking shape suggest that his administration will further dehumanize the wider Muslim community and to reframe the debate as one between the West versus Muslim instead of civilized versus uncivilized.

A post Trump America.

One of the most depressing and sad episodes of American political history is almost at a close. The 2016 presidential campaign was the most culturally and politically divisive contest in recent memory and exposed deep cultural divides in American society. Perhaps a new normal emerged? One in which race baiting, sexism, and xenophobic rhetoric becomes acceptable political theater. Nearly all polls suggest a win for Hillary Clinton, yet what does this leave us with? How could someone so politically incorrect, so brutishly and unapologetically crude come so close to being the President? What will a post Trump America look like?

It’s well understood that the roots of Trump’s rise are found in a growing sense of demographic anxiety. Economic misplacement and the Republican party’s frustration with their never ending search for an authentic conservative played a role, but I think at root we have the “deplorables” because of the shifting distribution of cultural and demographic America. His supporters are unapologetically white and they are responding to the perceived trend that the United States is becoming less so. Below is a chart which I think sums up the source of their grief.

changingfaceamerica1965-2065-pew

The above trends are alarming from a governing perspective. Frankly, the less homogenous a body politic is the less well its political institutions perform. This was best discussed in Putnam’s work “Making Democracy Work.” The central premise is that political institutions are more efficient when there is a high amount of social capital. Social capital helps find solutions to problems of collective action problems by building institutions of trust and norms of reciprocity, or what he calls a rotating credit association. Social capital includes a shared language, community bonds based around culture, and other networks of civic associations. The more heterogeneous a society is demographically, the less social capital. This explains in part why we are observing such stark fault lines in American politics.

One of two things must give if the politics that made way for Trump are to be addressed. One, the mentioned demographic trends must be halted. This is exactly what Trump and his supporters demand and includes policies like building a wall and halting all Muslim immigration.

The other alternative involves thinking about how we conduct public policy. I would argue that this means refocusing public policy away from allocation and more towards facilitating cooperation and emphasizing personal responsibility. The tribalism that comes with this sort of demographic change is heightened when so much of government policy is an attempt to redistribute income. For FY 2012, federal spending on welfare programs alone was roughly 1 trillion dollars, and this doesn’t include Social Security and Medicare. No one can discount all aspects of these programs, but this style of governing doesn’t perform well in a heterogeneous society. Look at how brittle the social democracies of Europe are with the migration crisis. A consequence of these redistribution programs is that individuals often feel that they are competing with each over the biggest slice of the pie, breeding resentment and animosity among the participants. These are mostly mean tested programs, but its perception that is important, and one of the most common complaints of Trump’s supporters is that “others are cutting in lines.”

An easy fix (conceptually, not politically) would be to reorient public policy away from redistribution and towards creating incentives for being industrial and self-reliant. Both parties are responsible of creating public policy that promotes a rent seeking, zero-sum attitude. Instead we should design legislation that sought to realign competing self-interests towards more cooperative behavior. I don’t have an answer for what this specifically looks like but it would be libertarian in spirit and would include reducing the scope of the welfare state. Allowing for more personal responsibility avoids perceptions that bureaucrats are creating distributional conflicts and would help dampen any social conflict stemming from changes in demographic trends. It’s either that or we try to ensure the United States remains defined as a country by one dominant race.

The Selectorate theory and Syrian regime survival.

 

Demand is growing for US involvement in Syria but not all rebellions are created equal. There is no indication that the Assad leadership will abide to any power sharing transition like what was observed in Tunisia or Egypt. Not only is Assad’s party stubbornly clinging to power, Syria stands apart from other movements of the Arab spring for its level of conflict. The violence taking place in Syria is both qualitatively and quantitatively different. It is estimated that approximate 11 percent of Syria has died, some of which have occurred through chemical attacks.

There are a host of historical and cultural reasons why some regimes do not gracefully transition to power. Outside powers, such as Iran and Russia, are aggravating the situation and there is a precedent in Syria of taking a heavy hand towards rebellions. But little discussion has been made of how the existing Syrian political economy exacerbates the length and amount of conflict being observed. I suggest that the reason why Syria is such as violent mess is because of the incentives of those in power to remain loyal to the leadership. I draw on insights produced by the selectorate theory which argues that regime loyalty and the lengths they will go to retain power are shaped by two institutions, the winning coalition and the selectorate.

For the uninitiated, the selectorate model argues two institutions shape regime stability. The selectorate is the subset of residents that have a genuine opportunity to select state leadership. Selectorate membership is derived from state specific institutional characteristics such as lineage, wealth, or legal qualifications. In democratic regimes, especially those commonly referred to as western, the selectorate is generally all citizens over the age of 18. The size of the selectorate in authoritarian or military regimes is usually more narrow and generally consists of a small coalition of elites. The winning coalition is that subset of the selectorate that abides by state specific institutional conditions to confer political authority over the residents of the state. Political candidates of any style of regime must by definition form their winning coalition of supporters from the selectorate. This is done through public policy which can be allocated to either private or public goods. What shapes the allocation of state resources is the pressure of a challenger. If an incumbent fails to offer members of the winning coalition the best public policy bundle, a challenger will be able to persuade members of the winning coalition to defect. Holding utility constant, it is assumed that members of the selectorate would prefer to receive private goods to public goods. In general, the larger the wining coalition, the more incentive leadership has to offer public policy in the form of public goods. This takes the form of efficient institutions, the impartial rule of law, and transparent governing. When the winning coalition is small, there is an incentive to offer public policy to the winning coalition in the form of private goods. This includes state licenses, income from rent seeking, and other forms of corruption.

The relationship is made clear through an example. Let R be the total amount of income produced in a state where R= $1,000. If W is the size of the winning coalition and all of the state resources are allocated towards private goods, then $1,000/W decreases as W increases. That is, $1,000/2 > $1,000/4, 1,000/4 > $1,000/6, and so forth. Public goods, however, are not discriminatory and their consumption by one individual does not preclude consumption by others. It is assumed that the preference for public goods are uniformly distributed in the winning coalition so that all members of the winning coalition benefit evenly from their production. Unlike private goods, the size of the wining coalition does not effect the consumption of public goods. If R=$1,000 and the public good gives each member of the winning coalition the equivalent of $30 worth of utility, then for a state with a winning coalition of 40 members, public goods will be produced because $1,000/40=$25 per member, which is less than $30. If the winning coalition consists of 20 members, then $1,000/20 = $50 and private goods will be produced because $50>$30. The more members in a winning coalition, the less state resources are available to be distributed among those in that coalition. For those interested I provide this more formally as an addendeum.

The theory has a host of interesting applications including the democratic peace theory (winning a war is treated as a public good so democracies will divert a large amount of resources towards winning them) to how leadership responds to natural disasters.

In addition to shaping what sort of public policy state leadership will offer, the selectorate and winning coalition explain regime loyalty. The amount of loyalty is proxied by the ratio of the winning collation to the selectorate, or W/S. If W/S is large, the loyalty of those in W will be low because if W is large or S is small then the probability of being included in the next coalition is high. If W is small and S large than the probability of being in the next coalition is low. Let W = 300 and S = 2,000,000 then the probability of being in the next coalition is 300/2,000,000 or 0.0015. This is a very rough approximation of North Korea. If W = 65,000,000 and S = 150,000,000 then the probability of being in the next coalition is 65,000,000/150,000,000 or 0.43. This is a very rough approximation of the United States.

A small winning coalition with a large selectorate induces loyalty as public policy is largely defined by private consumption and the fact that a member of the winning coalition is easily replaced. A member of W is less valuable to the challenger when W/S is small. The probability of being in the next winning coalition is too small and the costs are too great to expect any orderly regime change. Unfortunately for American options in Syria, a large selectorate and a small winning coalition is what Syria has. The ratio W/S explains a good amount of why Syria is approaching its 5th year and why the violence only seems to being increasing. Those in the winning coalition have demonstrated that they will go to great lengths to retain power including the use of chemical weapons against civilians. This means that the Assad regime will not go quietly as other regimes such as Egypt which has about half the size of a selectorate as Syria does. As I’ve wrote before on this blog, a sober assessment of American priorities should be taken prior to taking initiatives towards involving itself in Syria. Those advocating that “Assad most go” needs to mindful of the existing political economy in Syria and what that means for a power transition. After 5 years of civil war, it’s obvious that a regime change will not occur with a light footprint strategy. If the United States wants a power transition, it needs to fully commit because the Baathist party of Syria has far too much at stake to entertain any minor compromise of its political power.

 

Appendix.

Below is a simplified version of the selectorate theory. I’m still new to wordpress so if someone has a better way of writing equations let me know, but I was forced to cut and paste using my MAC’s screen shot feature.

I reduced the model to only demonstrating the relevant parts for the above discussion. The model is more involved and elaborate than presented here, almost to the point of sacrificing parsimony for granularity. For the interested reader, I highly recommend the following book. It is the most comprehensive treatment of the Selectorate Theory to date and has deeply shaped my thinking on foreign policy.

State leadership will attempt to maximize discretionary income, which is the difference between total state revenue and public policy.

 

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-3-54-18-pm

Total state revenue explicitly modeled takes a common form. It is assumed that the tax rate is applied evenly across all residents. I treat as exogenous.

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-3-56-37-pm

Public policy offered by the incumbent is a bundle of public and private goods so that

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-3-57-39-pm

Public policy of the incumbent can be modeled explicitly as

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-3-58-08-pm

It is assumed that private goods are distributed evenly to the winning coalition which allows W to serve as a proxy price for private goods. If M­g is the amount of an incumbents public policy allocated towards private goods, then each member of W receives Mg/W share. If the winning coalition increases, so does the overall cost of providing private goods. If the winning coalition decreases, so does the overall cost of providing private goods.

The objective function of the incumbent fully assembled and explicitly stated is below.

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-3-58-38-pm

 

Leadership will choose to maximize If a Markov Perfect Equilibria is assumed, then holds due to the challenger constraint. That is, to prevent defection from his winning coalition, the incumbent was required to offer a bundle of private and pubic goods in the previous round that provided at a minimum the same amount of utility to the least affiliated member of his coalition that a challenger did. The model assumes that each member of the selectorate has a level of affinity for political leadership that is based on cultural and ideological connections. The full set of affinities for those in W can be linearly ordered based on the strength of affinity for leadership. If is affinity then the set of all affinities of those in the selectorate can be arranged where 0< < 1. Affinity for leadership is treated as a residual of support after utility from public policy is consumed. This will allow for any stalemates between incumbent and challenger to be resolved if utility derived from public policy is the same between incumbent and challenger. That is, a member of the selectorate will arrive at their choice of leadership based firstly on utility derived from the combination of private and public goods offered by leadership. Affinity for leadership will only decide support of leadership if public policies offered by candidates are the same. A political rival will attempt to persuade the member in the incumbents winning coalition with the lowest affinity (or lowest affinity member (LAM)) to defect by offering a public policy that offers them more utility than the incumbent. An incumbent only need to match this utility as he benefits from what is described as the ‘incumbency advantage’. This is the advantage enjoyed by incumbents when the utility offered from the challenger is discounted by the fact that a challenger must first attain power and the utility offered by someone not in leadership is uncertain. To defect from the winning coalition would result in a forfeiture of all utility offered by the leadership’s public policy.

The constraint is that the incumbent must match the best public policy bundle of any challenger.

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The Philippines and American credibility.

“America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.” These are the words of the Philippines president announcing his “separation” from the United States. A large part of the recent Philippine separation can be explained by the personality of its leader. The man makes Trump look like Winston Churchill. For a list of Duterte greatest hits, see here. Although the statement has been qualified, the “separation” is alarming for the United States and its allies as the bilateral alliance is the bedrock of the American strategy for achieving South East Asian stability. The defection of the Philippines, however, may not be particular to its leader but a consequence of diminished American credibility and the inability to clearly define US foreign policy objectives.

With the Syrian red line, the lament for the ruin of American credibility is rife. See here, here, here, and here. Credibility has an unflattering history in American foreign policy. President Obama complained of the “fetish” for credibility and how it results in “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone.” In the most notorious example of credibility being pathological, the United States waged what most agree was a meaningless war in Vietnam largely to maintain credibility.

The United States is suffering from a lack of credibility amongst our South East Asian allies, but Syria is not the root cause. The academic literature points to states evaluating their opponents power and interests when judging the credibility of their statements. So backing down from a Middle East quagmire wouldn’t reduce the credibility of the United States in the Far East as the US doesn’t have any strategic or economic interest in the civil war. The lack of American credibility in the Far East results from our inability to clearly state our vision for the region and to successfully implement our stated policies.

Asia is on the cusp of a reorientation of the regional “rules” with a revisionist China offering the middle powers an alternative to the American lead order. What China proposes is something modeled on their past “Sinocentric” tribute system although updated to include modern intuitions such as international financial banks and foreign direct investment. China has the final say on non-domestic regional politics and will not limit its use of power and economic leverage against those who disagree. An obvious example is China’s behavior in the South China Sea. But members of the China led order are offered a deep respect for state sovereignty and China wouldn’t take issue with the tactics used in the drug war of a neighbor. The American order is just the opposite. The United States will largely refrain from great power politics with the regional players yet will involve itself in their domestic matters from time to time. This approach takes shape as a hub and spoke alliance network and multilateral trade agreements. Increasingly, the middle powers are being pressured to choose which camp they are in, the separation being one example of a regional actor defecting from the US.

Why did the Philippines separate from the US? The vital element of the American order is whether or not the region thinks the US staying power is reliable. China does not need to convince any of the regional actors that China is not going anywhere. America does and American credibility for remaining committed to the region is suspect. The sources for the lack for credibility are varied including the failure of congress to approve TPP, the republican nomination of someone who openly complains and questions the wisdom of our regional alliances and the Obama doctrine itself. There never appeared to be any organizing principle of the Obama doctrine but series of ad hoc and inconsistent policy prescriptions. The signature Obama policy in Asia is the pivot which is itself contradictory, attempting to both economically engage China yet militarily contain them. Most actors are left wondering what exactly the US intends for the region and how committed they are towards pursuing whatever goals those are. It’s clear that China’s rise alarms the region and that most members prefer the benign hegemony of America to the great power politics of China. But with the staying power of the US questionable combined with the perception that the Untied States is a declining power, it isn’t surprising that Duterte would take advantage of the political leverage created by the recent diplomatic row with President Obama to bandwagon with China.

Syria and mission creep.

During the third presidential debate, the probable 45th president has confirmed her support for a no fly zone (NFZ) in Syria. Calls for a NFZ are mostly driven by humanitarian reasons. The vivid imagery of Syrian suffering pressures the west to respond and a NFZ is a way for the United States to address this suffering while minimizing risk. The problem is that the NFZ is a policy proposal that doesn’t match the facts on the ground and will most probably result in mission creep.

Mission creep is the tendency of small scale interventions to incrementally expand into more ambitious projects. The term was originally coined by Jim Hoagland when describing US involvement in Somalia. What started off as a humanitarian mission in a failed state was modified into a police action against a local warlord. The consequence was the death of 18 American soldiers and approximately 200 Somalis.

How does this apply to a NFZ in Syria? A NFZ would fail to properly address the civilian casualties in Syria and would lead to a demand for either a safe zone or result in a dent in American credibility. A NFZ is just what it says. It’s airspace that is patrolled by the west to prevent belligerent parties from entering with their aircraft. Note that a NFZ is conceptually different from a safe zone as a NFZ does not address conflict on the ground. Because the demand for a no fly zone is driven by concerns over civilian casualties, it’s important that a NFZ properly address the cause of these causalities. Unfortunately a NFZ in Syria does not and this is confirmed by the data.

Finding reliable and current casualty rates of Syrian civilians is difficult to attain. Finding how they were killed is even more difficult. Violations Documentation Center (VDC) is the only source I know of that produces data on the number and method of civilian casualties but they do not publish regularly. In September of 2015 the NYT published VDC data which noted that of the 85,404 civilians casualties they were able to record, approximately a fifth were from Syrian aerial bombings. Their most current report is part of their monthly series (which is also not published regularly) which reports that for August 2016, 39 percent of the 1,737 civilians deaths were from aerial or barrel bomb attacks. An increase but most probable from the involvement of Russia and I would assume that most of these deaths are in Aleppo which would not be included in any proposed NFZ.

What does this have to do with mission creep? Everything as the policy prescription does not match the reality on the ground. As noted, most civilian casualties of the Syrian conflict are not the result of aerial bombardments but from sources other than Russian and Syrian aircraft. Additionally, most aerial attacks are in areas that would never be plausibly included in a NFZ. But even if a NFZ were to reduce civilian deaths from Syrian and Russian aircraft, overall civilian casualties may not significantly drop as the Syrian government could substitute tactics and rely less on aerial attacks and more on mortar and artillery. What is to stop renewed demands to address the civilian casualties that continue after the NFZ is erected? What do we expect the US response to be to ground conflict between the multiple belligerents occurring inside the NFZ? What would happen if a Russian aircraft entered into the NFZ? These are all questions that have not been discussed at this point and all are plausibly answered by some form of mission creep. A NFZ only serves to deepen the United States into a conflict by way of an inappropriate policy. It is deeply unfortunate but the truth is Syria has no strategic or economic (oil) value to justify American use of force in the area. If the aim of the NFZ is to save Syrian civilians, the most obvious solution would be to have some sort policy which allows for the resettlement of refugees. Such a policy would be politically difficult, especially in the age of heightened demographic anxiety, but would directly address the tragedy of civilians being caught in the middle of a civil war.

Why NATO is a threat to Russia.

Recently, Adam Twardowski of the Center for a New American Security wrote a piece arguing that NATO is not a threat to Russia. His argument that “NATO has never been an existential threat to post-Soviet Russia” is mostly conjecture and has been answered by Ted Carpenter here. But both pieces fail to discuss why Russia considers NATO a threat, and that is the security’s alliance role in the larger liberal project lead by the United States.

Since 1945, the United States has embarked on what John Ikenberry calls an “open and ruled based” international order characterized by multilateral institutions, market based economies, and democracy. The variety of western institutions which define this order are open to all yet membership is with conditions. It’s expected that states that join adhere to liberal values both politically and economically. This means being democratic with a market economy. The American strategic vision of the post Cold War era has been to make our liberal hegemonic project more inclusive. Exceptions are made as geopolitics demand, but the assumption is that once states integrate into the American led ruled based order they will be pressured to become politically liberal states if they are not already there.

How does NATO fit into this grand strategy? It is the security apparatus that provides the regional stability and breathing room to secure these liberal gains and to further support this political evolution. The original goal of NATO was to “keep American in, Germany down, and the USSR out.” This would allow for Western Europe to rebuild its market economies uncompromised by security concerns associated with a rising Germany or a meddling Soviet Union. Along with the Marshall Plan, the Atlantic Charter, and the various Bretton Woods institutions, NATO served to make Europe political and economically liberal. Since 1989, that mission has not changed. As noted by their own study, NATO enlargement will contribute to enhanced stability and security for all countries in the Euro-Atlantic area by “encouraging and supporting democratic reforms, including civilian and democratic control over the military;”

The promotion of liberal values abroad combined with an unprecedented amount of power raise concerns inside Russia. Russia considers NATO a threat because it is part of a larger trend of promoting the western liberal ideology abroad. As Michael Mandelbaum states in Mission Failure, after the Cold War “the main focus of American foreign policy shifted from war to governance, from what other governments did beyond their borders to what thy did and how they were organized within them.” This reorientation of American foreign policy lead to a host of American advancements into Russia’s former sphere of influence with three American lead interventions (twice in former Yugoslavia and one in Afghanistan) and involving itself in the color revolutions of the region. American advances in Ukraine are especially alarming to Moscow as the area has been deeply intertwined with Russian history. When it was not part of Russian territory, it served as the buffer against foreign invasion and gave Russia access to its only warm-water port in Crimea. Despite the high level of strategic interest Russia has in its neighbor, the United States has interfered in their domestic politics for most of Ukraine’s 23 years of independence. As Ted Carpenter correctly notes, how tolerant would the United States be if Russia or China were incrementally pressuring America’s immediate neighbors to reconfigure their political economies to resemble their centralized illiberal models?

Promoting democracy and a respect for human rights abroad are admirable, but not from the perspective of the Russia’s ruling regime. From Moscow’s perspective, American support for democracy and human rights in their neighborhood is considered to compromise their own regimes influence. The original purpose of NATO was to provide enough security so that the strategically important region would not fall into the orbit of a hostile power. Today, its purpose is to spread liberalism beyond Western Europe and remake the political economies surrounding Russia to be less styled as Russian and more western. When you also include EU expansion, the revanchist Russian foreign policy should not come as a surprise.

 

Would Hillary be a hawk if elected?  

 

Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky say no. Stephen Walt says maybe. I disagree and largely for the very reason they raise. Both articles agree that if she becomes president Hillary will be a “domestic president.” This would mean she would be expected to focus on “health care, family issues, and promoting the rights of women and social justice generally.” But all politics whether domestic or international are local and politics do not get put on hold because you are President. And this explains Hilary’s long recorded inclination to use force abroad. It is politics (i.e. what will help her bid for pursuing power). Her political ambitions have pressured her to be more hawkish than others because of the obstacles she faces because of her 1) gender and 2) party affiliation.

Hillary’s history of being a hawk is well documented. I suspect that a good deal of her hawkish outlook was born in the politics associated with the first gulf war, a war that was by most metrics an unqualified success. With the exception of the Iraq surge of 2007, there are few instances when she didn’t agree to use the American military. Examples include Iraq (both 1991 and 2002), Hati (1994), drone strikes in Pakistan, the Afghanistan surge (2009), Libya (2011), the Yellow Sea and North Korea (2011), the Pivot, and supporting Syrian rebels.

The source of this long list of pursing political objectives through hard power is (I believe) identity based. Hillary is confronting multiple biases. She is both a women and a member of the Democratic Party and both sets of identities have an uphill battle in earning credibility for their security credentials.

Since the height of the Cold War, the Republicans have typically been the party many believe to be more competent on security matters. Noah Gordon has an excellent piece in the Atlantic discussing this. According to Noah, “Republicans have owned domestic security since 1970. For nearly all of the past 40 years, polls have consistently shown that Americans trust Republicans to handle security—and the related issues of foreign affairs and the military—better than Democrats.” The perception of Republican strength on military matters is mostly a result of the different party’s priorities. Republicans focus federal monies on bombs, Democrats on alleviating poverty. The perceptions that take shape by these spending priorities are confirmed by signature events like Carter’s mishandling of the Iran Hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Bill Clinton dodging the draft, and an awkward Michael Dukakis in a tank. This bias is so strong that it was John Kerry, and not George Bush, who had the more difficult time persuading the voters of the quality of his military service. This is all ironic considering the Democratic party has usually been the party that as lead the country into war.

The gender bias Hillary faces is more obvious. Typical gender associated traits which shape our lives are too banal to discuss here (men are aggressive, women are nurturing). These biases permeate all aspects of life and the voting public will evaluate a female candidate against what they expect a female to be. See here and here. Assuming women are soft on security is odd as history is littered with women leadership taking their state to war. Margaret Thatcher invaded the Falkland Islands. Golda Meir presided over the Yom Kippur War. And Indira Gandhi fought Pakistan. Nevertheless, gender norms are powerful constraints that, unless Hillary changes gender, will be a factor in Hillary’s foreign policy decision-making process. She wouldn’t let the first female president be the administration that lost Taiwan or allowed Iran to cross the nuclear threshold.

So Hillary has two attitudes that she needs to address. One is that she is soft on security because she is a Democrat. The other is that she is soft on security because she is a woman. Because these biases are rooted in her identity, they are perceptions that need constant attention whether Hillary Clinton is a Senator, Secretary of State, or President. I may be reaching but I assume that combating such perceptions played a large part in guiding her decision making process on employing American force abroad during her public career. I see no reason why she would not make such political calculations once in office and expect her to be just as much as hawk while president as she was in the past.

The Far East, Perceptions, and Internal Balancing.

Tensions in the Far East are high. China is, apparently, engaging in traditional geopolitics in the South China Sea building artificial military outposts, increasing their troop and hardware presence, and making territorial claims on disputed international waters. What motivates this behavior? Much commentary on the issue discusses Chinas behavior as driven by economics (fishery and energy resources) or political (just the natural power grab of a rising nation). Both explanations can be simultaneously true, but my interpretation is that this behavior is motivated by the logic of threat balancing. The balancing is internal (shifting resources within a state versus external which entails building alliances). The threat China is balancing against is the United States.

How is the United States a threat?

Two ways. One is the general American pursuit of political transformation of foreign lands. During the Cold War, US foreign policy was mostly, but not entirely, focused on the containment and deterrence of Soviet communism. Since 1989, the United States foreign policy has been mostly designed to do one of two things. The first is power projection. The second is the political transformation of other states. The original designs of the post WWII foreign policy were framed as a matter of national security. The dual policies of containment and determent were intended to prevent encroachment of the USSR into areas considered strategic to American security. But whereas during the Cold War the United States was interested in the domestic political arrangements of foreign states as a matter of halting communist expansion, post Cold War policy has largely been geared towards re-engineering the political arrangements of foreign states so to spread western values. China is balancing against the American assertion that “China is on the wrong side of history.” Attempts to nudge China towards liberalism has been embedded in trade agreements, hosting the Dalai Lama, and other soft power initiatives like its annual Human Rights report on China. From the regimes perspective, all of these measures are an attempt to curtail their control and weaken the communist party’s ability to govern.

The second perception of threat is the US pivot. The pivot is a series of diplomatic, economic, and military initiatives that renew American focus on the Pacific. It is generally packaged as the recognition that the future of politics will be decided in Asia and that to be relevant the US must deepen its presence in the area. Yet the pivot isn’t a regional policy as much as it is Chinese policy. From TPP to the lifting of the Vietnamese arms embargo, nearly all associated policies appear designed to contain China. Despite how often the United States assures China that the pivot is not about China but the region, China considers the pivot as a direct attempt of the United States to keep China from becoming a regional hegemon. Add the pivot associated policies with the already substantial US troop presence in the area and its not difficult to understand why China would feel the need to balance.

Americans would do well to consider that this is China’s back yard and that, starting with the Monroe doctrine, we do not tolerate foreign adventurism in our neighborhood. We view the American presence in the Far East as largely benign but, China views America as “a man with a criminal record “wandering just outside the gate of a family home.”” The South China Sea is their Caribbean and we shouldn’t be surprised when our meddling in that area is met with an aggressive response from China. We may be alarmed by the militarization of reefs and the obnoxious territorial claims of the nine dash nine line, but China’s behavior mimics the behavior of a threatened state.

Trump and Escalation

Much ink has been spilt on how the bulk of Donald Trumps policy positions are built around his over-the-top personality. From his signature promise to building a wall to combating illegal immigration to deterring Russia in Europe, his series of policy proposals have little substance beyond having the “Trump brand” to back them up. This is typical of a narcissist running during a time ripe for populism. But because Trumps positions are largely based on his personality, criticism is often personal, or at least perceived by Trump as personal. Combine critiques of his temperament with his sensitivity and you have an unusually entertaining political season. But the entertainment value wears thin and the gravity of the situation becomes concerning once one attempts to anticipate how Donald would perform on the international stage. Trumps inability to self control gives me two concerns, one regarding political rhetoric, the other regarding the theatrics of international terrorism. Both are, in the context of grand strategy, relatively minor but both have the potential to lead to escalation of something meaningful.

Foreign state leadership is often critical of the United States. This is partially a result of state leaders, regardless of their regime style, having to earn some level of political legitimacy among the wider public. Democratic leadership earn it through elections, dictatorship do so through a combination of the security state and a cult of personality. Many democratically elected leaders critique the United States unique political and economic culture because it is good domestic politics. Think the Labor Party under Corbyn or the Parti Socialiste of France. Many authoritarian leaders foster the image of the strong man protecting the populace from foreign encroachment, most often the United States. Think the ruling clergy of Iran or the Chavism of Venezuela. But what is good politics back home can have international repercussions. Recently, President Obama was forced to cancel a visit with Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, over the leaders claim that President Obama was the “son of a whore.” The comments were largely a reaction to western criticism of aggressive policing in the Philippine drug war. Despite the incendiary language, President Obama still met with the leader informally. This was because the involved leaders understood that both countries have a shared interest in working together on issues related to China and that diplomatic spats shouldn’t hinder them from cooperating on their shared regional strategy. In typical fashion, President Obama demonstrated that he is capable of being serious on the international stage. Does anyone seriously think that Trump is adult enough not to take such matters personally? His campaign is the most petty and vindictive in modern history and his personal history of holding grudges over the minor of slights is well documented. He cut the tops off of roses and sent back the stems to Connie Chung in response to what he considered an unfair interview. In response to a critical article, he sent Gail Collins a copy of her column with the note “face of a dog” next to her picture. You cannot make this stuff up. It is inevitable that an American president will encounter critical language abroad and we shouldn’t elect one who is capable of being “baited with a tweet.”

In addition to how Trump would respond to critical political rhetoric, I’m also concerned with the issue of international terrorism. Recruitment tactics of Islamic terror groups usually include large-scale attacks (as in France and the Bataclan) or gruesome spectacles like public beheadings. The motivation of these tactics is to provoke the west into overreacting and thereby pushing those on the margins towards their terrorist group ranks. This is part of the broader strategy to reframe the conflict from civilized versus uncivilized and instead as Islam versus infidel. I imagine that even the most detached state leader would find it difficult not to overreach in such a situation. Innocent women and children are usually killed and the bias of the general public is to demand some sort of reaction, either against the terror group abroad (bombing their members) or curtailing the civil liberties of local Muslims through increased scrutiny (like at an airport). If how the west reacts is not tempered with a view of the long-term goal of assimilation of Islam with modern values, the short-term conflict with terrorism becomes less winnable as a narrative of Islam being under attack emerges. Donald Trump already lends himself into such a narrative with his unapologetic chauvinism and crass showmanship. One of his promoted policies in the war on terror is to ban Muslim immigration. He as also suggested he will start surveilling all American mosques, and to “‘bomb the shit out of extremists.” This is exactly what terrorist groups want.

Presidential contests are not just choosing between different menus of policy options. Temperament and personality matter, as they would in any managerial position. Trump campaigns on a foreign policy of disengaging with the international society and focusing more on domestic issues. But which president hasn’t made this a focus of his or her campaign? Trump may not have a great deal of interest in international affairs but international affairs has a great deal of interest in the United States. And it only takes one event to spiral out of control and become a crisis. Someone who openingly brags about his love for revenge could easily be lured into escalating routine anti-US rhetoric or a small scaled terrorist attack into something much grander than it should be.