International security, week 2

Today I taught session two of international security, where, if you saw the syllabus I posted here last week, we focused on bargaining and war. I tried to structure today’s readings and discussion around what I see as the arc of thinking about war as a bargaining process—from a useful analogy to way of identifying concrete causal mechanisms and, eventually, closer to developing solid hypotheses. As with last week, I’m not going to run down everything that happened in class, but I will touch on a couple of notable things that came out of discussion. More, as usual, after the jump.

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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 Ergo, the US shouldn’t have withdrawn just yet.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.

More on conference expansion…

Saw this telling passage quoting South Carolina’s president today (which was a bit of relief, given the haste with which I typed out the last conference expansion post and the need I had for some kind of validation for my Prisoners’ Dilemma talk):

“I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ ” Pastides recalled. “I didn’t want to be the only one left out.”

Neither do any of his peers, which has led in part to the ongoing changes in college football.

Pastides understands he and other like-minded leaders might not be able to slow the expansion train once it leaves the station — as was the case with A&M — but he would like to limit how far it goes.

And it’s pretty telling. If everyone else is expanding—setting a new bar for financial viability—then being left in the cold with bad TV markets or with ridiculously long and expensive road trips is just not what a conference wants.

We’ve seen some slowdown in expansion/elimination talk with reaffirmations from the Big XII and Big East, but you’ve got to wonder how much of it had to do with UT’s unique situation involving the Longhorn Network, which makes moving unattractive to both UT and any conference that might have to adjust its rules. (And who could blame UT for looking out for its own revenue?)

Has it all stopped? I wouldn’t bet on it, because we all breathed a sigh of relief last year, too, when only Colorado and Nebraska planned moves out of big conferences. My gut tells me this isn’t yet over. But see this post for some thoughts on why, at the end of the day, it might not matter all that much for the sport…

Israel, Palestine, and the Two-State Solution

I noticed this op-ed by Ehud Olmert today in the NYT (it’s late in the month, so hopefully your free article count with them hasn’t run out), where he outlines the terms of a deal that he thinks both sides should agree to, involving land-swaps, equivalent land area to the pre-1967 borders, a shared Jerusalem, and third-party administration of the holy sites in that city…and, to cap it off,

the Palestinian state would be demilitarized and it would not form military alliances with other nations.

I don’t pretend to know the current official positions of either side on the first few issues, but this last one strikes me as particularly difficult from a practical standpoint. So let’s leave other substantive issues with the agreement aside and consider this one: would an agreement to forego a military even work?

This deal would require that an erstwhile state agree to give up its two primary means of self-defense: arms and allies. (I can imagine a state that suffered a total military defeat agreeing to this, but not many others.) In fact, yielding the means of self-defense is almost like yielding statehood, and the Palestinians likely know that this will leave them vulnerable (not just to Israel but to other potential threats) in the future, a future in which states with militaries can’t commit not to use that leverage to their advantage. In that sense, it’s easy to see why this agreement might not work: the status quo today, however painful and however dim the prospects of some alternative deal emerging, might be better than a future in which a state can’t effectively wield military power. (Of course, we might also think that agreements to demilitarize are inherently incredible to begin with, and that Palestine could freely militarize regardless of the agreement, but doing so would be in clear violation of a previous agreement, giving outsiders a casus belli or, at the very least, legal room in which to frustrate any attempt to arm.)

All in all, the terms themselves would prevent this deal from being self-enforcing: states with militaries might want to make demands of states without them, leading those states without to try to militarize in violation of the terms of the agreement, which means the deal likely wouldn’t stick (and when it broke down, it would be pretty costly). And, anticipating that, why sign that deal in the first place?

However this whole thing shakes out—peacefully, violently, or, well, never—my suspicion is that, unless the status quo goes quickly from bad to worse for Palestine, a stable agreement to establish two states won’t involve a de-militarized Palestinian political entity.


UPDATE: Phil Arena has a great discussion of some of the longer-term demographic sources of commitment problems in Israel and Palestine.

Predicting social revolutions?

Should social scientists have been able to predict the chaos in Tunis and Egypt? After someone at AEI decided that someone should’ve, then went on to slam scientists for not doing so, Dan Drezner and Phil Arena had some interesting thoughts in rebuttal. I’ve got nothing to add, strictly speaking, to what they said, because the AEI post demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of science. I’ve got another answer to the question—well, at least another reason to say “no”—that has to do precisely with insights gained from political science about things live social revolutions. In short, things like this can’t happen unless they are unpredictable.

The events in Tunis and Egypt had to be fairly unpredictable if they were to happen…otherwise, the repressive organs of the respective states, or the governments through preemptive concessions, would’ve tried to head them off (which, anticipating some unrest, Jordan and Yemen are trying to do right now). This is probably true of anything like a social revolution, a coup, putsch, etc., because they begin with one side—the people or a batch of upset colonels—at a serious bargaining disadvantage with respect to the state, a disadvantage that can only be overturned, even temporarily, through some sort of surprise.

So in the end, we’ve seen how surprisingly these things can spring up: governments in Tunis and Cairo caught off guard, the first unsuspecting of unrest and the second skeptical that it would spread across the border into a traditionally stable Egypt. Then, sensing that things might get rough in their own countries, Jordan and Yemen’s governments start promising reform, hoping to head off popular pressure once it becomes predictable. I don’t know about you, but that’s some fairly useful insight gained from social science theories—especially rigorous logical models of the kind our friend at AEI disparages—wouldn’t you think?

What does bargaining theory have to say about Mubarak’s decision?

So Hosni Mubarak promised not to seek a new term once Egyptian elections roll around in September, but the crowds of protesters have stayed in place. The question is: should we be surprised? I say no, and here’s why: unless he steps down, and soon, Mubarak’s promise is pretty incredible. If he promises to step down 7, 8 months from now, yet the crowds go home, they’ve lost their leverage over him. He’s free to renege on the promise, because with the populace once again demobilized and uncoordinated, the repressive apparatus can take steps to make a repeat more difficult…and without people in the streets, the pressure to step down when September rolls around won’t be as great. Returning to their homes means that the protestors lose their leverage, so Mubarak’s promise is just that—a convenant without the sword—and it’s no surprise that the crowds remain in the streets, despite the costs of maintaining a country-crippling protest.

What’s the endgame? Who knows? Revolutions have to be unpredictable to some extent if they’re to get off the ground (otherwise they’d be headed off by the state’s repressive organs), but it’s now become a waiting game, of sorts…but the only way to guarantee that the crowds get what they want is for Mubarak to blink first…

…and, at this point, we’re watching either history or one really big tease.