It's a little too soon for foreign policy revisionism

Friend of Mitt Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin blogged yesterday about the ten things she thinks Romney needs to talk about with respect to American foreign policy. Now, some of them are pretty anodyne ("Explain why America has to be involved in the world on both practical and philosophic grounds"), and some of them are fair shots at the Obama administration ("Obama dragged his heels for years on three free-trade agreements"). One of them, however, epitomizes a certain kind of right-wing revisionism that needs to be quashed immediately:

Obama made an error of historic proportion in failing to back the Green Movement in 2009 and to adopt regime change as the policy of the U.S. thereafter. His determination to engage a regime that had no intention of being engaged led to muteness when support was most needed by the Greens. Ever since we have failed to hold the regime accountable (for the assassination attempt on a Saudi diplomat, for example) for its actions. Obama has dragged his feet and engaged in self-delusion with regard to his Iran sanctions policy. It hasn’t slowed Iran’s nuclear weapons program. In talking down the military option he’s made the threat of force less credible, and shifted the burden to Israel to take care of a threat to the West (emphasis in original).

Now, there are many, many things wrong with this paragraph: Iran is not really a strategic threat to the West outside of Israel, and the Obama administration clearly hopes that the current sanctions regime could destabilize the Iranian regime. But let's focus on the 2009 moment.

I expect this talking point to pop up again and again among Romney foreign policy flacks, and if I were advising the campaign I'd probably recommend it as a sound political tactic. The beauty of this criticism is that it rests on a magical counter-factual that will never be tested: according to this narrative, if only Barack Obama had been more forceful in June 2009, then the Iranian regime would have crumbled and sweetness and light would have prevailed in the Middle East. It's a great campaign argument, because we'll never know what would have happened if Obama had acted as Rubin, Romney et al would have liked him to act. Romney can pledge that he would have acted differently in the summer of 2009, and he'll never, ever have to flip-flop on it.

The thing is, this argument that Obama could have tipped the scales in 2009 is utter horses**t. Recall that, during the uprising, the leaders of the Green Movement wanted nothing to do with more sanctions against Iran or with military action -- it took them six months of brutal repression for them to even toy with embracing targeted sanctions. Indeed, the reason the administration tiptoed around the Green Movement was that they did not want the Khamenei regime to taint the resistance as a Western-inspired creation. If Obama had been more vocal during the initial stages of the movement, it likely would have accelerated the timetable of the crackdown. And no U.S. action short of a full-scale ground assault could have stopped that.

Let's get rid of the fantasy counter-factual in which U.S. measures short of a ground campaign would have ejected the current Iranian regime. Let's also dismiss the idea that the Green Movement would have welcomed greater U.S. support.

Rubin, Romney et al want the Obama administration to be blunt about its desire to depose the current Iranian regime. This kind of policy statement does have the virtue of simplicity: it ends the negotiation track and leaves only military force as a viable option. Of course, such an approach would also spur Tehran into accelerating its nuclear program as a means of guaranteeing its own survival (which is, by the way, the one constant of Iranian foreign policy). And, again -- short of a ground campaign -- Iran's regime ain't going anywhere.

GOP foreign policy advocates want to argue that Obama screwed up in 2009. Understand, however, that when they argue that the United States should have taken more forceful action three years ago, the only forceful action that would have mattered was another ground war.

Am I missing anything?

Daniel W. Drezner

The limits of compellence in Syria

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. 

I tweeted parts of this critique earlier in the day, which prompted Bob Wright to suggest an alternative strategy

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?