A gruesome test of realpolitik in Syria

With FP's David Kenner reporting that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own civilian population, we're already seeing a debate about what to do now.  Over at Duck of Minerva, Dan Nexon doesn't think this event will change much of anything with respect to U.S. foreign policy.   Jon Western, on the other hand, disagrees, comparing the event to how the massacre in Srebrenica spurred NATO action in Bosnia.  He concludes:

The current policy objective has been focused on conflict containment.  The current policy instruments have failed to achieve that.  I think there is concern in Washington and throughout much of the region that American policy has been too passive — that without some kind of major policy shift, this is going to get a lot worse for American interests in the region. And, if the reports of a major chemical attack are true, we are almost certain to see a new policy that will almost certainly include some element of U.S. military force to try to change that. That’s my general reading of how American foreign policy develops.

Meanwhile, the New York Times' Alissa Rubin and Alan Cowell report that in response to the chemical attack, France wants to amp up the action

As Western powers pressed the Syrian authorities to permit United Nations inspectors to examine the site of a claimed poison gas attack outside the capital, Damascus, France said on Thursday that outside powers should respond “with force” if the use of chemical weapons was confirmed.

At the same time, Israel said its intelligence assessments pointed to the use of chemical weapons....

In an interview with BFM-TV television, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, expressly ruled out the idea of ground forces intervening in Syria’s bloody civil war, now in its third year with more than 100,000 fatalities.

“There would have to be reaction with force in Syria from the international community,” Mr. Fabius said, but added, “there is no question of sending troops on the ground.”

He gave no further details of what he had in mind. During the Libyan revolt that overthrew Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, France, then led by former President Nicolas Sarkozy, joined with Britain in an air campaign that drew on strong support from the United States and other NATO allies.

The Obama administration has shown little appetite for comparable intervention in Syria. Indeed, America’s top military officer has told Congress that, while the Pentagon could forcefully intervene in Syria to tip the balance in the civil war, there were no moderate rebel groups ready to fill a power vacuum.

So, in a world in which there are no "Western-friendly" rebel groups on the ground, some degree of political impetus to "do something" to check Assad, and no chance in hell that that "something" will emanate from the United Nations, what will happen? 

In my continuing search for consistency over blog posts, let's see what I said back in June when the Obama administration announced that it would be arming the rebels: 

[E]verything this administration has said and done for the past two years, screams deep reluctance over intervention.  Arming the rebels is not the same thing as a no-fly zone or any kind of ground intervention.  This is simply the United States engaging in its own form of asymmetric warfare.  For the low, low price of aiding and arming the rebels, the U.S. preoccupies all of its adversaries in the Middle East. 

The moment that U.S. armed forces would be required to sustain the balance, the costs of this policy go up dramatically, far outweighing the benefits.  So I suspect the Obama administration will continue to pursue all measures short of committing U.S. forces in any way in order to sustain the rebels. 

Now let's be clear:  to describe this as "morally questionable" would be an understatement.  It's a policy that makes me very uncomfortable... until one considers the alternatives.  What it's not, however, is a return to liberal hawkery. 

So, to conclude:  the United States is using a liberal internationalist rubric to cloak a pretty realist policy towards Syria.

Going forward, I'd say that the administration's response to this latest provocation is an excellent test case for whether my realpolitik thesis holds or not.  If I'm right, then the administration will likely to what it can to enable other actors -- say, France and Turkey -- to take limited military steps to punish the Assad regime and degrade its forces from the air.  This would be consistent with the "prolonging the conflict" approach cloaked in the guise of liberal interventionism, while minimizing U.S. exposure. 

If, on the other hand, the United States actually uses its own forces in Syrian territory to try to tip the scales, well, then I'll have to concede that the realpolitik hypothesis doesn't hold. 

What I don't know -- and I'd encourage those more steeped in military statecraft than myself to talk about in the comments -- is whether the tactical situation in Syria permits the kind of distinction I'm making here.  In other words, is it possible for U.S. forces to play a strictly supporting role that enables French or other forces to take kinetic action in Syria?  Or does that option not really exist? 

Daniel W. Drezner

The political economy of Document Number Nine

Back in June the Economist blogged about the Chinese Communist Party's new ideological document and what it means for China's future:

Over the past couple of months, officials around the country have been summoned to briefings about a Communist Party circular known as “Document Number Nine”.  Its full contents have not been made public, but by all accounts it paints a grim picture of what the party sees as the threat posed by liberal ways of thinking. The message conveyed at these meetings has been a chilling one: stick to the party line and denounce any dissent.

The strident tone of this document, which is also called “A briefing on the current situation in the ideological realm”, has caused anxiety among liberal intellectuals, and confusion about the agenda of China’s new leader, Xi Jinping. On the economic front, signs remain strong that he wants to speed up the pace of reform.Caixin, a Beijing-based news portal, said on June 24th that a blueprint for this was “finally taking shape” and hinted that it would be unveiled at a meeting of the Party’s central committee in the autumn. It said history would “remember well those who lead China forward on its path to reform”. On the political front, however, the signs are pointing in the opposite direction.

Buried a bit further down in the post, however, there was this: 

The message of Document Number Nine can be divined from official accounts of the secret briefings given to officials. Many of these use similar language, which it is safe to assume reflects the wording of the circular. In Yueyang city in the central province of Hunan, for example, officials at such a meeting reached a consensus that because the situation at home and abroad was “complicated and changeable”, struggles in the ideological realm had therefore become “complicated, fierce and acute” (see here, in Chinese). The officials identified several threats, including calls for “Western constitutional democracy” and universal values (as Analects reported here); promotion of “civil society”; support for “neo-liberalism” (an attempt, the officials said, to change China’s “basic economic system”); and endorsement of “Western news values” (an attempt, they said, to loosen the party’s control over the news media and publishing). Such calls, the officials agreed, were “extremely malicious”.

It's the "neoliberalism" attack that intrigues me - because it kinda cuts against the rhetoric/actions that China's new leadership has been talking/taking for most of 2013. 

Today the New York Times' Chris Buckley follows up on Document Number Nine... and the report contains similar paradoxes:

Communist Party cadres have filled meeting halls around China to hear a somber, secretive warning issued by senior leaders. Power could escape their grip, they have been told, unless the party eradicates seven subversive currents coursing through Chinese society.

These seven perils were enumerated in a memo, referred to as Document No. 9, that bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping, China’s new top leader. The first was “Western constitutional democracy”; others included promoting “universal values” of human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation, ardently pro-market “neo-liberalism,” and “nihilist” criticisms of the party’s traumatic past.

Even as Mr. Xi has sought to prepare some reforms to expose China’s economy to stronger market forces, he has undertaken a “mass line” campaign to enforce party authority that goes beyond the party’s periodic calls for discipline. The internal warnings to cadres show that Mr. Xi’s confident public face has been accompanied by fears that the party is vulnerable to an economic slowdown, public anger about corruption and challenges from liberals impatient for political change....

[L]eftists, feeling emboldened, could create trouble for Mr. Xi’s government, some analysts said. Mr. Xi has indicated that he wants a party meeting in the fall to endorse policies that would give market competition and private businesses a bigger role in the economy — and Marxist stalwarts in the party are deeply wary of such proposals. 

Here's the thing -- it seems that China has hit the limits of its current growth model, and therefore needs to pursue reforms in order to boost long-term growth, which would help sustain the political legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party.  As that last paragraph suggests, however, an attack on neoliberalism makes it kinda harder to do that.  So a short-term effort to boost ideological consistency and legitimacy would seem to be coming at the expense of longer-term strategies to sustain political legitimacy. 

So after reading Buckley's story, I wondered on Twitter how Xi was going to reconcile a critique of neoliberalism while pushing... er.... neoliberal-friendly reforms onto China's economy.  Buckley was kind enough to respond:

I'd really like China-watchers to weigh in here, because I don't like knowing the answer.