More on the Iran deal: Living with (and without) coalition partners

Two days ago, I posted some thoughts about how to judge this week’s deal between Iran and a coalition of great (and some maybe not so great) powers. One of the important questions I said needed to be answered involved something that virtually none of the popular criticism of the deal has mentioned: the coalition of large economies that had been leading the sanctions regime alongside the United States. Especially for the hawkish end of the critic spectrum, the argument seems to boil down to “well, the US should’ve done more.”—more sanctions, more chest-thumping, more apocalyptic language, more…well, something equated with “tough,” unilateral (I guess) action.[1] Keeping in mind that “more” is pretty ambiguous here (just to be clear, “more tough stuff” isn’t exactly a policy alternative), let’s take these criticisms at face value. Could the US have been tougher on Iran? I’m going to argue that the answer is “maybe not,” and, further, that the current level of “tough” might still be a better option than the US trying to do “more” without the support of the coalition.

The key, as I see it, is the centrality of that great power coalition, the P5+1, in actually applying coercive leverage to Iran. In my forthcoming book, The Politics of Military Coalitions, I build and test some theories about just how countries build coalitions, what it takes to keep them together, and what they mean for coercive diplomacy. I’ll draw on some insights, especially from Chapter 4, to argue that, even when some partners force you to “water down” your threats, you might still be better off that way than doing something on your own would be even less effective.

The short version of the argument the P5+1 coalition goes something like this:

  1. The US can’t pressure Iran effectively unless other big countries impose sanctions, too. Otherwise, Iran can just buy stuff from/sell stuff to the other big economies. So, just like the US couldn’t invade Iran without the cooperation of nearby countries, it can’t cripple Iran economically by itself, either.[2]
  2. So, if Iran is to be made uncomfortable in pursuing nuclear weapons and thus tempted to give up materials and allow inspections, the US has to keep the coalition together.
  3. Keeping the coalition together means adjusting strategies to account for the fact that Russia, China, and the European partners can’t keep with the sanctions for as long as the United States can (economically or politically). In other words, to successfully deal with Iran, the US has to first deal with its own coalition partners, because it can’t achieve the kind of leverage it wants and needs on its own.
  4. So, if a state can’t go it alone at an acceptable price, sometimes it has to sacrifice the pie-in-the-sky really “tough” strategy for a less-tough one in order to keep the source of its leverage (the coalition) in place. Nonetheless, if it’s practically impossible to be as tough as one wants to be when going it alone, then the watered-down threats coming from the coalition are still better than the next best alternative.

All of this, of course, is built around the idea that the P5+1 coalition is central to the strategy of sanctioning Iran for pursuing nuclear weapons—and given the nature of sanctions, trade, and the global economy, I think that’s eminently reasonable. (It also assumes that a full-scale war is unattractive, which—bluster aside—even most hawks acknowledge.) If the US doesn’t keep the coalition together, say by delaying a deal and allowing some partners to reach the breaking point at which they opt out (which may be quite close), then it ends up with no more leverage over Iran and nothing to show for all the work in these last nine or so years since the P5+1 really got going. Keeping the coalition together does sometimes require showing more restraint than coalition leaders like, but if coalition partners are that critical for the leverage in the first place, there really isn’t a “more tough stuff” option out there. Again, it all comes down to choosing the right basis for comparison: an a unilateral sanctions regime is probably not the most effective option out there.

In other words, hopes and wishes aside, sometimes “more tough” just isn’t on the table without being tremendously counterproductive. Even when coalition partners are skittish, difficult, inconsistent, and miserly, they’re oftentimes worth the compromise.

[1] Sure, some of this comes from hawks who want more “tough” because, well, they’re hawks and that’s what they do: talk tough. Those are minds I won’t change. I’m fine with that.

[2] This, of course, sets aside the idea that the best way to make a country want nukes to defend itself is to give it a reason to want to defend itself—like attacking it.

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How should we judge the Iran deal?

Before we get going, a disclaimer. I’m going to lay out a reasonable way to judge the deal struck this week between the P5+1 and Iran over its nuclear ambitions. I’ll get to my own tentative assessment later (maybe in another post), but for now it’s worth noting that the process I use to evaluate an international bargain is not guided by the answer I want to end up with.

(Isn’t it said that I have to clarify this? But with the state of discourse being what it is…

AmbJohnBolton
The #IranDeal is a diplomatic Waterloo, it will pave the way for a #NuclearIran
7/14/15, 6:33 AM

…I feel like this bit of information is critical. Waterloo?

LawDavF
Didn’t we win Waterloo? So must be good. https://t.co/LMCylUqeph
7/14/15, 7:03 AM

My thoughts exactly.)

So, as always when a political scientist talks about politics, this post will probably be as notable for what it doesn’t mention as for what it does.

I got an email from my mother today: “What do you think of the Iran deal?”

Before I answered, I had to sit down and think about how to judge the deal right now, and I came up with three requisites—three questions one needs to address in order to really have a good answer to the question. (And by “good” I mean something intellectually useful, coherent, sound, and, well, responsible. And not partisan.) So here are those three questions that, it seems to me, any good judgment of the Iran deal has to have answers for:

  1. What’s the likely consequence of the current deal at some arbitrary time point in the future? (In other words, with the phased easing of sanctions tied to verified compliance, what do we expect to see vis-a-vis Iran’s weapons program in the next five years? How easy will it be to catch noncompliance, then rally support for punishment? Will it be easier than in the absence of an agreement?)
  2. Where are we likely to be (say, in five years) if, as sometimes suggested, the United States tries to solve this problem by launching a war? (What outcome would it take to end nuclear ambitions in Iran? Would the public be in for that kind of campaign? And would it even work—i.e., what if getting attacked when one doesn’t have nukes really makes one want nukes? What’s the risk of starting a bigger regional or global war? Would the P5+1 coalition stay together? How would it affect our ability to fry bigger fish, like the looming Russian threat to Eastern Europe and a potential arms race in East Asia?)
  3. What’s the likely scenario (in five years, say) if we do nothing and maintain the status quo? (Would the coalition behind the sanctions regime hold together despite the cracks already beginning to show? How easy would it be for Iran to take the final step to weaponization? If Iran got too close, how easy would it be to rally the required support, compared to under the new agreement? And let’s just say, for the sake of everyone’s sanity, that we don’t trust elected officials or their appointees to tell us what the timeline for breakout is, okay?)

The key is that we need to compare the deal just struck not to an “optimal” deal (whatever that is), not to a best-case war that magically eliminates both a nuclear program and the desire to carry it out successfully, but to the most realistic alternatives—and their likely consequences. Here, that means (a) the war that hawks have been clamoring for and (b) the continuation (and likely degradation) of the status quo sanctions regime.

Reasonable people can answer each of these responsibly and come to different conclusions—though of course I’d defend mine as more reasonable—but it seems to me that a serious debate about the merits of the deal has to begin with answers to these questions before we get to any others.

Comparing the Eastern and Western Fronts (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 20)

After a break to take the second exam last Thursday (a break in which I forgot to do a “let’s look back” filler piece), we spend some time today on the Eastern Front, which—if I’m being honest—I’ve short-shrifted a bit in the course thus far. That’s too bad, because I think we can use the Eastern Front to learn a lot about the reasons behind the consuming indecisiveness of the war’s early years…on both fronts.

Last week, we showed why military technology and the strategic environment produced an attritional equilibrium on the Western Front, where each side sought to return to mobile warfare but was unable to do so without opening up its own lines to the breach that the opponent’s (similar) strategy denied it. The end result, of course, was a long period in which a military decision was impossible. Two factors often put up to explain the lack of decision on the battlefield are (a) the compactness of the Western Front, where ratios of soldiers per mile were always higher than the East, and (b) a lack of “imagination” amongst each side’s commanders—that is, the lack of an appropriate strategy. However, in class today we show that neither of these is a terribly strong explanation for the lack of decision, because the Eastern Front was, while much longer and less densely-manned and home to a wider variety of tactical combinations, almost equally indecisive.

The Eastern Front was never as deeply entrenched or as static as the Western, meaning that the fighting was certainly more mobile; commanders had the room in which to maneuver their troops, and whether or not we call it incompetence, we saw a variety of attempts to break the stalemate that the belligerents on the Western front didn’t have available. Nonetheless, with cities changing hands back and forth in both East Prussia and Galicia, as well as Russian Poland, the reality of modern firepower and the limits of logistics in newly-captured territories ensured that, as in the West, no local successes could be converted into a genuine, sustained breakthrough—that is, into a more general success.

Thus, even though it wasn’t as static as the Western Front, the war in the East was still one of reserves, indecision, and grignotage—of attrition, albeit with a different face. Only when reserves and populations were used up, pulled out of the line by collapse or by exhaustion (or, you know, the Bolshevik Revolution), did the character of the war in the East change. Years later, with the wearing-down of German reserves in the face of Allied weight of numbers, similar factors would presage the end of the war in the West…the length of the front or “imaginations” of the generals notwithstanding.*

* For one of the best accounts of the similarities on Eastern and Western Fronts, check  out William Philpott’s War of Attrition. It’s excellent.

The horror (and stability) of attrition (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 19)

Eye-catching title of the course aside, today we finally covered a stretch of time that truly is one hundred years ago today: the First Battle of Ypres. Here, we saw some of the first strong hints about what entrenched, attritional warfare would look like once the Western Front stabilized. First Ypres was (for this part of the war) a long, drawn-out struggle that would leave many dead and very little territory in different hands, highlighting what would become for many the war’s central tragedy, a major puzzle, and a bone of violent contention in post-war politics in the former belligerents: why engage in such an ostensibly “futile” strategy like attrition, which promised only death, destruction, and disillusionment—certainly not a conventional notion of victory—on a large scale?

Some answers, especially those offered right after the fact involving “unimaginative” generals insensitive to casualties, are probably too easy (that they came from politicians seeking to distance themselves from an unpopular strategy should tell us something here). We argued today that it’s worth approaching the puzzle of attrition in a different light—by thinking about the options available to strategists given terrain, the seer size of the front, and the state of technology and doctrine. Doing so gives us a better sense of why attrition was adopted by both sides, why it was stable, and what it took to induce a change in strategies and a return to maneuver in the last months of the war.

Our argument went something like this. Modern firepower favored the defense when attackers used then-contemporary tactics (that is, no or poor uses of combined-arms), and local successes were virtually impossible to turn into wider breakthroughs, because (a) capturing even a small section of the opponent’s trench depleted so much manpower that the attacker was then vulnerable to counterattack, thanks to (b) the rapid movement of reserves behind the front by rail. With breakthroughs nearly impossible, winning became a matter of wearing the enemy down, of grignotage—that is, exhausting the other side’s reserves of manpower by maintaining persistent pressure on the front, or, as General Sir Douglas Haig would say, simply “killing Germans.” To be sure, attrition was ghastly, costly, and damaging to both individuals and the societies supporting them in the field; but disapproving of it doesn’t get us off the hook for explaining it.

In fact, we build a simple theoretical structure today to show that a tragic, costly equilibrium of attritional warfare can set in as the best option in a pack of alternatives that, unfortunately, might all be worse. To be in equilibrium, two strategies must be adopted by players that have no incentive to deviate from them, given what the other side is doing, and attrition looks just like that in many cases. If the side A is maintaining pressure on the front—a front that doesn’t allow maneuver and where the defense prevents major breakthroughs—then side B’s alternatives are to fight back and maintain the pressure or to slack off; the latter, of course, makes breakthroughs actually possible by eliminating the advantage of the defense. However, if side A isn’t maintaining pressure, side B can’t afford not to take advantage of it—meaning that both sides, under the technological and, to a lesser extent, doctrinal strictures of 1914, had a dominant strategy of maintaining pressure on the opponents in the other trenches, wearing their reserves down until such time as the defense would no longer be dominant. Therefore, attrition was an equilibrium, one that made sense for both belligerents, not one we’re obligated to be comfortable with in a normative sense—but one that we can explain: no side had an incentive to deviate from a strategy of attrition until the offense could regain some kind of advantage, until attacking and gaining territory could result in anything other than horrendous losses in the face of determined counterattack.

If we can explain what makes attrition an equilibrium, we can also explain its stability (the continual but generally vain searches for alternatives, such as opening additional fronts) and what would ultimately break it: the ability to achieve and sustain a breakthrough, which came as the result of the exhaustion of the German Army’s reserves and effective combined-arms tactics developed and honed over the course of the war. The first factor, of course, came about as the result of attrition, of wearing out German reserves faster than they could be replaced (possible due to Allied advantages in demography and aggregate wealth). We can also ask whether attrition was “futile,” and seeing it in a strategic light, the question is not so easily answered as common stories have it. Relative to laying down on the Western front, as well as to efforts that would not wear down the opposing side’s reserves (say, the Gallipoi offensive), it’s hard to say that attrition was the worst possible option. Was it futile in the strategic sense? Probably not; it might just have been merely the least-horrific alternative in a world of even more intolerable ones.

German aims in the July Crisis (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 5)

After a week that saw us talk about prewar crises and military planning for the big one, should it ever break out, today we dived directly into the strategy of the July Crisis following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Rather than follow the crisis in a linear fashion, though, we tried to tackle a part of the story: German preferences over the many possible outcomes of the crisis. German goals in the war and the preceding crisis have long been a subject of debate—beginning almost as soon as the war broke out—and our goal was to use the weight of available evidence to figure out how Germany might’ve ranked the possible outcomes of its choice over backing Austria in its proposed war on Serbia; doing so will give us some tools to think about the preferences and choices of the other great powers (particularly France and Russia) when we pick up the other part of the narrative—or, more properly, flesh out the other side of the game—on Thursday.

Without rehashing the historiography, here’s what we settled on. Given Austria’s desire to crush Serbia—either dismembering it or forcing it into an alliance with the Dual Monarchy—Germany’s options were to support its ally or not, and the likely outcomes all involved some form of Russian involvement. However, contrary to some accounts, it doesn’t look like Germany was bent on provoking a war with Russia; to be sure, its leaders had been wondering whether preventive war was attractive since Russian rearmament began in 1905, but it had always used Russian assertiveness as the indicator of whether the time had come to attack before the Great Program of rearmament would be complete. In 1905, 1908, 1911, and 1913, the indicator never appeared, and preventive war was never attractive. In short, Germany would fight a preventive war when Russian assertiveness indicated that the time was right, but it was hardly bent on it from the start. As such, we came up with the following ranking, from best to worst:

  1. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia doesn’t intervene (Serbian power eliminated, Dual Monarchy secured, Russia pushed out of the Balkans, and costs of war saved, Entente might fall apart)
  2. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia intervenes, Germany fights (Russian assertiveness reveals preventive war’s time has come)
  3. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia intervenes, Germany doesn’t fight (closest ally defeated, Russian interests ascendant in Balkans, and Russian growth continues unchecked)

Why specify these preferences? Two reasons. First, it lets us see how they “add up” and interact with Russian and French preferences to get us the World War that we had emerging from the July Crisis. (Hint: the revelation of Russian assertiveness turns out to be key in convincing Germany that it’s time to preventive war.)

Second, and more important for today, it’s a useful exercise in thinking hard about how we explain political phenomena. If Germany’s best possible outcome was “localization,” as contemporaries called it, where the threat to support Austria kept the Russians on the sidelines and ensured that the Triple Alliance would dominate the Balkans in the future, then it’s hard to assert—as a few still do—that Germany wanted a preventive war, pursued and then got its preferred outcome. It’s an easy argument to make, but it’s probably also fallacious: Germany seemed to have gotten its second best outcome, and we can’t infer from what did happen that this is what Germany wanted to happen. This means that, to understand why the July Crisis turned into the Great War, we need to know something about why localization failed—why the German threat to support Austria-Hungary was insufficient to deter Russia from mobilizing and continuing the Continent’s slide into war. If, on the other hand, we assume that what happens is exactly what people want to happen, then we can tell a nice linear story—but we also run a serious risk of mis-explaining one of the key events in world history.

Here’s a brief example: after the British indicated that they would have trouble remaining neutral, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg actually tried to convince Austria to “halt in Belgrade,” limiting its own preventive war to a punitive raid, and while this is consistent with the idea that localization was the goal (British support would certainly embolden the Russians and the French), it’s an anomaly for the idea that Germany was bent on war. Thinking hard about preferences, choice, and strategic behavior, then, can clearly improve our understanding of even the biggest, most complex of events.

Just how German preferences interacted with Russian and French preferences to produce the War, though, will be the subject of the next lecture.

What do people mean by “small government”?

There’s a big difference between reducing the size of government and reducing the authority of the government, and they’re all too often conflated. In fact, plenty of people saying they want “smaller government” only want an inexpensive government, one that doesn’t tax them too much or redistribute in ways they dislike. Yet some of these same proponents of cheap government are also quite happy to expand the authority or power of the government, from enhanced police and surveillance powers (like warrantless wiretaps), allowing the use of torture, restrictions on abortion or marriage or free speech (say, flag-burning), etc…this could easily be a longer list.

But whether you support these things or not is irrelevant for the point I want to make; “small” governments can outlaw all kinds of things, can restrict a wide-ranging number of civil liberties and human rights—and just because a government isn’t “big” in terms of how much it costs doesn’t mean that it’s not “big” in terms of its authority and ability to interfere in the lives of its citizens. Yes, one could say that it might be harder to interfere with liberties when the government is smaller, but if the money it still does have goes to police power, then that’s not a (terribly) compelling argument. The point here is that people aren’t often clear what they mean by “small” or even “limited” government.

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…]

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