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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Nicolas Poussin, "Les Bergers d’Arcadie", 1638. Via Wikimedia.

Nicolas Poussin, “Les Bergers d’Arcadie”, 1638. Via Wikimedia.

Sorry for the light posting in the last few weeks; I was traveling. What I read this week:

Firing of head of Egypt’s opera sparks cultural fight amid artists’ worries over Islamists.

Matt Duss asks if the political utility of the Global War on Terror will get in the way of ending it.

What explains John McCain’s erratic policy positons? Jonathan Chait and Danial Larison see only neoconservative foreign policy, while Jonathan Bernstein thinks it’s a bit more complicated.

Just what’s European military power for? (via Jon Western)

On a conceptually similar, if more northerly, note, both Steve Saideman and Robert Farley wrote this week about Canada’s strategic outlook.

Should we cut the SSBN force? Surprise! The Navy thinks not (I largely agree with this reasoning, though).

Speaking of nuclear arms, it’s the 15th anniversary of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb — just how big of a deal was it?

Supporting Shinzō Abe’s economics is not an excuse for denying Japan’s war crimes.

On separatism in Latin America.

Amazing photos of daily life in the USSR in the 1950s (via Kindred Winecoff, who asks if Stalin was necessary).

Hindi Zahra – Kiss & Thrills.

Why Don’t Anti-Drug Campaigns Highlight Violence?

By Taylor Marvin

I wrote the weekly puzzler post at Political Violence @ a Glancean academic blog primarily authored by political scientists. Today I asked why American anti-drug campaigns largely ignore the social costs of Americans’ demand for drugs in Latin America. In researching the question I looked at numerous contemporary  youth-focused anti-drug campaigns, and found few references to cartel violence as a reason not to purchase illegal drugs.

To be clear, I’m not saying that highlighting cartel violence in Mexico would convince many of the young people public anti-drug campaigns typically target to abstain, but it’s possible that campaigns focusing on the violent drug trade  — rather than the personal health and social problems that these campaigns typically highlight — would be effective. I think that today’s anti-drug campaigns are often ineffective because potential drug users are able to see the costs of illegal drug use they highlight as hypothetical: sure, drug use ruins other people’s lives, but it can’t happen to me. Highlighting the violence inherent to the international drug trade, while more remote, is also more real: if I buy illegal drugs my habit will directly lead to further violence.

One reason for this absence could be that the connection between American drug use and foreign trafficking-related violence is too remote to influence behavior, or that potential drug users are unlikely to see violence visited on others — and foreigners, at that — as reasons not to use illegal drugs. Similarly, an anti-drug campaign highlighting trafficking-related violence would be most effective if it was graphic, and public agencies could be hesitant to distribute disturbing images. But I am still surprised few anti-drug campaigners have tried this tactic. Any suggestions why?

Sexual Coercion and Political Order in A Song of Ice and Fire

5117TYjqrqLBy Taylor Marvin

[Mild setting spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire follow]

I recently read Alyssa Rosenberg’s excellent essay “Men and Monsters: Rape, Myth-Making, and the Rise and Fall of Nations in A Song of Ice and Fire,” which examines the portrayal of sexual violence in George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series. Sexual violence and harassment in A Song of Ice and Fire is a topic I’ve written on before, and I agree with Rosenberg’s thesis that sexual violence is the series’ ultimate marker of social transgressors.

Expanding on Rosenberg’s argument, I see the series’ prominent depiction of celibate organizations as another aspect of its attempt to illustrate the linkage between authoritarian politics and sexual coercion. Celibate orders are common in Martin’s Westeros: the elite Kingsguard, scholarly Maesters, and military Night’s Watch are all organizations that formally require their members to be celibate. Of course, these vows are often broken, but nominal celibacy is a prominent feature of all these institutions’ character.

These celibacy requirements are often coercive. Most obviously, the vast majority of the Night’s Watch — whose members vow to “take no wife” and “father no children” — are forced into its ranks. While the Night’s Watch’s celibacy requirement is not explicitly a punitive feature of the Westerosi justice system that sends criminals to the Wall, it certainly has a major effect on the lives of individual Black Brothers. Similarly, while Westeros’ Maesters — an order of scholars, postmen, and scientists who, like the members of the Night’s Watch, are required to be celibate — are not openly coerced into the order, it is likely that many of the inheritance-less second sons who become Maesters would not choose to do so if they had other options. While not as explicitly as those of the Night’s Watch, Maesters’ celibacy vows are to some extent coercive. Finally, as in our world, many of Westeros’ religious officials are also required to remain celibate.

These organizations are all intended to remain apolitical, and require celibacy as a means of removing their members from Westeros’ political order. The Kingsguard is dedicated to protecting the king, a singular role that permits no other personal loyalties. Members of the Night’s Watch are tasked with defending the entire realm, and are famously required to take no side in Westeros’ political conflicts. Maesters serve as trusted advisors to feudal government figures, a role they could not credibly commit to unless they again have no personal stake in politics. Finally, Septons and Septas are intended to serve Westeros’ people, not any temporal political goals.

In a world where social status and political power is explicitly inherited, marriage and reproduction is inherently political. The only way to remove an individual actor from politics is to remove him or her from reproduction and inheritance, as well. This makes celibacy a fundamental requirement of any organization intended to be a neutral actor in Westeros political structure. Of course, these organizations have little power to actually enforce their formal celibacy requirements — A Song of Ice and Fire is full of Night’s Watch and Kingsguard members who break their vow to refrain from sex. But importantly, Westeros’ practical lack of birth control allows even often-broken celibacy requirements fulfill their political purpose (the series’ “Moon Tea” is a form of birth control, but it is implied to often be unavailable or unreliable, and nevertheless children born out of wedlock are extremely common). Societies without birth control are likely to draw a clear distinction between children born in wedlock — and who can thus inherit political power — and those who are not. This distinction is much less clear in societies with routine access to birth control, like our own. Whether or not Maesters and Night’s Watchmen father children or not, their vows of celibacy prevent these illegitimate offspring from inheriting, and thus keep them and their fathers safely excluded from Westeros’ political order.

While this often coerced celibacy is nowhere near as traumatic, or pervasive, as Westeros’ other forms of sexual violence, it is another aspect of the series’ thematic critique of sexual coercion. Just as Westeros’ endemic misogyny make rape common, its hereditary politics makes sexual coercion a fundamentally political, and thus routine, precondition of social order. Of course, the injustice of all forms of sexual coercion is simply another aspect of A Song of Ice and Fire’s condemnation of the illiberal political structure so many other fantasies celebrate.

Racism and Preferred Definitions

By Taylor Marvin

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates has an excellent piece critiquing the definitional basis of studies that attempt to find a link between race and IQ, an obsession thrust into the news by former Heritage Foundation staffer Jason Richwine’s recently-unearthed Harvard dissertation. Critics are right to doubt the correlation between IQ and what we commonly think of as “intelligence”, Coates writes, but these studies’ real deficiency isn’t that we have a poor idea of what intelligence actually signifies, or how it can be measured. Instead, it’s the malleable definition of race that means only what society wants it to:

“I am not being flip or coy. If you tell me that you plan to study ‘race and intelligence’ then it is only fair that I ask you, ‘What do you mean by race?’ It’s true I don’t always do math so well, but I understand the need to define the terms of your study. If you’re a math guy, perhaps your instinct is to point out the problems in the interpretation of the data. My instinct is to point out that your entire experiment proceeds from a basic flaw — no coherent, fixed definition of race actually exists.”

Research into race and IQ’s defenders often suggest that their critics are motivated only by a politically-correct desire to prohibit research whose conclusions they may not find palatable. While I find this objection largely irrelevant — given human history I find it perfectly reasonable to stigmatize even rigorous research into race and intelligence — I believe Coates’ piece gets at the heart of the matter: “race” is such a flexible term that it’s impossible to disentangle from its social context. That’s what makes race and IQ research so suspect.

The desire to impose racial hierarchy is inseparable from racism. As Coates notes, what constitutes a “race”  is determined by the society that assignes racial distinctions — the definition of race is much more a social tool of inclusion and exclusion than any description of the external world. Today white Americans typically identify East Asians as a single race, while the average Chinese person would likely dispute a racial category that lumped them together with residents of Japan or Korea. Conversely, the standardized tests I grew up with were specific when it came to identifying East Asian ethnic origins while lumping people of European, North African, and Middle Eastern descent into the broad “white” category. As Coates writes, “when the liberal says ‘race is a social construct,’ he is not being a soft-headed dolt; he is speaking an historical truth.”

Just as racial classifications have varied by time and place, so have the racial hierarchies racists have sought to impose. Most famously, in the 20th century the American definition of privileged whiteness grew to encompass the previously-excluded Americans of Irish and Eastern and Southern European descent.  Jason Richwine’s dissertation argues that the highest IQ among modern American racial groups is found in American Jewish and East Asian populations, followed by whites. Given the preferred racial hierarchy of Richwine’s own society — modern America — this conclusion is too perfect.

Today’s American racism seeks to entrench the privilege of white Americans and further disenfranchise Black and Latinos, so it’s no surprise that these groups would be “found” to be less intelligent than whites. But Jewish and Asian-Americans are both often perceived by racists as “model minority” groups allied with white Americans, and anyway, both groups are too small to present a real obstacle to furthering white privilege. In short, finding that American Jews and East Asians are more intelligent on average than white Americans is exactly the research findings you’d want as a superficial cover against allegations of racism, while not changing the social implications of your research.

The point is that racists’ preferred racial hierarchies are transient, and a produce of the time and place in which they’re devised. Contemporary American society extends privilege to non-Muslim “whites” and seeks to especially exclude those of African and American descent, but this definition of privilege isn’t universal. Isn’t it suspicious that the purportedly-global genetic link between race and intelligence argued by researchers like Richwine exactly matchs the transient biases of their own society? Isn’t this powerful evidence that their findings aren’t trustworthy, and certainly shouldn’t inform public policy?

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Nicola Antonio Facchinetti, "Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas", 1884. Via Wikimedia.

Nicola Antonio Facchinetti, “Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas”, 1884. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

The rise of the missile carriers.

Nadav Morag on Syria’s artificial nation.

How much would a NFZ over Syria cost?

Robert Kelly on the post-1979 Asian economic miracle and peace.

Can Rafsanjani jolt Iran’s presidential election?

Hindi Zahra – Oursoul

What’s the Political Value of the Red Line?

By Taylor Marvin

After recent reports that Bashar al-Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons, last week I speculated about what motives would prompt Assad to violate the Obama administration’s red line prohibiting chemical weapons use, whether purposefully or inadvertently. At the time the Obama administration’s red line was widely criticized, from both directions. If Assad decided to use chemical weapons despite American threats the red line could force the US into a Syrian intervention it had no desire to fight and little ability to decisively resolve. Conversely, if the Assad regime used chemical weapons and Obama didn’t intervene, his inaction would damage American credibility and demonstrate to future human rights-violators that US threats could be safely ignored.

Worse, by declaring that the US would punish chemical weapons use the Obama administration broke the cardinal rule of deterrence by issuing a threat that was neither clear nor credible. On what scale would chemical weapons have to be used to cross the red line? Obviously, the US would not commit itself to a major war if the Assad regime used chemical weapons in small amounts, especially as the deaths of 70,000 Syrians hadn’t already prompted an intervention to stop the killing. By declaring a fuzzy red line — Obama’s statement that Assad would have to use “a whole bunch” of chemical weapons to trigger intervention appears designed to avoid rhetorically committing the US to punishing minor chemical weapons use — the US left ample room for confusion and uncertainty, lessening the deterrence value of the threat. Similarly, the Obama administration’s reluctance to fight in Syria is obvious. Since Assad knows that Obama has little ability to force his future self to intervene if the red line is crossed, the threat is less effective.

However, new reports have surfaced suggesting that Syria’s rebels, not regime forces, had released small amounts of chemical weapons (Syria’s rebels of course dispute the claim). While this confusion has made discussions of the anti-chemical weapon red line less urgent, criticism of the policy remains. Critics argue that tying US entry into the war to chemical weapons use gives the rebels an incentive to mislead the US, for example, and small-scale chemical weapons use can be very difficult to verify, giving Assad room to employ them but avoid punishment. But if the regime has not employed chemical weapons, does that mean the red line is an effective deterrent? Or does it remain an less-than-credible threat unlikely to successfully coerce Assad if he actually does decide to use chemical weapons?

On Twitter, Foreign Policy editor Blake Hounshell asked an interesting question:

You can make the admittedly contrarian case that Obama’s red line is a tool to decrease domestic demand for intervention in Syria (though recent reporting, noted by Erica Chenoweth, that the red line was an off the cuff improvisation makes divining its political motivations difficult). The Obama administration has no desire to intervene in Syria, whether by arming the opposition, destroying Syrian air defense systems in order to enforce a no-fly zone, or launching an air campaign targeting Assad’s forces. While domestic demand for US involvement in Syria is low, it’s possible that as the casualties grow American public opinion could slowly shift toward favoring an intervention to stop the killing. While the administration would, of course, make the final call on any intervention, public opinion could pressure Obama into an intervention policy he seeks to avoid.

Again, history suggests that presidents are rarely punished for inaction while atrocities continue. But there is a real possibility that elite opinion could coalesce around a perceivably-inexpensive intervention plan centered around airpower, rather than a boots-on-the-ground invasion (which no one is seriously discussing).

Setting the red line around chemical weapons use, instead of an arbitrary number of Syrian dead, is a potential way for the administration to avoid these domestic political pressures. There is considerable reason to suspect that the Assad regime will continue to avoid high-profile chemical weapons employment, in spite of its brutality. Chemical weapons are imprecise, difficult to use effectively, and would inflict massive civilian casualties if used to target rebel fighters in the urban battlefields that characterize Syria’s civil war. Even before accounting for the risk that chemical weapons use could draw down international intervention, it’s reasonable to suspect that Assad is unlikely to engage in full-scale chemical warfare.

By setting a red line prohibiting crimes Assad is unlikely to engage in anyway the Obama administration can present itself as invested in the outcome of the Syrian war and ready to intervene, while hopefully avoiding being actually forced to do so. Daniel Byman hinted at this logic in a recent New York Times op-ed, noting that red lines can potentially “placate domestic critics” of non-intervention. Of course, dedicated advocate of intervening in Syria will find this watchful distance intolerable; Shadi Hamid’s complaint in The Atlantic that “in saying that chemical weapons are a red line, the Obama administration is also saying that the killing of 70,000 Syrians is not a red line” is certainly true. But the chemical weapons red line dismisses a core argument in favor of intervention by replacing an ambiguous trigger for intervention — Assad’s brutality — with a more concrete, if still fuzzy, one Assad is less likely to cross. If Assad doesn’t use chemical weapons and the US continues to stand by the Obama administration isn’t “doing nothing”; instead, it is simply abiding by its stated red line. While not enough for many proponents of intervention, it does reduce their ability to drum up political support for US entry into the conflict.

It’s entirely possible that Assad will judge Obama’s threats not credible and use chemical weapons anyway — and potentially force the US into war — but again, it’s similarly possible that political pressure could eventually force Obama to intervene in the absence of a broken chemical weapons red line. As Assad is much more likely to kill large numbers of Syrians through conventional means than chemical warfare, the red line is conceivably a device intended to separate Obama from a hard choice.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Ainu bear sacrifice, 1870. Via Wikimedia.

Ainu bear sacrifice, 1870. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Fred Kaplan on US-aided corruption in Afghanistan.

Jeffrey Lewis warns we don’t have enough evidence to definitively say that Assad used chemical weapons, and reminds that many have an incentive to make it seem like he has.

In Turkey, blame America for Syria —  another aspect of the international myth of US invincibility?

Mariya Petkova on FEMEN: “I am angry about how some women consider themselves ‘superior’ and more ‘enlightened’ than others, having no ability to understand values other than their own.”

Mexico opens up to Asia.

Could body armor have saved millions in WWI? Parallels to the contemporary belief that giving aviators parachutes would kill the “fighting spirit.”

Joshua Foust deconstruct a DC op-ed: “Its purpose is not to seriously analyze the problem, contextualize that problem in history, and from there eliminate unsound options and pick from a menu of whatever’s left. Its purpose is to flatter those in charge…”

Earlier this week I rounded up political violence links for PV Glance.

Tarhanin Teglla – My Love Gone.

The Nuclear Shortcut

By Taylor Marvin

Iranian F-14s, via Wikimedia.

Iranian F-14s, via Wikimedia.

Writing at Duck of MinervaJarrod Hayes profiles the brewing disagreement between US and UK policymakers over British nuclear weapons. Many Americans fear that as the UK defense budget shrinks, the British will be tempted to cut their conventional forces — which American policymakers hope will continue to operate alongside their US counterparts — to free up funds for the UK nuclear force. The costs of capable modern conventional forces have grown so great that, in Hayes words, “the established nuclear powers in the West will face increasingly difficult questions about [nuclear] arsenals that serve no practical military purpose.”

Hayes concludes that as the costs of fielding competitive conventional forces grows, “the ability to field very expensive major conventional weapons systems that can be used in combat” will increasingly be seen as the mark of great powers, not nuclear weapons.

There are numerous reasons to suspect that this is the case. First, while nuclear weapons are often viewed as a physical confirmation of great power status — the fact that all five permanent members of the UN Security Council are nuclear armed is surely relevant — not all aspiring world powers decide to pursue nuclear weapons. Of the G4 nations that hope to reform the UN Security Council, only India possesses nuclear weapons; despite the opportunity to do so, Brazil, Germany, and Japan do not (though, of course, Germany and Japan both have unique historical reasons to forego nuclear armaments). Indeed, the decision to actually acquire nuclear weapons appears to be more often driven by security concerns than the desire for great power prestige: Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea all appear to perceive nuclear arms as a necessary deterrent against foreign threats.

Secondly, nuclear weapons are comparatively cheap compared to other indications of great power status. As Hayes notes, the costs of world-class conventional forces are much greater than nuclear weapons. This holds for other components of nuclear forces: the accurate rockets and advanced submarines needed to create a second strike-capable nuclear force are far more difficult to engineer and costly than nuclear warheads themselves. The same is true of other demonstrations of national greatness. While successful civilian space programs suffer from none of the prestige costs associated with nuclear weapons — they don’t threaten to destroy civilization — the ability to send humans into space is reserved for a much more exclusive club than nuclear weapons.

But nuclear weapons will remain attractive for aspiring regional powers, especially those facing extraordinary security situations, for precisely the reasons Hayes outlines. Iran is — of course — a good example. Iran’s leaders perceive themselves as threatened by the United States, a perception heightened by Washington’s previous overthrow of an Iranian government, various American officials’ public belligerent rhetoric, and Washington’s support for an anti-regime terrorist organization. Direct security concerns are not the only reason Iranian policymakers desire nuclear capability: the legitimizing effect, both within and outside of Iran, of achieving prestigious nuclear capability in the face of Western resistance and the desire for greater freedom to influence the region likely also play a role.

However, nuclear weapons, or more likely, the ability to quickly produce them, are the only way for Tehran to achieve these security goals, because Iran has zero chance of ever matching US conventional military capabilities in the region. Before the 1979 revolution Iran attempted to become the foremost local power in the Middle East. The Shah’s government had a considerably greater opportunity to chase this goal than today’s Iran. Flush with oil revenue, Washington was willing to sell the Pahlavi government the most advanced weapons systems money could buy: among other toys (really, that’s the only term for how the Shah approached weapons procurement; Pollack relates an amusing anecdote about the Shah “reading magazines such as Jane’s Defense Weekly as if they were shopping catalogues”) the Shah’s government purchased American main battle tanks, F-14 fighter aircraft, Cobra helicopter gunships, and was overthrown just before acquiring four US-built advanced air defense destroyers based on the world-class Spruance class.

But of course, the Shah’s military never came close to rivaling US power in the Persian Gulf region. While the Pahlavi government’s weapons purchases were put to great use in the Iran-Iraq war, weapons systems acquisition in and of itself is not sufficient to build a competitive military — human capital resources like training and doctrinal flexibility are far more important. Today’s Iran faces far more barriers to building a competitive military. Sanctions on Iranian oil exports restrict available funding, and unlike the Shah today’s leaders in Tehran faces steep barriers to purchasing weapons systems from abroad. Today, Iranian military hardware innovation is mostly restricted to fabricating spare parts for rapidly aging Western weapons and knock off missiles far less advanced than their international equivalents. Indeed, Iran’s recent embarrassing attempts to showcase an obviously fake “stealth fighter” is arguably evidence of just how decrepit its indigenous weapons industry really is.

Iran cannot further its own security goals through conventional military forces, so instead Iran’s deterrence strategy must favor “unconventional” assets, in both senses. In an open conflict with the US Iran would use asymmetric area-denial strategies to restrict the movement of US maritime forces in the Persian Gulf, and its irregular proxies to punish vulnerable US interests and allies. Similarly, nuclear capability would allow Tehran to, in its leaders’ minds, offer the ultimate deterrent blocking US aggression, a deterrence impossible to achieve with conventional military forces.

It is debatable how realistic Iran’s nuclear ambitions are. While the status quo (Western reluctance to strike Iran; Iranian reluctance to acquiesce to a nuclear deal that does not favor their interests) favors Iran, there is an ever-present risk that Israel or the US will try and forcefully delay Iran’s nuclear development. But Iran’s chances of achieving a workable deterrence that allows it to expand its own interests are greater if it pursues nuclear, rather than conventional, power.

Why Would Assad Use Chemical Weapons?

Iranian soldiers during the Iran-Iraq war. Via Wikimedia

Iranian soldiers during the Iran-Iraq war. Via Wikimedia

By Taylor Marvin

Recent evidence suggests that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons in its long civil war against the Syrian opposition, potentially violating the Obama administration’s “red line” prohibiting their use. While the evidence remains inconclusive, if Assad has indeed used sarin gas this violation gives calls for a NATO intervention to halt the violence new urgency.

While citing the need for caution, arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis warns that failing to enforce the international prohibition on chemical weapons use sets a dangerous precedent. “If Assad is using chemical weapons to hold on to power,” Lewis argues, “we have an interest in ensuring that his government falls and that the responsible regime figures take their turn at the Hague.” The New Republic’s John B. Judis seconds this argument, again citing the future reputation costs of failing to enforce the anti-CW red line, as does the Christian Science Monitor’s editorial board. While the Obama administration’s response to the news is developing, new reporting suggests that it is moving towards supplying rebels with lethal equipment, though this policy shift is possibly a negotiating tactic designed to convince Russia’s Vladimir Putin to abandon his diplomatic support for Assad.

Setting aside its effect on Western demand for intervention, why would the Assad regime use chemical weapons anyway? Importantly, the chemical weapons use observed so far is not a large-scale strategic shift designed to end the war; instead, it appears to have been “small scale,” isolated employment. If Assad has no expectation that its employment of prohibited chemical weapons in the manner they’ve been used so far is capable of ending the war, the regime must consider how breaking its precedent of stockpiling, but not using, chemical weapons will affect the continuing war.

If the United States is adamant that chemical weapons use will be punished, why would Assad ignore these warning? Here are three possibilities:

Loss of political control. This is perhaps the most obvious explanation for the extremely limited chemical weapons so far observed, and the least strategic. There have been previous indications that the regime has prepared and loaded chemical weapons onto geographically disseminated munitions. Given that chemical munitions were available, it is possible that a local commander, for whatever reason, elected to use them without authorization from Assad himself (given their strategic importance it is unlikely that Assad would delegate the decision to use chemical weapons to anyone else). This would explain the small scale use of chemical weapons — instead of a signifying a major shift in the regime’s strategy, Assad has not made the decision to use these weapons at all.

Loss of physical control is a problem for all strategically important weapons, but is more likely for chemical weapons than the nuclear weapons they are often lumped together with under the WMD banner. Because of nuclear weapons’ extreme destructive potential, they are tightly controlled with numerous safeguard preventing unauthorized use. This is particularly true of modern strategic nuclear weapons, which are delivered by long-range platforms that allows them to be securely stored on ICBM bases, ballistic missile submarines, and air bases. However, chemical weapons are typically battlefield tactical weapons, and unlike strategic weapons must be stored close to the battlefield to be useful. This makes it more difficult to erect effective safeguard preventing the unauthorized employment of tactical chemical weapons than strategic nuclear ones.

Once chemical weapons have been loaded onto weapons platforms and distributed around Syria, it’s entirely plausible that a local commander either misunderstood an order or employed chemical weapons on his own initiative, without the approval of the regime.

If chemical weapons were used against Assad ‘s wishes, than punishing the regime for their use would be difficult to justify. While this punishment may create an incentive for future governments to give up chemical arms entirely out of fear that policymakers will lose control and be subsequently punished for use they did not authorize, this uncertainty complicates the idea that the anti-chemical weapons norm can be enforced in a comprehensive way, particularly for chemically-armed governments engaged in civil wars.

USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joseph M. Buliavac, via Wikimedia.

USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joseph M. Buliavac, via Wikimedia.

Assad judges violating the chemical weapon red line worth the risk. The international community has attempted to deter the Assad regime from using its chemical weapons stockpiles through threat of retaliation. However, there are reasons to think that these threats are not credible, and thus insufficient to deter the Assad regime. First, the international community has no desire to intervene in Syria. Despite two years of war, the Syrian military remains a fighting force capable of imposing high costs on an intervening force. Air strikes are an ineffective way of safely destroying chemical arms and actually securing Syria’s chemical stockpiles would require tens of thousands of ground troops, a commitment far exceding NATO’s stand-off intervention in Libya.

Red lines work best when leaders force their own hands by devising mechanisms designed to compel their future selves to follow through on their threats, even if they don’t want to. These mechanism can include a trip wire force, like the US force stationed in South Korea or the small numbers of British Royal Marines garrisoned on the Falklands Islands before the 1982 Argentine invasion — when these forces are humiliatingly defeated, leaders must respond more forcefully than they otherwise would. Alternatively, reluctant leaders can be constrained by the prospect of domestic political costs if they are perceived as weak and unable to follow through on their commitments.

Because the international community has not created hands-tying devices to compel it to intervene if Assad crosses the chemical red line — indeed, Obama’s ambiguous statements on what exactly breaking the line would constitute can be seen as an attempt to avoid hands-tying rhetoric — their threats are not credible. Erica D. Borghard and Jack Snyder recently addressed this problem, arguing that audience costs rarely constrain leaders, and democratic electorates are unlikely to punish perceived rhetorical inconsistency. Given these commitment problems, Assad could rationally judge that limited use of chemical weapons is not sufficient to create a demand for intervention in Western countries and would not be punished.

Secondly, even after using chemical weapons Assad would retain the capability to threaten Israeli and Turkish civilians, preserving his ability to detere a Western intervention. If the international community does elect to intervene in spite of this deterrent, Assad has previously stated that he would use chemical arms in response to an international intervention — another profound disincentive.

It is also possible that Assad believes the red line is genuine, but believes that he is guaranteed to lose the civil war if he does not use his chemical weapons stockpiles and preferes the risk of outside intervention over the certainty of defeat and probable death at the hands of his countrymen. However, the limited battlefield utility of chemical weapons suggests this is unlikely, as it is difficult — but not impossible — to imagine a scenario where the regime’s chemical arms are the difference between victory and defeat against only the rebels.

Finally, perhaps Assad has authorized chemical weapons use, but only on a small enough scale that uncertainty over whether their use was deliberate or unauthorized prevents a coherent international response. It is also possible that Assad plans to slowly escalate his use of chemical weapons past the current Obama administration “systematic” red line. Perhaps Assad plans on using chemical weapons, but has rationally judged that their sudden large-scale use would horrify the international community and increase support for intervention. However, if the regime slowly begins using chemical weapons on larger and larger scales, it may be able to use chemical weapons in a strategically significant way without generating demand for intervention — after all, many more would have supported intervention at the start of the war had they known it would kill at least 70,000 people.

The anti-chemical weapon norm is not enforced. Perhaps Assad has decided that the red line prohibiting chemical weapons use is not credible at all, and he can begin using his stockpiles with impunity. After all, there are historical reasons to suspect that this is the case. Throughout the last century chemical weapons have been used or not used based on the character of the conflict in question, not on the strength of any enforced international anti-chemical weapon norm. During World War II Nazi Germany and Japan declined to introduce large-scale chemical weapons use because they feared that it would prompt the Allies to respond in kind on a greater scale — introducing chemical warfare would likely hurt the Axis war effort more than it would help. Similarly, during the Iran-Iraq War Saddam Hussein employed chemical weapons on an enormous scale because he knew it would be difficult for the hard-pressed Iranians to respond with further escalation and, as most outside powers opposed the revolutionary Iranians, chemical weapons were unlikely to attract any serious international punishment.

The Iraq example is key. Hussein’s wanton use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war went conspicuously unpunished. Similarly, while the 2003 invasion of Iraq was partially justified as a response to Hussein’s genocidal 1988 chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, it’s notable that this “punishment” came over a decade and a half late. Indeed, the invasion of Iraq wasn’t a case of enforcing the norm against chemical weapons use at all; the Bush administration wanted to invade Iraq anyway, and Hussein’s past chemical weapons use against his own people was only a convenient justification for the war. Indeed, in the months before the invasion the real justification for war offered by the Bush administration was Hussein’s future, not past, chemical weapons use: Halabja was merely offered as evidence that Hussein was deranged enough to launch an irrational WMD attack against the United States, not cause for long-delayed righteous punishment. Of course, the Bush administration did this for a reason. Americans would not support the invasion of Iraq only to enforce the no-chemical weapons norm, but instead out of fear that Hussein was a madman who directly threatened the US.

The lesson for Assad is clear: if he follows Hussein’s example and uses chemical weapons to kill over thousands of his own people he can only expect to be punished over a decade later, and then only if an American president wants to invade Syria anyway. This is a less than compelling deterrence, to say the least.