Policy Tensor

The Mother of All Foreign Policy Myths That Refuse to Lie Down and Die

In Realism on September 16, 2014 at 5:56 pm

Having thoroughly enjoyed Aaron Friedberg’s magisterial analysis of Britain’s experience of relative decline in The Weary Titan, the policy tensor was looking forward to reading A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia. His treatment of the history of Sino-American relations is impeccable. And his trepidation over the upcoming struggle for Asia is shared by nearly every well-informed observer. But for some reason he seems to have convinced himself that were China to become democratic the United States would be happy to, and ought to, surrender its position in Asia without a fight. Aaron Friedberg has fallen for a zombie idea: the myth of the democratic peace.

Proponents of the strong version of the democratic peace thesis claim that democracies are inherently less war-prone than autocracies (the monadic version of the democratic peace “theory”).  This doesn’t even pass the laugh test to anyone even remotely familiar with the history of Anglo-American foreign relations; or the international behavior of France, Israel, and India; not to speak of Athens or Rome. Other, more serious, scholars claim that the empirical record demonstrates unambiguously that democracies don’t fight each other, even if they fight nondemocratic states as often as the latter (the dyadic version). Or as Jack Levy observes, the “absence of war between democracies comes as close as anything we have to an empirical law in international relations.”[i] Democratic peace “theory” holds that this apparent “fact” is explained by the very nature of democratic polities—that democracies do not use force or threaten to use force because they respect each other and try to resolve their differences by other means.

Not only do a large number of liberal internationalist scholars subscribe to these views, the overwhelming majority of American foreign policy elites suffer under the same illusion. Indeed, it would not be a stretch to describe it as the hegemonic ideology of US foreign policy—it is seen as so utterly self-evident as to require no support for the assertion. The problem, to put it mildly, is that it is simply not true. The logic of the underlying theory is flawed. And the empirical record is, at best, ambiguous.

In the original Kantian version, democratic governments are reluctant to go to war because they must answer to their citizens who are usually unwilling to pay the price in blood and treasure. If Kant was right about this, democracies should go to war less often than autocracies in general and not just against other democracies. But this is simply not the case. If anything, democracies have historically gone to war more often than autocracies.

In the modern version, the claim is that democracies don’t fight each other because of shared norms of peaceful resolution of unavoidable conflicts. The apparent empirical “fact” that there is not a single instance of democracies fighting each other in the modern era is achieved by (a) coding at least one participant in any conflict as nondemocratic, (b) by choosing arbitrary cutoffs for which confrontations qualify as conflict, and (c) ignoring interventions by (democratic) major powers in (democratic) minor states. For instance, Finland, a German ally during World War II, was at war with the Allies. But it is excluded from the count because it did not suffer enough combat casualties. American interventions in democratic states (Iran ’53, Guatemala ’54, Indonesia ’57, British Guyana ’61, Brazil ’61 and ’64, Chile ’73, and Nicaragua ’84) supposedly do not qualify as “wars.” The six Anglo-French wars don’t count because one or the other was insufficiently democratic until a suitably later date. The three Anglo-Dutch naval wars ditto. The War of 1812 between the nascent American Republic and the United Kingdom doesn’t qualify as a war of democracies because the latter didn’t qualify as a real democracy until mid-century. Same for the Spanish-American war of 1898. The fact that Spain was regarded as no more or no less democratic than many other European states by contemporaries is ignored.

The most glaring counterexample—one that completely disqualifies the entire enterprise—is the coding of Germany as autocratic in 1914. In fact, in the late-nineteenth century and all the way to the outbreak of war, Germany was regarded as more democratic than France, if not England, on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, it was seen as the most advanced polity in the world where the rule of law, constitutional government, and popular government had attained its highest form. Woodrow Wilson himself, who was to later espouse the cause of Kantian peace, studied German state institutions and argued for their emulation in the land of the free. When Germany, France, and Britain went to war a hundred years ago, it was a war of democracies. It was only after war broke out that American elites came to regard Imperial Germany as autocratic; prompted wholly by the need to mobilize a reluctant public for the war.

What of the claim that democracies resolve their differences peacefully out of mutual respect? If the claims of democratic peace “theory” are right, then statesmen should not threaten war against another democratic state; the public should, at the very least, not be baying for blood; and disputes should be resolved with reference to shared norms not the dictates of straight power relationships. In a seminal article, Christopher Layne looked at four crises when democracies almost came to blows (the Trent affair of 1861 between the United States and Great Britain, the Venezuela crisis in 1895-1896 between the United States and Great Britain, the Fashoda crisis between France and Great Britain in 1898, and the Ruhr Crisis between France and Germany in 1923).[ii] His findings are stark:

In each of these crises, at least one of the democratic states involved was prepared to go to war (or, in the case of France in 1923, to use military force coercively) because it believed it had vital strategic or reputational interests at stake. In each of these crises, war was avoided only because one side elected to pull back from the brink. In each of the four crises, war was avoided not because of the “live and let live” spirit of peaceful dispute resolution at democratic peace theory’s core, but because of realist factors. Adverse distributions of military capabilities explain why France did not fight over Fashoda, and why Germany resisted the French occupation of the Ruhr passively rather than forcibly. Concerns that others would take advantage of the fight (the “waterbirds dilemma”) explain why Britain backed down in the Venezuela crisis, and the Union submitted to Britain’s ultimatum in the Trent affair. When one actually looks beyond the result of these four crises (“democracies do not fight democracies”) and attempts to understand why these crises turned out as they did, it becomes clear that democratic peace theory’s causal logic has only minimal explanatory power.

But you say, surely, the essentially peaceful relations amongst the Western allies (America, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Korea) since 1945 can be accounted for, at least partially, by the fact that they are all liberal market democracies? Not so. The “liberal peace” is an artifact of the “American pacifier.” Basically, the United States has been so preponderant in either extremity of Eurasia and in Oceania that none of these states can challenge it militarily. Nor could they credibly threaten the use of force to settle disputes amongst themselves. For the same reason, states in the Soviet sphere of influence had peaceful relations. The rule of force in world affairs is suspended in regions that are dominated by a single power for the simple reason that it is no longer characterized by anarchy (there is someone to turn to for help if you are attacked). Similarly, the threat of war will disappear from the center of international politics with the establishment of a world state.

The democratic “zone of peace” is an American invention. Those who want to fight America are by construction nondemocratic (for instance, since the Putin restoration, Russia is no longer regarded as a “nascent democracy” but rather as an authoritarian state). In this sense, the democratic peace thesis is irrefutable. But wrong ideas have a way of influencing actual policy. In particular, ideological zeal makes democratic states more likely to launch misguided wars to “enlarge the zone of peace and freedom”: witness the debacle in Iraq. This doesn’t mean that American policymakers suffer such delusions when it really counts. When push comes to shove, policymakers base their decisions on the calculus of power and interests. It would be foolish to expect America to surrender its position in Asia were China to become democratic. More likely, were it to seek an American withdrawal from Asian waters, China would no doubt be quickly reclassified as an autocracy with only a thin façade of democracy.

[i] Jack S. Levy, “Domestic Politics in War,” in Robert I. Rotberg and Theodore K. Rabb, eds., The Origin and Prevention of Major Wars (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 88.

[ii] Layne, Christopher. “Kant or Cant: The myth of the democratic peace.” International Security (1994): 5-49.

An Army To Oust Assad?

In Middle East on August 27, 2014 at 4:33 pm

Kenneth M. Pollack’s proposal in the September/October 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs is intriguing and clear-eyed. He outlines a strategy to defeat Assad by raising a professional army composed of Syrian fighters. As opposed to arming moderate rebels, Pollack would have the United States make a fresh start at creating an armed actor ex nihilo that can take on both Assad and Islamist extremists, and ensure stability when the fighting is over.

These men and women could come from any part of the country or its diaspora, as long as they were Syrian and willing to fight in the new army. They would need to integrate themselves into a conventional military structure and adopt its doctrine and rules of conduct. They would also have to be willing to leave their existing militias and become reassigned to new units without regard for religion, ethnicity, or geographic origin. Loyalty to the new army and to the vision of a democratic postwar Syria for which it would stand must supersede all other competing identities.

The strategy’s most critical aspect would be its emphasis on long-term conventional training. The program would represent a major departure from the assistance Washington is currently providing the opposition, which involves a few weeks of coaching in weapons handling and small-unit tactics. The new regimen, by contrast, should last at least a year, beginning with such basic training and then progressing to logistics, medical support, and specialized military skills. Along the way, U.S. advisers would organize the soldiers into a standard army hierarchy. Individuals chosen for command positions would receive additional instruction in leadership, advanced tactics, combined-arms operations, and communications.

Needless to say, this strategy would take a few years’ time to bear fruit. The “fruit” in the best case scenario is the establishment of a modern democracy protected by an apolitical army. While we can’t rule out an outright rout of such a force, it is highly unlikely to be defeated by Assad or the Islamic State if it is backed by American air power. Another scenario that Pollack considers is the new army prevailing against Assad but failing to secure the country. “The new Syrian army would then continue to face a grueling and destabilizing battle with extremists and insurgents while struggling to establish law and order, a challenge that undermined postwar governments in both Afghanistan and Libya.” A good case can be made that this is the most likely scenario.

The problem, which Pollack seems entirely unaware of, is that an army forged by the United States and embedded with American advisors to boot, would be necessarily seen as illegitimate by, if not the majority of Syrians, then at least a significant minority. In this region of the world, Western meddling smacks of colonial practices. An armed actor backed by Washington will be seen as America’s lackey. This would directly play into the hands of Islamist propaganda. No matter how well-intentioned the American intervention, the Islamists’ message of resistance to the West would resonate with increasing force. In particular, many more would join the Islamic State to fight the “good fight” against the infidel enemy. The Iraqi army forged ex nihilo by the Americans that Pollack cites as an exemplary case, also suffers precisely from this association; exacerbated, in this case, by the sectarianism of the regime in Baghdad.

The new Syrian army would have to be forged in either Jordan or Turkey. If based in Jordan, it could destabilize the small state quite quickly. The Islamic State already has plans to expand into Jordan. A large-scale American operation of this magnitude would immediately create a fertile ground for the expansion of the Islamic State’s influence; particularly among disenfranchised Palestinians, who constitute a majority of Jordan’s populace. Jordan has so far narrowly avoided the instability engulfing its neighbors. An American operation of this magnitude in Jordan would not be the proverbial straw on the camel’s back, it would be a brick.

If based in Turkey, the United States would have to constantly be wary of Turkish influence. Washington and Turkey have very different interests in Syria. In fact, Washington is furious with Ankara over the latter’s blind support for Islamist insurgents in Syria. Turkey has reportedly allowed the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qa‘ida affiliate, among other odorous groups, to establish supply lines and training camps in its territory. There is some evidence to suggest that it has directly armed and funded Islamist extremists. Seymour Hersh reported in the London Review of Books that the chemical attack allegedly carried out by Assad that almost prompted American cruise missile strikes, was a false-flag operation orchestrated by Turkey to prompt an American assault on Assad’s forces. It would be extremely difficult for America to both convince Turkey to host such a force and contain Turkish influence. It would also put the sustainability of the process under question. Turkey could, for instance, eject the half-trained force if Washington failed to accommodate its interests. At the very least, such an operation would increase the Turks’ leverage against Washington.

Pursuing the strategy advocated by Pollack thus runs the risk of increasing regional instability and drawing the United States into a prolonged stability operation. It comes with a hundred billion dollar price tag and clear diplomatic costs. Washington could certainly have good reason to bear these costs and run these risks if there was a significant American interest at stake. The United States has one overriding interest in Syria: to defeat the Islamic State and, more generally, contain the Salafist-Jihadist menace. In contrast, getting rid of Assad is a minor gain that comes with its own risks since the United States cannot be sure that a post-Assad Syria would be conducive to American interests. Moreover, no matter how odorous Assad is on humanitarian grounds, he is not a direct threat to the United States or its key allies. The only security gain from replacing Assad by a more compliant regime is that it would undercut Hezbollah’s supply lines. While this would go some way towards furthering Israeli security, it would hardly be a major transformation since Israel can already deter and punish Hezbollah at will, and the latter would survive Assad’s ouster because it has deep roots in Lebanon. In other words, the security gains to Israel from Assad’s ouster are marginal.

In terms of securing the United States’ principal interest of defeating the Salafist-Jihadist threat, it is not clear at all that Pollack’s high-risk strategy is the best course of action, especially given that there is a straightforward alternative that comes with fewer risks. This alternative, of course, is backing Assad. The central government’s army still constitutes the dominant military force in the Syrian conflict. Assad has a clear interest in bringing northern Syria back under his rule. American airstrikes are insufficient to defeat the Islamic State. To secure the defeat of the Islamic State, Washington should coordinate with Damascus, Erbil, and Tehran. The Islamic State will not be able to survive a concerted attack on three fronts. Needless to say, this requires significant coordination with Tehran; a process that is already well-advanced. Stratfor reported on August 20, 2014, that “Washington and Tehran agreed on the limited force the Quds Force has deployed in Iraq’s Diyala province to fight alongside Kurdish peshmerga forces against the Islamic State.” The Obama administration seems finally to have moved to the right strategy.

It is clear that Assad has refrained from attacking the Islamic State to undermine Western opposition to his rule: “this is what you will get if I am kicked out.” This doesn’t mean that Washington should continue to seek his ouster anyway. There is no shame is admitting that Assad’s poison pill is an effective deterrent. Washington should not let its humanitarian rhetoric get in the way of pursuing the right strategy to ensure its primacy security interests. Assad may be a butcher, but he is the best man for the job. Pollack’s strategy to oust Assad can work. But it serves no discernible American interest and comes with significant risks and costs. Instead of launching such an ambitious project, the US should hold its nose and work with Assad to defeat the Islamic State. 

The United States and the Islamic State

In Middle East on August 18, 2014 at 5:58 am

President Barack Obama has argued that the road to Mosul runs through Baghdad. That in order to defeat the Islamic State the first step is for the leadership in Baghdad to politically accommodate the Sunnis. The United States has insisted on and obtained Maliki’s head, arguing that Maliki was especially sectarian and angered the Sunnis. It seems to have agreed on a consensus candidate with Iran, Haider al-Abadi, who has now been charged with effecting the political accommodation. The United States has also made it clear that it will deploy air power to prevent the Islamic State to overrun the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG); and implicitly, Baghdad.

The logic of US policy is based on what one may call the Anbar theory. After relentless pressure from al-Qa‘idah in Iraq (AQI) on the occupying American and government forces in 2006-2007, the populace of the ‘Sunni triangle’—the 100-square-mile between Baghdad, Ramadi, and Tikrit—turned against AQI and joined the Americans in defeating the Salafist-Jihadist threat. By the Spring of 2009, there were 100,000 Sunni tribesmen on the American payroll. Along with the deployment of 20,000 additional troops, the Sahwa or Anbar Awakening decimated the ranks of AQI (which had rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq in October 2006). Political accommodation of the Sunnis in Baghdad played a role in reorienting the tribesmen away from AQI. The Sunnis were also said to be exasperated by AQI’s fanning of the sectarian war (by targeting the Shi’a to prompt retaliation), its imposition of harsh Sharia law, and its foreign origins. The theory says that the Islamic State (organizationally a direct descendent of AQI), which now spans across northern Iraq and Syria, can be defeated by effecting a similar reorientation of the Sunni populace. Is this theory valid?

I will argue that the prospects of such a reorientation are bleak. I will strengthen this argument by assuming that Baghdad will be entirely forthcoming in accommodating Sunni interests; itself an uncertain proposition. The argument is straightforward: the calculus of the Sunni populace now ruled by the Islamic State is considerably less conducive to a second Anbar Awakening. In the first place, it was clear to the Sunnis in 2006 that AQI was in no position to prevail against the United States. Therefore, continued support for AQI would only prolong the sectarian war without kicking out the invaders. The strength of US forces meant that by switching their allegiance, the Sunnis would be allying with the overwhelmingly dominant side who could not only be expected to prevail but also to provide security and largesse. By reducing the temperature of the sectarian war it would also enhance the security of the minority. Thus, the proposition was sufficiently attractive enough that coordination problems could be overcome and an en masse switch effected.

The Islamic State now controls a large swath of territory across northern Iraq and Syria. As opposed to 2006, when it fought to control neighborhoods against the occupying American land army, its control is now uncontested in the interior of the Islamic State’s territory. It has brought security to towns and cities torn by conflict by imposing a monopoly of violence on areas under its rule. It now has a sanctuary in northern Syria where it may tactically withdraw to regain strength and mobilize resources. It is no longer dependent on external sources for arms and money since it now regularly collects taxes and oil revenues.

Not only are the negative consequences of continued allegiance to the Islamic State considerably less dire (with the banishing of war to the frontier of the territory), the positive consequences of switching their allegiance are much more uncertain since they cannot assume that the Iraqi army and/or the Peshmerga will be able to prevail against the Islamic State. The Islamic State has prevailed in a number of battles against the Peshmerga, the Iraqi rump state’s army, the Syrian rump state’s army, a number of Syrian rebel groups, and even fellow Salafist-Jihadist al-Nusra Front (which has winnowed down from defections to the more radical and audacious Islamic State). What all this means is that in the calculus of the Sunni populace, the objective probability that the Islamic State will be able to hold on to its territory is not small at all, especially compared to 2006, when it was zero. Furthermore, the coordination problem of switching allegiance en masse is exacerbated by the threat of retaliation from the Islamic State. The populace of Mosul can hardly be expected to demand the ouster of their heavily armed masters.

To put it bluntly, the security interests of the Sunni populace in the territory controlled by the Islamic State dictate that they acquiesce to its rule. This is simply an outcome of state formation: the Sunnis would be gravely jeopardizing their own security by contesting the Islamic State. The deployment of American air power is only sufficient to contain the Islamic State and thwart its attempts to conquer more territory in Iraq. It is insufficient to roll-back the Islamic State from the territory already under its control. Unless the Iraqi rump state’s army and/or the Peshmerga can be transformed into much more effective fighting forces—another highly uncertain prospect—the United States will not be able to defeat the Islamic State without deploying ground forces.

Is the United States willing to tolerate a Salafist-Jihadist state in the heart of the Middle East? From what we have been given to understand since September 11, 2001, that is not an option. Winston Churchill once famously observed that Americans will always do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else. The right thing to do is to reach an accommodation with Tehran and Damascus with a view to restoring the territorial status quo ante circa 2011. This is not as blasphemous as it sounds. The only real American security interest in the Syrian conflict is containing the Salafist-Jihadist threat. For unless it is defeated, these fighters will emanate out to thirty countries just as they did in the aftermath of the Afghan campaign. And since you are unwilling to do the job yourself in Syria, Assad is the best man for the job.

Not only can Iran twist arms in Baghdad, it can provide elite ground forces to spearhead the attack against the Islamic State. If the US partners in a military campaign with Damascus and Tehran, it can easily bring sufficient military pressure to bear on the length and breadth of the Islamic State. By controlling the skies it can still control the overall military campaign. The Islamic State will not be able to survive a concerted attack on three fronts. A tilt away from the Saudis to Iran will also help in the ideational struggle against the Salafist-Jihadist threat by providing room to arm-twist the Saudis to moderate the Salafi ideologues on the Kingdom’s payroll (salafism, al Qa‘ida’s religious ideology, is the state ideology of Saudi Arabia.) A strategic realignment in the gulf is also in the American interest beyond the fight against the Salafist-Jihadist challenge. Iran is the natural regional hegemon of the gulf. An alliance with Iran will allow the United States to put gulf affairs on auto-pilot and finally pivot to Asia, where a strategic challenge of an entirely different magnitude awaits on the horizon.


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