Political scientist Jay Ulfelder begins his blog post against the Obama Administration’s Syria policy as he understands it – “President Obama, You’re the Fish in this Morbid Game of Poker” – by referring to “planned punitive strikes.” For background, Ulfelder links to a post he published in February 2012, but that post does not consider a “punitive” mission and only mentions punishment at all in passing, and instead argues generally against intervention in the strong sense (a policy to determine outcomes in the Syrian civil war). Finally, closing what is only the first sentence of the Fish/Poker post, he turns to a third mission type: “deterring the use of chemical weapons in Syria and beyond.”
These alternatives are all different from each other. They also neither cover the full range of possible purposes or justifications for military action in response to the mass atrocity in East Ghouta, nor directly correspond to the justifications offered by the Administration.
Ulfelder spends the rest of the post addressing one version or reduction of the policy, as deterrence in the abstract, but deterrence is itself a complex concept. Deterring the use of chemical weapons in Syria is a different mission from deterring the use of chemical weapons beyond Syria. Deterring the use of chemical weapons against or in a manner that gravely endangers civilian populations is a different matter than deterring the use of chemical weapons at all. Deterring defiance of the international community is different from deterring the use of chemical weapons. Deterring defiance of the leading nations of the international community, deterring defiance of the leading nation, and deterring defiance of the present leader of that nation are also all different purposes. Deterring any such forms of defiance on the part of Assad as well as on the part of others, deterring it mainly on the part of Assad, and deterring it mainly on the part of others are also different. ((That such different purposes may sometimes very significantly overlap with, serve, and imply each other does not make them identical either conceptually or practically. So, for example, deterrence may to some extent inherently involve intervention, but a mission designed to deter and a mission designed to intervene in the strong sense are different missions. Punishment and deterrence often are related, but not always and strictly: Reasons for punishment may vary greatly, and most politically supportable ones will include some element of deterrence broadly defined, but a retaliatory or retributive or final punishment will be different from preliminary or lower level punishment. Deterrence of different types may be reinforced via punishing acts of different types, but can also often be accomplished in other ways. Any of these purposes or missions is also potentially an end in itself, or a potential independent, primary, or sufficient justification for action. Some or all or none may be achieved whether or not primarily sought or sought at all, and there also will be times when the achievement of one purpose impedes the achievement of some other purpose, for instance if a mission intended to achieve some level of deterrence exhausts the will to intervene.))
Ulfelder and others might attribute any confusion or unclarity on such matters to faulty Administration messaging, but such criticisms refer us to public relations and the stuff of political consultancy, not to the rightness or wrongness of the policy on its own terms. Taken any further, such criticisms tend, absurdly, to turn the existence of complementary moral, political, humanitarian, and other justifications into an argument against a policy, as though, for example, achievement of some humanitarian purpose might detract from the successful protection of an ally, or as though defeat or weakening of a foreign enemy might be ruined by consequent protection or improvement of one’s own domestic political position.
We do not need to concede, however, that the Administration has failed to provide a simple summary of its plan: When asked to narrow the military plan down to just a few words, Administration representatives have complied, settling on “deter and degrade.” Yet the latter term and, more important, its implications, appear nowhere in Ulfelder’s ensuing argument, which treats damage to Assad’s forces or position as a simple sum, like won or lost poker stakes.
To degrade an adversary’s capabilities is not merely a matter of sending a kind of betting signal to a player, though it may, of course, also have that tendency, and powerfully. To degrade capabilities is to reduce or impair them materially. Authentic practitioners and serious students of the military arts may differ on how much damage relatively limited strikes can or are likely to do to regime forces, or to the regime’s own assessment of its own vulnerabilities, but treating the question as irrelevant is unjustified, not least since it will presumably be a main objective of highly trained and very well-equipped military professionals to make the effects un-ignorable and quite other than abstract. If, with Ulfelder, we must compare the interaction between the Syrian and American regimes to a series of poker hands, the question may not be strictly of bids and counter-bids and pots and tells, but may also be of holding one’s cards with broken fingers, making calculations despite one’s concussion, and of formulating strategy with a knife at one’s neck: If the regime’s capacities – command and control, personnel, transportation, re-supply, etc. – are successfully degraded or put in more direct jeopardy, then to the precise extent they are degraded, they will no longer need to be deterred, while deterrence in relationship to uses of the remnant will be enhanced.
As we now engage with Ulfelder’s poker scenario as he presents it, we should note what else is lost in the process of reducing the pre-eminently complex matters of war and and geopolitics to an imaginary card game. So, while Ulfelder reduces the game on its own terms to two players, Assad and Obama or at different points Assad and the international community, the real confrontation already involves many players. It is far from clear that all are playing for the same reasons, or are even playing on the same table, or are even playing the same type of game. We may be dealing with a whole casino of different games and players, or a whole Vegas of casinos, or a whole real world of Vegases.
At least regarding Syrian policy as it has developed, especially in relation to the supposed called bluff on the famous “red line,” my real world looks different from the one Ulfelder describes. In my real world, the President, rather than having been exposed as a bad bluffer, is in the process of responding more or less exactly as he promised he would a little more than a year ago, when he made the following statements:
[A] red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation… We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.
Nowhere in these August 2012 remarks did the President state that the U.S. would respond with military force upon the first report of a chemical weapons-related incident. He twice used the phrase “start seeing,” a construction that implies multiple reports or incidents “on the chemical weapons front” or in “the use of chemical weapons.” He then referred not to a strike, or punishment, or degradation, or intervention, or any other specific measure, but to an alteration in his “equation” or his “calculations.”
To return to gaming terms, it may well be that Assad has misread the President’s “signals,” and has settled on the same estimate of them that Ulfelder and many others have adopted. Yet, the fact remains that after having started seeing movement on the chemical weapons front culminating in an indisputable mass-destruction event, providing prima facie evidence of extreme negligence regarding the lives of innocents, Mr. Obama has clearly changed his calculations significantly.
What would be left would be the “enormous consequences.” Enormities will tend to be in the eye of the beholder, and there is a danger of stopping at an arbitrarily early point in judging them. As, however, for the predicament made untenable by a prior failure to follow through, or to back an earlier bluff or bid, or whatever poker-playing analogy you wish to use, assuming you insist on such, that predicament is not yet the predicament of the U.S. under President Obama, or of the international community, in relationship to the Syrian regime.
At this point Ulfelder’s argument finally turns against itself, in my view decisively, and specifically in regard to the “supposed norm against chemical weapons” (which he continues to reference without distinguishing between its two major modes, anti-military and anti-population). He relies on the poker analogy to make what reads to an amateur like myself, relying on common speech, as essentially a “credibility” argument of the sort that academic specialists in international relations as well as certain types of neo-isolationists or self-styled realists often claim to have definitively and irrevocably undermined (emphasis added):
If I were a ruler considering using chemical weapons at some later date, the lesson I think I’d have learned from Syria so far is that the rest of the world actually isn’t willing to pay a steep cost to reinforce this supposed norm for its own sake. In fact, we’ve developed a tell: if the stakes are high for other reasons, our initial raise will probably be a bluff, and it probably won’t be that costly to stay in the hand and see if that’s right.
The situation under which some or all or most other leaders could perhaps reasonably draw that lesson (or perhaps a lesson substituting “risk” for “steep cost” and also acknowledging other “players,” some also “playing” for immediate life and death “stakes”) has not yet come to pass, since the Syria crisis is not yet over. It may be a lesson that Assad has drawn, unjustifiably or prospectively, but, if so, we do not yet know that he is right to have done so, or that other tyrants contemplating the mass annihilation of people would be right to do so.
According, however, to Ulfelder’s logic, which is not at base much different from the traditional and time-honored understanding of human nature, such a definitive change in calculations, the conclusion by Assad and others that they can get away with it – guaranteeing escalating future mass atrocities – is precisely what must occur if Ulfelder’s preferred policy, of folding now and leaving the table, is adopted.