Paul Pillar on America in the Middle East

National Interest has a wonderful article penned by Paul Pillar titled “How Donald Trump Should Transform America’s Middle East Policy.”

He states the quite obvious that

An immense share of the blood and treasure the United States has lost overseas in the past couple of decades has been in the Middle East, an expenditure that has not brought proportionate benefits.

You can rattle off the failures easily, from the Iraq invasion to the dithering in Syria. Obama’s Pivot to Asia, which was based on an interpretation of America being over-involved in the Middle East, was a good start in addressing our poorly formulated regional policy. Yet, a significant chunk of his foreign policy legacy will be defined by his inability to disentangle America from Middle Eastern politics. This includes Libya, Yemen, Syria, ISIL, Iran, the Arab Awakening, Peace Process, etc..

What is to be done? The US still has interests in the Middle East, but they should be better defined and more limited. Moving forward, his recommendations include

…the initial principle that the new administration should observe in making policy toward the region is the Hippocratic one of first doing no harm. A second principle is to keep costs and risks commensurate with prospective gains to U.S. interests. A third is to recognize that not all problems, even heart-rending ones, are solvable, and that if they are, the United States is not always best suited to solve them. Often the interests and objectives of other players in the region are better engaged, and this sometimes means taking advantage of the balancing of conflicting interests.

Highly recommended that you read the entire thing (quickly as it will soon be gated).

 

Putin and Erdogan’s Marriage of Convenience

Excellent read at the Wilson Center on the evolving and odd relationships between the United States, Turkey, and Russia. In late 2015 Turkey was shooting down Russian fighter jets. In August of 2016, Erdogan was praising his dear friend Putin. This turnabout was largely a result of America’s intervention into Syria.

Here is one bit from the article.

Overnight, America had transformed the Syrian Kurds into a legitimate actor, enabling them to consolidate territorial gains adjoining Turkey. For Ankara, however, this was nothing short of a victory for the hated Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which had been instrumental in the creation of the YPG and waged a decades-long guerrilla war against the Turkish state

Yet, like most American allies, Erdogan is more than happy to free ride on American security treaties.

Still, it would be foolhardy to suggest that Erdogan would contemplate abandoning NATO. Turkey lives under the shadow of the Russian giant — its anger at the United States and its Western allies notwithstanding, it needs the protection the alliance offers. Without it, the Russians would be able to intimidate Ankara at will. Erdogan correctly calculates that he can be a free rider in the alliance, cozying up to Moscow and antagonizing Washington, all the while knowing that the U.S.-Turkish relationship is deeply embedded in NATO.

Do read the entire thing.

The author is Henri Barkey.

President Obama’s biggest failures.

At the National Interest, Daniel R. DePetris has a piece where he discusses “…the five biggest failures that will at least partially color President Obama’s two terms..”

The list includes

  1. Guantanamo Remains Open
  2. No Mideast Peace Deal
  3. The Syria Red Line
  4. Partisanship Got Worse
  5. A Nation that Remains At War

It is a curious list as you hear very little about Guantanamo, all Presidents fail at the peace process, Republicans decided on day 1 to oppose every aspect of his agenda, and most civilians don’t feel as if they are at war (I’m not convinced that the average voter is aware or even cares about Obama’s light footprint strategy).

Syria is expected, as during the Obama administration over 11 percent of their population were killed and the refugee problem was the biggest threat to the EU project of the past 20 years. But I think his association with Syria will be the tragedy of what happened there and not the “red line” as argued by Daniel. I think the future way we frame Syria will be that Obama was callous and allowed it to happen which is not fair to him but that isn’t the point of Daniel’s list.

Oddly left off the list is the return to geopolitics in Ukraine and the South China Sea, ISIL, the failure of TPP, and what I consider his biggest foreign policy blunder, Libya.

In Libya, it was one policy mistake after another. If 9/11 meant domestic institutions replaced power distributions as America’s biggest security concern, why create a failed state? Why overturn a regime which actually cooperated with the United States on its various weapons program, complicating our credibility with nuclear powers or aspiring nuclear powers. It seems obvious to me that Libya damaged our credibility more than the “red line” ever did. Lastly, if the list is to correctly identify what failures will color the legacy of the Obama administration once he leaves office, Benghazi will also play a role in cementing “all things Libya” as his biggest policy debacle aboard.

 

The forever war expands to the Horn of Africa.

At least legally. The NYT has a report detailing the Obama administration inclusion of Somalia’s Al Shabab as falling under the scope of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) which was the congressional response to 9/11. It gave the President a very broad and liberal mandate to use force in the War on Terror.

The summary of the bill, found here, states:

Authorization for Use of Military Force – Authorizes the President to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.

So on September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda, with the support of the Taliban, carried out a terrorist attack that killed roughly 3,000 people. Congress responded by allowing the President to use force against those who orchestrated this attack. 15 years later we are bombing a tangentially related group nearly 2,500 miles away from where those who planned 9/11 were located.

This is obviously mission creep and is the unfortunate consequence of the “forever war,” or the state of affairs in which covert operations and curtailed civil liberties are the new normal.

The biggest issue I have with the pursuit of Al-Shabab is how easily the executive branch relaxes and constricts the scope of the 2001 authorization to suit its own short-term interests. Determining who is an enemy of the state is all done with no transparency nor checks outside of the administration.

As Micah Zenko state in the NYT, “It’s crazy that a piece of legislation that was grounded specifically in the experience of 9/11 is now being repurposed for close air support for regional security forces in Somalia,” said Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.”

This isn’t new territory for the Obama administration. As noted in the same article, a similar style of interpretation of the 2001 AUMF was used to authorize the use of force in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and in June of 2016, to reenter Afghanistan.

Two consequences could result from this military engineering in far off lands.

1) As well documented by its critics, the victories of the war on terror have a tendency of producing new enemies. We may kill the leadership of Al Shabab but there is no way to be certain that the United States doesn’t produce more terrorist in its wake.

But 2) we have someone about to assume office who many expect to not impose any constraints on his use of power. Despite being relatively measured (at times anyway) in how he exercised the use of force abroad, President Obama has continued the behavior of the previous administration of setting very dangerous precedents of eroding legislative and judicial constraints on how he pursued the War on Terror. Precedents are especially important for a democracy as leadership changes on a regular basis. Donald Trump is inheriting a series of executive overreaches which would allow him a very liberal interpretation of who our enemies are and the precedents he sets building off of the Obama administration behavior could be very damaging for the institutional quality of American democracy.

 

“Iraq has never seen this kind of fighting in its battles with ISIS”

That is the headline of a WaPo story.

Here is one bit.

“It is a bitter fight: street to street, house to house, with the presence of civilians slowing the advancing forces. Car bombs — the militants’ main weapon — speed out of garages and straight into advancing military convoys.”

The reports of ISIL tactics are alarming. Not to pander but I’ve been stunned and, frankly, sickened reading how horrific ISIL is as an organization. From rape to using chemical weapons on children, ISIL is one disgustingly barbaric group.  Most worrying is that, as many have cautioned, the bigger challenge will come once ISIL is pushed out of their strongholds of Mosul and Aleppo and they start to look more like a  traditional islamic terrorist organization.

For those advocating a bigger role the US in Syria and Iraq, it’s important to note that ISIS has it’s roots in foreign interventions. First the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and then the American lead conflict in Iraq. This isn’t to blame Russia or the USA but to warn against proposals that don’t take into consideration unintended consequences.

Vox has a very nice video explaining the rise of ISIL here.

 

 

 

 

More demands for US involvement in Syria.

The NYT has a piece by Steven Heydemann arguing for deepening American involvement in the Syrian conflict in ways beyond a No Fly Zone.

What I found most disagreeable with the piece is that the author assumes that it is in American strategic interests to remove Assad. I’m not convinced it is. He writes that

 

The best candidate for recognition is the little-known Syrian Interim Government, or S.I.G. Unlike many other opposition groups, which are based in Turkey, the S.I.G. is based inside Syria, with offices in Idlib and scattered throughout opposition-held territory. Its prime minister, a politically independent heart surgeon named Jawad Abu Hatab, was elected in May by a large majority of the General Assembly of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, an important opposition group in exile.

I am under no illusion that Assad is a good guy but what the United States should aim for is an end to the violence and a return to some sort of normalcy. What’s to say this actually happens if the Assad regime steps down (which it obviously won’t do willingly) and the S.I.G. assumes power? Ethnic tensions are ripe in most of the Middle East and Syria’s will not be solved by one regime change.

Syria’s borders are not organic but were drawn to extend European influence after WWI. One reason we are stuck with the strongman of the Middle East is because stern rule is needed to govern the multiple tribes living under one flag. These competing tribes acquiesced to the nationalism and pan arab movement of the 70s and 80s but are beginning to resurface post Arab Spring. If we remove Assad, who among the possible replacements are expected to govern these groups? Keep in mind that ISIS has its roots in the disbanding of the Bath party of Iraq. Where do we expect members of Assad’s regime to go?

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.

 

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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.

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

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Public policy of the incumbent can be modeled explicitly as

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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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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.