The Duck of Minerva

Avoiding the Joint Security Trap (and Countering Conventional Wisdom)

16 November 2013


The diplomatic dustup over Syria brought Russia in from the cold but simultaneously froze any notion that western allies were getting their strategic act together. Nonetheless, although the mistakes in the U.S. and UK’s approach to building support at home and abroad for an intervention in Syria confused leaders and citizens alike, these mistakes should not be interpreted as an abrupt turn-around in their and their allies’ strategic thinking.

In fact the Europeans, even under a prolonged condition of austerity, are making progress filling in the capability gaps made clear in the course of the Libyan operation. Recent history has demonstrated that arguing the U.S. should keep its security blanket in place despite the end of the Cold War—out of fear that Europeans would not increase their own defense capabilities in kind—was mistaken. Still, austerity has prevented sufficient progress to avoid the joint security trap.

Were the Arab Awakening to go awry and were an al-Qaeda affiliate to begin setting up training camps and operating somewhere such as Yemen, the U.S. or possibly NATO would no doubt heed the call once more to deal with the threat.  But any future crisis in Europe’s direct neighborhood, somewhere like Tunisia, will require Europe to take the lead as the U.S. is likely to take a pass.  It is therefore in the joint interests of the U.S. and Europe not to reduce their mutual security at this critical juncture.

However Europe has yet to develop its own integrated, deployable, expeditionary military capability; instead a number of European allies à la the U.S. have been slashing their defense budgets under austerity.  But akin to the classic prisoner’s dilemma, if the U.S. and European allies do not coordinate their cuts and agree to begin “combining” what is left, both will become worse off and experience a mutual loss of security in lieu of cooperating.  In fact, at this juncture western allies are actually on the verge of becoming ensnared in the joint security trap.

Thanks to the botched Syria diplomacy–and dramatic domestic political machinations–a searing new conventional wisdom arose that is highly skeptical western allies will be willing let alone able to accomplish much in the Middle East and North Afraica (MENA) in the coming years. But their late and muddled response to the Syrian civil war is not as instructive as widely assumed; instead, it is more of a red herring. Far from there being “a superpower on strike,” an “end of the special relationship,” or for that matter an “end of the West” à la some sudden inability of western allies to pursue their interests, specific extenuating circumstances accounted for the erratic diplomacy.

A major caveat is called for in terms of addressing the recently emerged conventional wisdom that Western allies are somehow unwilling or unable to act, all due to the events related to Syria that played out in recent months. In late August and early September the U.S., UK, and France at one point had proclaimed their unified intention to engage in a limited military strike against the Assad regime in order to punish it for using WMDs—viz. chemical weapons in the form of sarin gas—and deter it and others from doing so again.

However, public opinion and parliamentary majorities against the western intervention proved formidable, and both President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron were forced to do rapid U-turns. Obama abruptly decided to seek Congressional authorization (even though he did not need to), and Cameron’s government lost an authorization vote in the House of Commons (that Obama had asked him to convene quickly). The series of mistakes—declaration of a red line, failure to respond the first several times Assad used chemical weapons, the abrupt decision to seek Congressional authorization, and the miscalculation ahead of the failed Commons vote—were costly, first to the reputations of both leaders but also to President Hollande. He had been riding high in domestic polls after the successful French intervention in Mali, but the perception that he was following instead of leading led to a severe decrease in support for both him and the prospective intervention among the French public.

President Obama then appeared on the verge of losing a vote in the House, when the Russians brokered a diplomatic solution that the U.S. and UK quickly signed on to. It called for the Assad regime to give up its stock of chemical weapons and join the UN Chemical Weapons Convention in exchange for the western allies agreeing not to follow through with the attack on Syria. President Hollande had no choice but to echo their assent, having also been forced by the others’ mistakes not to rule out an authorization vote in the French Assembly. To a degree Obama and Cameron were allowed to save face, as President Putin pulled off a diplomatic coup and re-established Russia’s relevance after a prolonged period of virtual irrelevance.

To the surprise of many, the Assad regime rapidly signed the Convention and met its first deadline: a comprehensive declaration of its chemical weapons stock. The allies were mildly surprised at the seeming forthrightness and level of detail the regime displayed. Most surprising was news that the UN weapons inspectors deployed fairly rapidly and by early October actually began destroying the first batch of Syrian chemical weapons materials. The inspectors, from what officially is known as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), have since succeeded in identifying Syrian chemical weapons materials and overseeing their destruction by the government; they have completed the first phase of their work, including the destruction of all production equipment, with full Syrian compliance. What began looking like an abject failure has turned into evidence that diplomacy backed by credible threat of force stands a decent chance of succeeding, as it appears to have accomplished in this instance.

While these events will continue to play themselves out, in spite of the UN’s success in destroying Syrian chemical weapons materials this new conventional wisdom arose and remains in place. Large numbers of observers on both sides of the Atlantic have been speaking in terms of “the end of Britain’s ability to project power,” “the impotence of the West,” and so forth. It appeared to many that Putin had gotten Obama, Cameron, and Hollande off the hook, and furthermore that the rush of events had left the leaders not only weakened but also leading countries that were now seriously constrained from intervening anywhere let alone in Syria.

This assessment is misguided. Things are not as they appear. First, had the above mistakes been fewer or absent then the significantly soured mood among western elites and the public alike would not have occurred. It is highly unlikely these leaders will repeat any of these missteps. Second, although there is a mild new public opinion restraint, it need not prevent the US-UK-Fr troika from acting were their interests truly to call for action; in fact, none of them are required by their constitutions to seek or receive parliamentary approval to use force abroad. Moreover, this new restraint may only be temporary.

Third, part of the reason for this is a unique factor that emerged after a prolonged absence with regard to recent interventions, viz. the Bush-Blair legacy of faulty intelligence that cast a pall over this aborted intervention (in the minds of the public certainly but also prominently in the minds of parliamentarians). Instead of waiting for the damning UN weapons inspectors report, the troika went forward with a robust argument for intervention and a weak plea to “trust us” that did not past muster. Fourth, the military capabilities of western allies remain the same along with their unchanged interests, thus the strategic imperative for preparing in advance for MENA crises is intact as well.

Upon even closer examination, the new conventional wisdom appears almost odd. In the case of France, the conditions were ripe for the French to play a full role until the mistakes of Hollande’s counterparts drastically undermined him in the eyes of the public. Nonetheless the French have been forceful on the diplomatic front, for example by rallying Security Council forces for a robust UN resolution immediately after the Russian intervention (and more recently pressing Iran even harder than the U.S. for concessions). A solid resolution resulted, with the Russians agreeing language that will ensure any Syrian non-compliance will trigger a review that could involve Chapter 7 military actions.

In the case of Britain, Cameron was so confident of winning authorization that he allowed the Tory whips in Parliament to let 13 MPs miss the vote due to prior commitments, and the number that were absent turned out to be the precise margin of defeat. With any savvy or even advance warning the whips no doubt could have garnered support from many of the Tory MPs who voted against the measure. The surprise no vote in the House of Commons, a close negative vote, is less an indication of Britain retrenching than the corrosive legacy of Bush and Blair and the faulty intelligence that led to the Iraq War. This was the element missing in the run up to the Libya operation, but it burst forth from below the surface once parliamentarians and the public in all three countries were being asked to support use of force based less on a convincing case than a “just trust us” approach.

Cameron in fact scheduled his Parliament’s authorization vote at extremely short notice, partly at the behest of President Obama. Even the Labor Party MPs that were happy to give the Government a bloody nose on the authorization vote were not opposed to a second vote upon being supplied with a better intelligence/policy case for the potential use of force. This pointed to another mistake, as the defense and intelligence chiefs did a paltry job themselves of marshaling sufficient evidence, and Cameron’s team did not have the foresight to have them bolster it.

And in the U.S. if not for the whim of deciding to go to Congress after all, the post mortems would have been much less harsh. After all, midweek in early September nearly everyone inside and outside government expected the U.S. et al. to mount a strike against Syria by the weekend. The troika should have waited for the highly damning UN weapons inspectors’ report, and by using that to mount a more effective case for intervention the significance of the Russian diplomatic intervention would have been diminished. Much of western allies’ apparent weakness had as much to do with poor timing as poor political calculation. Therefore this new conventional wisdom appears to amount to little more than a red herring, nonetheless one that has exercised a compelling effect on western media who have a natural tendency to pile on when anyone in politics courts controversy of any kind.

In the end if Assad supported by Russia fails to comply with its agreement with western allies, the troika will have much more legitimacy behind any potential joint decision to intervene. Not only has the UN report been highly legitimizing with its effectively incontrovertible evidence, but the more that Assad and Putin may choose to drag this out and obfuscate the more the opinion of parliamentarians will harden against them and in favor of bringing Syria to heel and fully reestablishing deterrence against the use of WMDs of any kind.

The bungled Syria diplomacy by the allies in August and September has changed none of this: threats remain the same; interests remain the same; capabilities remain the same; resources remain the same; and although domestic support has suffered because of the mistakes that brought President Putin in from the cold, western allies need to be prepared for the next international security crisis in the MENA or elsewhere. No one saw the Arab Awakening coming; no one saw the Libyan conflict coming; no one saw the Mali conflict coming; and the same goes for the quasi regional war centered in Syria that may yet require forceful western intervention.

If not there then threats are likely to emerge from somewhere else, for conditions in this region of the world have not changed. Instability roils across the MENA region, and al-Qaeda and its affiliates have been emboldened by this dynamic.  One need only examine back-to-back covers of The Economist magazine in September.  There is a good reason the magazine followed up its “Weakened West” cover the next week by putting al-Qaeda on its cover :  it and its nine different affiliates are resurgent, now occupying more territory and employing more fighters than any time in its 25-year history.

Western allies may wish to rest on their recovering economic laurels and avoid foreign interventions of any kind, but the rest of the world–and MENA in particular–won’t let them.