Experts and policymakers watching the situation in Syria are conflicted about what should be done to stop the bloody actions of the Assad government. Those who support a "responsibility to protect" argue that the international community -- including the U.S. -- should be doing more to stop Assad's slaughter of innocents; realists claim that there is not enough at stake for the U.S. to become involved in yet another Middle East conflict; and al Qaida experts are concerned that aid sent to the rebels could end up helping the extremists rather than ordinary Syrians.
If either the U.S. or international community had intervened before the fall of 2012, there would have been fewer disputes about Syria policy. Both al Qaida experts and those who support "responsibility to protect" were generally on the same page: Stopping the brutal actions of the regime and preventing the extremists from gaining a foothold required involvement, and there was a clear non-extremist resistance group to support.
Since then, however, part of the resistance -- embittered by our lack of assistance and desperate to survive -- has been enticed into the embrace of extremists and especially into that of an al Qaida affiliated group called Jabhat al-Nusra. If the international community or the U.S. decides to arm the resistance now, there is a fair chance that the weapons and other support material could fall into the hands of al Qaida and be used against us after the conflict in Syria ends.
While the experts have debated policy, the bloodshed has continued. Assad's decision to once again bomb civilians has, however, returned to the fore another possibility for U.S. policy in Syria: the enforcement of a no-fly zone to prevent Assad from targeting and killing civilians with his air force. This strategy has been proposed by many others over the past two years and was recently raised once more by Carl Levin. I would suggest that now, more than ever, it needs to be seriously considered by both the Obama administration and by realists, since the risks of inaction are now far greater than the risks of action. If the U.S. chooses to continue to do nothing, there are five very bad things that are likely to happen, while if the U.S. chooses to put in place a no-fly zone there is a low probability of bad outcomes and a greater chance for a whole series of good results.
The Risks and Benefits of Inaction
There are only two benefits associated with inaction: We will save a little money and pilots will not be put in jeopardy. The risks of inaction are, in contrast, overwhelming. First, thousands more Syrians will die and Syrians will blame the U.S. and international community for these deaths. After all, the U.S. showed in Libya that it could intervene to overthrow a tyrant whenever it chose, but for reasons that do not make sense to Syrians has determined not to help them. Second, the conflict will continue to spread beyond Syria. Over the past few months, violence has erupted in northern Lebanon, where Jabhat al-Nusra has spread its influence, and the war has spilled across the borders into Iraq and Jordan. Third, at this point, the war in Syria may be radicalizing as many Sunnis throughout the Muslim-majority world as the war in Iraq. Not only that, but this radicalization is being pointed by the extremists at the U.S. and other Western powers. The extremists have been quick to use our non-intervention to argue that the U.S. is allowing the slaughter of Syrians and in fact actually supports Assad's bloody reign. Finally, there is a possibility that the current resistance might overthrow Assad without our help and create a new Syria that is open to domination by the extremists. What chance would the U.S. and the international community have to influence the direction that this new Syria might take if we did not intervene when we could to save lives?
The Risks and Benefits of Action
In direct contrast, the risks of action are minimal: Although highly unlikely, it is possible that Assad might be able to shoot down an American plane. There is also the chance that the U.S. might, however indirectly, empower extremists within the resistance. But the benefits far outweigh these risks. A no-fly zone will save lives, show ordinary Syrians and Muslims around the world that the U.S. and the international community take the bloodshed seriously, help to mitigate the radicalization and influence exerted by the extremists, and grant us some say within any new Syria that is created. But time is running out. The longer the conflict continues without our involvement, the more Syrians and other Muslims will be tempted to listen to the arguments of the extremists about our supposed hatred for Muslims and the more they will be radicalized into action against us and others.
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If readers of ForeignPolicy.com have detected a "West Coast" vibe to the website this week, that's because many of us regular contributors are currently attending the International Studies Association annual conference in San Francisco. From Foreign Policy's ranks I've enjoyed seeing Dan Drezner, David Bosco, Steve Walt, and Peter Feaver, among others, in the halls and at different panels.
Today I spoke on a panel titled "Christian Realism in the White House? An Assessment of Reinhold Niebuhr's Influence on Barack Obama's Foreign Policy." Given the recent resurgence of interest in Niebuhr, prompted in part by then-candidate Obama's own favorable comments about Niebuhr to David Brooks in 2007, I thought I would share the following summary of my remarks.
The first disclaimer is that we should not and cannot try to ascertain "what would Niebuhr say today about x or y issue," because to do so wrenches Niebuhr out of his own time and place. Niebuhr's own beliefs can be very elusive; his public career spanned roughly a half century that began with World War I, the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, Soviet communism, the nuclear age, two land wars in Asia, the birth of Israel, and multiple wars in the Middle East, just to mention a few. The very fact that he acted in history, in a particular time, place, and context, should caution and perhaps even chasten us against too readily attempting to appropriate him for our own 21st century purposes. To do so would be to do violence to his prophetic voice and to his own contingencies as a historical actor.
The second cautionary note follows from the first, and it is against the trap that Paul Elie memorably described as turning Niebuhr into "A Man for All Reasons," as various public personalities try to claim the mantle of Niebuhr for their own various ideologies or favored issues across the political spectrum. Niebuhr's thought has wisdom for all of us, but endorsements for none of us.
But historical context does not mean historical silence, and Niebuhr's body of ideas still has much to say of contemporary relevance. He is not so embalmed in the past that we cannot reflect on his principles for the world today. In that respect, I would apply four Niebuhrian themes to President Obama's foreign policy, two affirmations, and two critiques.
First, I see two Niebuhrian resonances in Obama's foreign policy:
1) American Limits. This is one of the most visible Niebuhrian themes in Obama's foreign policy -- an appreciation of the limits of American power. The Obama White House has made explicit that this is in part their reaction to the perceived excesses of the Bush administration's confidence in American power, and also to a realization of the constraints on American action in an era of severe fiscal austerity and extended military deployments. This notion of limits pervades Niebuhr's thought and is especially pronounced in the Irony of American History. To take just one illustrative quote from this book, written in 1952 in the midst of one of America's most dominant positions in the international system, "our own nation ... is less potent to do what it wants in the hour of its greatest strength than it was in the days of its infancy."
2) "Dirty Hands." To the surprise of most of his supporters and detractors alike, President Obama has been very aggressive in his use of force against terrorists, terrorism supporters, and those suspected of terrorist intentions. These tactics, most especially the drone campaign, are morally ambiguous across multiple dimensions, including the questions of preventive action, noncombatant immunity, and executive authority. Yet this willingness to wield force, to get "dirty hands" in the quest for proximate justice and to defeat a greater evil, is a classic Niebuhrian theme. As Niebuhr once wrote of American nuclear policy in the early Cold War "We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization."
Two other Niebuhrian themes are critical of Obama's foreign policy:
3) Ideological Lassitude: The Obama administration has done little to articulate the ideological stakes in the conflict with militant Islamism, either to define what we seek to defend or what we fight against. Obama speaks occasionally of a "war against al Qaeda and associated groups" but has done little to develop and articulate either an analysis of the ideological comprehension of al Qaeda or of the ideological distinctiveness of the United States and allies and partners fighting against this foe. Such a neglect of the ideational dimension of a conflict is alien to Niebuhrian thought. Much of his life's intellectual work can be considered an extended defense of democratic civilization, exemplified by The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, even as he was also one of the most persistent critics of democratic illusions and propensities to self-righteousness. Niebuhr also devoted considerable intellectual energies to probing the ideological nature of America's mid-century foes, be they German Nazism or Soviet Communism. Of the former, Niebuhr as early as June 1933 denounced Hitler for imposing a "totalitarian" government in Germany that deified the state, and when he later resigned from the Socialist Party over his support for American entry into World War II, he wrote that "if Hitler is defeated in the end it will be because the crisis has awakened in us the will to preserve a civilization in which justice and freedom are realities, and given us the knowledge that ambiguous methods are required for the ambiguities of history." Of Soviet communism, volumes could be devoted to Niebuhr's sustained critique, which included identifying it as a "monstrous evil" and "false religion" that deified both the state and the historical dialectic as the author of history, dangerously monopolized power, embodied utopian illusions, and embraced a materialist view of reality. In short, his advocacy for a robust American confrontation with the Soviet Union was based on a highly ideological understanding of the conflict.
This is not to imply that President Obama is not committed to democratic values or does not understand the ideological dimension of the conflict, but rather that he seems curiously reluctant to explain these themes to the American people and our allies. Just as the Obama administration's drone war takes place in the shadows, so also is the Obama administration's ideological rationale for the conflict confined to the shadows.
4) Unrealistic Pragmatism: The most extensive and sympathetic treatment of President Obama's thought comes from Harvard historian James Kloppenberg, whose book Reading Obama identifies Obama as a philosophical pragmatist in the tradition of William James and John Dewey. Niebuhr, however, criticized pragmatism as a flawed account of human nature and reality and regarded Dewey as one of his primary intellectual adversaries. In Niebuhr's mind, pragmatism was fundamentally unrealistic.
Niebuhrian principles would be suspicious of Obama's pragmatism, seeing in it both an undue confidence in his own reason and an unwarranted optimism about the possibilities of human nature and social organization. In other words, while Obama may appreciate the limits of American power, he seems less mindful of the limits on his own wisdom and virtue. This was perhaps revealed by his naïve offers of unconditional negotiation with rogue regimes in his first term, or his resistance to accountability for the drone campaign. In foreign policy terms, Niebuhrianism would also regard pragmatism as a cause of "muddling through," as experimentation unmoored from a broader set of strategic principles and foundational values. Such pragmatism is leery of democracy promotion and thus lacks a strategic framework to detect opportunities such as the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. This might help explain the Obama administration's tentative and erratic response to the Arab Awakening, with a half-hearted intervention in Libya, vacillations on Egypt, and negligence on Syria. In philosophical terms, pragmatism perhaps marks Obama's most significant deviation from Niebuhrianism.
The Center for New American Security (CNAS) has published a new report that I did with Jim Golby and Kyle Dropp on the influence of military opinion on public opinion when it comes to the use of force.
This is the second installment in a larger project -- last fall CNAS published another Golby-Dropp-Feaver product looking at the influence of military opinion on public opinion when it comes to choosing presidents. (I blogged about that one too.)
The basic intuition undergirding the project is the recognition that the military has a distinctive role in American politics. On the one hand, by tradition, norms, and law, military institutions are supposed to be apolitical -- not involved in partisan politics and fulfilling an advisory role in the policymaking process. On the other hand, by virtue of the prominence of military tools in American foreign policy, the military's greater professional expertise, and the enormous trust the public has in the military (especially in comparison with civilian political institutions), the military may in fact play a larger role than theoreticians of normative civil-military relations would like to see.
Our approach is empirical. We are trying to answer what is the effect, which is a necessary part of any normative evaluation of what ought to be the effect or role. So far as we have been able to determine, there is not a lot of good systematic data available on these questions beyond the ones we collected for this project. Our data are pretty extensive: YouGov administered the survey via the Internet and conducted interviews with 5,500 Americans between May 31, 2012, and July 28, 2012. The 5,500 interviews in our database are a sample matched on gender, age, race, education, party identification, ideology, and political interest to be representative of the general population, as determined by the 2007 American Community Survey. But we don't pretend this report offers the final word on the subject.
Our bottom line:
The results of our recent national survey show that military opposition reduces public support for the use of force abroad by 7 percentage points, whereas military support increases overall public support by 3 percentage points. These military cues are most influential among Republican respondents. Furthermore, military influence on public opinion is greatest when it opposes (rather than supports) interventions abroad.
Read it and tell me what you think we got right or wrong.
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I can recommend a new Aspen Institute book out that evaluates the impact of the Arab Spring on American policy and captures a vigorous debate within the Aspen Strategy Group. The book is The Arab Revolutions and American Policy, an edited volume by Nick Burns and Jonathon Price, with a chapter by yours truly.
My chapter assesses the overall Obama strategy -- I give a decidedly mixed assessment -- and was paired with chapters written by David Ignatius and Martin Indyk. The feedback I got on the chapter was decidedly mixed too. About half of the experts (regional specialists from the Bush administration) thought that I was way too generous with Obama -- one called me a "squish" for pulling punches and bending over backwards to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. The other half of the experts (mostly regional specialists and senior policymakers from the Obama administration) thought that I was grossly unfair to the administration and overly critical. I am left with the inescapable conclusion that I got it just right.
(The bizarro-world reaction was rather like the response to my Iraq war myths post: one group of commentators complained bitterly that I was knocking down strawmen arguments that no one believed, and another group of commentators complained bitterly that I was calling those same arguments as myths when they were indisputable truths. At least the reviewers of my Aspen Strategy Group paper had the intellectual integrity to provide comments without hiding behind pseudonyms.)
The argument in my Aspen chapter is simple: Obama's Arab strategy has achieved its top priority short-term goal, which is "no more Iraqs," defined as a sectarian civil war that engulfs the region and involves thousands of U.S. ground troops. However, in Syria even this modest goal is only barely met: There is a sectarian civil war that is engulfing the region, but it does not (yet) involve thousands of U.S. ground troops. Obama has failed to achieve most medium-term goals for the strategy, such as seizing opportunities to make progress on long-standing regional desiderata: assuring peace between Palestinians and Israelis; guaranteeing a nuclear-free Iran; or locking in any gains from the Iraq war. And the strategy seems unlikely to achieve the long-term goals, whether of the ambitious sort embedded in the president's soaring rhetoric (cf. the Cairo speech) or the modest sort proposed by administration supporters hoping to be graded on the curve, such as avoiding the establishment of new anti-American regimes in the region.
This is a record without gross errors of commission but with many errors of omission. It is a record that looked better last summer, when the Aspen Strategy Group met, than it does today. And it may look even worse in the years to come.
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North Korea's recent saber-rattling raises troubling new questions about the bipartisan failure of American policy to limit Pyongyang's armed recklessness and to manage its growing threat to the United States and our allies. Over the past few years, North Korea has walked across previous "red lines" -- attacking South Korean territory and sinking a South Korean naval vessel, abrogating the armed truce that has governed the peninsula for six decades, directly threatening the United States and our allies with attack, repeatedly testing nuclear weapons, and testing an inter-continental ballistic missile capable of hitting U.S. territory -- all with impunity. Is it time for Washington and its allies to implement a more robust containment policy to counter the erosion of Northeast Asian security caused by Pyongyang's dangerous provocations?
To sketch out such a policy is not to endorse it, for it entails considerable risks. But the risks attending the current status quo appear to be growing and unsustainable. Indeed, on current trends, America and its allies may be on a collision course with North Korea unless we consider a new approach that deprives Pyongyang of the strategic initiative that is keeping the Asia-Pacific democracies off-balance. Such an approach would be most effective if coordinated between Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo with support from other regional powers. It might also help change China's calculations about whether and to what extent to support an "ally" that has become an acute strategic liability.
An aggressive containment strategy would tighten existing financial sanctions on North Korea by penalizing any third-country bank or firm doing business with it. In particular, Chinese entities would be faced with a choice: Do business with the United States, Japan, and South Korea, or with North Korea -- but not both.
On the military side, an intensified containment strategy would interdict all ship-borne traffic heading to North Korea in international waters to inspect it for contraband, including WMD components. Rather than passively observing and measuring the success of North Korean missile launches, a containment strategy with juice would have the United States and Japan jointly shoot down those missiles, depriving Pyongyang of the propaganda victories it claims following each test. In cyberspace, the United States and its allies could pursue a tit-for-tat approach to North Korean provocations, turning out the lights in Pyongyang when its leaders threaten us and our allies.
Using its soft power of attraction rather than relying purely on the hard power of its sophisticated military capabilities, South Korea could offer to open its borders to any North Korean able to escape their gulag of a country by land or sea, in a sort of "tear-down-this wall" policy that would complicate North Korea's ability to police its borders -- and undercut the legitimacy of the Pyongyang regime by demonstrating to the world how many of its citizens are desperate to leave it behind.
In his 1999 Landon Lecture at Kansas State University, Senator John McCain urged the United States to stop playing "prevent defense" when it came to North Korea, moving instead to a policy of "rogue-state rollback" that targeted the legitimacy and power of the regime itself. The question for leaders in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo is whether they are ready to move to a more active policy that chips away at the foundations of a Pyongyang regime that directly threatens their people and their interests -- not only in Asia but also in the Middle East, where Iran's budding nuclear weapons program benefits from North Korean assistance. For China's new leaders, the question is whether the albatross of North Korea now so threatens stability in Northeast Asia that cutting it off is actually less risky than continuing to underwrite it.
The Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience" may soon need to give way to a policy of "strategic initiative" that prevents the people of the United States and our closest Asian allies from being held hostage to the whims of the tyrant in Pyongyang.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that North Korea had in recent years sunk a South Korean submarine. In fact, the North sank a corvette belonging to the South and not a submarine.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
The media is transfixed on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's threat to escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula. Kim has already declared that the North is on a full war footing, put his rocket forces on "full alert," and promised to nuke Washington and destroy the South. Predictably, a host of North Korea pundits are getting air and print time urging the administration to "engage" Pyongyang to prevent a rush to war on the peninsula (Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson is ubiquitous, but fortunately we have been spared the geostrategic musings of NBA body art nightmare Dennis Rodman, the most recent high profile visitor to Pyongyang).
Young Kim and his National Defense Commission obviously want all attention on the escalation ladder they are now producing, directing, and starring in. However, it is the other escalation ladder that is far more important to them and threatening to us: the North's two decade nuclear and ballistic missile weapons development programs. Reports now suggest that Pyongyang's recent nuclear test was a well-concealed explosion of a uranium device. The test was probably successful and therefore positions the North to begin producing nuclear weapons in the near future by spinning centrifuges underground where detection and elimination will be a far more difficult task for the United States. With a deliverable nuclear weapons capability -- likely aimed at Japan and Guam first -- Pyongyang will seek to force sanctions relief and "peaceful coexistence" with the United States as a "fellow nuclear weapons state." When the North is ready to increase the protection price for not driving a pick-up truck through our store window, they will threaten to export their technology to the Middle East or engage in smaller scale provocations under cover of a nuclear deterrent, i.e., threaten to drive an even bigger pick-up truck through our store window.
All of this reflects a recurring pattern over the past 15 years. This time, however, the rhetoric is more shrill and unnerving. Most commentary has attributed this to young Kim's need to establish credibility with his generals -- at least one of whom he has already blown up (literally) as a message to the others. But if you think about the other escalation ladder, it would seem there is a more important audience -- China. Beijing surprised the North by supporting chapter seven Security Council sanctions last month in the wake of the North's missile test -- and then surprised the experts by actually implementing those sanctions with inspections at its ports. China is the one country that could bring down the North, but Pyongyang understands how to terrify Chinese leaders like a small wasp buzzing around the nose of a giant. It appears that the North's newest bellicosity may have worked. The U.N. Security Council committees responsible for implementing sanctions were humming along for the first few weeks after the members of the council unanimously adopted the tough new resolution. Then, Beijing suddenly put the brakes on last week.
Since they have learned how badly it can play for the party in power politically, the Obama administration has generally preferred not to put North Korea on the front burner. But the administration was right to brandish force, not only as a reassuring deterrent to our allies but also as a signal to Beijing that we will not be knocked off track by North Korean bluster. Of course, that signal would be more credible if the administration had not engineered a sequestration strategy that cuts our Navy and Air Force, but that is the topic for another post.
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A new Pew survey of public opinion shows approval of the Supreme Court at an "all time low." I think these numbers are a warning sign for the U.S. military. What's more, I am pretty sure the senior military leadership understands that falling public respect for the Supreme Court could portend a similar fate for them, if they are not careful.
For the past several decades, the Supreme Court has vied with the U.S. military for the honor of being the public institution in which Americans have the greatest trust and confidence. The military has usually had first place, but the Supreme Court was near the top as well. The bottom feeders were Congress and, of course, the media.
The military was not always held in high esteem, however, and the climb to the top coincided with the Reagan years. There were many reasons for the high public respect for the military, as David King explained, including a string of remarkable operational successes, a focused campaign of outreach to the public, and the elite's desire to get beyond the poison of the Vietnam era.
One important reason, which bears on the Supreme Court numbers, was that the public viewed the military as non-partisan and functional, as distinct from the institutions paralyzed by partisanship (Congress) or unacknowledged bias (media). This reputation for being above politics is what the military shared with the Supreme Court, until the latter started to lose that reputation.
As the latest Pew poll survey shows, public attitudes toward the Supreme Court are increasingly filtered through the lens of partisanship. The enormously controversial decision to uphold Obamacare may have looked to many like just another act of a partisan institution, not much different from a party-line vote in Congress. Conservative partisans lost a lot of respect for the institution; liberal partisans, while glad that they won, began to worry that an institution operating along partisan lines could turn on them.
So far, the public still views the military as relatively "above politics," but a study I did last fall with James Golby and Kyle Dropp shows that beneath the surface there is a strong partisan tilt shaping public views of the military. This is precisely the slippery slope down which the Supreme Court has slid.
Today's military leaders understand the importance of staying out of partisan politics, but the fight over the sequester -- and the painful defense cuts that appear inevitable in any "sequester fix" -- will make it harder and harder for the military to stay pure in both appearance and reality.
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As a former U.S. official with substantial experience in Venezuela, I was not surprised, but still outraged to hear the temporary new leader of that country, Nicolas Maduro, accuse the United States of murdering his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. I feel obliged to set the record straight, not because I care about what Maduro thinks, but because if not challenged, Maduro's latest falsehood will become another urban legend circulating the globe on the Internet.
Predictably, in two dozen interviews I gave to international press in the 48 hours following Chávez's death, two journalists, one from the BBC and one from the U.S. Spanish-language CNN channel, questioned me about Maduro's accusation, implying it was credible that the United States had "inoculated Chávez with the cancer" that killed him. I replied, of course, that the United States had nothing to do with his death.
Despite the hostility that characterized the U.S. relationship with Chávez, it is not only false to accuse the United States of killing Chávez, but the truth is that we likely prevented his assassination on more than one occasion. Since, as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in the George W. Bush administration, I played a part in at least one of those instances, I feel compelled to defend our country once again from the calumnies of our foes and their acolytes by relating just one such incident. While everything herein is the best of my recollection, contemporary State Department records will substantiate the facts.
On a routine day in 2002, my secretary called me to the phone: "Ambassador Shapiro needs to talk to you on ‘secure,'" the encrypted U.S. government telephone network by which sensitive conversations are conducted. Charles Shapiro was our ambassador to Venezuela, and receiving calls from him and other ambassadors on "secure" was also routine. Weeks before, Charles and I had communicated often via secure phone for days as we attempted to manage the U.S. response to Chávez's removal from the presidency by his own people, and his subsequent return.
"Have you seen the report on the latest conspiracy to kill Chávez?," Shapiro asked.
I replied: "Yes, I did. Is this one real"?
This article is cross-posted from Foreign Policy's main site. Read the rest of the article here.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.