Evaluating Obama’s Presidency

Sure, it’s early to pass much reliable judgment on Obama’s presidency but I’m going to do it anyway. Obama was a young and relatively inexperienced political leader who, on balance, had a more successful presidency than not. A few books are already beginning to appear (Peter Baker’s Obama, Jonathan Chait’s Audacity) and many of the judgments coming from seasoned journalists and observers are positive. Obama made some mistakes and had his share of failures like any president.

But he was a gifted campaigner who promised hope and change through moderate political ideology. Obama was the darling of the liberal left and the bane of the conservative right. His most notable success was the Affordable Care Act which originated in conservative think tanks. It should have been a first-rate piece of social policy providing medical coverage for people who couldn’t afford it. But the rank polarization and competitive hate between the two parties meant that the nature of the Affordable Care Act would be distorted (calling it “socialized medicine”) and it would be subject to extreme ideological clashes.

The Affordable Care Act was flawed and needed fixing but it was fixable. Currently 20 million people have health insurance who would not have had it without the Affordable Care Act. Continued progress needs to be made on cost containment, financial incentives for health exchanges, and coverage that’s more attractive to young people but none of these represents a fatal blow and the acrimony and contentiousness surrounding them is testimony to the level of disgust each side as for the other.

Opponents of the Affordable Care Act have convinced the public (mostly by the incessant use of the term Obamacare) that the legislation is more extreme and damaging than it actually is. The fact that most polls show that the public approves of the Affordable Care Act, and the absolute failure of the Republicans to repeal and replace it, is testimony to the quality of the legislation.

Obama made progress in early childhood education programs, seeking sources of alternative energy, and helped make climate change an issue for serious consideration.

When it comes to foreign policy Obama looked around and saw messes everywhere. The Middle East, Israel-Palestine, radical Salafists, unstable countries with nuclear weapons (Pakistan, North Korea), religious extremist countries who wanted nuclear weapons (Iran), al Qaeda, ISIS, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are all potentially dangerous. There is something to be said for his cool demeanor and conclusion that an armed United States meddling in these problems would probably make matters worse. He used special operations and limited warfare strategically. He was not afraid to use the military (bin Laden) when necessary and clearly appropriate.

Obama did make a mistake with Bashar Assad. His statement about a “redline” was naïve and foolish and he stood on the sidelines while hundreds of thousands of Syrians were killed in the Civil War.

In the end, Obama was a diligent and elegant political leader who was knowledgeable and informed. He could be “cool” and therefore thought to be aloof but I prefer that to Trump’s exaggeration of threat. And we should not forget that his political enemies (e.g. Mitch McConnell) made it their life’s work to see the President of the United States failed. Mitch McConnell was so quick to announce that he was going to guarantee Obama’s failure, regardless of the issues, that I figured something other than policy had to be motivating McConnell. I’m just sayin’.

 

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The Coming Kurdish Referendum.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Kurds and their quest for independence and the establishment of a Kurdish state. That piece was published in the Jerusalem Post and you can access it here. On September 25, 2017 the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) will vote on a referendum on independence. Support for the referendum – and nobody expects it to fail – fulfills a Kurdish dream. The proposed Kurdish state would be in the Iraqi Kurdish region which has begun to establish some state institutions and has enough resources to sustain the new state.

But the interesting question is how the Kurds proceed after the referendum vote. The Iraqis are assuming that support for the referendum would simply open up conversations and negotiations concerning outside issues. In fact, the referendum will not change much on the ground but will send a message to the Iraqis and the rest of the world that Kurdish independence should be respected.

The referendum is actually a rhetorical device that expresses Kurdish recognition and their commitment to a democratic process that indicates serious intent. The Kurds have been slow to develop their own cultural and political institutions (not entirely their fault) and in the past have been more interested in concessions from Baghdad such as the Federalist structure that now governs the relationship between the Kurds and the Iraqis.

There remains opposition to Kurdish independence, even on the part of the United States, when the broader array of complex international relations is taken into account. Most notably, the United States always has to consider its relationship with Turkey. The Turks have had a contentious relationship with the Kurds for a long time and view some Kurdish political groups as a threat to the stability of Turkey. One goal for Kurdish leaders is to convince Turkey that they are no threat. Moreover, the US while supportive of the Kurds in many ways still uses them to manage the US relationship with Iraq. So the US has told the Kurds that they can do nothing toward independence or changing their status that threatens a stable relationship with Iraq.

In an interview with Bilal Wahab, a Fellow at the Washington Institute, he makes the case that the Kurds remain unready for independence and there are still many questions for the multi-ethnic state to answer. There are religious minorities (Yazidis, Zoroastrians) and ethnic minorities (Arabs, Turkmen) all of which must be integrated into some semblance of a democratic society. Is it going to be a true liberal democracy where all groups are equal in the eyes of the law, or is one group, namely Kurds, going to be privileged. Moreover, what about the question of those Kurds in other countries such as Turkey and Syria? Will they be welcome?

The Kurds have been promised a homeland and independence since World War I. There referendum for independence is a good start and I support it all of its rhetorical and practical deficiencies notwithstanding. But the journey from a discriminated against ethnic group to an independent state is a long and twisted one. Still, the Kurds are in line to start this journey with an initial “Declaration of Independence.”

 

 

What Palestinians Need to Do

I recently returned from five months in Israel where I did many things but also had a chance to refine my understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But this trip I spent a little more time trying to understand Palestinians – their wishes, goals, mentalities, and political aspirations. Below I say a few things about what I concluded. I know, and one hears this refrain regularly, that the Palestinians do not need one more Western academic, or any Westerner, telling them what to do. But I am going to offer up some observations anyway.

In short, the evidence seems to indicate that the Palestinians have missed opportunities, squandered finances, and generally failed to build institutions and infrastructure. Again, I understand that these are complex issues with complex explanations, and the Israelis are certainly not innocent. Let’s take a look at some specific points that I believe undergird this argument. There is a short informative reading on the state of the Palestinians here.

  1. The Palestinians have been governed by Fatah and Hamas. Fatah is secular and Hamas is a creation of the Muslim brotherhood. The competition between these two organizations has not served the Palestinians well. Neither Fatah nor Hamas governs in an effective and transparent manner. There has been no emergent collective political ideology and the divide between the two parties is wider than ever.
  2. Both Fatah and Hamas rely on authoritarian governance which alienates them from large sections of their population. The use of violence, patronage, and general corruption is a conservative influence and makes change difficult.
  3. The Palestinians have not moved beyond” liberation” as their primary agenda item. The two political parties spend little time on the challenges of governing because liberation from the occupation remains the central animating force. Although this is understandable, it remains the case that alternative narratives or workable pathways to liberation have eluded the Palestinian leadership.
  4. Related to all of these points, is the failure on the part of the Palestinians to build civil society. There is internal strife and dissatisfaction because basic governing structures don’t work well or exist at all. The world has poured money into Palestinian organization only to have little to show for it. True enough, that Palestinians have been successful at making their case on the world stage and garnering international sympathy. But this has all been at the cost of civil society and internal governing structure.
  5. Finally, I have come to the conclusion that political will and more attention by the United States is called for. The US must redirect some of its energy and resources toward the Palestinians and help work to develop their legitimacy in the context of their Israeli neighbors. Washington can directly support elements of civil society (schools, trade unions, community governance structures, medical and financial services) and contribute to the empowerment of Palestinians along with organizing them for civil political activity rather than “liberation.”

 

 

Let the Kurds Have Their Way

The Kurds have been friends of United States and are deserving of our help to develop their own sovereign nation. The Kurds are spread out over Turkey, Iran, and Iraq and since World War I have been deprived of their own territorial boundaries. They have been a force multiplier in the fight against ISIS and quite helpful to the United States over the years. The Kurds are fully deserving and justifiably waiting for help from the United States.

In September the Kurds are scheduled to hold a referendum on independence. They are receiving pressure from Iraq and Turkey not to hold such a referendum. Kurdish moves toward independence have generally met with resistance especially from Turkey. This makes for a complex political situation because the United States has its own considerations with respect to Turkey.

The Kurds for decades have been fighting for rights and recognition even though they are the indigenous people of the area. After World War I when the Ottomans were defeated there were plans to establish a Kurdish state. But these plans were dashed when treaties ignored the Kurds, and they consequently settled in areas as minorities and were never organized into a political unit but still maintained their cultural particularity.

There is serious hostility between the Turks the Kurds. The Kurds have been persecuted by the Turks for years. In response to pressures for independence, many Kurds were resettled, Kurdish names were changed, and cultural particularities were banned. The use of the Kurdish language was restricted and even the existence of a Kurdish ethnic identity was denied, with people designated as “Mountain Turks.”

In 1978, Abdullah Ocalan established the PKK, which called for an independent state within Turkey. Six years later, the group began an armed struggle. Since then, more than 40,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. Look here for a statement about the current political situation. In particular, this statement explains the betrayal of the Kurds.

The US no-fly zone established in 1991 has allowed the Kurds to govern themselves in northern Iraq. They have their own parliament, currency, and postage stamps. The Kurdish Federal region was established after the US eliminated Saddam Hussein.

The Kurds are a vital cultural force who are proud, dignified, and democratically inclined. They were forgotten and ignored after World War I. For the longest time the US opposed an independent Kurdistan. That’s before the Kurds have become a friend to United States and so central to the fight against the Islamic state. Turkey has always wanted to assimilate the Kurds and deny their history and culture. They long feared that any gains by the Kurds will be a loss for Turkey.

Turkey’s fears are now moot, because the Kurds of Turkey have no need for external encouragement. It is time for the international community to catch up with the Kurds and work with them to establish their own political institutions.

 

 

 

 

 

The Legal Status of the West Bank

Sign posts are seen in front of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim near Jerusalem November 13, 2013. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Wednesday his peace negotiators had resigned over the lack of progress in U.S.-brokered statehood talks clouded by Israeli settlement building. REUTERS/Ammar Awad (WEST BANK – Tags: POLITICS) – RTX15BNL

 

The legal status of the West Bank has been a thorny issue wrapped in confusion, historical change, as well as ideological motivations at the expense of legal clarity. Below is a brief treatment of the issues pertaining to the legal status of the West Bank and it is designed to be an introductory overview. I would direct the reader who seeks additional information to another brief synopsis published recently in the Jerusalem Post Magazine titled: “50 Years of Law Versus Reality” (www.jpost.com May 26, 2017). Also listen to and read the work of Eugene Kontorovich at: http://insct.syr.edu/legal-case-israels-settlements/ a legal expert who devotes scholarly attention to the issue. Below is my own distillation of the issues, based on the above sources, designed to establish some foundation for discussion.

Israel never imagined there would be 400,000 Jews living in the West Bank in a complex and politically charged project called the “settlements.” The land mass that includes the West Bank has been of questionable and debatable legal status for the last 50 years for sure but even before that. What is currently referred to as the West Bank was the outskirts of the Ottoman Empire who were defeated in World War I. The land became part of the British mandate and slipped into additional confusion about who had legal rights. When Israel took control of the land after Israel was attacked in 1967 (the Six-Day War) it fell into the category of “belligerent occupation.” This is a category of international law that requires the conquering force to adhere to a few rules of occupation. Under belligerent occupation the occupying force maintains the rights of the local people, agrees not to change the face of the land, and means that it cannot annex the land but is holding it temporarily. When land is acquired through force or war belligerent occupation is a mechanism for maintaining citizen rights and allowing political decisions to develop.

One of the controversies and difficulties about the legal status of the West Bank is whether or not to apply the principles of The Hague Regulations or the Geneva Convention. Belligerent occupation is a principal from The Hague regulations. The Geneva Convention requires more humanitarian rule even including returning conquered land. But the Israelis argued that Jordan was not a legitimate owner because they had only recently annexed the West Bank in the 1948 war. So Israel argued that it took disputed land from a wartime situation and did not conquer it from a sovereign nation, that is, they did not conquer the land from a legitimate state namely Jordan.

This is a key legal issue: did Israel acquire the West Bank from a legitimately recognized state that had sovereign power, which means according to the Geneva Accords Israel has obligations for peace negotiations, or was the West Bank genuinely disputed property.

The argument by Israel that all of the West Bank was negotiable provided justification for the ballooning settlements. As the settlements have developed, historical and legal arguments about the rights of the Jewish people – supported by a variety of historical documents ranging from the Bible to the Balfour declaration – have become more pronounced. The preponderance of evidence supports the notion that acquiring land by building settlements is illegal. But, on the other hand, Israel argues that it is still engaged in belligerent occupation and protecting the rights of the local inhabitants, that is, the Palestinians.

The legal status of the land acquired in 1967 is clearly debatable such that there are legal principles under which Israel is culpable according to international law, or principles that support Israel’s presence. In either case, the current situation is not sustainable.

 

 

 

I Don’t Want Trump to Sign a Peace Treaty between the Israelis and Palestinians

Any peace deal signed by Trump will, by definition, be tainted and suspicious. It will lack credibility and be untrustworthy from the start. Even when he steps forward and espouses generalities about progress the public will be very skeptical. His word is one of the last things most people trust. Trump is a hustler and he will sell you whatever he thinks can turn a profit. Remember Trump vodka, steaks, marriages and my favorite–Trump University. A Trump peace proposal will be to peace proposals what Trump University was to education, a quickly constructed pseudo-product designed for the self-aggrandizement of Trump more than anything else.

Trump has no fire in his belly to solve the problem; it is not something he has struggled with for years and been committed to. Trump’s history is one of bungled deals, exaggerated claims, manipulations, lies and hyperbolic assertions. He is insufficiently knowledgeable about Jewish history and the State of Israel and he has cleansed his trip to Israel of most anything “Jewish”. He will speak at the airport, the Israel Museum, the King David Hotel, and the Prime Minister’s residence (directly across the street from my apartment). He will go to the Western Wall but not without somebody on the staff foolishly claiming it’s not part of Israel. He reduced his time at Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial) to 15 minutes. That’s 2½ minutes per million.

Trump is in no position to make progress on anything related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sure, he has to report some success so expect something like the following during a post-trip interview:

 

“We really made tremendous progress with the Israelis and Palestinians. It’s really going to be terrific, everybody says so. We are going to work out a deal and it’s going to be great for both sides. We have the best people working on and it is going to be great.”

 

Trump is all wrong for the nuances necessary to manage the conflict. Trump is better mano-a-mano and much more comfortable speaking bluntly and broadly. This is all one reason he won’t make much progress. There will be confidence building activity such as slowdowns on settlements and expressions of agreement about borders and concessions but that will be about it. But if Trump is serious about making progress here are three suggestions for him. And since Trump is quite concerned about “not being Obama” increased incorporation of these principles will be helpful with that.

  1. In particular, Abbas must answer to the larger Arab world as well as his own community. He cannot just give away what is considered by many Muslims to be holy land. Thus, Trump should increase the involvement of countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt in order to provide increased legitimization for the process and the Palestinian position in particular.
  2. Trump should insist on the improvement of infrastructure and internal politics of the Palestinians. The PLA have not sufficiently used their worldwide support to build civil society and services for the population. They need to stop practices such as paying terrorist families.
  3. And Israel must be required to cease and control settlement development. The settlements are perhaps the major obstacle to progress and nothing will happen if settlement expansion continues.

Even though, as I said above, that any deal with Trump would be immediately suspect he will be moving in the right direction if he focuses on the three suggestions above. Then he will have made a terrific deal and everybody will say so.

Trump is About to Learn Something About Making Deals

It will be interesting to see how Trump does with Abbas and the scheduled discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Given Trump’s gargantuan ego I suppose it was to be expected that he would head right for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and claim that he can solve the world’s most formidable intractable conflict. After all, it is just another real estate deal isn’t it? Unless he is more informed that I think he is, Trump’s about to get his head handed to him. Trump is a clear supporter of Israel and that will work against him during the conversations. The Palestinians may calculate that Trump will be effective at getting the Israelis to concede and moderate, but it will take more than Trump’s ideological compatibilities with Israel to get anything more than token changes that Israel is prepared to give up in negotiations anyway.

Remember, Abbas is not such a free agent. He doesn’t really have the authority or leadership power to all-by-himself bargain away the West Bank and Gaza. And Abbas may have an avuncular presence about him that seems benign but he really is a pretty fierce opponent of Israel. He is associated with a certain amount of anti-Semitism and according to most reports continues to glorify terrorist activity including incentivizing terrorists by providing money for their families. Trump will ignore these things at his peril. Actually, he will not be able to ignore the possibility that US funds to the Palestinian Authority will be cut off because of the Taylor Force Act, which is a piece of legislation in process that makes it a crime to fund payments of any type to terrorists and their families.

One of the internal paradoxes of this difficult conflict is that, at this point anyway, it remains the case that any agreement that would be acceptable to the Palestinians would probably be a threat to Israel; that is, the two sides are not at a point yet where they will accept something that is both advantageous to themselves and the other.

Trump keeps confronting dictators and autocrats –Kim Jong-un, Duterte, Abbas, Chinese leadership – because he thinks the magic words of “The Art of the Deal” combined with his particular appeal is all it takes to solve any problem. Trump brings no background, context, and historical framework to these discussions. True enough that he has advisors but they seem to add little to the solutions.

The US is even losing some interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A coalition of states and clear policy about Iranian nuclear weapons is more in line with US foreign policy in the Middle East. Iran is a predatory nation that has a triumphalist mentality and the potential nuclear weapon to do serious damage. This is not to mention Iran’s proxy group (Hezbollah) to whom they would most likely release a nuclear weapon. This gives them deniability.

The Palestinian Authority will be pretty tough negotiators because they have much to lose if they do not get everything they want. The PA has made progress in its criticism and international condemnation of Israel. And even if the PA were a potential partner to genuine negotiations there remains the matter of Hamas. Israel is not going to give up anything, as it should not, without recognition of its existence and the state of Israel.

Even in the face of Hamas’s supposed revised statement, I can’t imagine them recognizing Israel anytime in the near future.

Don’t expect much from Trump. Normally I would give him credit for trying but I’m not sure that this time he might not do more harm than good.

Steve Bannon and Dangerous White House Thinking

Early in the campaign I thought Trump was displaying some linguistic and behavior patterns that were troublesome. I don’t mean this to be snide as if I were calling him “crazy” just because I didn’t vote for him. I generally thought he exhibited a linguistic word salad that was indicative of certain cognitive disorders. It looks more and more like this might be an accurate assessment. But my concerns are not clinical as much as they are worried about the stability of the government. At one time a citizen could feel confident that there are enough people around the president to handle any problems and make a smooth transition to someone else if necessary. Or, the advisory staff was capable and competent.

But in Trump’s case we have people like Steve Bannon who are enamored and believe in crackpot theories of how the world is going to unfold. Bannon is a self-styled intellectual in the tradition of Trump’s exaggerations, lack of evidence, and the belief that anything he says must bring it into reality.

Bannon is a devotee of a book titled “The Fourth Turning” by William Strauss and Neil Howe. According to a number of newspaper reports he has read it numerous times and keeps a copy handy. Now, Strauss and Howe are interesting fellows in their own right but we will let that be for the moment in order to take a look at their generational theories, alarmist prophecies, and catastrophic outlook that will reorganize the global order according to Bannon. The man who sits next to the President of the United States, the man who President Trump believes to be prescient and forward thinking believes that the history of the world is divided up into predictable cycles that repeat themselves, and United States is just short of entering a cycle that will be catastrophic or revolutionary.

The book reads like an end-of-days warning about an apocalyptic end. I read the book because I wanted to know what Bannon and others saw in this vision. The book turns out to be rather shallow and repetitive, constantly looking for any chance it can find to organize something into four phases, or see some cyclical relationship. There are qualified and respected historians that are called “cyclical theorists” meaning they believe in cycles of history (e.g. Marx, Toynbee). But there are scholars who have the credentials to make such statements and sound arguments in support of repetitive phases of a culture. Strauss and Howe are reaching to make interpretations that are less than justifiable and in some cases don’t even make any sense. I would also add that “cycle” theorists in history such as Karl Marx and Toynbee have little standing in contemporary scholarship.

According to The Fourth Turning history proceeds in cycles of about 80 years and can be divided into four phases. So, in the US the four phases are like the seasons of the year: a spring-like “high” (postwar America), the summer awakening and spirituality (the 1960s), autumnal alienation (the Reagan era), and finally the wintery crisis that is a transformational event that sweeps out the old order. There is more to the theory along with other cycles but I think you get the point. Strauss and Howe are still chasing the dream of finding a complete scientific theory of history when, in fact, modern historians are more micro then they are macro with respect to the artifacts of history and what they mean.

The sense of determinism is one of the most disturbing things about Strauss and Howe. If they would’ve noted some repetitive patterns in history and simply argued for their presence they might have presented us with a relatively interesting volume. But the notion that these cycles are godlike in their surety and ability to predict the future is a little unsettling. There is nothing wrong with the notion that some cycles or patterns exist but they are subject to the influences of multiple natural and historical forces that make them unpredictable.

Bannon may believe some apocalyptic ending is near – and his proximity to power is what makes that dangerous – but my advice to you is below:

Remember, that true believers tend to fall in love uncritically with some seductive idea. Get to know the idea before you are influenced by perfumed thoughts and alluring possibilities.

 

Why Turkey Matters

 

It’s pretty easy for most Americans to pay little attention to Turkey. It seems to be a faraway exotic place that has little effect on their lives. But the truth is otherwise. Turkey has been a partner to the United States and Israel and informed a set of relationships with these two countries that help stabilize that area of the world. But more important than that, Turkey has been a model for Islamic democracy.

Ataturk established modern Turkey as a secular, European, Westernized state. He used the government to establish educational and political policies to shape the nation into a political culture that was close to gaining entry into the European Union. Ataturk literally outlawed many symbols of Islam and tried to relegate it more to the private sphere.

But there was a referendum last week on constitutional changes and Erdogan and his political supporters won a narrow victory. Now the country is about to be shaped in Erdogan’s image rather than Ataturk’s. Erdogan will move Turkey more toward centralized power supported by Islamic parties. None of this bodes well for Turkey. Moreover, and even more dangerously, Turkey is divided. Erdogan won a narrow victory. Just about half the population voted for him and the other half dislikes him intensely. These are the conditions for future contentious political behavior.

It appears that Erdogan knows how to distribute rewards making important constituents happy; a fairly large number of people have benefited from Erdogan’s largess. But these benefits are not merit-based or the result of significant contributions to economic, commercial, or political policies in Turkey. They are the result of payoffs to those who are more supportive of Erdogan and constitutional changes. And now the AKP (Erdogan’s political party) can continue its program of returning to Islamizing the state. Yet, there are some hopeful signs.

Turkey it is now quite diverse demographically, and too big economically to be easily redefined on the basis of one person. And despite Erdogan’s cronies, who always rear their ugly heads from the system of political payoffs, the real economic power in the country is dependent on secular, democratic, pro-Western liberal values. So if Turkey stays Democratic much of its progress will be maintained. But the worisome part is that Erdogan may realize full well that democracy is his primary enemy and therefore become more autocratic.

So why should the average American care about any of this? Well a couple of reasons. First of all the only way we are going to make some stable peace with Islamic nations is through elements, minimum as they need to be, of shared Democratic processes. If Erdogan becomes less democratic then the state becomes more Islamic and increases its distance and alienation from Western states and Israel. Turkey could have been a model for future Islamic democracy. Secondly, the Kurds have been a very supportive culture for the United States and we owe them our best efforts to establish a Kurdish state. This is of course very complex and an intractable issue but moves no closer to some sort of resolution if Turkey retreats into conservatism and religiosity. Third, Turkey demonstrated to the Arab world that some decent relationship with Israel was possible. Given the combustible relationship with our ally Israel, any indicator of stability is welcome.

Airstrikes Against Syria Force Assad to Recalculate His Cost-Benefit Ratios

The strike against the Syrian al-Shayrat Air Base south of Homs is certainly controversial but generally supported around the world. The base was used as a launching pad in a chemical weapons attack that truly does cross a “redline.” As much success as Obama had as president – and he will ultimately be described as a successful president – he did fail to act against the Assad regime and of course was never to be taken seriously again with respect to Syria after his hollow threat about chemical weapons crossing redlines. And even though like much of the world I find Trump dangerous, unstable, lazy, and uninformed I have to give him credit for taking a moral and political stance that was difficult but necessary. Up until now, Assad had been confronted with little more than empty speeches condemning the use of chemical weapons.

One of the goals of foreign policy is to get others to recalculate their cost-benefit ratios. Assad’s calculations were much in his favor because his history told him that nobody was going to do much about his behavior. He used chemical weapons last week because he calculated he could get away with it. But now Assad has to recalculate his position. In an excellent policy report from the Washington Policy Institute, Michael Eisenstadt writes cogently about altering cost-benefit ratios and the variables that factor into Assad’s thinking. You can read it here. Here is one analysis along the way to a decision about whether or not to bomb Syrian airbases and what Assad is likely to do about it.

Historically Assad has shied away from military responses when he concludes that his opposition is aggressive and determined. The Israelis have on more than a couple of occasions struck Syrian targets because their intelligence told them that weapons were being transported to Hezbollah. And although Syria has at times returned fire most of the time they do nothing. And, of course, even though Obama threatened responses after crossing “redlines” the Syrians just ignored it and used chemical weapons anyway. They calculated that Obama would not respond and their actions would reap more benefits than costs. Eisenstadt concludes the following cost-benefit ratio and the decisions that go with them. These conclusions are based on historical occurrences as well as “logical” assumptions.

(1) Assad backs down when confronted with a strong and potentially threatening proponent. (2) If Assad is unsure of how an adversary counts his costs or benefits he will test the waters but then withdraw if things appear threatening. And (3) if Assad sees no major cost to his behavior he will proceed as he wishes. Of course there are other situational and strategic factors involved but the United States is in a position to use force to maximize the likelihood that the other side will recalculate cost-benefit ratios such that they realize predictable consequences. This is the only way ceasefires will be respected and some predictability can be inserted into the decision matrix that characterizes international brinksmanship exchanges.

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