Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Safe Zones in Syria Are a Bad Idea

President Trump reportedly spoke with the king of Saudi Arabia on Sunday about imposing safe zones in Syria, presumably for the purpose of protecting civilians from rebels and Syrian and Russian bombardment. Such a policy carries a lot of risk, would likely violate international and U.S. law, and is strategically unwise.

Safe zones have a mixed record at best for protecting civilians. In the 1990s, Iraqi Shia in United Nations’ safe zones turned out to be not so safe from Saddam Hussein. Bosnian Muslims were unprotected in Srebrenica, the city now associated with a terrible massacre despite an established safe zone there. Even beyond the logistical challenge of setting up safe zones in the middle of a chaotic civil war, keeping the civilians safe inside is no piece of cake. Humanitarian relief would have to be supplied, which requires an additional commitment of resources and coordination. And it would be difficult to prevent Syrian rebel groups from infiltrating, targeting, or otherwise taking advantage of them. On-the-ground forces would be required to police the area and distinguish between militants and civilians seeking refuge. Moreover, safe zones would require, at the very least, sustained use of airpower to protect the skies over them and the territory around them. The Syrian air force and the Russian air force are already crowding those skies. U.S. intervention would be subject to direct challenge, or at the very least massively increase the chances of accidental confrontation.

Americans should also consider the legality of such a move. Establishing safe zones requires imposing on the territorial integrity of another sovereign nation and defending those zones with military force. Under international law, that’s illegal in the absence of host nation permission or an authorization from the UN Security Council. There is little chance Syria is going to give such permission to the United States and Saudi Arabia, and given Russia’s alliance with the Syrian regime, a Security Council authorization will not be forthcoming.

The Trump administration would be on similarly shaky ground as far as domestic U.S. law is concerned. U.S. military action in Syria during the Obama and now Trump administrations has no specific authorization from Congress. It has so far been justified legally by reference to the 2001 and 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which authorized action against those groups and individuals who carried out the 9/11 attacks and then against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Neither authorization could plausibly justify imposing safe zones and no-fly zones in Syria, operations that would clearly be unconnected to those past missions.

On Sanctions and Negotiations

Rumors are flying in Washington that Donald Trump is seriously considering an executive order which would lift at least some of the current U.S. sanctions on Russia. As with everything else the new president has ordered this week, details are sparse. But if the executive order would indeed lift sanctions unilaterally, with no attempt at negotiation, Trump won’t be sending a message of strength, but one of weakness.

I’ve never been a proponent of the U.S. sanctions regime. In fact, I’ve written extensively about the flaws of the sanctions regime on Russia, and even argued that they should be lifted before they calcify into a permanent impediment to improving relations with Russia. In Foreign Affairs last year, I argued that the sanctions have largely been a failure: they have been costly to U.S. and European business interests, and have not altered Putin’s aggressive policies towards Ukraine.

Nor is there good reason to believe that the sanctions will induce policy change in future. The underlying logic behind sanctions is to cause enough economic pain to the target state that leaders are compelled to change their policies. But though the Russian economy is in a terrible state, most of that damage was caused by falling oil prices, not by sanctions. Vladimir Putin was even willing to hurt his own people further by initiating countersanctions against European agricultural products, a move which served to substantially increase food prices for ordinary Russian citizens.

These conclusions are unfortunately supported by a substantial body of academic literature, which overwhelmingly finds that sanctions are rarely successful on issues of ‘high salience,’ such as questions of war and peace. Sanctions may be a useful tool for signaling to other states that their behavior is unacceptable, but when linked to unrealistic goals, they place policy makers in a difficult situation. Lifting them may be seen as a sign of weakness, yet there is little to be gained from leaving them in place. The path of least resistance can therefore end in situations like the half-century Cuban Embargo.

All of this suggests that policymakers should be a lot more cautious about implementing sanctions in the first place, as it may place them in a difficult situation further down the road. Indeed, academic studies also suggest that sanctions are not so much an alternative to conflict as a first step on the road to war: they serve to raise the stakes, and make it harder for policymakers to back down.

The problem is particularly acute in this case. Though the impact of Russian disinformation on the outcome of the presidential election remains unclear, an investigation is ongoing into whether advisors to the Trump campaign had contacts with Moscow. Donald Trump’s willingness to seek a better relationship with Russia is a solid policy choice, but unilateral concessions of this sort will only serve to intensify the idea that he is somehow beholden to Moscow.

Ultimately, understanding the flaws of sanctions cannot explain how to resolve this dilemma. There is no good solution for today’s U.S.-Russian relations, just a series of poor choices. The best of these bad options is an open process of negotiation. Russian leaders may not be willing to abandon Crimea or make other high profile concessions in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. But the sanctions are causing some economic damage, enough that Russian leaders do want them lifted.

A process of negotiation which proposes to lift most of the sanctions in exchange for concessions in other policy areas – implementation of the Russian portions of the Minsk Agreement, Russian concessions on ending the Syrian civil war, or a variety of other issues – is a way for the Trump administration to end the sanctions regime without making a unilateral concession. For the man who wrote the Art of the Deal, this would surely be a better solution.

McCain/Thornberry Military Plan would Boost Spending, Deficits, and Dangers

Congressional Republicans have a new plan for a military spending boost. John McCain, the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, last week released a report calling for a $54 billion increase in 2018 Pentagon spending and a $430 billion increase above current Pentagon plans for the next five fiscal years. McCain’s House counterpart, Mac Thornberry, backed that plan today in a Fox News op-ed. Both chairmen also want an immediate “supplemental” increase of an indeterminate amount to the 2017 military budget. 

Enacting the McCain/Thornberry plan requires undoing the defense spending caps set by the Budget Control Act. Complying with the caps would shave more than $100 billion off existing plans over the next five years, meaning that the new plan would spend more than half a trillion more than current law allows. That’s before counting any 2017 supplemental or Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding, currently at $59 billion. The plan calls for transferring OCO spending, which is now uncapped, back into the base budget once the abolishment of the Budget Control Act leaves it unconstrained.

The title of Thornberry’s op-ed, Here’s How We Will Make America’s Military Great Again, suggests its intended audience. During the campaign, President Trump endorsed an across-the-board military buildup likely to cost $70 to $100 billion a year but absurdly claimed that he could fund it by cutting Pentagon waste, fraud, and abuse. Since his election, Trump and his advisors have done little to clarify how they’ll fund the buildup or use the expanded military, besides parading it down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Assessing Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

President Barack Obama leaves office today at Noon. His critics are happy to see him go, even as some acknowledge that he carried himself with dignity and grace for eight years in office. He departs the presidency with favorable approval ratings among the public at large, but is handing over power to a person who seems committed to overturning everything that he has done.

Donald Trump’s foreign policy doctrine is enigmatic, at best.  Obama, in contrast, had a concise and tidy way to explain his approach : “Don’t do stupid s***.”

Alas, he wasn’t always successful. For all the complaints that Obama was too reticent to use military power, his actions as president don’t betray great skepticism of kinetic military operations (aka war). Some of those not-quite-wars weren’t entirely successful, others were an abysmal failure. I discuss some of these issues in this podcast with Caleb Brown.

He twice increased the number of U.S. troops into Afghanistan in 2009, even though he doubted at the time that they would be able to accomplish their mission. The United States still has 8,500 U.S. troops fighting in what is now America’s longest war.

Without congressional authorization, he carried out an air campaign over Libya that contributed to the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi’s decades-long regime. Few people shed any tears for the crazy colonel (Hillary Clinton even laughed about it), but the country has been gripped by chaos and violence ever since.

Obama’s war against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq similarly lacked congressional authorization. It has been marginally more effective, largely because the many different actors threatened by ISIS’s reign of terror have managed to squeeze it on all sides. But, as in Libya, the question of what comes after looms large.

And when Barack Obama wasn’t willing to use American military power directly, through either ground troops or drones, he did provide assistance, including lethal assistance, to those who were doing the fighting. But war by proxy is always difficult, as the ongoing civil wars in Syria and Yemen attest.

The United States has struggled to prevail militarily in a host of conflicts during Barack Obama’s two terms in office. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Obama hasn’t used force often enough, or doggedly enough, or smartly enough. More likely, it means that many of the problems that he has attempted to solve aren’t conducive to military solutions. And the claim that Obama has gutted the U.S. military conveniently ignores that Pentagon spending was higher during his eight years in office than during George W. Bush’s, and that we spend more every year, in real terms, than we spent during the Cold War. Military spending is down since 2012, but is still 30 percent higher than in 2001.

On the plus side, Barack Obama should get credit for normalizing relations with Cuba and moving to expand economic relations with our Caribbean neighbor. Critics of the move, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), point out that Raul Castro’s regime hasn’t reciprocated by improving its human rights record. But the embargo has similarly failed to crack open the regime. Congress and incoming-President Trump should finish the job, relax the remaining restrictions, and enable greater interactions between the Cuban people and their neighbors to the north.

President Obama successfully negotiated a deal that makes it substantially harder for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Critics claim that there was a better deal to be had, or that there should have been no deal at all. But, without a deal, Iran was well on its way to becoming a nuclear weapon state, and military action would have merely delayed the program, and at great cost in human lives. The deal will need to be monitored closely, as Secretary of Defense nominee James Mattis affirmed in his confirmation hearings last week. A progress review by the International Crisis Group on the one-year anniversary of the deal’s implementation concluded that, thus far, it was “effectively and verifiably blocking all potential pathways for Iran to race toward nuclear weapons, while opening the door to the country’s international rehabilitation and economic recovery.”

Lastly, President Obama deserves credit for resisting the bipartisan calls to get the United States more deeply embroiled in the Syrian civil war. His greatest error with respect to Syria was his demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “must go”, and his proclaimed red line concerning the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against opposition forces. He wisely backed away from this ill-considered pledge when he ignored the political class in Washington, and listened to the America people who wanted no part of another Middle Eastern conflict. The Syrian civil war is a grave human tragedy, with hundreds of thousands killed, and millions driven from their homes. But Obama’s critics, who believe he should have defied public opinion, and launched military strikes in September 2013, fail to show how such actions would have hastened the war’s end.

We should judge U.S. president’s foreign policies by whether they improved American security and prosperity, or whether they made Americans less safe and less prosperous. By that standard, Barack Obama could have done far worse.

Postdoctoral Fellowship in Foreign Policy

Like the foreign policy commentary you see here on Cato’s blog? If you’re a PhD candidate or recent PhD, you should consider applying for our visiting research fellow position.

The Defense and Foreign Policy department is seeking candidates for a visiting fellow post. This one-year paid fellowship allows candidates to expand upon the policy implications of their dissertation research, and contribute to the work of the Cato defense and foreign policy department.

In order to apply, candidates must be either A.B.D. PhD candidates or a recent PhD graduate in political science, history or a related field, and must have authorization to work in the United States.

Candidates should also share Cato’s commitment to moving U.S. foreign policy towards prudence and restraint, and the policy implications of their work should be broadly compatible with a pragmatic, realist or restrained approach to foreign policy. You can find more information about Cato’s work on defense and foreign policy issues here.

During their time at Cato, the visiting fellow is responsible for:

  • Producing one scholarly paper (8,000-10,000 words) in the Institute’s Policy Analysis series on a foreign policy issue (which may or may not be part of the fellow’s dissertation)
  • Organizing at least two events
  • Authoring op-eds and blog posts
  • Handling media requests on international security issues

Fellows will work from Cato’s Washington, D.C. offices for the 2017-2018 academic year. Predoctoral fellows will receive $40,000, and postdocs will receive $50,000 in addition to health care coverage. Ideally, the fellow’s work at Cato would overlap considerably with his or her dissertation, making the fellowship useful both for policy research and finishing or refining the candidate’s dissertation.

If you are interested in applying, please submit a C.V. and a writing sample via Cato’s online application system no later than February 15, 2017. The application can be found here.

Drawing the Right Lessons from Chinese Military Exercises

China’s first and only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, recently passed through the Taiwan Strait after conducting exercises in the South China Sea. Initial reporting and commentary on the transit paint a pretty dire picture. In The New York Times Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies called the transit “a show of force” that may be seen “as a test of U.S. resolve” by the incoming Trump administration. The BBC called the transit “the latest escalation amid tensions” between China and Taiwan, and Camila Domonoske’s story at NPR called it “a provocative move.”

Such coverage of the Liaoning’s transit is emblematic of the high degree of attention paid to China’s military exercises, but it also is emblematic of a tendency to read too much into these exercises.

Military exercises involving Chinese air and naval forces have received a lot of focus in recent months. The Liaoning’s first live-fire exercises in mid-December 2016 received a good deal of coverage. Earlier that month, China flew a “nuclear-capable” H-6 bomber aircraft over the South China Sea. In September, the South China Sea played host to Russian and Chinese naval forces participating in a joint naval exercise.

These exercises stir up plenty of angst within the China-watching community over Beijing’s strategic intentions, and are often used to portray China as a dangerous actor. Framing military exercises as signaling tools is not a bad thing, and such analysis can provide useful information about state behavior. However, the reaction to the Liaoning’s transit of the Taiwan Strait and other recent Chinese exercises demonstrates the limitations of this approach.

For example, while the Liaoning was in the Taiwan Strait it stayed to the west of the strait’s midline and (as of yet) there is no evidence that it launched fighter aircraft during its transit or even had aircraft on the flight deck while it passed through the strait. Such behavior is consistent with the Liaoning’s previous transit of the strait in late 2013. The timing of the transit, coming around a month after Trump’s phone call with Taiwan’s president and hints at dropping the One China policy, bolsters the perception of the exercise as a signal. However, given the recent transit’s similarity to the 2013 transit, it is not obvious that China is trying to signal a challenge to Taiwan or Trump beyond the longstanding military challenge it has posed to Taiwan. If the carrier traveled to the east of the strait’s midline or scrambled aircraft then an intimidating signal would be obvious, but behaving in a consistent way suggests continuity in China’s approach rather than reactionary behavior in response to recent events. Therefore, interpreting the Liaoning’s recent transit of the Taiwan Strait as a signal of intimidation or test of American resolve is problematic.

Swan Song from a “Reluctant” Hawk

President Obama will deliver his Farewell Address tonight to a capacity crowd in Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center. It’s the right venue for the speech, the president explained last week, because Chicago is “where my career in public service began.”

Indeed, it’s the city where, as a young state senator in 2002, Obama gave an antiwar rally speech railing against the “dumb,” “rash” rush to war in Iraq; and where, as a presidential candidate five years later, he promised to “turn the page on the imperial presidency” and usher in “a new dawn of peace.” And yet, 2008’s “peace candidate” will leave office as the first two-term president in American history to have been at war every day of his presidency, having dropped over 25,000 bombs on seven countries in 2016 alone.

Given that record, it seems unlikely that Obama will use his Farewell Address to warn against excessive foreign entanglements or the dangers of the military-industrial complex. But you never know: our 44th president has never lacked chutzpah. In a speech to US troops last month, he denounced the “false promise” that “we can eliminate terrorism by dropping more bombs,” and piously proclaimed that “democracies should not operate in a state of permanently authorized war.”

An audacious statement—given that it is Obama himself who’s made perpetual warfare the new normal, and the president the ultimate “decider” in matters of war and peace. Where George W. Bush secured congressional authorization for the two major wars he fought, Obama has launched two undeclared wars (in Libya and against ISIS), ordered 10 times as many drone strikes as his predecessor, and this summer bombed six different countries just over Labor Day weekend. And it is Obama who is largely responsible for warping the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force—passed three days after 9/11 to target Al Qaeda and the Taliban—into an enabling act for endless war, anywhere in the world.

Through it all, Obama has maintained the pose of a “reluctant warrior,” repeatedly lecturing the country about the dangers of an imperial presidency while forging new frontiers in the expansion of executive power. “Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions,” he chided in May 2013, “we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers.” In the same speech, Obama even had the gall to quote James Madison’s admonition that “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”