Hawking Something

The Syria interventionists want us to go to war. They're wrong.

In December 1997, an Egyptian agent who had been vetted and polygraphed by his CIA handlers collected a soil sample 60 feet in front of the entrance to the El-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, which the agency believed was connected to Osama bin Laden. The soil sample -- apparently taken from land not belonging to El-Shifa -- was analyzed and found to contain two-and-a-half times the normal trace of O-ethyl methylphosphonothioic acid, or Empta, a chemical precursor used in the production of VX nerve gas. Throughout 1998, intelligence analysts debated what to conclude from the soil sample, since it did not demonstrate whether the plant actually manufactured nerve gas. In July, the CIA recommended collecting an additional sample (that never happened), while on August 6, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research concluded that "the evidence linking El-Shifa to bin Laden and chemical weapons was weak." The following day, two truck bombs planted by al Qaeda cells killed 213 people -- including 12 Americans -- at the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, and 11 more people outside the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

A small group of senior Clinton administration officials debated a military response, which included five targets in Khartoum nominated by the CIA. Eventually, those five were whittled down to two and then to one. On August 20, two U.S. Navy warships launched 13 cruise missiles -- extra missiles were added to assure all the toxins would be incinerated -- at El-Shifa, destroying it and killing its night watchman. When it quickly became apparent that bin Laden had no controlling interest in El-Shifa, Clinton administration officials settled on the single soil sample as being the strongest evidence to justify the attack. Six weeks later, President Clinton told historian Taylor Branch that the supporting intelligence included "soil samples, connecting an element in nerve gas found there and in Afghanistan at similarly high concentrations."

The Obama administration now faces its own self-imposed decision-forcing point about whether to respond militarily to the reported evidence that the Syrian military has used chemical weapons against the armed opposition, an action interpreted as crossing an administration red line. The administration's position on whether Syria used chemical weapons reached the height of opacity two weeks ago when James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee: "That's a policy question and not one for intelligence to comment on." The intelligence community eventually sifted through what one official called the "shreds and shards of information" (soil samples, body tissue, photographs), with the normal dissension between agencies leaking into the press. Given the latest report from the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria -- which found countless crimes against humanity, war crimes, and gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law -- the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons would not be surprising, though it has so far provided limited battlefield advantage.

President Obama and White House officials quickly emphasized that they were deliberating potential military responses with prudence, in consultation with partners, and with no deadline. Before using force in Syria, President Obama must articulate his intended political and military objectives, and explain how military force could plausibly achieve them. Policymakers and pundits routinely provide multiple objectives -- but they tend omit the crucial second consideration. Consider some recent justifications offered for intervening in Syria's ongoing civil war.

Prevent additional use of chemical weapons. Rep. Mike Rogers called for "action to disrupt [Assad's] ability to deliver chemical weapons," while Sen. Dianne Feinstein declared last week: "It is clear that ‘red lines' have been crossed and action must be taken to prevent larger-scale use. Syria has the ability to kill tens of thousands with its chemical weapons." The objective here is to deny Assad reliable access to one of his lethal military capabilities, reportedly used in small amounts, but to ignore the artillery, airstrikes, and sniper fire responsible for the vast number of civilian deaths. Some scholars and analysts also contend that a stronger U.S. response is mandated to maintain and reinforce the long-standing international taboo against the use of weapons of mass destruction.

The difficulty with preventing the use of chemical weapons, or securing and consolidating the several dozen sites where they are held, is that it is a resource-intensive military mission, requiring up to 75,000 troops. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned in January: "The act of preventing the use of chemical weapons would be almost unachievable. You would have to have such clarity of intelligence, persistent surveillance -- you'd have to actually see it before it happened. And that's unlikely." Dempsey recently declared that the Pentagon had completed the planning to secure Syria's chemical weapons caches, but that he was not confident of success "because [Syrian security forces have] been moving it and the number of sites is quite numerous." However, while some White House officials warn that "all options are on the table in terms of our response," others vow "no boots on the ground," even though ground forces would be required to secure the chemical agents.

Pick winners. Sen. Lindsey Graham summarized this viewpoint on Sunday: "There are two wars to fight -- one [is] to get Assad out of there.... The second war, unfortunately, is going to be between the majority of Syrians and the radical Islamists.... So we need to be ready to fight two wars." The theory is that if the United States intervenes militarily or provides weapons to "the opposition good guys," as Sen. Claire McCaskill described them, then Washington will have greater influence on the post-Assad, non-Islamic political leadership. Subsequently, Syria will likely align its policies with U.S. preferences.

Picking winners is not our responsibility and believing we can do so is wishful thinking. As one rebel recently told the New York Times: "We all want an Islamic state and we want shariah to be applied." It is doubtful that anything the West does today will markedly influence what role Islam plays in Syrian society or governance after Assad. Moreover, the religious faith of the people does not matter; what matters is the state's behavior in those limited areas where Syrian and Western interests overlap, specifically in confronting transnational challenges. Finally, Syria's future leaders will act in their own national interests with whatever international actor is required, regardless of who is arming or funding the revolution today.

Deter Iran and North Korea. Rep. Rogers warned this weekend: "More than just Syria, Iran is paying attention to this. North Korea is paying attention to this." Sen. Graham more vividly predicted that with Obama's indecisiveness, "we're going to have a war with Iran because Iran's going to take our inaction in Syria as meaning we're not serious about their nuclear weapons program." Their implication is that, if the United States responds to Assad crossing Obama's chemical weapons red line, Iran and North Korea will adhere to their own red lines.

There's one big problem with this logic: According to a tally by Harvard University professor Graham Allison, Iran has already crossed seven red lines put forth by the international community. Furthermore, former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin noted this weekend: "Today it can be said that the Iranians have crossed the red line set by Netanyahu at the U.N. assembly." In addition, Israel leaders have repeatedly stressed, as Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz declared on Sunday, "We are not making any comparison or linkage with Iran, which is a completely different matter." If Tel Aviv does not draw conclusions from U.S. inaction in Syria with Iran, why should Washington?

In October 2006, President George W. Bush warned Pyongyang: "The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable of the consequences of such action." When the Bush administration learned that North Korea -- starting in 2001 -- had clandestinely helped Syria construct a "carbon copy" of its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, it responded to both governments with silence.

Furthermore, if Kim Jong Un or the mullahs in Tehran are watching closely, it is hard to see how enforcing a partial no-fly zone over Syria with Patriot missile batteries already installed in eastern Turkey would be a demonstrable deterrent. Assuring the physical destruction of Iran's (or North Korea's) nuclear program is a significantly more intensive and riskier military intervention, which would include attacking their integrated air defense systems, command-and-control facilities, known nuclear sites, and other regime assets.

Ensure U.S. credibility. Beyond Iran and North Korea, many policymakers and publications contend that the world is carefully judging America's credibility and reputation. The Washington Post editorial board declared: "If Mr. Obama waffles or retreats on the one clear red line he drew, U.S. credibility across the region will be severely damaged." Rogers asserted: "We have lost the confidence of the Arab League." Meanwhile, Sen. Saxby Chambliss warned: The world is watching. We've got 70,000 dead people in that part of the world as a result of Bashar al-Assad. We as America have never let something like that happen before. We've taken action."

Leaving aside the multiple historical errors in Chambliss's statement, using or threatening to use force to "signal" is a fool's errand. Recall that many advocates of intervening in Libya's civil war believed U.S. action would show other dictators that they should embrace democratic demands for change. John Kerry, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared: "The military intervention in Libya sends a critical signal to other leaders in the region: They cannot automatically assume they can resort to large-scale violence to put down legitimate demands for reform without consequences." Columnist Nicholas Kristof claimed: "If not for this intervention...the message would have gone out to all dictators that ruthlessness works." Since Assad incorrectly interpreted the intended message from ousting Qaddafi, why would other potential friends or adversaries assess U.S. strength and credibility based on Syria?

Prevent revenge. During a recent Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. John McCain warned Obama administration officials that Syrian children in refugee camps "will take revenge on those who failed to help them. We've failed to help." At a later hearing, he claimed: "We are breeding a generation of people who will -- as was articulated to me by a teacher in one of the refugee camps, these children will take revenge on the people who refused to help them." McCain and others appear to believe that -- unlike other opposition movements around the world that demand and fail to receive U.S. assistance -- Syrians have deeply ingrained memories and are especially predisposed to seek vengeance. This revenge is also selective, because nobody contends that vengeful Syrians will try to kill Chinese, Brazilians, South Africans, Indians, or other powers that refuse to intervene militarily or provide arms.

It was the contention of every policymaker this weekend that America is "doing nothing" in Syria. The United States has provided $385 million in humanitarian assistance, $250 million in non-lethal aid to opposition and civil society groups, and supports a massive clandestine effort to feed citizens and supply hospitals in the rebel-held areas of Syria. At the last international pledging conference for Syria, China vowed merely $1.2 million for U.N. aid agencies. If perceived inaction is the catalyst for vengeance, then future generations of Syrians should presumably target Beijing before Washington.

Protect Jordan. The contention is that the United States and regional partners should limit the potential for sectarian spillover into Jordan, since it could irreversibly destabilize the constitutional monarchy of King Abdullah II. On Thursday, Sen. Graham noted that swift U.S. action could "contain this fighting so that the King of Jordan does not fall.... The kingdom of Jordan has been a stabilizing influence in the Mideast. Jordan is under pressure from the effects of Syria." On Sunday, Graham again warned that "[Abdullah's] kingdom could fall, and he's a moderating influence." Given that 86 percent of Jordanians have an unfavorable view of the United States, it is unwise and unrealistic to expect that deploying the U.S. military to "do something" in Syria will ensure the Hashemite Kingdom's survival.

The humanitarian impulse to apply military tactics selectively in Syria, or provide advanced weapons to specific rebel groups is understandable given the horrors unfolding on the ground, overwhelmingly committed by the Assad regime. The United States could "level the playing field" with its vast conventional military capabilities, and policymakers claim these capabilities come with an obligation to use them. As Rep. Keith Ellison declared on Sunday: "I don't think the world's greatest superpower, the United States, can stand by and not do anything." Sen. Dick Durbin stated it more simply: "Something has to be done."

However, if you examine what that specific "something" is, it becomes apparent that U.S. military power cannot plausibly achieve it -- not with the level of commitment and risk that policymakers are willing to accept. A U.S. official told Reuters this weekend: "There's a lot of analysis to be done before reaching any major decisions that would push U.S. policy more in the direction of military options." Advocates of military intervention need to define their strategic objectives in Syria and outline how the use of force can accomplish it. So far, no one has done so.

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National Security

What Is the Why

Does it really matter what motivated the Boston bombers? 

Following the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks that killed three people and injured over 170, President Obama addressed the nation: "We still do not know who did this or why.... [M]ake no mistake -- we will get to the bottom of this. And we will find out who did this; we'll find out why they did this." It should be noted that it is premature to say if the Boston Marathon attacks are acts of "terrorism" under the definition found in U.S. law: "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents."

By Friday night the "who" question was (as best we know) answered with the death and arrest of the two suspected perpetrators, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. In the following days, headlines began to focus on the "why": Washington Post: "Search for Why Begins in Boston Marathon Bombings"; Chicago Tribune: "Boston Marathon Bombing Investigation Turns to Motive"; and Financial Times: "FBI Searches for Bombing Motive." Working off whatever unverified information they came across, experts, policymakers, and others felt comfortable guessing what motivated the two suspects, with their uncle providing the most concise explanation: "Being losers."

It is understandable for Americans to seek answers for the Tsarnaev brothers' motivations for such brutal attacks against innocent civilians and running gun battles with the police. There is a natural curiosity to determine what psychiatric disorder, psychosocial stressors, or personal or political grievances could compel someone to behave so abnormally. In the absence of a preexisting rationale or trigger, the abhorrent violence becomes all the more frightening since it seems both totally random and possible at any moment. Moreover, understanding motivations may provide some sense of closure for victims, victims' families, and the affected communities.

However, trying to answer why the Tsarnaev brothers conducted the Boston Marathon attacks will largely be a futile effort. It is extremely difficult to untangle the multiple motivations that lead someone to become a terrorist, though this does not deter scholars from attempting to do so -- here are 324 such studies through 2008. According to the Washington Post, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev "told interrogators that the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan motivated him and his brother to carry out the attack." Policymakers and pundits will dismiss this rationalization with little acknowledgment, analysis, or certainly sympathy. Moreover, even if we could agree that we had perfect information for why the attacks happened -- based upon the perpetrators' words, and corroborated with official investigations -- we won't engage in honest self-reflection or change public policy in response.

First, no state wants to acknowledge that their policies, institutions, or culture might contain any flaws that could serve as primary motivations for terrorism. Politicians cannot accept any correlation between domestic or foreign policies and terror attacks. To do so would -- the argument goes -- assign some moral equivalence to "our" behavior and "their" behavior, and thus legitimize the goals and means of terrorism. Even on a societal level, the phrase "this is why the terrorists hate us" has become shorthand for especially glaring examples of America's conspicuous consumption, gluttony, or sloth. But behind the jokes is pride that our founding fathers wanted us to have the freedom and opportunity to buy and consume and do whatever we like, without concerns as to how others might perceive this.

Second, even if we know the Tsarnaevs' motivations drew primarily from American domestic or foreign policies, the United States will not subsequently alter them, since that would be perceived as making concessions to terrorists. The theory is that if a state reveals that it is vulnerable to coercion, terrorists will pocket that appeasement, sense weakness, and escalate their demands with additional attacks. Historically, terrorist organizations have been lousy at achieving their intended political objectives. Max Abrahms looked at 28 groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the State Department and determined "the groups accomplished their forty-two policy objectives only 7 percent of the time." Seth Jones and Martin Libicki compiled a dataset of all terrorist groups between 1968 and 2006. Of all 648 groups, only 27 (4 percent) achieved their strategic political demands. Similarly, of the more than 400 terrorists groups that Audrey Kurth Cronin analyzed, "less than five percent, by their own standards succeeded fully in achieving their aims."

Even when by happenstance the United States does what a terrorist organization had requested, Washington cannot admit it. In April 2003, the United States began withdrawing its military forces from Saudi Arabia -- the central demand of Osama Bin Laden's 1996 fatwa: "Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places." The removal of most U.S. servicemembers from Saudi Arabia -- there were 4,000 there in 2003, and 278 today -- was presented as the inevitable winding-down of the Iraqi war and no-fly-zones. However, a senior U.S. defense official expressed concern at the time "that it not look as if it's precipitous, because it will look like bin Laden won." Demonstrating resolve is mandatory even when implementing long-planned military-basing decisions.

Third, since there can be a multiplicity of motivations, knowing "why" does not lend itself to easy policy responses. In May 2010, Faisal Shahzad -- a Pakistani immigrant who moved to the United States in 1999 and became a citizen in 2009 -- tried to detonate an SUV packed with explosives in Times Square. In a videotape recorded before the failed attack, Shahzad declared it "will be a revenge for all the mujahedeen and oppressed Muslims." He later reportedly told investigators "that he was upset over repeated CIA drone attacks on militants in Pakistan." (He received explosives training from the Pakistani Taliban in the Waziristan region in late 2009.) Still another analysis determined that Shahzad was ultimately inspired by the Pakistani security forces storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad that was held by armed militants in July 2007.

Were these motivations examples of "blowback" indicating that the CIA should refrain from drone strikes, or evidence that more strikes were needed to kill more Pakistan Taliban members? (Unsurprisingly, the latter occurred.) Or, has the Pakistani government subsequently reduced its long-standing practice of using brutal force and conducting extrajudicial killings during its counterinsurgency operations? (The just-released State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices' Pakistan chapter says "no.")

Fourth, categorizing groups that are responsible for terrorist attacks is different from knowing their motivations. An October 2010 study of 86 foiled and executed terrorist plots against U.S. targets from 1999 to 2009 identified 10 distinct ideologies: left, right, anti-Muslim, animal rights, anti-abortion, militia/anti-government, al Qaeda and allied movements (AQAM), AQAM-inspired, white supremacist, and unknown/non-ideological. Of the 86 plots, 40 were undertaken by AQAM or AQAM-inspired groups, 32 by white supremacist and militia groups, and only three were classified as unknown. Being conscious of the groups most responsible for recent terrorist plots helps law enforcement officials prioritize their preventive efforts. Yet, in so much as we could assign the Tsarnaev brothers to one of these groups (we cannot yet), membership is not necessarily motivation, since individuals may align themselves with terrorist organizations, but never conduct or provide material support for acts of terrorism.

There is inadequate information to guess why the Tsarnaev brothers did what they did. Since answering this question is inherently difficult if not impossible, and will not compel any substantive public policy changes, what then is our motivation to understand terrorists' motivations? Ultimately, the who, what, when, where, and how of aberrant behavior catches our interest, but the why is what captivates and draws us in. Without some clear animating impulse to explain evil, the story line is mechanical and impersonal, unsatisfying and incomplete. Given the inherent uncertainty in understanding the Tsarnaev brothers' actions, at a minimum we should refrain from undertaking policy changes based upon whatever perceived motivations we come up with.

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