Planning for a post-Assad Syria?

It looks as though at least some Syrians are looking ahead to the fall of the Assad government, hoping to ensure that ending Assad’s reign also ends the war. Sectarian strife seems to be a big worry—and perhaps rightly so—but it’s important to look at *why* we might see continuing violence on sectarian lines after the immediate objective of toppling the government is achieved. In other words, why would some rebels think that continued war is better than peace, even with Assad gone? Well, the answer isn’t necessarily about religion—it’s just as much about the politics of war.

If the war continues beyond the fall of the current government, my guess is that expectations about the future—beliefs about who’ll be in charge of what (and how effectively) in a new government—will be a big reason. The committee that put these recommendations together focuses in large part on repatriation, but they also mention a disarmament program that re-establishes the line between the military and civilians. In principle, this is necessary for being a modern nation-state, and while it’s hard to dispute in principle, it’s precisely this kind of provision that can cause serious problems for rebels that have to consider what their fates will be after they lay down their arms in apparent victory.

Put yourself, if you will, at the head of some rebel faction—defined geographically, religiously, ethnically, whatever—and think about the choice you face. Fighting is expensive and risky, but it gives you a chance to ensure by force of arms some favorable outcomes. On the other hand, laying down your arms and trusting in a new government makes you vulnerable—all the more so if you don’t trust that whoever’s in charge of the new government won’t use its monopoly on force to renege on whatever promises they made to get you into the peace agreement in the first place, shutting you out of the rights or privileges you were previously fighting for.

What does that mean? The success of any nationwide peace agreement—essentially, whatever the new constitution looks like—will depend on how well it commits the newly powerful to not taking advantage of the currently powerful once they return to civilian life. If any group feels that they’d be better off fighting than signing on to an agreement they don’t think will stick—that is, submitting to a government that they can’t trust not to victimize them—then we’ll have even more bloodshed. Yes, political allegiances often overlap with sectarian ones, but it’s important to note that it’s not religious differences themselves behind such a problem but basic questions of politics (who gets what, who makes those decisions, etc.). For the most part, each faction—however latent—currently fighting will need to have its military prospects reflected in any kind of postwar settlement that it’ll ultimately accept, and that means structuring a political settlement that reflects military realities. However much we like to think that peace and war can be separated, the former is best sustained when it reflects a good understanding of the latter.

A deleted scene from “Incumbents, Successors, and Crisis Bargaining”

More often than not, shepherding a paper through the publication process requires cutting things out we’d like to keep in (and, often enough for me, plenty of stuff that had no business being in there in the first place). In this particular case, I had to cut an extension of the model in “Incumbents, Successors, and Crisis Bargaining,” freshly in print at the Journal of Peace Research (and mentioned here), that just didn’t fit well with the rest of the paper. However, I think it’s an interesting look at the potential connections between leadership change and war, so I decided to post the deleted scene, as it were, here.

The essential point of this little extension is that, if we tweak some assumptions about (a) what leader change means for a country’s military prospects and (b) the extent to which war can “lock-in” a settlement into the future, we can get an additional leader-based explanation for war. Here, it’s successor-driven war, in which an incumbent known to be willing to make deep concessions is nonetheless attacked by an adversary, who prefers war in the present against an irresolute incumbent to the possibility of facing her much more resolute successor.

I’m not sure what I’ll do with this model just yet. If I end up putting the collection of leaders-and-war papers into a book, it may go there, but in the meantime, I think it’s a sufficiently interesting contribution to the literature on leaders and war that it merits—at the very least—a little shameless promotion on the blog.

Why the Syrian opposition isn’t negotiating…and why it makes perfect sense

I came across this story today about how the Syrian opposition, populated by an increasing number of former generals and high-ranking officials, has rejected the UN’s (via Kofi Annan) attempts to bring the belligerents together for peace talks aimed at ending the civil war in their country. While some readers may lament the fact that the opposition is turning down a chance at “peace,” or think that this says something about their ultimate aims in the conflict, I’m (obviously) going to dispute that here. In fact, we’ve got every reason to believe that under the current circumstances, any deal that leaves the current government even partially intact will be a non-starter, and reasonably so.

There are two reasons for this. First, as the article indicates, the opposition is starting to attract some more powerful defectors from the Assad regime, meaning that their relative power is likely on the rise, and they expect to do better in the future. Sitting down at the negotiating table now runs the risk of locking in an agreement that reflects the current military situation. However, the opposition clearly prefers fighting to whatever stopping now might look like, and they’re likely to require even more in the way of concessions from the top if they can continue to attract more defectors. This, of course, assumes that there would be some third party able to enforce a deal between government and opposition…

…which may not be all that likely.

That leads me to the second point. Even if the opposition didn’t think it could do better by fighting on rather than accept some UN-brokered deal, it probably has little reason to suspect that any deal agreed upon today would actually stick. If some new power-sharing agreement required either disarming or letting up on the military pressure it’s currently putting on the regime, then Assad’s government would be free to renege—it would certainly have the incentives and restored power to do so—and undo all the gains that the opposition won in the agreement. In other words, an agreement that would shift bargaining power away from the opposition wouldn’t be credible, and the opposition has every incentive to fight for a better deal than take the fool’s gold of a bargain that their enemies could renege on easily. (On the other hand, Assad’s government would probably also rather fight than give the opposition enough in a power-sharing agreement to take advantage of it in the future, too.)

In that sense, this isn’t unlike the Egyptian opposition’s refusal to leave the streets of Cairo in response to empty promises of reform last spring. What’s the point of all this, then? Well, first, as well-meaning as calls for negotiation might be, there’s little reason to expect that it’s in either party’s interest to participate in them in good faith. Second, any deal that would require the rebels to disarm in a power-sharing agreement likely just  won’t stick if there is some kind of attempt to implement it. And, finally, third party attempts to mediate or, especially, to impose a settlement aren’t likely to be all that stable…something we all might wish to keep in mind as the debate over what to do about Syria moves forward…

Upcoming: The Texas Triangle

This weekend (well, tomorrow), UT is hosting the Texas Triangle IR conference, and we’ll have representatives from UT, A&M, Rice, UNT, and Texas Tech in attendance, presenting and discussing research on what looks like a pretty diverse set of topics. After a couple of harrowing weeks of work turning my APSA paper into something totally unlike what it used to be (in fairness, it’s just being split into two papers), I’m putting the finishing touches on my contribution, “Showing Restraint, Signaling Resolve.” (I’ll post slides once I’ve got them ready. I described these last two weeks as “harrowing,” remember?)

The core of the paper is a model that examines the role of third parties (specifically, skittish coalition partners) in the dynamics of signaling and crisis bargaining. The basic story goes something like this: a coalition leader can use military mobilization to signal resolve, but higher levels of mobilization can mean a costlier war, which makes one’s allies nervous. So there’s a dilemma: mobilize heavily and signal resolve to an opponent (but risk fracturing the coalition), or mobilize lightly, failing to signal resolve but preserving the coalition. Plenty of popular—and even scholarly—discourse expects that skittish allies are a bad thing in this context; they water down threats (thereby mucking up attempts to send credible signals), and they don’t pony up when it’s time to fight. The model, though, shows that this isn’t exactly true. The presence of a partner—especially one that’ll leave the coalition rather than get involved in too costly a war—can either increase or decrease the probability of war, depending on the strength of the target.

Yep. The strength of the target.

Here’s how. When the costs of war are spread unevenly through the coalition (say, if one partner has to host airbases or supply depots for troops in a next-door conflict zone) and a partner can refuse to cooperate if the crisis escalates to war, then one of two things happens. First, when the target is relatively strong, preserving military cooperation is enough to convince an irresolute coalition leader not to engage in risky bluffing that leads to war (when bluffing would occur without the partner). Second, when the target is relatively weaker, an otherwise resolute coalition leader that could mobilize heavily to signal resolve chooses not to, preserving the coalition but also generating a risk of war where none would occur if it escalated to a higher level.

The takeaway point? Well, I think there are a few. But first and foremost, we can learn something from this about how coalitions, not just states acting alone, bargain with their targets—something we simply don’t know much about, despite their ubiquity. Turns out, in a point related to this post, that the effects of the multilateral distribution of power depend heavily on intra-coalitional politics…and that, for now, has me pretty excited about presenting this. It’s a little thin empirically—though I do think it accounts for signaling behavior in at least the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and in the lead-up to the Kosovo War—but I’m hoping that a good round of comments from the Triangle and an upcoming talk at UVA will help flesh it out. Slides, then post-mortem to follow…

International security, week 3

Following up on last week’s treatment of the bargaining approach to war, we continued the discussion this week about the (unfortunately?) time-honored dispute over the link between the distribution of power and the probability of war. I won’t belabor the substance of the discussions too much, but two things stood out to me that I thought worth noting today. [Arm raised over dying horse…]

Continue reading

IS week 2 follow-up: how we model war

With some time on my hands before watching Kentucky brutalize LSU down in Baton Rouge, I want to return to another topic we covered in international security this week: specifically, the choices we make when we model war. This will be a long-running discussion, I think, but we had a question asked about how relevant the group of models we read—which treat war as a costly lottery—are for something other than interstate war.

In line with Thursday’s post, I’d consider that a question worth thinking about. I asked the class what every model we read assumed about a war, and we came down on three things:

  1. war is costly
  2. the outcome is probabilistic
  3. bargaining stops once war begins

When you’re talking about costly lottery models, that’s pretty much it, no? We’ll spend more time during the semester on what it means to relax assumptions 1 (in the leader-centric weeks) and 3 (in the war-as-costly-process week), but we can still say a lot about what the costly lottery assumptions get us in terms of, say, civil/intrastate or extra-state war.

The answer, I think, is quite a lot, though as always it depends on what we’re asking the model to tell us. To the extent that intrastate wars have these features—especially their costliness and the probabilistic nature of the outcome—then we’d expect to see similar dynamics in their causes. That is, discrepancies between the distribution of benefits and the distribution of power, shifting power, private information with incentives to lie—all these things—can lead players to fight a war that has the features of a costly lottery.

Now, there are many differences between the belligerents that fight interstate and intra-state wars, sure—agency problems, enforcement problems, etc. maybe differ across them—and to the extent that we’re interested in those features of intrastate wars, we’d want to model them explicitly. But unless they’d give us profoundly different answers about the effects of, say, shifting power and incentives to misrepresent—and in some cases they very well might—we’ve no need to complicate our models with them unnecessarily. Insurgencies, for example, may have the flavor of players bargaining before a decisive third audience—the public—or wars may have varying degrees of the risk of pure stalemate, etc., and if we want to know about the effects of those features, we build them in…

…but until we get to that point, there’s little wrong with seeing just how much we can translate from one context to another based on the extent to which one simple set of assumptions characterizes both.

Faulty arguments about the end of the Iraq War

I started writing this post quite some time ago and just found it in my “drafts” folder, so while it’s a little dated with respect to the news cycle, I still think it makes a useful point (not unrelated to this one) about how to assess the end of the Iraq War. So, enjoy.

So American troops are out of Iraq—a campaign promise has been fulfilled, soldiers are reunited with their families, and an unpopular war has been brought to a pretty anticlimactic close. It may have ended with a whimper militarily, but politically we’re already seeing a struggle over how to define the narrative, however popular ending the American presence in Iraq is with the majority of the voting public. Predictably, we’re seeing some accusations that the US has now “lost” Iraq, especially as the Shiite Prime Minister has ordered the arrest of a Sunni Vice President who’s now hiding out Kurdish territory.

Iraq, the story goes, might erupt into civil war, making it and the region worse off than they were before the invasion of 2003. Ergo, the US shouldn’t have withdrawn just yet. It shouldn’t surprise you that I’m going to call this a less-than-convincing argument. Presumably, by this line of thinking, the American presence might have prevented the current political crisis. (This, of course, ignores two facts: (a) the US and Iraq couldn’t reach an agreement on the retention of American troops in-country, and (b) the United States is honoring a commitment to withdraw when it is.) Still, traveling yesterday [I started writing this on December 29th – Ed.], I made the mistake of acknowledging what I do for a living and ended up in a conversation with some other delayed passengers about this very issue: has the US, by withdrawing now, somehow “lost” Iraq?

You can see where this is heading, but I did what any good academic should do: I disappointed by fellow travelers. By withdrawing now, I’m not inclined to say that the US has either “lost” nor “won” Iraq. In fact, the timing of the withdrawal may have very, very little to do with the answer to that question. Why? Because I’ve yet to see a convincing argument linking a lengthier American presence to something that would change the basic facts on the ground—the underlying issues in Iraq’s governing coalition—that have sparked the current political crisis and potential civil war. In short, remaining in Iraq wouldn’t have prevented the crisis; it would likely just delay it.

Yes, the United States’ presence might have made al-Maliki’s move of trying to imprison a Vice President impractical, preventing it from happening while American troops remained in the country. As soon as American troops left, then, al-Maliki might have moved against his rival because it was easier to do so. Fine, but it’s not clear to me that a similar move wouldn’t have been made following a US withdrawal that would occur at a later date. The issues at the heart of keeping Iraq together—Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds all trying to credibly promise not to exploit one another for advantage, the interference of neighbors like Iran and Turkey, etc.—would still be present whenever the US might choose to leave (at least, I’ve yet to be convinced otherwise). If that’s the case, then something like the current crisis would’ve happened if the US withdrew in 2010 or if it were to wait until sometime in 2012 or 2013.

What could the US have done in a further-extended occupation apart from delay the (somewhat) inevitable? I’m not sure, to be honest, because cajoling and lecturing and threatening weren’t going to do it. An Iraq with a pluralist government will have to deal with these issues as soon as it has to figure out how to govern itself as a sovereign country again. If that’s the case—if Iraqis were going to have to figure these things out whenever the United States left—then it’s hard to attribute anything but the timing of this political crisis (and, sure, potential civil war) to the American withdrawal. The US, at this point, couldn’t have forced a new regime on the country, nor could it have promised to guarantee peaceful power-sharing deals between these groups in light of an inevitable future withdrawal. If the basic issue here is groups in Iraq having trouble promising not to exploit one another when in power, then that’s just not something an extended American presence is likely to change.

And that, to me, is the key here: unless staying in Iraq could’ve solved the basic commitment problem at the heart of the current political crisis, ensuring that it wouldn’t pop up following withdrawal, then the simple timing of the final withdrawal really has nothing to say about whether we “won” or “lost” in Iraq. Sadly, the current issues might have just been inevitable.

This semester’s graduate syllabus: international security

As excited as I am about teaching International Security this semester, it’s never easy putting together a graduate syllabus. My own fetish for brevity comes into tension with my enthusiasm for the topic and the ever-present temptation to cover everything, and, in case you’re interested, here’s my latest attempt at striking that balance.

Inevitably, syllabi are statements about what we view as important, whether or not we intend for them to send such a signal. We may assign some things to make it more difficult to weasel out of reading them, but I don’t get the sense that students put a lot of effort into figuring out which is which. So in putting this course together, I tried to think hard about what’s “important” in the study of war and peace, not in terms of big outstanding questions  or trendy topics (though they’re covered) or what I consider “good” or exemplary work (that’s also represented in spots), but in terms of what someone who wants to start a research agenda in this subfield really needs to know. And I’ve come down on something that will, perhaps, be totally unsurprising: theory, both its development and its use.

First, the development of theories. We’re getting better as a subfield about trying hard to produce logically valid arguments, the kind that imply their own evidence (and can thus be falsified), but we’ve got a long way to go (which is good news for anyone getting started in IR). A senior colleague of mine has said (though I’m paraphrasing) that IR is characterized by a lot of sloppy answers to a lot of important questions, and I’ve decided that I want to push my grad students in the direction of developing good answers to those big, pressing questions about why large groups of people get together and kill each other and things they value in large numbers. I don’t want to set them on a particular topic, nor do I want them to adopt a specific tool, but I want them to be able to evaluate and develop logically valid arguments about, i.e. useful models of, the political world. As my students will see throughout the semester, it’s hard coming up with valid arguments that can then be used to add empirical content to the subfield. It’s hard, but it’s eminently worth it.

Second, the use of theories. Too often, some of our most useful and insightful theories, especially formal ones, elude empirical testing, and while it’s understandable—because, yes, it’s difficult—I want my students to get to the point of engaging the best arguments we have on the level of designing an appropriate research design, using the right sample, etc. in light of what the underlying assumptions of the model tell them to. When we engage theories only on the level of their hypotheses, it’s too easy to miss what the structure of the argument itself is telling us about the proper domain in which the argument applies, the error structure we should expect, and the functional forms of our variables. In short, using theories well (and responsibly) requires being able to identify and understand the critical nuts and bolts of the logical structure that produces their implications, and that’s what this course is aimed at: understanding what the arguments out there really say, what they imply, and what that means for testing them.

So what’s “important” for an IR course? It’s not just moving from one “image” to another (or reversing them), changing units of analysis, or blending the study of interstate and civil war—it’s learning how to those things effectively and responsibly. And as my poor students are about to find out, that ain’t easy.

But it sure is rewarding. I can’t wait to get into that classroom.

Obama, Romney, and the Taliban

Thanks to Phil Arena, I saw two tweets from Andrew Exum today (both highly recommended blogs, by the way) that caught my eye:

I wonder if Mitt Romney’s “no negotiations” stance actually strengthens the hand of the Obama Admin. as it negotiates with the Taliban.
1/17/12 6:57 AM
In a way, Romney is the bad cop to Obama’s good cop in negotiations with the Taliban.
1/17/12 6:58 AM

As it happens, I just finished making revisions a “conditionally accepted” paper (this one) that relates pretty directly to this question (it’s also a topic dealt with in my dissertation and hinted at here, but gated): how does the threat of leadership change affect an incumbent’s international bargaining fortunes? Specifically, the question here is how the threat of Romney (more hawkish than Obama?) winning the presidency affects what Obama can get out of negotiations with the Taliban now.

What does this paper have to say about it? For the most part, the answer to this question turns on two things: (a) the extent of differences between the successor and the incumbent and (b) just how sensitive the incumbent’s electoral fortunes are to bargaining outcomes. I won’t get too heavily into the details of the model, but if we take it that Romney would be more willing to continue the war in Afghanistan than Obama (which we’re going to take the “no negotiations” position to represent), then we’ve got an intriguing possibility: something the paper calls “preemptive appeasement.”

Essentially, preemptive appeasement is softening one’s bargaining position in order to bolster a pliant incumbent in office, forestalling the rise of a more resolute successor that one would rather not deal with. If Romney will fight longer than Obama and the Taliban believe that playing ball with Obama will keep him in office through the next election, then they might well do so—trading some concessions now to increase the chances that Obama stays in office in return for extracting a better deal in 2013 than they would against Romney.

Of course, if they don’t think Obama can be bolstered in office with concessions—or if his reelection becomes a foregone conclusion–then their strategy will switch to one of getting what they can now, striking while the iron is hot, and the prospect of Romney waiting in the wings won’t have as much of an effect. Which is all to say that there may well be a pretty consequential connection between primary season, the pace of economic recovery, the general election, and the war in Afghanistan.

Stay tuned. I know I will.

What’s happening in North Korea?

My plane landed last night to a flurry of text messages from friends and colleagues about Kim Jong Il’s sudden death—that says something about me, and I’m not sure I want to explore it too much—but from those text messages to the news coverage I’ve been frantically trying to catch up on, the big question seems to be “what next?”

Turns out that’s an uncomfortably good question.

We (think we) know a few things going in. First, Kim Jong Il, in failing health, seemed to designate his son Kim Jong Un as his chosen successor within the last couple of years. Second, that’s a substantially shorter time than KJI enjoyed as successor-designate, time in which relationships with key elements of the military and party elite could be solidified. However, since the shelling of coastal islands last year, there’s been speculation that KJU was involved as a way to demonstrate—-perhaps as much domestically as internationally—that he’s both capable of control and willing to go to the mat with foreign rivals. Third, it looks as though North Korea chucked a short-range missile into the sea of Japan in the hours after the announcement, rattling nerves in the region and bringing home just how much we don’t know about what goes on inside such a reclusive regime.

Here’s what we don’t know: what this means for North Korean foreign policy. To my mind, we’ve got a couple of important elements to consider

  1. Kim Jong Un will want to demonstrate his resolve, as well as the extent of his control over the military and party, to outsiders like South Korea, the United States, and Japan. As some analysts have suggested, we might view the confrontation last year and today’s missile test as just such a step, last year’s being a preemptive one.
  2. There will likely be a period in which he must fight to consolidate domestic control, which very well might divert resources, time, and effort away from bolstering his reputation with international rivals.

So while (1) would lead us to predict some reputation-minded international belligerence, whether sinking ships or shelling islands or lobbing missiles nearby countries, it’s possible that (2) would militate against it. Once (2) is taken care of, though, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a young, untested leader take steps to prove to his enemies—real or, perhaps increasingly inside such an insular regime, perceived—that he’s able and willing to use force in the pursuit of his goals.

Of course, we can probably also tell a story in which goals (1) and (2) both favor some kind of international belligerence, especially if the use of force can stave off a coup attempt or some other kind of resistance to KJU’s ascension (as argued in Chiozza and Goemans’ great new book, linked above). These two factors, I think, could be especially dangerous in the particular case of North Korea:

  1. Some of my dissertation empirics confirmed that dictatorships see their new leaders getting belligerent more often than democracies. In other words, the “turnover trap” in which new leaders act out and in which their rivals test them, is harder to escape from in dictatorships where the leader’s preferences play a larger role in foreign policy.
  2. Fighting to prevent irregular removals from office, as would certainly be the case in North Korea if the military or the party tries to topple KJU, is more likely in dictatorships than democracies, because the risk of irregular removal (and the severe punishment that goes with it), is lower in the latter than the former.

So we’ve got two domestic-political factos associated with the North Korean succession that might push the ledger in favor of international war, but my gut still tells me that plenty of other factors—not least of which is the fact that North Korea likely wouldn’t fare too well in an all-out war with, say, South Korea and the United States—mean that a full-blown international war isn’t too likely at this point.

Of course, betting against a war happening at any given point is always the safe bet—these things are exceedingly rare given the frequency of opportunities to fight them—but that doesn’t mean we ought not be on the lookout for new leaders’ reputational incentives and the potential boost to their prospects for political survival that might encourage them to use force in the highly uncertain environment of leadership changes in dictatorships.