As events in Syria unravel, there is a growing concern that Syrian despot Bashar Assad will use his chemical weapons arsenal to punish those rising up against him in a desperate bid to stay in power. Eli Lake reports that the CIA is, as I type this, "scrambling to get a handle on the locations of the country’s chemical and biological weapons."
What can the U.S. do? Elsewhere on Foreignpolicy.com, Andrew Tabler argues that the U.S. needs to be firm:
Washington and its allies must lay down and enforce red lines prohibiting the use of Syria's chemical and biological weapons (CBW), one of the Middle East's largest stockpiles. To do so, Washington should push for a U.N. Security Council resolution under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which sanctions the use of military action, on mass atrocities in Syria -- including a reference that those responsible for the use of CBW would be held accountable before the International Criminal Court. Washington should not water down the text to make the measure toothless, as it has done repeatedly on Syria over the last year in an attempt to avoid a Russia veto. In the event of further Russian obstructionism, the United States should lead its allies -- Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia -- in issuing a stark warning to Assad that mass atrocities in Syria will be met with an immediate military response. (emphasis added)
I'm neither a Middle East nor a nonproliferation expert, but I know a little bit about compellence, and Tabler's strategy sounds like an unsuccessful one in compelling the Syrian leader. Assad's behavior to date suggests that he really doesn't care about anything other than staying in power -- and he's perfectly willing to use whatever tactics are necessary to stay in power. He is now facing an adversary that, based on this week's bomb attack in Damascus, is perfectly content with using unconventional tactics. There is simply no way that Assad will constrain himself in response to a Western threat -- no matter how credible it is -- when his alternative is losing power.
Let's be blunt -- the only "immediate military response" that would matter would be a full-blown ground invasion (I don't think Seal Team Six could pull off an Assad decapitation at a tolerable amount of risk). It will take quite some time for that kind of operation to mobilize. And even if there is a ground assault, Assad would likely find his way across Iraq to Iran. Using ground force might be an advantage to using this kind of force as a signal to future leaders contemplating the use of WMD -- but I suspect it's a very weak effect.
One obvious way to strengthen the incentive structure would be to pose a cornered Assad with a different choice: If you don't use chemical weapons, and just give up power peacefully, you can have a long and happy life.
But it's hard to offer him that option, because the Syrian army has already committed enough atrocities to get Assad indicted and convicted by an international tribunal and locked up for the rest of his life. So, to him, surrender may seem to entail a fate not much more attractive than death....
Suppose that, 10,000 Syrian lives ago, we could have offered Assad the option of safe haven if he surrendered power peacefully. Or, maybe, we could have offered him the option of safe haven after serving a year of jail time. Or two years, or whatever.
Now, you might argue that to let him off that lightly would have been to dishonor the 8,000 or so Syrians who had already died. Point taken. But tell that to the other 10,000. And tell that to the many thousands who may die yet.
The problem with this is that one has to assume that both the United States and Russia likely did make this offer to Assad a year ago - and he likely rejected it.
Unfortunately, Syria is not a case that will end well. An external ground invasion would put Western troops in the middle of a sectarian conflict. No external intervention will allow the sectarian conflict to fester even more. As for the United Nations, well, fuhgeddaboutit.
This is one of those cases in which the limits of U.S. influence -- or any great power's influence -- over the situation can be exaggerated. This seems obvious to me -- but I thought it might be a useful point to make to the rest of the foreign policy community.
Am I missing anything?
After the latest demonstration of Syria thumbing its nose at the Annan plan, Walter Russell Mead decided to go on a rhetorical bender against the United Nations:
The reality is that the UN today is less prestigious and influential than it was in the 1940s and 1950s. There used to be a time when General Assembly votes actually meant something. Newspapers used to report its resolutions on the front page. And the Security Council, on those rare occasions during the Cold War when it could actually agree on something, was seen as laying down the basic principles along which an issue would be resolved.
Now, this kind of rant is a rite of passage for a foreign policy pundit. I mean, there's no way you make it into the Council on Foreign Relations -- or Twitter Fight Club -- without at least one good, solid bashing of UN fecklessness.
That said, Mead's rant has this whiff of ... well, let's say erroneous assertion about it. Hayes Brown fisks Mead's blog post thoroughly and effectively, but I want to focus just on the above paragraph, because it makes such little sense.
First of all, exactly when did General Assembly votes ever mean anything? The only time during Mead's halcyon Cold War days of the UN in which the General Assembly mattered was the "Zionism = racism" resolution in 1975. I don't think making news because of an assinine statement really qualifies as "meaning something." The General Assembly was besotted with the New International Economic Order during the 1970s as well -- and, thankfully, these affirmations didn't amount to much either.
Second, Mead is correct that during the Cold War, Security Council agreeement made the front pages -- but that because it was just so friggin' rare. The Security Council was essentially in a state of permanent deadlock from the Korean War to the height of perestroika. Economic sanctions were approved a grand total of twice; the Security Council has imposed them juuuuust a wee bit more in recent years.
Sanctions are for sissies, though -- what about the blue helmets? Well, if Wikipedia is correct, UN peacekeepers were dispatched on thirteen missions during the Cold War era. Which happens to be exactly the same number of times UN peacekeepers have been approved since George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech -- a period that is only one-fourth as long as the Cold War. There are, by the way, 16 ongoing UN peacekeeping missions. I can bash aspects of the United Nations as well as the next commentator, but this is not an organization that even remotely resembles its Cold War state of decrepitude.
Look, the effectiveness of the United Nations as an instrument of statecraft is entirely a function of the current state of great power politics. This means that it was close to useless during the Cold War, pretty damn useful during the heyday of U.S. unipolarity, and now somewhere in between with the growth of the BRICs. The United Nations is to the great powers as Michael Clayton was to his law firm.
If great power gridlock grows, the United Nations will likely grow more dysfunctional. But we're a looooooooooong way from the Cold War. And Mead should know that.
Your humble blogger is busy
going into carbohydrate withdrawal celebrating Passover this week. I blogged about the international relations implications of this holiday a few years ago -- but that was pre-Arab Spring. This (and a few glasses of kosher wine) got me to thinking: what would happen if the event that inspires the Passover holiday -- the Exodus -- were to happen today?
With apologies to Colum Lynch, I suspect the reportage would be something like this:
U.N. SECURITY COUNCIL MEETING ON JEWISH EXODUS ENDS IN CHAOS: Permanent Five split on who to sanction for loss of life
Colum Lynch, Foreign Policy
NEW YORK: Attempts by the U.N. Security Council to reach consensus on an approach to the situation in Egypt came to naught earlier today, as different members of the Security Council blamed different actors in the region for the growing human rights and humanitarian disaster.
U.S. Ambassdor to the United Natuons Susan Rice, addressing the Council, blasted China and Russia for their "addiction to obduracy." She concluded, "Over the past decade we have continually raised the repeated human rights abuses and acts of genocide committed by the Phaaroh's regime against the Jewish population in Egypt. Each time, China and Russia have vetoed even the mildest of condemnations, arguing that it was a matter of Egyptian sovereignty. Only now, with the desperate escape of that minority from the Phaaroh's clutches, do the governments of Russia and China take such an acute interest in the welfare of the Egyptian people. "
The United States, France, and United Kingdom have indeed introduced thirteen separate resolutions on human rights abuses in Egypt since the advent of the Phaaroh who knew not Joseph.
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin delivered a blistering response, arguing that it was the radical Jewsish leaders who had escalated the situation by resorting to weapons of mass destruction and demanding that Moses be indicted by the International Criminal Court as a war criminal: "It was not the Phaaroh who imposed unspeakable sanctions against the Egyptian people. It was not the Phaaroh who slaughtered every first-born male child in Egypt -- except the Jews -- in a flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions. Surely, not a house in Egypt was spared from this , this plague. It was not the Phaaroh who resorted to trickery in the Red Sea, luring innocent Egyptian troops into the kill zone before massacring them. Both sides are equally guilty in the bloodshed, and until both sides renounce violence, a peaceful solution will be nothing but a mirage of the desert."
No agreement on any resolutions were reached. British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant flatly rejected many of the Russian assertions, arguing that only soldiers were afffected by the Red Sea disaster, and that it was not immediately obvious whether the Jews were actually responsible for the harsh sanctions that befell Egypt prior to the Jewish Exodus.
Doctors Without Borders upped the number of Egyptian dead into the five figures, but those figures could not be independently confirmed. The Phaaroh's government again rejected the entry of the U.N. Secretary-General's fact-finding mission on the grounds that it represented an intrusion of sovereignty. Russian and Chinese officials blamed this inflexible position on the civil society campaign to label the Egyptian Pyramids the "Slavery Pyramids."
Humanitarian officials are not sure about the current status of the Jewish refugees. According to unconfirmed reports from Egypt, the Jews left in such a hurry that they lacked basic provisions like bread or yeast, carrying only crude rations into the desert. The disputed status of the Sinai makes drone overflights impossible in that area. The "final status" of the Jews is also unclear, as the Assyrians, Moabites, and Philistines all declared the refugees to be persona non grata in their jurisdictions.
Outside the UN building, the NGO Inside Children annnounced that they planned to release a video entitled "LetMyPeopleGo2012," demanding that the Phaaroh release all Egyptian Jews immediately. The group rebuffed criticisms that this problem had been overtaken by events, saying that calling attention to the cruel despotism in Egypt was still "a worthwhile and noble cause."
As both the unrest and crackdown in Syria continue to get worse, Russia has steadfastly stood by the side of the Assad regime. Matters are coming to a head in Turtle Bay, however, as James Blitz and Roula Khalaf and Charles Clover report for the Financial Times:
Britain, France and the US will be making their most forceful push yet for a political transition in Syria at the UN Security Council this week, lending support to an Arab plan that they hope will overcome Russian opposition....
Paris and London said on Monday that they had the support of 10 out 15 Security Council members, which would mean a resolution can be put to a vote. But it remains unclear how Russia, which last year vetoed a much milder resolution, will vote....
French and British diplomats argue that Russia can no longer block a UN resolution. “We’re trying to convince the Russians that they can’t stay in their posture of opposition to a resolution while there is this much killing on the ground,” said a French official.
The State Department said Hillary Clinton had been trying to call Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, for the past 24 hours to discuss Syria, but he had been “unavailable.” The Syrian regime in recent days had “just let loose in horrific ways against innocents," said Victoria Nuland, spokeswoman for the State Department (emphasis added).
This is a serious humanitarian crisis and a brewing confrontation between permanent members U.N. Security Council…and yet, there's something I find very amusing about Lavrov's efforts to duck Clinton's calls. In the old days of the 20th century, one could imagine this kind of lying low gambit being easier to pull this off. Not any more.
Still, in honor of Lavrov's efforts to play hide and seek, your humble blogger suggests a contest for readers: Proffer your own version of Lavrov's outgoing voicemail message. If you're Lavrov, representing the interests of the Russian Federation, what would you want Hillary Clinton to listen to as she tried to reach you? Could the outgoing message itself constitute part of Lavrov's pushback?
To get the ball rolling, here's my effort:
Hello, you've reached Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister of the Russian Federation. I'm away from my phone right now, coordinating an investigation into serious human rights abuses that have occurred in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia over the past year. If you wait for the "reset" beep and leave me your name and number, however, I'll be sure to get back to you about how this stuff might need to be raised at the next U.N. Security Council meeting.
Try it yourself -- it's easy and fun!
I think it's safe to say that the multilateral coalition implementing Operation Odyssey Dawn have had their share of public spats. This means a lot of hand-holding and negative punditry/negative press stories on the issue.
Of course, this raises the question of whether there's a better alternative or not. As sick as liberals might be of using force in the Middle East, I suspect they're even sicker of doing this unilaterally. Some conservatives seem to get the notion that multilateralism has its advantages -- particularly with generating American support for these kind of missions.
Clearly, there are tradeoffs here. I could weight them very carefully using my own limited understanding, or I could be smart and ask an expert. So, I posed the question to Sarah Kreps, Assistant Professor of Government at Cornell University and the author of the now-extremely-trenchant Coalitions of Convenience: United States Military Interventions after the Cold War. Her thoughts on the matter:
Prime Minister Churchill once opined that "there is only one thing worse than fighting with allies-and that is having to fight without them." These words were remarkable coming from a leader who had spent the better part of two years trying to encourage the American military to enter WWII. Given coalition operations in Libya, leaders couldn't be blamed for drawing the same conclusion as Churchill.
On the one hand, coalition operations in Libya are a recipe for disaster. UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was crafted in intentionally vague terms in order to minimize opposition. The unintended consequence is that no one can figure out who's in charge, what the goals are, and when they'll leave. Undertaking this as a NATO operation would have been obvious since at least it has a clear decision making apparatus, but member state Turkey opposes the use of military force in Libya. As the Turkish prime minister said in televised speech, "Turkey will never be on the side of pointing the gun at the Libyan people." The alternative to NATO is what Prime Minister David Cameron referred to as an ad hoc "coalition of the willing"-remember Iraq?-with a mishmash of largely British, American, French, Danish military assets. But which of these is taking the lead and how these militaries are being coordinated is a mystery. This violates rule #1 of military operations: unity of command.
On the other hand, the United States already has TWO ongoing wars. Undertaking a third was of questionable merit in my book, but once it decided to use force, it made sense to be able to share the burden with others. President Obama justified the multilateral operation saying that "it means the United States is not bearing all the cost." At the least, going multilaterally will have defrayed the cost for an overstretched American military.
Whether multilateralism makes it more legitimate and exonerates the US from accusations of invading another Muslim country is another story. The initial signs are not encouraging. US marines have already been accused of firing on civilians when they went in to rescue the pilots of the fallen F-15E. Ultimately, events on the ground are likely to determine the legitimacy, not UN and Arab League approval. If the operation is successful, then multilateralism will have seemed like the legitimate, effective choice.
Of course, the first step is to figure out what success looks like. That ambiguity, however, is no fault of the coalition. The US has had some difficulty figuring that out in its "own" wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Making that decision by committee will be considerably more difficult. But far preferable, as Churchill might have said, than having to bear the burden of fighting alone.
What do you think?
I'm behind the curve on this, but as someone who's written a bit on sanctions I feel the need to comment on the latest round of UN sanctions applied against Iran.
At FP, Christopher Wall and Kori Schake effectively douse any enthusiasm optimists like Gideon Rachman might have had about the sanctions working in an of themselves. One could argue that the true assessment depends on how much and how effectively the United States and European Union are able to leverage the sanctions resolution language into effecive action against the Iranian Central Bank and other financial entities. That said, David Sanger's NYT story suggests the gloom that pervades this foreign policy problem:
So what, exactly, does President Obama plan to do if, as everyone expects, these sanctions fail, just as the previous three did?
There is a Plan B — actually, a Plan B, C, and D — parts of which are already unfolding across the Persian Gulf. The administration does not talk about them much, at least publicly, but they include old-style military containment and an operation known informally at the C.I.A. as the Braindrain Project to lure away Iran’s nuclear talent. By all accounts, Mr. Obama has ramped up a Bush-era covert program to undermine Iran’s nuclear weapons infrastructure, and he has made quiet diplomatic use of Israel’s lurking threat to take military action if diplomacy and pressure fail.
But ask the designers and executors of these programs what they all add up to, and the answer inevitably boils down to “not enough.” Taken together, officials say, they may slow Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon, which has already run into far greater technical slowdowns than anyone expected. If the pressure builds, Iran might be driven to the negotiating table, which it has avoided since Mr. Obama came to office offering “engagement.”
But even Mr. Obama, in his more-in-sadness-than-anger description on Wednesday of why diplomacy has so far yielded nothing, conceded “we know that the Iranian government will not change its behavior overnight” and went on to describe how instead the sanctions would create “growing costs.”
So no, this ain't going to accomplish much. One thing I would like this episode to do is force a reconsideration of the whole idea of "smart sanctions." I've been reviewing the literature on this subject, and further study is clearly needed. Nevertheless, the evidence to date suggests that smart sanctions are no better at generating concessions from the target state. In many ways they are worse.
The comparative advantage of smart sanctions is that they appear to solve several political problems for sender countries. Smart sanctions really do reduce the suffering by civilian populations. Because they are billed as minimizing humanitarian and human rights concerns, they receive only muted criticism from global civil society. Because they do not impede significant trade flows, smart sanctions can be imposed indefinitely with minimal cost. They clearly solve the political problem of "doing something" in the face of target state transgressions. What they don't do is solve the policy problem of coercing the target state into changing its policies.
The comparative disadvantage of smart sanctions is their ability to lull policymakers into believing that they're doing something when they're not. Now, to be fair, sometimes that's the idea -- maybe policymakers don't want to take more aggressive or risky action against a target state. In that situation, smart sanctions are perfect. My concern, however, is that policymakers believe that another multilateral round of smart sanctions will actually force the Iranians to do what the rest of the world wants it to do -- because it won't. Short of comprehensive sanctions, nothing in the economic statecraft policy tool kit will work.
PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Over at Politico, Laura Rozen posts about the subtle efforts by the United States to moderate the United Nations Human Rights Council's behavior. These efforts have yielded... well, let's see what Rozen's got:
“We have started to shake things up,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Suzanne Nossel told POLITICO, although she added, change is “incremental and slower than we would like.”
For the last eleven years, the UN human rights body has run a resolution that bans defamation of religion. The resolution is aimed at preventing the publication of for instance the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that enraged many in the Muslim world.
The resolution, opposed by advocates of freedom of expression, passed again last week at the Geneva body, but this time by its smallest margin ever, with 20 countries voting for the resolution, 17 against, and with 8 abstentions.
"It is encouraging that more states are starting to stand up against initiatives that threaten to undermine human rights," Human Rights Watch’s Julie de Rivero said. "Countries such as Zambia and Argentina that voted against the ‘defamation of religions' resolution are demonstrating positive leadership at the Human Rights Council."
The U.S. has been trying to push member countries instead towards an alternative resolution that would counter racial and religious intolerance, such as Switzerland’s minaret ban, while protecting freedom of speech.
“We achieved a consensus resolution that halted efforts towards a binding treaty that would infringe on freedom of speech," Nossel said, explaining that it was a neutral procedural resolution, with no language about banning defamation or new binding protocols.
That, plus a new U.S.-backed resolution on human rights in Guinea following the September 2009 massacre and stronger resolutions on the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma and North Korea mark what Nossel described as accomplishments on the long road toward the U.S.’s objective of turning the Council into a more credible and effective force on behalf of human rights globally.
Hmmm... in terms of measuring progress, I think I would translate Nossel's "incremental and slower than we would like" to mean "slower than continental drift" in plain English.
My point here is not to suggest that Nossel and her compatriots are doing a bad job -- far from it. They have made some inroads into the so-ridiculous-it's-easy-to-lampoon-it nature of the Human Rights Council.
But these are ridiculously small inroads, and extremely difficult to sell politically. Rozen's a sympathetic reporter on this issue, but the intrinsic silliness of the Human Rights Council remains largely undisturbed after reading this story. The Obama administration's engagement strategy with the institution have yielded nonzero but meager returns.
A politically sustainable strategy of patient multilateralism requires the occasional tangible success to point to by its boosters. I doubt the Human Rights Council will be producing any of those deliverables anytime soon.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.