September 17, 2013

Syria and American Leadership

The president’s rudderless policies in the Middle East have made peace an elusive goal.

A major question of political theory and statecraft is: What justifies the use of force, and when shall it be exercised? This issue is particularly relevant today given recent events in the Middle East. As a nation, we are struggling with many tough issues. Should we attack Syria? Should we launch a preemptive strike against Iran? Should we back a repressive regime in Egypt?

Everyone accepts, as a normative matter, the basic libertarian credo that, to exit the state of nature, individuals should agree to the mutual renunciation of force, without which social order is not possible. This social contract ends bloodshed and angst, allowing human cooperation to flourish. But the implementation of the policy is treacherous. How does society create a state strong enough to control private aggression, but not so strong that it itself becomes a greater source of aggression?

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Illustration by Barbara Kelley

Of course, libertarian theory says that a nation that is attacked can defend itself. But beyond that noncontroversial principle, libertarian theory has nothing to say about a range of complex questions, such as what level of precaution is needed prior to attack, whether a preemptive strike is permissible in light of the seriousness of the threat, the likely success of the response, and the danger of collateral damages. Libertarian theory is also weak in dealing with uncertainty. But this is not simply a deficit of libertarian thinking. No theory can answer these questions. At most, theory informs the debate.

Nor does the inquiry get any easier by asking how a nation should respond to deadly attacks on innocent nations or innocent people. On this score, think of the domestic analogy to the international situation. If A sees B attack C in a dark alley, what should A do? Libertarian theory says that A cannot join B in attacking C. But it says nothing on the hard choices that remain. Should A seek to prevent B from attacking C, and run the risk of getting wounded or killed, without saving C? Or should A stand aside, at which point B’s attack succeeds against C, and emboldens B and others to try that same tactic again in the near future.

The choices are every bit as hard, and the stakes are higher, in the international arena. No theory of rights explains whether to exercise our admitted right to sit any struggle out, or our admitted right to assist the threatened target, and how. This is not to say that we should throw up our hands in despair and roll the dice. The only workable approach rests on a cold-blooded set of utilitarian calculations that examines each of the possible scenarios with an effort to determine its costs and benefits. But how?

In looking at Syria, it does not take much insight to realize that the Russians have played the United States for suckers. The United States looks as though it has been bullied off the stage by the Russians who now are in the dominant position of quarantining Syrian chemical weapons that for all we know could have been acquired from Russia or its allies. The process of verification by the United States at two steps removed is likely to prove hopeless, now that the Syrians have dispersed their chemical weapons. The administration’s waffling has led to the grave deterioration of America’s bargaining position.

Bad Bargaining, Rand Paul Style

Part of the difficulty lies with the Senate’s most prominent libertarian voice, Rand Paul, who recently wrote in the Washington Times:

I will not vote to send my son, your son or anyone’s daughter to war unless a compelling American interest is present. I am not convinced that we have a compelling interest in the Syrian civil war, and I will push for a permanent delay of this vote.

The first half of his proposition is correct in principle, but difficult to implement in practice. A compelling American interest includes, as Paul recognizes, a strong response to the al-Qaeda attack of 9/11, to avenge past wrongs, and to neutralize or deter their repetition. Ironically, a dovish posture makes this objective elusive, because it is a decision to not stay the course over the long haul. For example, once the United States declares victory and implements a fixed plan to leave Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and its allies know that they need only lay low until the American presence is gone, at which time, they can turn up the heat again. Eternal vigilance is indeed the price of liberty.

The second half of Paul’s proposition is fraught with yet greater danger. The standard of a “compelling American interest” is just too narrow to deal with the full range of threats to world peace. Senator Paul goes to great pains to insist that he is not an “isolationist” in foreign affairs, but the word “American” in the phrase “compelling American interest” creates just that impression both at home, and equally importantly, abroad.

Think back to the onset of the Second World War, and ask whether the Lend-Lease Act of 1941, so critical to British survival, advanced compelling American interest given that German bombs were directed solely towards London and not towards New York City? Should the United States have entered into a nonaggression treaty with the Germans if the Germans had given us a credible promise that they would not attack Canada, Mexico, or the U.S.? What a disaster for the world that would have been! If we are not willing to use force in defense of our allies, we will soon have no allies to defend.

The situation becomes only more difficult in light of the humanitarian issues that are raised by the Syrian conflict, in which thousands have been killed or maimed, and millions have been forcibly displaced from their homes. None of this is a direct threat to any American interests. Consequently, Bashar al-Assad now enjoys a free hand, as far as the United States is concerned, in dealing with his own dissidents.

At this point, repression will increase on the one side, followed by heinous acts of retaliation on the other. Interventions will of course take place by other nations—think Russia or Iran—who define their interests more broadly. Our erstwhile allies have less confidence in our national position. Yet no one knows exactly what the United States will do in response to their shrinking options.  

Bad Bargaining, Barack Obama Style

Whatever the errors of the Paul position, he at least makes one point sorely missing from the President’s playbook. For Obama, the root difficulty comes from a total lack of understanding of the bargaining environment that he is in.

In dealing with friends, the appropriate way to bargain is often to overlook the dangers of going first and putting one’s self at risk. In business, people get to choose the people with whom they want to bargain. By choosing well, it is possible to have some trading partners whom one can prudently trust. Taking the first small step is a way to establish credibility with a potential trading partner who is always worried about the Hobbesian assurance question: if I go first, will you reciprocate?

The risk of being caught can easily be offset by the ability to establish a long-term relationship where substantial long-term gains deter both sides from defecting to garner small short-term gains. Most businesses and partnerships work in just this fashion, and the cynic who trusts no one finds himself working in relative isolation.

Foreign affairs, however, denies nations the luxury of choosing trading partners. We have to deal with the Russians, Chinese, Iranians, and North Koreans because of the power they have to destabilize the world order. Nothing is in my view more dangerous in this setting than to indulge in the same assumptions with foreign enemies that you do with domestic, or indeed, foreign friends.

Making concessions on missile defense in order to work the now fabled “reset” with the Russians will have adverse outcomes. The supposed concession in return will never appear before the next demand is made. The strategies that allowed the President, as a fabled community organizer, to win support from the business world won’t work with the Russians or Iranians, who understand weakness and will exploit it.

Yet that is just what the President is determined to do. His entire effort to gain support for his ill-fated resolution to use limited force against Syrian supplies of chemical weapons was both too weak and too strong at the same time. It was too weak because it did not answer the question of what the United States should do if Assad continues to engage in mass murder by more traditional weapons. It was also too weak because it left the course of action unclear if the Syrians should seek to expand the conflict, say by some attack against Israel.

Yet, at the same time, it was too strong because it committed the United States to a position that it could not possibly win. Rand Paul has a point when he says that a coherent strategy needs a political objective for going in and an exit strategy for getting out. By limiting the means chosen—no boots on the ground—for the stated end, Obama is helping our enemies weather this blow. It is tragic that people who favor firmer, clearer action in the face of major human tragedy should be divided among themselves as to whether the second best choice is to do nothing or to do something that is weak and counterproductive.

The reason for this impasse lays in the casual way that the President announces a red line that he is both unwilling and unable to cross. It was a desperate sign of last minute improvisation to go to Congress after the weapons were used when firm planning was required earlier on. It is quite clear that the American system, which requires a declaration of war for the President to use force, places serious limitations on the ability to wage war. Like all such limitations, it is a mixed blessing that prevents reckless intervention on the one hand, but can lead to hopeless indecision on the other.

The President has put himself in an impossible position. By dithering, he has created a precipitous loss of American credibility. Right now, his Syrian policy has befuddled Congress; emboldened Russia, Syria, and Iran; weakened Israel; and thrown our European allies into disarray. Let us hope that the President can make things right. The Obama/Chamberlain comparisons over Syria and Iran are perhaps premature. But they soon won’t be unless the President stiffens his spine and exerts the leadership that is so desperately needed.


Richard A. Epstein, Peter and Kirsten Bedford Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at New York University, and senior lecturer at the University of Chicago, researches and writes on a broad range of constitutional, economic, historical, and philosophical subjects. He has taught administrative law, antitrust law, communications law, constitutional law, corporate law, criminal law, employment discrimination law, environmental law, food and drug law, health law, labor law, Roman law, real estate development and finance, and individual and corporate taxation. His publications cover an equally broad range of topics. His most recent book, published in 2013, is The Classical Liberal Constitution: The Uncertain Quest for Limited Government (2013). He is a past editor of the Journal of Legal Studies (1981–91) and the Journal of Law and Economics (1991–2001).


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