Russia is tightening its grip on Crimea. So Obama’s credibility and American foreign policy in general is being completely undermined, if you listen to the increasing chorus of criticism (like this.)
In this case I don’t agree – or at least, to it is not all Obama’s fault.
The first problem is capability matters as well as intentions. Obama might have made overoptimistic mistakes. But the biggest problem is American voters have tired of foreign intervention, after thousands of casualties and trillions of dollars spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. That history can’t simply be forgotten or washed away rapidly. To put it in economic terms, there is hysteresis in this foreign policy system. It is bent out of shape, rather returning to a previous equilibrium. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.
Some Republicans I speak ferociously condemn the President. But it is very unlikely that Obama could have won a Congressional vote on intervention in Syria. Conservative leader David Cameron suffered a shock defeat in the UK Parliament on the matter, for example.
Any President would face deep skepticism from voters about deploying American forces abroad or similar forceful action at present. You could put Attila the Hun in the White House right now and he would have difficulty taking aggressive, “credible” action. It took Pearl Harbor for FDR himself to persuade America to enter World War 2. And no one remembers FDR as weak or vacillating.
It will take time – maybe decades – or another 9/11 or Pearl Harbor style attack to convince the American public to commit to foreign intervention in large scale again. Obama has to live with that legacy for now.
As I’ve said before, one primary blind spot afflicting decisions is the relative influence of the person and the situation. One of the most common findings in social psychology is people – and this means everyone, Democrat, Republican, American, Russian – tend to overstress the influence of personal attributes and qualities (“the President is weak”) in other people’s decisions , and pay far too little attention to situational factors. (“Congress will not vote for any strong response.”) Incidentally, we naturally do the opposite with our own decisions. It’s not our fault, it was the circumstances.
We’re also seeing the tendency of Western media to turn most issues into a horse race – who is up and who is down (Putin up, Obama down.) to the exclusion of most other angles, because it makes a good domestic story.
Another problem is people tend to use – and think about – “credibility” very loosely. In practice credibility varies with context. Take the doctrine of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War. Some of the chilliest of cold warriors, like Hermann Kahn, in thinking through the likelihood of nuclear war, developed the notion of escalation dominance. As a crisis developed, one side or the other could have the advantage on the ladder of escalation. Soviet forces had overwhelming conventional dominance in Central Europe. No-one pretended otherwise. Hence the importance to US credibility of the presence of tactical nuclear weapons at the next stage of escalation.
In a similar way, there is no reason to think that US weakness on the borders of Crimea signals US weakness about the borders of Poland or California. The US may have complete credibility on some levels of escalation or different contexts, and none at all on others. That is normal. The advantage may shift at different levels of seriousness in a crisis.
If Obama can be faulted, it is in blurring the kind of US national interests which would justify a strong response. This is where universalistic notions of human rights or international legal norms cause problems. It may often be in the US interest to pay lip service to international norms, but much less so to expend blood and treasure on someone else’s behalf to defend particular violations. (Bill Clinton did not intervene in Rwanda. Lyndon Johnson did not intervene in Biafra.)
It simply invites situations where words and actions diverge radically, and thus causing people to doubt your words.
Liberals in particular want to defend international legal norms verbally, because that is what makes them norms. But there can be a temptation to overreach. The American public is more likely to want to focus on tangible immediate interests and the proportionate cost and benefit to the United States itself, rather than universal legal principle. Presidents have a little room to use the “bully pulpit” to try to persuade voters that important interests are at stake. But there are limits to what speeches alone can do.
That points to a need to contain the shrillness of American rhetoric when we are not actually going to do anything much. It may not feel good. But it may preserve the credibility of words for those times when a shooting war is a genuine risk. One of the prime contributions to credibility is to pick your battles, rather than let the battles pick you.
I’ve been writing about Ukraine in reports. The most frequent and damaging mistake people make in crises is leaping to conclusions based on basic facts, without making any attempt to define or frame the underlying problem. Political leaders want three options on their desk in two hours, without figuring out what they want to or can achieve first.
Not surprisingly, if you’re barely aware of the problem or take it for granted, you’re going to get nasty surprises. It becomes the most prevalent blind spot: people see what they want to see. It leads to produces confirmation bias, selective interpretation of evidence, and damaging surprises.
The Western political response to the Ukraine so far is largely to define it almost entirely as a problem of abstract principle: territorial integrity and inviolability of borders. The key issue here is whether the Western “territorial integrity” and international law frame gains traction and support from other parties (cf Iraq invasion of Kuwait, 1990).
I doubt it. I think that international law approach will falter, as there is little or no appetite to make this a test case.
In the end Russian actions in the Ukraine will be (unwillingly) accepted internationally, subject to signs or undertakings that no precedent is being set. Defending international norms is too expensive in this case. The West will do just enough to suggest international legal norms remain symbolically important in theory, if not actually in practice.
Ways will eventually be found to call it a one-off, or anomaly, or exception, with limited implications which do not require a full Western response. This time.
Let’s just be glad that Snowden hasn’t leaked the launch codes for US Trident submarines yet. But in the meantime, the continuing revelations about bugging foreign leaders is causing severe embarassment to the US and to Obama personally.
No-one should be naive enough to think states don’t use intelligence methods, and the US has dazzling technical capabilities. Still, it is humiliating and embarrassing for foreign leaders to look vulnerable in front of their own domestic public, and deep diplomatic damage is being done.
Is it worth it? I’ve talked before about the difficulties of making sense of intelligence. Despite immense resources and satellite technology, and billions of dollars of spending every year, the US intelligence community has nonetheless missed most of the major turning points in the last seventy years. The problem is even if you have very valuable intercepts you still have to understand and act on intelligence.
That’s where you run into the problems and blind spots like confirmation bias and framing on which I focus intensively.
In fact, even in the midst of actual war, it can be hard to make use of intelligence. The US had broken the Japanese codes before Pearl Harbor, but still saw half of its Pacific fleet sunk. Information alone is not enough.
I naturally don’t have access to current intelligence. However, we do have a relatively complete picture of earlier periods. The renowned British military historian John Keegan examined the net value of intelligence in Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda.
Intelligence is never sufficient, he says, even operational intelligence on enemy deployments. There is little doubt that the Enigma intercepts of German U-boat positions in the Atlantic helped win the war, for example. But just as significant was changes in convoy arrangements and more availability of escorts. According to Keegan,
..however good the intelligence available before an encounter may appear to be, the outcome, given equality of force, will still be decided in a fight; and in a fight, determination, again given equality of force, will be the paramount factor.
The Allies had perfect foreknowledge of the German invasion of Crete in May 1941- and still managed to lose because of the determination of the German invaders. The glamor of secrecy and subterfuge often makes little practical difference on the ground.
Even the greatest US intelligence triumph of all was a near-run thing. US naval intelligence cunningly pinpointed the location of the decisive Japanese strike by sending a false message about a water shortage on Midway Island in June 1942. Nonetheless, five squadrons of American aircraft were destroyed by the Japanese naval forces at Midway. Only sheer luck let a lost sixth dive-bomber squadron, at the limit of its fuel endurance, follow the wake of a Japanese destroyer to the main Japanese carriers and sink them.
Though Midway turned out to be a great American victory, in the making of which the intercept and decryption services played an essential part, it might have been exactly the opposite: a great American defeat, into which the US Pacific fleet had been drawn by the very success of its own intelligence operation.
People still have to make sense of and act on decrypts, and in most cases this is still extraordinarily hard. Sometimes they can tempt you into overconfidence, or neglecting other more practical measures. Most of the NSA’s data sits unread.
America’s enemies know we have remarkable electronic surveillance capabilities; but they count on lack of US political determination to see fights through.
“Obama has lost all credibility.” “It's the equivalent of Suez for the US.” “US foreign policy is in disarray.” The press, and plenty of people I talk to, are full of angry extrapolation and overgenerralization about Syria.
But everyone needs to calm down a little.
One of the standard blind spots in foreign policy (and other fields) is overestimating your own importance in events. As Richards Heuer, a long-time CIA analyst put it in The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis,
Individuals and governments tend to overestimate the extent to which they successfully influence the behavior of others. .. It occurs largely because a person is so familiar with his or her own efforts to influence another, but much less well informed about other factors that may have influenced the other's decision.
The real point is there may be regional civil war or transformation or collapse in due course regardless of anything the US does or does not do. Even the world's sole hyperpower has limits on its influence and ability, no matter who is in charge, as the inhabitants of Saigon or Fallujah or Beirut could tell you.
At best US promises of aid or military action are just one of many considerations for local leaders, and are often barely visible to the Arab street.
There is a general unexamined assumption in Washington debate that the US can effectively alter the course of history in the Middle East. That isn't necessarily true. It's a bit like Canute sitting on the beach and ordering the tide to stop coming in. It doesn't matter what you think or do about the tide. It'll do it's own thing anyway.
We just have to recognize there's limits to what the US or any outside power can do in a region of four hundred million people which has been civilized and followed its own dynamics since Sumer in 2800 BC.
That isn't necessarily an isolationist point. It's just to recognize there is a much bigger deeper problem than a bit of shuttle diplomacy and a few missiles can solve. It's like the people in the 1960s who thought a bit of government programs and expert technical knowledge would solve poverty, and were surprised to find it was a bit harder than that.
Syria is not a final and decisive test for US credibility, or even Obama's credibility. Great powers have defeats and setbacks all the time, which do not mean the end of power.
People are being much too binary. It's resilience that matters more if anything for great powers. The Union Army looked a disaster after First Bull Run, The US looked weak the day after Pearl Harbor. Syria is about one hundredth the scale of defeat the Romans suffered at Cannae, before they went on to five hundred years of domination.
Great powers can't win every battle, but a single defeat or setback does not necessarily mean the end of a great power's credibility.
So there’s three things to note about Obama’s decisions so far on Syria.
1. When decision-makers have a choice between a bad and even worse option, they are very likely to defer the choice if they have any ability to do so. They retain the option of looking for something better. Congress is very prone to this, as well as the White House.
And in practice practical decision-makers do not meekly accept options. They look for ways to shape or change the situation, which is what Obama is trying to do by seeking Congressional authorization. Put those together and it is not very surprising that the President has taken immediate airstrikes off the table. Obama clearly surprised his own staff with his decision to defer strikes on Friday. The job of staff is to define options. But the job of the principal is to define the problem. That is what Obama did, searching for ways to improve his options.
2. Much of the debate and analysis of the issue revolves around credibility. I’ve got friends and colleagues who are middle east experts and declare that Obama has progressively lost credibility. Interestingly, both arch-Republicans and arch-Dems agree on this one.
Credibility, however, is frequently a major source of mistakes in decisions (think of Vietnam and the domino theory.) It is much more dependent on context than people often assume. Not every omission is a slippery slope to doom, nor is every decision is a permanent precedent of weakness- although people instinctly leap to framing things in those terms.
It isn’t simply a matter of will alone. It is a matter of capability and resources available, and how important the issue is. Part of the skill of politics is to pick your battles, and not fritter away your political capital on less important objectives.
Any US president in 2013 would have significantly less credibility on committing military force to the Middle East because of deep weariness among the public and politicians with military action in the Middle East.That means the threshold for commitment is much higher than it was before.
But equally, there is still a threshold. No matter how much liberal internationalists may argue for a red line on use of chemical weapons, it is much less persuasive as a core US interest than, for example, attacking the Taliban was in Afghanistan in 2001. You cannot assume that failing to act decisively on matters below a threshold entails that there will be no action above the threshold.
3. And that leads to the third point. The NYT reported that Obama chose to consult Congress so he would be in a better position to ask for support for military action on Iran if necessary. He explained his decision to his surprised staff:
He had several reasons, he told them, including a sense of isolation after the terrible setback in the British Parliament. But the most compelling one may have been that acting alone would undercut him if in the next three years he needed Congressional authority for his next military confrontation in the Middle East, perhaps with Iran. If he made the decision to strike Syria without Congress now, he said, would he get Congress when he really needed it?
That is of course completely opposite to the frame that Obama is weak on Syria so he will be weak on all other middle eastern issues in the future too. The upshot: people are far too willing to apply simple frames to the issue.
So far there is no real evidence to suggest that Obama will not be credible or decisive when his options are more central to US interests, and when a case is clearer. If Syria or Iran or others attacked an obvious US interest, public opinion could turn from skeptical to lethal overnight.
This is a mistake authoritarians often make about US policy. Osama Bin Laden described the US as a paper tiger. He found out the hard way that the usual dithering and deferral of democracies can change into something much more dangerous. Don’t be simplistic about credibility or will. Credibility does not necessarily mean responding to every provocation. (Incidentally, central banks are also often very simplistic about credibility.)
I was at an event last night where Robert Litwak was speaking. He's a former National Security Council member and current Director of Security Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center in DC and a consultant at Los Alamos. He has written several books about how “rogue” states have become “outlier” states under Obama, and what this means.
His main point is that capability (to make a bomb) and intentions are very different things. We worry about intentions and the character of a regime much more than capability.
But intention depends on expectations of the trajectory of social developments in a country. Many of the US differences about policy come down to different assumptions about the future evolution of regimes, and the extent to which local elites can be persuaded to support change.
Indeed, the origin of much of post-WW2 US foreign policy thinking, George Kennan's famous “X” article, makes the same point about trajectory and containment, he says. Containment does not mean acquiescence, as some in Washington increasingly think. It means putting pressure on so internal contradictions work themselves out, as ultimately happened in the USSR.
But here's the problem, as I see it. The track record of foreseeing the trajectory of social change, whether in US intelligence or other military, economic and diplomatic circles around the world, is terrible. If the crux of foreign policy towards outlier states is expectations of social trajectory , it is a shot in the dark.
Litwak, who wrote many security recommendations for Presidents, thinks it would be very hard for a President to order a military strike. Iranian facilities are not like the Israeli strike on Osirak in 1981, where no fuel rods had been loaded into the reactor. There could be a major radiological disaster affecting nearby cities, a “nuclear Bhopal”.
Iran is already beyond the point where the Israelis could take out the nuclear program, spread out as it is. It would take many days of US action, and there would be significant “collateral damage,” he said. Netanyahu has argued for containing Iran at the capabilities stage, before 90% uranium enrichment, but Obama is more inclined to look at indications of nuclear intent.
National Intelligence Estimates have concluded the Iranian leadership are not apocalyptic and do make cost-benefit calculations. But, Litwak says, Khamenei, who has the main word on the nuclear issue, is living inside his own bubble. He pointed several times to a US intelligence evaluation mentioned in the NYT yesterday.
[Khamenei] said that while some “simple-minded people” might be eager for the prospect of bilateral talks, Iran had seen nothing from the Obama administration other than conspiracies. Those comments are in accord with American intelligence assessments of the supreme leader’s views, which include, officials say, a belief by the ayatollah that the sanctions are hurting the United States more than they are hurting Iran.
That is clearly fantasy. Khamenei has serious blind spots.
The upshot? There are no good options. We don't really know the trajectory of social change in the Middle East, despite claims from some experts. And attempts to change the trajectory (Iraq, dumping Mubarak) have been of mixed success to say the least.
But evidence which changes expectations of social trajectory are critical. Intention matters more in practice for actual policy than capability.
China lit up a Japanese warship with weapons radar last week, according to the NYT. You usually expect cooler heads to prevail in situations like this. Both sides make their point and step back from the brink.
But the more incidents like this take place, the more chance someone does something stupid and shoots down a plane or sinks a ship. The most famous study of this kind of crisis, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, shows that the simple rational actor model alone is not a good guide to what happens in crises. Organizations like navies have their own routines and play books, and some degree of confrontation is often in the interests of parts of the bureaucracy.
Leaders will still step back from the brink of war if shots are fired. Nationalistic sentiment may be harder to control.