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Posts tagged ‘Barack Obama’

NATO Expansion and Faking Credibility

By Taylor Marvin

Latvian soldiers train in Poland. US Army Europe image, by Photo by Polish army Master Sgt. Artur Zakrzewski. Via Wikimedia.

Latvian soldiers train in Poland. US Army Europe image, by Polish army Master Sgt. Artur Zakrzewski. Via Wikimedia.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded to deter Soviet aggression, which Russia’s annexation of Crimea and war in Ukraine have again made its central task. Today two questions dominate NATO’s ability to perform this mission: what should the scope of NATO’s collective defense be – that is, should the alliance grow to include other European states threatened by Russia – and how credible is the mutual defense pact?

A recent column at the Washington Free Beacon by Matthew Continetti summarizes, admittedly in an extreme way, common fears about the alliance’s future (via Daniel Larison). “By the time President Obama leaves office in 2017,” Continetti predicts, “the NATO pledge of mutual defense in response to aggression will have been exposed as worthless. Objectively the alliance will have ceased to exist.” Barack Obama’s reluctance to aggressively counter Russian moves in Ukraine and Syria have made him Putin’s “ultimate patsy” and NATO’s reluctance to extend its security guarantee to Georgia and Ukraine in the last decade made both countries “open prey.” Continetti fears that Russia’s doctrine of coercing adversaries through misinformation and quickly establishing apparent facts on the ground – “reflexive control,” as Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan (citied by Continetti) and Maria Snegovaya write – coupled with Obama’s “weakness” would lead a dithering NATO to tacitly accept future Russian aggression in the Baltic states.

These are not unjustified concerns. However, they stem from structural weaknesses within the NATO alliance, weaknesses that the expansion Continetti endorses have and will worsen. This isn’t to say, as UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has implied, that the self-determination of Poles and Czechs is a just price to avoid provoking Russia – decades of Soviet oppression has consequences, and European and post-Soviet states are justified in seeking NATO’s security assurances. But despite this justification NATO expansion is not costless. “It’s all very well to say that Russia shouldn’t have a veto over” further NATO expansion, Larison wrote in March 2014, “but it is quite obvious that they can and do have one if they choose to exercise it.” While “veto” is a strong word – NATO could throw enough combat forces into Ukraine to defeat Russia’s military proxies – policymakers should avoid committing themselves to conflicts where they are obviously unwilling to bear the costs of winning.

Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty establishes that “an armed attack against one or more [member states] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all” and that NATO members will coordinate a response, possibly with military force. The NATO alliance itself is an uncertain mechanism built to address a difficult problem: it is extraordinarily difficult to bind states today to pursue costly action tomorrow, which makes it hard to convince others that a defense commitment is believable. Within the NATO alliance this is particularly true for the United States, which would bear much of the costs of a war while not being directly threatened by Soviet and later Russian aggression in Europe. As Branislav L. Slantchev writes, NATO attempted to bridge this problem by formally committing the US to defend Western Europe, build the tools to do so, and in turn convince the Western Europeans that resisting a Soviet invasion was worthwhile, because US military assistance was vital to winning a European war.

NATO expansion poses a credibility problem – as does today’s more peaceful world – because its leading military powers cannot threaten to defend the NATO’s new members with the same credibility as Cold War-era Western Germany. The formal structure of NATO may have strengthened Atlantic military cooperation and interoperability as well as assuring Europe of US commitment, but this commitment was always credible anyway. A Soviet invasion of West Germany — which as Tom Nichols notes Western strategists judged a serious confrontation between the USSR and the West would likely escalate towards, given the numerical advantage of Soviet conventional forces in Western Europe – posed an existential threat to Western Europe, a global economic center and one with long-standing ties to the US. In spite of the possibly apocalyptical costs of a conflict between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces in Europe, America’s commitment to defend Europe from Soviet aggression was widely judged to be a credible one.

NATO’s credibility is weaker today because the stakes are so much lower. Given the costs and risks of a direct military conflict with Russia, it is not assured that NATO would forcefully respond to Russian aggression targeting a minor frontline NATO state. This is particularly true of creeping “hybrid warfare” deniable by both Russia and NATO leaders eager to escape their commitments. “In the post-Cold War period the United States and other allies are much less comfortable responding to actions that are in the gray areas of political subversion – areas at which Russia excels,” Nadia Schadlow writes.

Of course, NATO insists that it would forcefully counter Russian aggression in a member state; how can it not? Indeed, there are means of increasing NATO’s collective credibility. Stationing NATO forces in frontline states can serve as a deterrence, both through these forces’ direct combat capabilities and the grim fact that their deaths at Russian hands would commit otherwise reluctant policymakers to war – the so-called “tripwire” or “plate glass” mechanism. Low risk hybrid warfare can be met with similarly subtle “hybrid defense,” as Mark Galeotti suggests. More broadly, wider fear of a non-response permanently discrediting NATO could prompt leaders to act when they otherwise would not.

But despite these tools it is very difficult to create a truly credible commitment to collective self-defense, which rests far more on cultural ties and strategic concerns than treaty obligations. Today Russia’s most worrying threats, like the possibility of Russian interference in the Baltic states, are far less threatening to NATO’s core members than Cold War fears. Simply put, it does not make any rational sense for the United States to go to war with Russia over the fate of Lithuania or Albania. Everyone knows this.

It is this obvious cost-benefit logic, not Obama’s weakness, that weakens NATO’s commitments to its newer Eastern European members. Continetti himself unknowingly recognizes this fact when he worries that hypothetical Russian aggression in the Baltics is ignored by a “distracted” West. Unlike Soviet armor pouring across the West German border, NATO members might ignore Russian hybrid warfare in the Baltic states precisely because other concerns – financial crises, domestic politics, and other global flash points, in Continetti’s examples – are legitimately more immediately consequential to their electorates and policymakers.

Extending NATO membership to states far less economically important and socially tied to the alliance’s major powers assumes that NATO is a perfect mechanism for forcing policymakers to make the costly decision to respond to Russian aggression. It is not. While violent and worrying, Russia’s destabilization of eastern Ukraine and 2008 invasion of Georgia are not threats to world peace and core US interests. Despite NATO’s commitments and fears of encouraging wider Russian aggression, no amount of “strength” or “resolve” can paper over Americans’ obvious and rational unwillingness to risk war over small Eastern European countries. Are these commitments strong enough to make NATO’s defense of Poland or the Baltics credible? Perhaps. But if NATO’s credibility as a whole rests on commitments to defend Georgia and Ukraine, states even more peripheral to US and European interests, then it is not a strong alliance at all.

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Cuba and the Price of Principled Stands

By Taylor Marvin

President Obama speaking with freed Cuban prisoner Alan Gross. Official White House photo by Pete Souza

President Obama speaking with freed Cuban prisoner Alan Gross. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

One of the most enduring realities of US-Latin American relations appears set to finally end. On Wednesday, President Obama made the surprise announcement that the United States and Cuba had negotiated the reestablishment of their diplomatic relationship, following mutual prisoner releases. While many questions remain — notably whether a Republican-controlled Congress is prepared to end the American embargo on the island or would instead block the appointment of an ambassador to Havana — Cuba’s extreme isolation from the United States is drawing to a close.

Many conservative commentators have, unsurprisingly, questioned this policy change. While Tom Nichols writes that there is a conservative case for accepting normalized relations with Havana, the National Review Online’s Daniel Foster isn’t convinced (via Joshua Foust). Citing pieces by political scientist Dan Drezner and Charles Lane, Foster worries that normalizing American relations with Cuba will strengthen, not weaken, the Castro regime. If an eventual ending of the embargo is unlikely to hasten the regime’s demise, Foster asks, why should the US abandon “a half-century-old, principled stand, and reward human-rights-abusing evildoers, for that little upside?” Foster concludes that America’s dealings with other human rights violators — notably Saudi Arabia — strengthens the argument for preserving the Cuban embargo:

“You strike an alliance with a Saudi regime with a less-than-stellar human rights record because it’s surrounded by strategic threats in a region vital to U.S. interests. Cuba, by contrast, is parked in the middle of an American lake. We’ve had the run of the hemisphere for 120 years. If ever there’s a place where realist considerations leave room for taking a stand for liberty — even a largely symbolic one — it’s there.”

While remittance-spurred economic growth directly affects the lives of over 11 million Cubans and Obama’s move roused the passions of many Cuban-Americans who are either for or against the prospect of normalized relations, as Drezner notes ultimately the chances that increased ties will spur liberalization in Cuba are slim.

But it is wrong to suggest that the consequences of isolating Cuba can be neatly cordoned off from the rest of American foreign policy simply because Latin America is a stable region. First, as Drezner and others again note, isolating Cuba is an overwhelmingly unpopular policy among other states. Not only does normalizing relations with Cuba demonstrate to other American adversaries like Iran that US negotiating carrots are real, but maintaining the embargo furthers the general perception of the United States’ arrogance and that it does not respect the wishes of the international community.

Secondly, and more practically, Foster is wrong to dismiss a principled stand on Cuba — continuing the embargo — as costless. The Caribbean may remain “an American lake,” but Washington’s influence in Latin America today is likely the most modest it has been in a century, President Obama’s “moment of renewed leadership in the Americas” comment aside. China’s economic role in the region is growing, and while the ultimate influence of the BRICS emerging markets bloc — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — remains uncertain, large Latin American countries increasingly envision a future where economic growth and a multipolar will allow them to assert their interests outside of the United States’ hemispheric shadow. In particular, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) have repeatedly sought to demonstrate Brazil’s displeasure with US global leadership; Rousseff won reelection in October after narrowly defeating an opposition candidate who favored closer ties with the United States.

The United States’ Cuba policy is closely linked to its other relationships in Latin America. Despite its abuses the Castro regime is popular among many of the region’s heads of state, and this popularity cannot simply be hand-waved away. It isn’t only the more famously left-wing governments of chavista Venezuela and Evo Morales’ Bolivia that support the Castros. In Argentina, the leftist government of Cristina Kirchner — friendly with Cuba — was recently embarrassed by the revelation that the murderous right-wing Argentine military junta cooperated with communist Cuba; “for a dictator there’s nothing better than another dictator,” in El País’ translated words. And Brazil, which has famously — and controversiallyimported Cuban doctors, saw the prospect of normalizing US relations with Cuba as ending a Cold War anachronism, an impression echoed by Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz. Brazil also called for the prompt lifting of the embargo on Cuba.

Of course, America’s standing in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela will not improve much even if the embargo ends tomorrow. And “vulture funds” and Kirchner’s posturing over the Falklands Islands are far greater barriers to a solid US-Argentina relationship than Cuba policy. Similarly, America’s relations with Brazil were strained even before the revelations that the NSA had spied on President Rousseff’s personal communications.

But ties between the Washington and Brasília are an important, and neglected, relationship. Brazil is a country of two hundred million people, is already a major global market, and despite recent setbacks will likely be more economically and diplomatically consequential in the future than it is today. Even if the benefits of normalizing relations with Cuba are low, the half-century isolation of the island has done real damage to the US’ image in an important region. Simply dismissing Cuba — and Washington’s broader relationship with Latin America — as “symbolic” questions weakens the United States influence and furthers its reputation for arrogance, for little gain.

Update: The Christian Science Monitor has a report examining how relations with Latin America contributed to Obama’s policy shift.

Is Obama Signaling the Obvious to Terrorists?

By Taylor Marvin

A helicopter carrying then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates flies of Baghdad in 2007. DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby

A helicopter carrying then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates flies over Baghdad in 2007. DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby.

After the stunning advance through northern Iraq last week by the Sunni jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, and its allies, many are calling for US military action in support of the embattled Iraqi government and its security forces. American efforts would, most likely, consist of airstrikes targeting ISIS forces in Iraq, strikes the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has specifically requested. While the Obama administration has not ruled out airstrikes, many of President Obama’s Republican opponents in Congress have already begun to criticize the president’s inaction.

In particular, Senator Marco Rubio faulted the president for warning Friday that the United States would not send “U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.”* (Limited numbers of military personnel have already been deployed to the country, reportedly to protect the US embassy in Baghdad.) As Politico reports:

“I don’t think it’s wise for the commander in chief to step forward and immediately begin to rule options out. Even if he never intends to send a single American soldier, he shouldn’t be signaling that to terrorists,” Rubio (R-Fla.) said in an interview. “You should not be going around announcing what you won’t do.”

Daniel Larison sees Rubio’s statement as at best “a useless criticism.” The prospect of large numbers of American troops returning to Iraq so soon after the 2011 withdrawal that ended the US occupation of the country would be so unpopular with voters that Rubio would probably immediately disavow it if someone accused Rubio of actually wanting “boots on the ground,” and it’s particularly hard to imagine Rubio faulting the president for not wanting troops in Iraq if Rubio’s party was in a position to set foreign policy. Of course, Rubio’s disapproval of Obama’s refusal to consider sending troops to Iraq is probably best viewed as another aspect of the knee-jerk Republican criticism of all aspects of Obama’s policy choices, rather than a specific critique of a specific policy.

But what’s more interesting here is Rubio’s comment that Obama should not broadcast his intentions to “terrorists,” Rubio’s term for the broad ISIS-lead coalition of Sunni insurgents. The problem with this analysis — which echoes the long-time criticism that Obama should not have publicly set a withdrawal date to accompany his 2009 decision to “surge” additional forces into Afghanistan; see Vali Nasr’s 2013 book The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat for a more cognizant example of this argument — is that the various people Rubio accuses Obama of signaling to can make their own judgements.

We obviously cannot get inside the heads of ISIS commanders deciding whether to push towards Baghdad, Prime Minister al-Maliki judging how much help the US is prepared to give him, individual Iraqi soldiers deciding whether to fight or flee, or Iranian President Hassan Rouhani weighing his country’s options. But most of these people know that the US war in Iraq grew less and less popular with Americans as the conflict dragged on and more and more US soldiers came home dead or injured, all for little apparent gain. While many of these local actors may not be familiar with the realities of the United States’ democratic political system, it seems reasonable to suspect that the more astute of them realize that an American return to Iraq would be very unpopular within the US, and that President Obama — or any other president, for that matter — is unlikely to do so. If Prime Minister al-Maliki did not pursue meaningful reconciliation with Iraqi Sunnis because he assumed that the United States would bail him out with ground forces if his government faced a serious threat from his disgruntled countrymen then he made a serious error.

If American management of the current crisis relies on, as Rubio frames it, a credible threat of sending substantial US ground forces to Iraq then this management will fail, because this threat simply isn’t credible. Obama’s announcement that he will not pursue a policy that would be incredibly unpopular doesn’t tell the “terrorists” much that they likely didn’t already assume.

*[Correction: June 19, 2014] This line originally read “significant numbers of ground troops to Iraq,” which isn’t precise enough framing, rather than quoting the president. As I noted in my Tuesday review at PVG and a commenter at Larison’s post remarked, advisers and special forces often accompany air campaigns in support of allied ground forces, though Obama presumably excluded this option from his July 13th statement that “we will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.” On June 19th Obama announced that up to 300 special forces advisers will indeed be sent to Iraq.

Does Khamenei Believe Obama’s Threats?

By Taylor Marvin

Last week President Obama addressed West Point’s graduating class in what was widely acknowledged as the clearest explanation of his second term foreign policy yet. In a speech stressing that not every global problem requires American military action and celebrating the role of multilateral diplomacy, Obama’s comments on Iran were nothing new. While praising the coalition-building that has facilitated extremely harsh sanctions, Obama warned that despite ongoing negotiations “we reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” While welcoming the possibility of a negotiated settlement to the Iranian nuclear crisis — “one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force” — Obama implicitly reminded that if the Iranian regime does not cooperate it risks an American effort to violently put a stop to its nuclear ambitions.

American observers alternatively characterized the speech as an example of foreign policy realism or not realism, suggested that it provided little guidance on Syria and Iran, and warned that Obama’s reluctance for war would embolden America’s enemies. Has it? Via Lobe LogIranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated Wednesday that the United States has indeed taken the threat of force off the table. As the New York Times reports:

Speaking from a stage decorated with a banner proclaiming “America cannot do a damn thing,” Iran’s supreme leader on Wednesday asserted that the Obama administration had taken the option of military intervention to resolve conflicts off the table.

“They realized that military attacks are as dangerous or even more dangerous for the assaulting country as they are for the country attacked,” the leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in an address to the country’s political and military establishment.

A “military attack is not a priority for Americans now,” he concluded. “They have renounced the idea of any military actions.”

While defiance and harsh statements by Khamenei is not new, his apparent dismissal of US threats appears to be:

Ayatollah Khamenei, who in the past has repeatedly said the United States was intent on attacking Iran, but incapable of doing so, has apparently now concluded — at least in public — that military action from the United States should not be expected.

Arash Karami has more.

Does Khamenei, who is ultimately the final voice for major decision within the Iranian government, actually believe that the principles outlined in the president’s West Point speech indicates that the United States will not risk strikes on Iranian nuclear infrastructure or, in a broader option, government and military targets?

There are three broad possibilities. The first is that Khamenei’s statement is simply posturing. The Supreme Leader has an incentive to increase his own standing among audiences within the regime, Iranian society, and the world by making Iran appear strong and the United States weak. The Iranian government and Supreme Leader especially defines itself in opposition to the West, and especially the United States. Talk is cheap, and stating that the risks of striking Iran are so high that the US government will not back up its threats is a means of demonstrating Iranian strength to both Iranians and sympathetic Muslims around the world, and strengthens Iran’s position in its competition with Saudi Arabia for a leading position in the Middle East.*

But even if Khamenei believes that Obama would not follow through on threats against the Islamic Republic, Obama will only be in office for another two and a half years. While authoritarian leaders often appear to have problems internalizing the significance of democratic countries’ constraints on executive power and elections, Khamenei should realize that many of the potential Republican presidential candidates would be far more likely to attack Iran, meaning that in the longer-term the American ‘realization’ of airstrikes’ risks is not set in stone. If this is the case, then Khamenei’s statement is just another variety of the unconvincing posturing — “even more dangerous” seems a stretch — that some elements of the Iranian government appear so weirdly prone to.

A second possibility is that Khamenei does believe that Obama would not order airstrikes if Iran appeared to be rushing towards a nuclear weapon or negotiations somehow catastrophically broke down, but that he is wrong. President Obama has repeatedly insisted that he would not accept an Iranian nuclear weapon. If Khamenei seeks to avoid US strikes, this threat is sincere, and Khamenei has somehow come to believe that it is not credible, then a serious and dangerous miscommunication has occurred. An Iran that interprets a perceived American reluctance to attack as a green light for a nuclear weapon could easily stumble into a war that it did not foresee.

If this is the case then Obama must seriously reconsider his rhetoric, avoid admissions by the US government that strikes would be risky (in effect, lie), or somehow demonstrate his resolve. Critics have often argued that the Obama administration’s failure to follow up on its anti-weapons of mass destruction red line in Syria has weakened his credibility everywhere. While is a mistake to judge credibility in one crisis based on another — governments have priorities, after all — its plausible that Khamenei sees US inaction in Syria as a precedent.

However, it is important to note that striking Syria could just further decrease the president’s credibility with Iran if a disgruntled American public decisively turned against the possibility of another Middle Eastern war. If the Iranian leadership sees an unsuccessful American air campaign against the Syrian Assad regime as constraining the United States it could interpret threats as even less credible than before.

The third possibility is that Khamenei believes Obama will not strike Iran, and that he is right. As analyst Matt Duss remarked in a February 2012 conversation with Jamie Fly, there’s reason to think that privately the Obama administration is just “not interested” in war with Iran, though whether Obama could escape his rhetorical hands-tying when it came down to it is an open question. While President Obama has downplayed hopes of a lasting diplomatic end to the crisis and emphasized that no option is off the table, the rest of his foreign policy does suggest a reluctance to stumble into unnecessary wars. Despite the problems of linking American resolve on Syria and Iran too closely, they are somewhat related: The Obama administration ultimately elected to not to use force to punish the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons despite a prior commitment to do so. And while rhetorical commitments and three decades of sometimes violent confrontation obviously make Iran a special case, commitments to block nuclear proliferation suffer from an inherent credibility problem when the United States did not use military action to prevent North Korean building a bomb.

Alternatively, Khamenei may be correct without Obama — or anyone else outside his inner circle, really — knowing it. Neoconservative urging aside, the Obama administration is unlikely to actually make the serious decision to attack Iran unless it feels that it has no other choice. If the Iranian regime would like to avoid strikes it may have made the conscious decision to pursue a nuclear program popular with ordinary Iranians while refraining from baiting American strikes. Of course this is a difficult balance to strike, but Iran has successfully done so for the last decade by simply not giving any concrete indication that it is rushing towards an actual bomb, rather than meandering towards nuclear capability. If this is the case then Khamenei might be saying that the Americans “have renounced the idea of any military actions” not because Obama’s threats are not credible but because he plans for Iran not to give Obama reason to follow through on them.

Which of these possibilities are the most likely? I have no idea, and you’ll have to ask a Persian-speaking Iran specialist.

*For an excellent, if dated, account of this competition see Vali Nasr’s 2006 book The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future.

Sometimes, Intentions Don’t Matter

By Taylor Marvin

To what degree does the Obama administration seek to end  the war in Syria? Obviously, on some level it wants the killing to stop — the administration is not staffed by monsters, after all — but it is similarly clear that very few policymakers within the US government are willing to commit the military resources needed to actually end the war. Even when the administration’s stated prohibition on chemical weapons use appeared to bind it to a limited intervention, the military options actually under consideration were so limited that no one even pretended that they would have any real chance of damaging the Assad regime enough to halt the killing.

The Obama administration has, of course, contributed limited rhetorical, financial, training, and diplomatic support to the opposition over the now nearly-three year civil war. Some have argued that this support is part of a wider administration policy designed to lure Iran, which supports the Assad regime, and al Qaeda, associated with some of the more extremist factions of the anti-Assad insurgency, into a costly struggle that saps both sides’ strengths. This plan, so the argument goes, explains the Obama administrations middling actions over the course of the war. From the start of the conflict Obama has publicly supported the Syrian opposition but refused to provide them with the heavy weaponry or direct US military support that would allow anti-Assad forces to definitively win the war, ensuring that the conflict dragged on long enough to prompt the direct involvement of both Iranian-affiliated and Islamist groups. When Obama’s own rhetorical “red line” apparently bound him to directly striking Assad after the regime’s August 2013 chemical weapons usage, the administration instead pursued a diplomatic agreement with the regime and its Russian allies that again avoided direct intervention, a win-win-win for Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Assad that gave the regime further “time to kill more people with conventional weapons,” according to one opposition activist. The Obama administration’s limited support for the opposition, again so the argument goes, is encouraging a long fight between two US enemies at the costs of over a hundred thousand Syrian lives.

The first problem with this explanation for the administration’s Syria policy is that it is not guaranteed to actually weaken Islamists fighters and Iran. Al Qaeda and wider Islamist militancy are a decentralized movement — there’s no reason to think that encouraging al Qaeda-affiliated groups to fight in Syria will weaken them in, say, the Sahel or Pakistan. While there is some validity to the argument that the conflict in Syria is soaking up funds from Islamist donors that would otherwise go to violent groups targeting the US and its allies, there is again no reason to think that this funding is fixed at a constant level and that Syrian rebels’ financial gains come at the cost of other Islamist militants. Similarly, it is wrong to assume that combat necessarily weakens armed groups. One of the reasons that Syria’s Islamist rebels have outcompeted their secular or moderate peers — in addition to their established fundraising networks and the natural tendency for extremist groups to attract the most popular support in an increasingly-violent and sectarian conflict — is their ability to leverage the combat experience similar groups gained in the Iraq war. Militant organizations in combat can gain experience and attract recruits, publicity, and funding that those not fighting do not. It is not unreasonable to expect that no matter who “wins” the war in Syria (whether victory for either side is still a possible outcome is another question) the conflict will produce a cadre of experienced, radicalized fighters who will appear in subsequent Middle Eastern conflicts.

This same logic applies to the Assad regime’s Iranian backers. Even before the recent warming in US-Iranian relations, hopes of drawing the Islamic Republic into a costly proxy war in Syria was an uncertain policy, because involvement such a conflict would politically empower the typically hardline actors responsible for implementing the Iranian involvement in the war. Additionally, while Iran’s support for the Assad regime has made it unpopular in much of the Arab world and reportedly drawn Saudi backing for Iranian Salafist insurgents, the ultimate cost of its involvement in Syria is small compared to its rivalry with the Gulf States and the international sanctions it currently endures. While Iran is directly involved in the Syrian war, this involvement’s marginal gains for the United States are not necessarily worth the admittedly-unclear marginal political empowerment it implies for Iranian hardliners.

Secondly, it is important to remember that to an external observer an Obama administration seeking to deliberately prolong the Syrian civil war is indistinguishable from an administration horrified at the Assad regime’s brutality and desperate to see the dictator deposed, but deeply wary of the fractured and radicalized opposition, fearful of a post-Assad power vacuum, and aware of just how unpopular direct US military involvement in Syria would be. While a long war in Syria may not necessarily weaken Iran and militant Islam, it is also true that at this point the Obama administration has no real interest in Assad’s fall beyond its apparently-genuine disgust with the humanitarian cost of the war. The open-ended nature of the Syrian war is bad for everyone — it encourages radicalization among its participants, is establishing networks that will endure beyond the end of the conflict, and increases the likelihood that Syria will no longer be a viable state at the war’s closure. But the consequences of the Assad regime’s fall are terrible as well, and are growing worse as the conflict drags on; the United States is understandably reluctant to play a role in a rebel victory that would more likely than not culminate in mass atrocities against the regime’s Alawite power base.

Given these conflicting goals, whether or not a grand plan to bleed al Qaeda and Iran in Syria is necessary to explain the administration’s Syria policy is irrelevant. As Daniel Drezner, who has previously argued in favor of this realpolitik theory, noted last month citing reporting by the New York Times, many of Obama’s advisors have articulated “a rationale for why continued conflict might not be a bad thing.” But even if Obama finds this argument convincing, what further action would it lead him to do? The President is obviously extremely reluctant to directly intervene in Syria. After the regime’s chemical weapons use and as more extreme rebel groups gained influence and territory at the expense of moderates, the Obama administration diplomatically avoided the strikes many believed that it had bound itself to in a diplomatic accord that arguably strengthens the regime — a policy that can be read as the actions of either administration types.

The two casual logics of a reluctant or realpolitikal administration “complement rather than contradict each other”, Drezner writes. Does this extend the war? Yes. But it extends it no more than any other low commitment action the US would be realistically willing to consider.

The US has very little influence over the Syrian war. Obama clearly feels morally bound to condemn the Assad regime and at least nominally support the more moderate opposition factions. But policies aimed at ending the war but hampered by the United States’ unwillingness to commit itself are not very different from policies designed to lengthen the war.

If the Anti-CW Norm Should Be Enforced, Unauthorized Use Matters

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

Yesterday at Political Violence @ a Glance I posted a brief piece summarizing President Obama’s Tuesday speech on Syria, in which he called on Congress to delay a decision on whether to strike the Assad regime in favor of a potential diplomatic solution that would, with Russian support, see Assad give up his chemical weapons under international supervision. Commentators’ reaction to the diplomatic initiative was mixed. On the one hand, it allows Obama to avoid either the unpopular airstrikes that his previous ill-advised red line had rhetorically committed him to or an unprecedented rejection of his plan in Congress. If the initiative succeeds it will also strengthen the international norm against chemical weapons use much more effectively than limited, internationally unpopular, and likely irrelevant airstrikes. However, it remains unclear if the diplomatic plan will succeed, effectively cataloging and destroying Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles in Syria’s chaotic civil war looks to be an extremely difficult and risky task requiring extensive international commitment, and the plan does nothing to end the war that has already killed over 100,000 people and appears to be degenerating into a bloody three-sided stalemate.

In contrast to Noah Schachtman and Colum Lynch’s worries that cooperating with the Assad regime on chemical weapons legitimizes it, Max Fisher writes today that it will not — while the Obama administration has maintained that “Assad must go” since the civil war’s inception, “Obama never actually sought to remove Assad from power against his will and has consistently acknowledged him as Syria’s head of state.” While this is true, it’s also clear that the lesson that chemical weapons use will at most result in a diplomatic effort to peacefully destroy these weapons and not airstrikes is not an encouraging one for Syria’s rebels, regardless of the potential airstrikes’ wisdom.

In his excellent piece on how Obama’s speech succeeded and failed, Kevin Lees highlights an important observation: Obama never definitively established that Assad ordered the Ghouta gas attack:

“Whatever the US government knows (or thinks it knows) about the Assad regime’s fault for the attack on August 21, it’s certainly been incredibly bashful about sharing it with the rest of us.  Middle Eastern armies often distribute gas masks to their troops, and the Syrian army is firing a great number of rockets into a great many neighborhoods these days.  That alone tells us nothing — it’s certainly information that can supplement the case for Assad’s blame, but it’s ultimately circumstantial.”

Claims that the rebels and not the regime were responsible for the August 21 attack that killed at the least hundreds of people, highlighted by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his op-ed in today’s New York Timesare not credible. As Erica Chenoweth and Human Rights Watch both noted today, international investigation overwhelmingly holds the regime, not opposition, culpable for the August 21 attack. But the Obama administration’s reluctance to draw a direct line between Assad and the attack doesn’t mean that there’s any real doubt what player was responsible. Most obviously, it’s possible that the Obama administration simply doesn’t want to reveal in detail its sources, for any number of reasons. Secondly, as Lees notes, it’s possible that a rogue regime commander or garbled orders were responsible. As I wrote in May, this loss of control is a more pertinent danger associated with chemical weapons than other strategic arms. Since chemical weapons are typically battlefield tactical weapons mounted on limited-range delivery platforms, they must be distributed to the battlefield before use. This gives local commanders direct control over chemical weapons, and it is possible that Assad did not directly order their use — either a local commander or regime subordinate could have acted on their own initiative, misunderstood orders, or believed Assad wished the attack launched when he did not. It is similarly possible, as recent reporting suggests, that the attack was either launched on an angry whim by Assad or was more lethal than intended.

But even if the August 21 attack was due to a loss of control over the regime’s chemical weapons or operational mistake and not directly ordered by Assad in a manner the US can document, it is unclear in my mind whether this should have any bearing on the decision to punish — whether diplomatically or otherwise — the regime. Leaders understand that distributing chemical munitions to military units in war zones is a risky delegation of the authority to actually use them. Ultimately it is this decision, not the act of actually pushing the button that launches a rocket or drops a bomb, that bears the responsibility for chemical attacks. If the goal of punishing chemical weapons use is to preserve the anti-CW norm — and this is a big if — then that is the decision that should be punished. Loss of control or operational mistakes ar not an excuse.

Rebel Public Relations and Military Intervention in Syria

By Taylor Marvin

Last week Erica Chenoweth highlighted an interesting McClatchy story reporting that CIA officials warned Hezbollah, through Lebanese government intermediaries, of an immanent al Qaeda attack on political targets in southern Lebanon. Reportedly American intelligence was able to listen in on encrypted calls detailing the planned attacks — “America might hate the NSA right now, but they were able to actually hear the calls and warn us what was said,” a Lebanese intelligence official remarks — and tip off Hezbollah, allowing the Iranian-backed group to arrest the conspirators. Perhaps ironically, al Qaeda’s reported motivation for the planned attack was Hezbollah and its Iranian patron’s support of the Assad government in Syria, who both the United States and al Qaeda wish to see ousted.

Even more thought-provoking is a pair of quotes from a Lebanese laborer and Hezbollah commander:

“We all think that the (Syrian rebels) are al Qaida and backed by the CIA and Israel,” said Abu Ibrahim, a 53-year-old day laborer from Haret Hriek, which hosts Hezbollah’s main complex of offices and homes for officials. “So why would they help us? Maybe they’re realizing how crazy their friends in Syria are.”

The Hezbollah commander said he thought the warning was more pragmatic.

“The Americans are starting to realize how bad their friends in Syria are, so they’re trying to get out of this mistake,” he said. “They also think that if a bomb goes off in Dahiya, we will blame America and target Americans in Lebanon. That will never happen, but they’re scared of this monster they created.”’

First, it’s entirely possible that the commander’s opinion doesn’t represent Hezbollah or the Assad regime’s strategic thinking and is simply spin. It is reasonable to suspect that publicly benefiting from the CIA’s superior intelligence in their own backyard is deeply embarrassing to Hezbollah — in a potentially deft bit of ass-covering the commander is earlier quoted claiming that Hezbollah had previous knowledge of the attack — giving it an incentive to save face by claiming that the CIA’s links to Syrian rebels is even more embarrassing. Similarly, individual Hezbollah members likely view the predominantly Sunni Syrian rebels in the harshest terms possible, an ideological bias that potentially leads them to unreasonably underestimate the opposition’s ability to gain international support.

But this does raise an interesting puzzle: Does the Assad government and its allies truly believe that American support for the Syrian opposition will necessarily decline as international perceptions of the rebels dim?

Importantly, it is extremely difficult for even specialists to try and divine what informs the Assad regime’s thinking, and I certainly don’t have the expertise to do so. Additionally, even if the Assad regime does believe that the rebels will eventually alienate potential international backers, it is difficult to say that this would induce it to behave any differently than it would otherwise. The belief that serious international aid to the rebels is not forthcoming could make the regime even less likely to consider a negotiated solution to end the conflict, but the regime also has a strong incentive to outlast the rebellion anyway, so it is unreasonable to suspect that this belief would have any practical affect on its behavior.

That said, there are reasons to find this theory credible. The strongest is that we have already observed it in action. The opposition has been unable to prevent news of gruesome atrocities and violent political fragmentation from reaching Western media, as recent high-profile coverage of a rebel commander accused of ritual cannibalism shows. As Fred Kaplan wrote in a Friday column, Britain is already backing away from its previous push to supply the rebels with arms, citing “the reports that the Syrian rebels were killing one another with more gusto than they were killing soldiers of the Syrian regime.” Similarly, support among the American public for intervening in the conflict has fallen over time, an aversion at least partially due to opposition infighting and the popular conception that the opposition is dominated by radicals.

As the bloody conflict in Syria drags on, the rebels’ reputation is likely to grow more internationally tarnished. This is unsurprising, on multiple levels. Most obviously, the rebels entered the conflict with a largely ‘clean slate’ and a longer war simply gives them more time to commit high-profile atrocities, which anti-Assad foreign fighters and opportunists appear prone to committing. Secondly, as the war continues it has grown more ideological, increasingly morphing into a general sectarian conflict. Irrespective of ideology, as the war’s horrors continue combatants on both sides can be expected to grow more radical, a radicalization process on clear display in a BBC interview with the rebel commander accused of eating a regime soldier’s heart:

“In the beginning, when we captured an Alawite fighter, we would feed him, make him feel comfortable. We used to tell him we were brothers. But then they started raping our women, slaughtering children with knives.”

Of course, this same logic applies to the regime, whose artillery, armor, and airpower allow it to threaten greater atrocities than the opposition. But importantly, international public opinion is less important to the regime than the rebels. The regime entered the war as an international pariah, and its Russian and Chinese support in the UNSC appears to only be risked by much graver atrocities than it has so far perpetrated. Similarly, the conflict’s status quo favors the regime, especially in diplomatically: the Assad government already receives more practical support from its international allies than the opposition. The rebels, however, appear unlikely to favorably shift the conflict’s balance unless they are able to gain further international support. As instances of rebel atrocities unavoidably grow, they become another barrier to a prospective international military intervention on their side.

This logic is particularly important because, despite its fragmentation, the anti-Assad opposition is to some degree viewed as a unified body by its prospective international patrons. Despite Iran and Hezbollah’s increasing entry into the conflict America has no core national interests at stake in Syria, and the Obama administration has framed its interest in the conflict on humanitarian grounds. While the American public may not care about foreign policy, the administration is not likely to pursue a military intervention into the conflict with public opinion firmly against it, and atrocities committed by some rebels affect public perception of them all. Lionel Beehner recently wrote that ‘more violence means less support for intervention,’ but this can be more precisely stated as more evenly-distributed violence means less support for intervention, because violence — and accompanying atrocities — suggests that both sides “are just as bad” in the public consciousness. Whether this is true or not, this perception is a barrier to elected leaders looking to intervene in the Syrian conflict.

Why the Broken Red Line Didn’t Force the Administration’s Hand in Syria

By Taylor Marvin

Last week the Obama administration decided to expand the “scope and scale” of American assistance to the Syria opposition and begin arming rebel forces. Concluding that the Bashar al-Assad regime had indeed violated the “red line” prohibiting the use of chemical weapons against rebel forces, the administration announced Thursday that it would begin supplying the Syrian rebels with small arms and ammunition, though the White House maintains it has no interest in imposing a no-fly zone at this time. While reporting from this April suggested that the administration was slowly moving towards a consensus in favor of arming the rebels, the news still comes as a major shift in President Obama’s Syria policy.

In a statement Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes framed the administration’s decision as a response to the Assad regime’s alleged chemical weapons use, arguing that “while the lethality of these attacks make up only a small portion of the catastrophic loss of life in Syria, which now stands at more than 90,000 deaths, the use of chemical weapons violates international norms and crosses clear red lines that have existed within the international community for decades.”

However, its rhetoric aside it is difficult to argue that Obama was compelled to act by Assad’s apparent breaking of the international red line prohibiting chemical weapons use. Instead, the administration’s decision to arm the rebels can only be understood as a deliberate choice.

First, as many others have argued, there is no compelling reason why the murder of 100 to 150 Syrians by chemical weapons demand international restitution more than nearly a hundred thousand by conventional means. But despite arguments that chemical weapons are uniquely terrible it is incorrect to claim, as Rhodes does, that strong norms against chemical arms use have existed for decades and requires enforcement. Instead, it’s more accurate to say that chemical arms — which are difficult to handle, subject to dispersal by weather conditions, often just as likely to incapacitate friendly troops as the enemy, and widely stigmatized – are rarely used because of their few practical battlefield uses and reputation costs, rather than any enforced international norm. Indeed, the United States has turned a blind eye to chemical weapons use when it is politically convenient, ignoring Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq War and only nominally punishing his chemical massacres of Kurdish civilians decades later. Given that the norm against chemical weapons use is strong in spite of, not due to, international enforcement efforts and few leaders have incentives to use chemical arms anyway, it is unlikely that Obama administration officials were compelled by the belief that the norm against chemical weapons needed to be upheld.

Secondly, it is similarly unlikely that the administration was forced to act by its previous rhetoric. Red lines sanctioning chemical weapons use are inherently fuzzy. Unlike, say, nuclear weapons, there is nothing inherently intolerable about chemical weapons use. If Assad had used chemical weapons to kill thousands of civilians in a single, high-profile attack, the United States would likely have been compelled to act. However, Assad did not; instead, he apparently used chemical weapons in limited, isolated attacks. Indeed, the fact that it took the US government nearly two months to officially verify his use of chemical weapons is indicative of just how limited this use was. Perhaps Assad’s limited use of chemical weapons suggests that he lost political control over them rather than ordering their use, or that he was deliberately testing the strength of the international red line. Whatever the reason, though, this inherent fuzziness made it difficult for the Obama administration to issue an obviously credible red line prohibiting any specific degree of chemical weapons use, and it similarly could have ignored Assad’s limited provocation if it really wanted to.

Third, the Obama administration had deliberately avoided binding itself to act if Assad did violate the red line. Red lines often suffer from a fundamental credibility problems, because their targets can often not distinguish a credible threat from a bluff. Since leaders rarely like being forced into unpopular wars, red lines work best when the actor issuing the threat constructs mechanisms to force their future self to respond if their bluff is called. However, the administration had used shifting semantics and ambiguities about what the red line actually entails to avoid rhetorically binding himself to action, suggesting that Obama wished to avoid an iron-clad public commitment he might later regret — exactly the kind of commitment device he’d value if Obama valued credibility over flexibility.

All these factors suggest that, contrary to its own rhetoric, the Obama administration is not being forced into the Syrian conflict. Despite the administration’s red line, President Obama could have avoided further intervention in the conflict if he truly wished to. Arming the rebels is growing less, not more, popular among Americans, and Obama is unlikely to face any significant domestic political costs for inaction. Finally, it is immediately obvious that the Obama administration is doing the least it can to punish the Assad regime’s transgressions. Small arms supplies are unlikely to turn the tide in the rebels’ favor, and if anything the Obama administration’s present actions send a reassuring signal to potential human rights violators: as long as you abstain from chemical weapons the international community tolerates massacres, and even if you do use chemical arms, it will only half-heartedly begin arming your enemies. As Sara Bjerg Moller recently wrote, “rather than redeem American credibility, the lesson other states are likely to draw is that (at least in the short term) they can get away with crossing well-established red lines while the US government conducts a multi-month internal policy debate on what to do next.”

While the Obama administration’s decision to begin arming Syrian rebels is unlikely to quickly end the conflict, it is a major shift in Obama’s Syria policy. Despite its public justifications, however, it is a mistake to see the administration’s decision as a forced reaction to Assad’s chemical weapons use. Instead, the Obama administration’s decision to intervene in the Syrian civil war more decisively than ever before is a deliberate policy choice that reflects his own views on liberal interventionism, the precarious position of the secular opposition, and international responsibilities.

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.

What’s on the Second Term Foreign Policy Agenda?

By Taylor Marvin

Congratulations rural Pakistanis! Not to worry, the drone strike that just killed you was ordered by a Democratic president!

That’s not to say Barack Obama’s reelection isn’t worth celebrating, even from a strict foreign policy perspective. Mitt Romney’s inability to complete routine feel-good foreign tours without pissing off entire host countries and overwhelming unpopularity abroad hinted a Romney administration’s relations with allies would be rocky, and his fundamentally hawkish worldview suggested that he would be more likely to, intentionally or inadvertently, lead the US into a costly war. Barack Obama is also more open to rational defense cuts than Romney, who insisted on growing military spending for no reason beyond ill-defined ideals of “strength” — and Virginia Electoral College votes.

While it is a mistake to insist that there is no difference between an Obama and Romney administrations’ foreign policy, they, of course, share the same broad political philosophy: both favor American intervention into foreign conflicts while shying away from unpopular, electorally-damaging boots-on-the-ground wars; both judge the immediate benefits of counter-terror drone strikes to be worth their long-term perception costs; and both have expressed an inability to concede to the end of American global hegemony, especially in the Western Pacific. Of course, blaming the candidates — or parties — for this shared consensus is putting the cart before the horse; the Democrats and Republicans share the same broad national security platform because it is popular. In the aftermath of Iraq most voters may shy away from blatant neoconservative talk, but as the Obama administration’s war in Libya shows, interventions are palatable to the public, if they come at low enough direct cost. For all the protests of libertarians drone strikes are popular, because Americans fear terrorism and really don’t care about civilian casualties abroad.

So the drone strikes and broad interpretation of the American military’s role in the world are here to stay. This shouldn’t be a shock, and isn’t a reason to support a third party. American third parties on the left are deeply amateurish, and libertarians are worse: Conor Friedersdorf’s protest vote for Gary Johnson on civil liberties only illustrates that he cares more about hundreds of Pakistanis killed in drone strikes than the hundreds of thousands of needless deaths repealing Obamacare and an austerity-driven recession would cause among his own country’s poor. Foreign policy rarely changes in meaningful ways between administrations not because “both parties are the same”, but because their consensus is popular, to the extent that the electorate cares. This isn’t to say bold policymakers can’t dramatically shift US foreign policy, but the path dependency and electoral considerations that guide their actions are very limiting.

But what does this mean for Obama’s second term? The administration will be unlikely to meaningfully deviate from the course set during Obama’s first term: drone strikes will continue, and the administration may pursue a low-cost intervention — think Libya, not Syria — if the opportunity presents itself. But a second term does offer Obama the opportunity to devote more time to foreign policy issues. Second term presidents usually focus on foreign affairs more than during their first term, when their domestic agenda dominates. This will be especially true for Obama. Barring a conservative come to God moment, Republicans in Congress will likely double down on obstructionism, a tactic that conservatives will perceive to be validated by expected low turnout midterm election gains in 2014. Given this obstructionism, the Obama administration is unlikely to successfully pursue any major domestic goals, like a comprehensive climate change package that included a carbon tax.

So where could the Obama administration turn its attention? An Israeli-Palestinian peace plan is a non-starter; the division in the Palestinian government, Israel’s move to the right, and the US’ deteriorating ability to position itself as an ‘honest broker’ make progress unlikely. Obama gives every indication of ignoring Latin America in his second term as much as he did during his first; to be fair, it’s not clear what real good an increased US presence in the region would bring. US-Russian relations are chilly, but unlikely to improve. Worse, Obama is also unlikely to meaningfully alter America’s policy towards China; the administration’s largely meaningless Asia Pivot means that the mixed strategy of both engagement and containment — with all of its problems — will continue. This is a major disappointment, and positive action by Obama towards China would be a pleasant surprise.

One rational goal for Obama’s second term would be pursuing an accord with Iran. Obama is better positioned than any recent president to successfully improve the US-Iranian relationship.  George W. Bush sacrificed the prospect of any worthwhile diplomacy with his pointless “Axis of Evil” speech and the invasion of Iraq, and Clinton’s dual containment policy, while justified by Iran’s support for terrorism, only maintained the status quo. Domestically, Obama’s record of brutal sanctions buys him political cover to offer a real carrot to the Iranian regime, which is a required part of any successful deal. Though I believe that these sanctions are ultimately damaging to the prospect of favorable long-term change within Iranian society, they are also another potential carrot.

The prospect of progress on the Iranian side is less certain. Openness to dialog on the Iranian side is not enough: after all, in the late 1990s Khatami was open to reforming the US-Iranian relationship, but was unable to overcome conservative opposition within the Iranian regime and ended his tenure with little influence. Today it’s unclear if there is anyone within the regime willing to pursue a Grand Bargain, or if they can outmaneuver conservatives. However, the tensions between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, as well as Ahmadinejad’s impending departure, suggest that the situation within the Iranian government is more fluid than any time since the 2009 election. Whether this is a positive sign remains to be seen.

Also important is Obama’s perceived opposition to military strikes. Barack Obama is less likely to initiate strikes than a Romney presidency would have been, and less likely to cooperate with an Israeli attempt to coerce the US by launching a military strike unilaterally, and then calling for US assistance. It is likely that hardliners within the Iranian regime prefer strikes to very damaging sanctions, as military strikes would mobilize Iranian opposition to the US and Israel and strengthen their position within the regime. If strikes are perceived as less likely in an Obama second term, the potential domestic political payoff from refusing a negotiated settlement are lower. Since the Iranians know the US will not attempt to overthrow the regime a war is survivable, and the prospect of strikes less of a stick than US hawks suggest.

While these signs aren’t favorable per se, there’s no reason the Obama administration shouldn’t devote a major part of their foreign policy agenda during their second term towards Iran. Sanctions impose an enormous, ongoing human cost, and should be ended as soon as possible. The nuclear issue is in desperate need of a resolution  and the the US-Iranian conflict is a resource-sink that should be resolved, if possible. Obama’s second term is as good an opportunity as any.