Shadow Government

The Just War Tradition and the Paradox of Policy Failure in Syria

American policy-makers tend to view the use of force as a "last resort."  President Obama explicitly framed it that way a few months ago in his set-piece speech at the National Defense University, and his predecessors regularly invoked the "last resort" formulation. Indeed, "last resort" is a requirement of the just war tradition, the dominant ethical framework informing states today and is increasingly reflected in international law. For force to be seen as legitimate, it must be seen as a last resort after other peaceful alternatives have been tried and found wanting.

The moral foundations of last resort are well-established and understandable. The use of force always entails some element of horror: the killing of other people -- including some irreducible, unintended, but expected killing of innocents -- and the destruction of property. In the just war tradition, force is seen as an evil, albeit a necessary one. Therefore, the only legitimate way humans can resort to such evil is if it is the lesser evil among a range of evil choices, which is demonstrated by first trying lesser evils than force.

Last resort is understandable, but not unproblematic. As a policy matter, an earlier-than-last resort use of force might stand a better chance of producing superior outcomes. In Syria, it is likely that an earlier application of American power might have had a higher chance of success than that same force projection would have today. That is one way to understand why Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey no longer supports American intervention in Syria.

Also, built into the "last resort" requirement is the need to endure a parade of policy failures, with all of the consequent unintended-but-expected results that policy failure yields. We have been slouching through this parade of failure with regard to Syria over the last two years, and the results are vividly on display.

The reports of a possible major escalation in the use of chemical weapons in Syria introduces a dramatic new twist on policy failure, leading many to speculate that this time the Obama administration actually might act to enforce the red lines the president previously drew. So far, the administration has resolutely signaled the opposite -- paying lip service to the idea that "all options are on the table" but otherwise making it clear that the president has no stomach for any level of intervention beyond the provision of light arms (and even that may be more than the administration is willing to execute).

The Obama administration has reversed itself abruptly in previous use-of-force situations. Obama resolutely resisted military options on Libya until France and the United Kingdom forced the issue, at which point he pivoted sharply to embrace the military intervention in Libya -- albeit leading it from behind. France seems once again more open to the use of force in Syria, so perhaps the Libyan formula will repeat itself and the Obama administration will find itself leading another military operation in the Middle East, from behind or maybe even more in front.

Making the case in favor of the use of force, the "last resort" criteria of a parade of failure from alternative policies seems well-met. I do not know of an expert who believes that there is an alternative policy likely to produce success.

However, there is another just war criterion that may push against a military intervention: there must be a reasonable prospect of success from the use of force. Here, over a year of messaging from the administration has advanced the opposite claim. President Obama, and some key members of his team, clearly believe that there is no reasonable prospect of success from using force in Syria -- at least not as "success" is usually defined. Paradoxically, in justifying their inactivity over the past years, the Obama administration has presented quite an elaborate case against the use of force. Only if success is defined down to mean "delivering a punitive strike for the sake of delivering a punitive strike" is it possible to say that the Obama administration has indicated it thinks force might be "successful."

Indeed, the juxtaposition within the same news cycle of Dempsey's letter explaining why he thinks there are no good military options and the allegations of a major crossing of Obama's chemical weapons red-line produced a highly ironic result: it is doubtful that General Dempsey would have written that letter in exactly the same way if the news of the chemical escalation had preceded it, yet it is also the case that most of the military arguments and some of the political arguments he developed would still apply.

In short, if the administration does resort to force now, they will have to overcome two very large hurdles. First, they will have to overcome the enormous residue of failure that waiting for "last resort" to be reached has produced. Second, they will have to overcome all of their public messaging which has talked down the utility of force options in Syria.  

Those hurdles may be too high to overcome, especially for an administration with so little policy momentum in the region.

EPA/Local Committee of Arbeen

Shadow Government

Searching for an Islamist Moderate in the Middle East

An "Islamist moderate" is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Assuming a cleric who runs for president of Iran can have moderate views would be like finding the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, leading a group of the eight Iranian women described in a secret book club in Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran.

The likelihood of finding a moderate within the Islamist establishment in Iran is much lower than finding one in secular regimes like Gadhafi's Libya or Assad's Syria. Secular autocrats are more likely to make cost-benefit tradeoffs than religious zealots. Making such tradeoffs in a bargaining process is the essence of being a moderate.

So long as military autocrats are unchallenged at home, they can act moderately abroad. Until the Egyptian people revolted in February 2011, former President Mubarak of Egypt could make tradeoffs abroad because his secular views were untainted by religious zealotry. Therefore, it made sense for him to preserve the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and also permit Washington immediate access to the Suez Canal for Persian Gulf contingencies requiring rapid movement of American forces. In return, Mubarak received some $1.3 billion in military assistance from Washington.

Anticipating that ousted Egyptian President Morsy would forget his Muslim Brotherhood ideology to make similar tradeoffs, however, assumes his Islamist background is irrelevant to his governance. Likewise, it makes no sense to search for moderates within Tehran's ruling elite. Indeed, just as with Morsy of Egypt, an Islamist ideology is a core concern of any member of the governing clerics in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Although progressive moderates led by the Iranian Mojahedin's Massoud Rajavi led the battles to overthrow the Shah, Islamists directed by Ayatollah Khomeini seized post-revolutionary Iran from the coalition of moderates. Khomeini then fashioned an Islamic Republic with a mission of "redeeming the region for the forces of righteousness." Indeed, Khomeini's ideology trumps other perceived national interests, making it impossible for a moderate to survive within the elite, much less make compromises with the major powers in bargaining about nuclear issues.

The Western press periodically falls head over heels for any new president of Iran who shows even a hint of moderation. But hope does not a moderate make. Consider headlines after Hassan Rouhani's Aug. 4 inauguration: NBC: "Moderate cleric Rouhani sworn in as president of Iran," the Associated Press: "Iran's supreme leader endorses moderate Rouhani for president after his landslide election win," And the BBC happily opined that Rouhani's "campaign slogan, ‘moderation and wisdom,' continued to be a theme as he was inaugurated in August."

But such headlining and opining that there has been an election of an "Islamist moderate" from within the Iranian regime is a triumph of hope over experience. Consider the dashed hopes by a succession of presidential "moderates" from within.

The first was Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a cleric who was President of Iran from 1989-1997. By promising to liberalize the economy and taking steps to do so, the media called Rafsanjani a moderate. But the steps were to privatize certain profitable sectors, creating in effect a "popcorn economy," where he redistributed public goods as private benefits to friends and family, as if they were popcorn at a theater. 

The second was another cleric, former Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mohammad Khatami, who became president in 1997. There was a gap between those who benefited from Rafsanjani's economic liberalization and those who did not, due to the absence of political reforms. And Khatami did little to close the gap. After he sided with the regime against his student base during 1999 demonstrations and riots, it prompted one journalist to write, "The deception of the reform had reached its peak."

Aljazeera led with the "M" word in its depiction of the third such cleric: "Moderate Hassan Rouhani has secured more than 50 percent of the Iran presidential ballot to win the election." But like Khatami, Rouhani took a hardline against the students during the 1999 demonstrations, though during his campaign Rouhani acted as if he had the back of the students.

By the definition of a moderate Iranian president as someone willing to fight within the system to make tradeoffs in the nuclear talks en route to cutting a deal, Rouhani is no moderate. Consider his performance as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. In a speech to a group of academics and clerics, Rouhani boasted that while nuclear talks were taking place in Tehran with the EU3 -- France, Germany, and the UK -- Iran was able to complete the installation of equipment for the production of yellowcake, the partially refined uranium ore that is a key stage in the nuclear fuel process, at its Isfahan plant. At the same time Rouhani convinced European diplomats that Iran was not doing so.

If Rouhani were a true moderate, he would fight within the Iranian ruling elite to end the nuclear weapons program. But if he were to do so, he would encounter the wrath of Khamenei, for having taken a stance in accord with that of the President-Elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), Maryam Rajavi. Her ten point plan for a future Iran states that, "We want a non-nuclear Iran, free of weapons of mass destruction." The NCRI is the only major Iranian dissident organization that explicitly rejects clerical rule. Its largest unit is the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK).

On the home front, if Rouhani were a moderate, he would follow the footsteps of another cleric, Hossein Ali Montazeri, Khomeini's former heir apparent who protested Khomeini's decision to show no mercy in the 1988 execution of some 30,000 political prisoners, the bulk of whom were members of the MEK. Khomeini then purged Montazeri for his moderation.

Finally, if Rouhani were a moderate he would not have appointed as his Justice Minister a former official from the Intelligence Ministry who had the final say in who died and who lived in 1988 mass killings. That official showed no mercy, just as Khomeini demanded.

Raymond Tanter served on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration and is Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan. His latest book is Arab Rebels and Iranian Dissidents.