Tag Archives: Intervention

The Lesser Evil: When does it make sense to intervene on behalf of incumbents?

17 Aug

*This piece was first published in the SSR Resource Centre’s The Hub and is republished with permission from the Centre for Security Governance.

A few weeks ago, Edward H. Carpenter came out with two compelling posts (here and here) in the Duck of Minerva. In his first article, he notes that the Islamic State’s (IS) advance in Syria and Iraq is only one example of recent victories by mobile, non-state Islamic fundamentalist groups organized as networks. In his second, he argues that while the governments these insurgencies seek to topple may not meet international standards of good governance:

“No population has benefited from the long-running civil wars or instability that has resulted from an existing state government being overthrown by networked opposition elements; and few regional governments are able to beat these networks quickly and decisively on their own. Thus, the West should consider making short-term, limited intervention on the side of existing governmental bodies the norm.”

These interventions, Carpenter writes, would combine airstrikes and ground forces comprised of government and international troops. Interventions would only occur when a conflict meets a threshold of a few pre-determined conditions, “Such a threshold would probably need to specify level and pace of conflict, presence (or lack) of diplomatic avenues of resolution, and several other measures beyond a simple casualty count.”

In response to Carpenter’s article, Rachel Strohm wrote a response piece teasing out some of the argument’s problems. Strohm uses the Rwandan Genocide as an example of a case when a state’s violent overthrow led to an improvement in the lives of its citizens. Because it is hard not to improve on a regime that kills a huge percentage of its population, there is a good argument that when a state is that brutal, seeking to crush any armed resistance will only allow the state to continue attacks on civilians.

Strohm’s point is a good one, and gets at something Carpenter’s argument seems to imply, but does not come out and say. The issue is not really with network insurgencies in general, but their relative capability to create a new stable new government. The ability of violent groups to create positive and intentional change is frequently overstated, and only in rare cases of extreme states weakness or government brutality does a rebel group’s ascent to power potentially offer a less violent future.

Determining when this is the case is difficult, but Carpenter’s own analysis of the nature of insurgent groups offers one potential avenue. He notes that they tend to be organized in networks rather than hierarchies, allowing for battlefield success. However, networks are less effective in performing governance than hierarchies because they lack the centralization and chain of command necessary to perform activities like tax collection, consistent law enforcement, and paying civil servants. As Weinstein argues, when commanders lack control over their soldiers, these soldiers are more likely to abuse civilians. Therefore, one metric for determining whether or not to support a non-state actor is their level of hierarchal organization in comparison to the state’s. In Rwanda, the state’s devolution of violent power to the Interahamwe, a non-state actor, meant it more closely resembled a network than the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels.

Following up on Strohm’s post, I see five additional implications of Carpenter’s argument that are worth fleshing out. First, Carpenter’s proposed interventions would follow the example of the French intervention in Mali, where superior airpower and ground troops were able to halt the insurgents’ advance. Carpenter hints that a similar policy would have been the right choice in Libya. However, these two countries share two characteristics that most others lack. Libya and Mali contain huge swathes of desert between cities and a correspondingly low population density. Rebels wishing to overthrow the state must traverse these areas, and in the process, become easy targets for a competent air force.

In many other countries this isn’t the case. In Syria, which Carpenter also mentions, putting down the rebels early would have required significant numbers of international ground troops due to western Syria’s population density. Assad has already tried, and failed, to crush the rebellion with superior airpower. While there is a good argument that Carpenter’s template approach would work against IS, there are many other insurgencies around the world where it would not.

Second, Carpenter doesn’t fully account for the possibility of failed interventions, which could happen in several ways. Had an international coalition attempted to intervene in Syria for example, its probable failure to crush rebel forces would have likely entrenched the conflict even more rapidly. Additionally, even if responses are pre-planned in the way Carpenter envisions, they may suffer from poor coordination, or a lack of financial and human resources. If the intervention fails to crush the rebels quickly, they may end up prolonging the conflict and supporting an abusive government.

Third, a norm that provides for consistent international military support of incumbents would provide abusive regimes with perverse incentives. Leaders wishing to crush a rival or gain domestic support could provoke a violent confrontation with opponents, leading to an international intervention in the incumbent’s favor. For states like Sudan that chronically make war against internal opponents, consistent international support for incumbents against military challengers could encourage persistent aggressive behavior.

Fourth, Carpenter perhaps underestimates the enormity of the normative shift that he prescribes. Widespread international armed support for incumbent regimes would effectively de-legitimize armed resistance as a way to force concessions or overthrow oppressive authorities. Subsequently, it would bring states closer together by putting each one, regardless of its behavior, on equal footing. While decreasing the overall legitimacy of armed challenges to states would likely be a positive development, the few potential exceptions outlined above stand out clearly. It would also be very difficult to convince powerful states to work together to defeat all armed insurgents. Powerful states are not the ones that tend to face armed challengers, while various non-state armed groups often further their interests. Therefore, it is highly unlikely the norm would be enforced consistently, even if this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Finally, the de-legitimization of armed struggle that would occur through Carpenter’s proposal would mean a likely increase in the number of nonviolent insurrections against incumbents. As Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth have shown, nonviolent campaigns that overthrow the government lead to more stable and more democratic subsequent governments, so this change would be unquestionably positive.

Carpenter’s argument has its merits, and his somewhat controversial support for incumbents makes sense in some circumstances. However, before taking the proposal seriously, as I hope some policymakers will, it makes sense to give the argument a stronger theoretical background and identify exceptions. Doing so might lead to an exceptionally promising if somewhat unconventional way to think about international violence prevention.

The Conscientious Nation-Builder’s Dilemma

6 Nov

Why do state-building efforts fail?  It’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.  To address the limitations of state-building, I want to use the perspective of the “conscientious nation-builder”: a well-educated and well-meaning foreigner working within the bureaucratic apparatus of a governmental organization undertaking a nation-building effort.  This framework problematizes the notion that nation-building is fundamentally a technical exercise and helps explore the contradictions and paradoxes faced by nation-builders that not even the most nuanced solutions can solve.

An assumption made by most political scientists and nation-builders is that most states carry out governance evenly in their territories.  Risse et al. in Governance Without a State challenge this notion, arguing that in most states in the world, state power is severely limited beyond cities.  In place of state power, local governance structures operate.  These structures interact and negotiate with the state.  This is even more true in states such as Somalia, the DRC, and Afghanistan which have undergone extended nation-building attempts.  If many developed states cannot effectively exert their power on rural areas, attempting to recreate this model in states already suffering from a severe lack of capacity presents obvious problems.  Risse’s volume argues that nation-building attempts should work with existing state-local partnerships rather than working toward an ideal-type state.

Nation-building operates on the implicit assumption that there are inherent, concrete benefits in nation-building.  Ariel Ahram, in Proxy Warriors, argues that this isn’t always the case:

“The problem is that so many efforts to strengthen states and eliminate militias have proven quixotic if not counterproductive.  Existing policy options do little to alter the fundamental incentive structure that allow leaders in most developing countries to continue to rely on localized, informal militia forces.  Peace building and international trusteeship are susceptible to subversion by both their sponsors and their recipient or target states.  Reenacting Europe’s blood-drenched history by allowing strong states to weed out the weak is dubious on both practical and moral ground.”

Similarly, Rory Stewart argues that the presence of the state is not always necessarily better than its absence in Can Intervention Work?:

“It is true that there were no police and civil servants in the villages of central Afghanistan, and there had not been for over twenty-five years.  Yet I walked entirely safely alone and unarmed for three hundred miles through them without being robbed or murdered, because the area was generally densely controlled, in a way that had little resemblance to the descriptions or prescriptions of the international community.” 

While Ahram argues that states do generally provide security more effectively to their people, he also posits that attempts to assert a state’s monopoly on violence in areas where it doesn’t exist may only further endanger the population’s physical security.  If militias are often no worse than states, and attempting to implement state primacy has negative effects, why do nation-building attempts seek to do just that?  I think there’s an element of control: it’s easier for outsiders to understand states as Westphalian, rather than dealing with local rulers, structures, and customs.  If states do not fit this blueprint, international actors have more difficulty interacting and negotiating with non-state actors that practice governance.

Ahram and Risse et al.’s functional approach to states and state-buildings is refreshing, but they miss an important point in their policy prescriptions.  People generally want states for the same reasons nation-builders do.  Even if states are abusive, they provide order and predictability that may or may not be provided by the non-state actors that fill the void.  For the conscientious nation-builder, this presents a puzzle.  While the end goal of a state monopoly on violence will likely be popular, the road to that point is littered with barriers that may make the enterprise counterproductive.  Even if the target state does achieve a monopoly on violence, human security may be no better than it was previously, and many people may have died along the way.

James Scott’s Seeing Like a State argues that authoritarian high-modernist attempts to remake society are destined to fail.  The logic of the state revolves around ordering complexity, or what Adam Elkus would call “binning“.   However societies tend to resist this attempt at uniformity.  Individual interests clash with bureaucratic logic, and local social structures do not all function in the way that the state finds easiest to control.  Therefore there is a fundamental tension between the state (order) and society (disorder) that authoritarian high modernism finds itself unable to overcome.  It is simply impossible for a state to regulate society without conceding to the society’s culture, history, and structure.  The project of nation-building can be conceived as authoritarian high modernism.  For example, Rory Stewart argues that state-building attempts in Afghanistan, and in particular a national development strategy, failed to adapt to the specifics of the Afghan situation:

“This specialized language–drawn from development theory and overlaid with management consultancy before being inserted into the multilateral policy-drafting process–was bewildering…Among the sixty-nine separate tables and charts in this 137-page plan, including ones on “predicted teledensity” and “status and accomplishment, national police and law enforcement,” the following words did not appear: Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Islam, Sharia, jihad, communism, Northern Alliance, warlord, democracy, equality, insurgency, resistance, and consent.  Were you to delete the word Afghanistan and replace it with the word Botswana, it would be very difficult to know of which country you were speaking.”

All of this puts the conscientious nation-builder in a difficult position.  Nation-building institutional culture prioritizes addressing and implementing abstract concepts, such as the rule of law and accountable governance, over deep country-specific expertise and an ability to adapt to local situations.  This isn’t a new problem: Scott notes that well-intentioned officials in 19th century Germany failed to successfully codify local forestry practices.  Even if the conscientious nation-builder wishes to get local input on nation-building plans and work with existing social structures, they face two significant impediments.  First, securing physical access to local populations can be impossible in conflict zones.  Nation-builders in Afghanistan spent almost all their time in compounds and needed enormous security details to move beyond those walls.  Second, it’s very possible these ideas that cut against the grain of nation-building culture won’t receive any support from higher-ups (akin to Ferguson’s concept of ‘development discourse’).

The conscientious nation-builder has to deal with the myth of internal sovereignty, the potential harm caused by nation-building, and an institutional culture that leans toward implementing formulaic solutions, but all these may yet be surmountable.  However, the last challenge, that of societies that stubbornly refuse to move away from non-liberal forms of local governance, may be a bridge too far.  Working with these local forms of authorities clash not only with the belief in state primacy, but also with the democratic consensus that permeates nation-building projects.  Rory Stewart again:

“There had been many regimes in the last thirty years, backed by Americans, Soviets, Saudis, Pakistanis, and now the UN mandate: royalist, nationalist, Marxist, Soviet, theocratic, and pro-Western, with many constitutions.  But there always seems to be one power in Kamenj.  Mohsin’s [the local strongman] was not the state that the international community or indeed many Afghans wanted–it was conservative and patriarchal.  But did the international community understand it, or have the formula to transform it?”

Even the conscientious nation-builder is simply not equipped to deal with this problem.  Working with rather than removing people such as Mohsin challenge the very intent of the nation-building enterprise, but so does not working with him.  Instead, as many nation-builders have done before, the conscientious nation-builder may well work with Mohsin and attempt to persuade him to liberalize his rule and surrender to state power, which he will likely agree to do without following through.  The conscientious nation-builder then has arrived at a policy destined to fail with only the best of intentions.

What is the conscientious nation-builder to do?  The problems in this post are not resolvable, but their negative consequences can be dampened.  First, the conscientious nation-builder should place the physical security of a population above everything else, and should work toward diffusing this norm within their institution.  Second, they should elicit and privilege advice from locals and country specialists who have seen previous nation-building attempts fail.  Finally, the conscientious nation-builder should be aware of the limits of the nation-building enterprise.

*A special thanks to Sara Fitzpatrick for editing and to Shervin Malekzadeh for helping me come up with these ideas.

Chemical Weapons and Diplomacy

28 Sep

*This article originally appeared on the STAND blog and was co-authored with Sean Langberg.

On September 15th, John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed on a framework for the removal and decommission of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.  Fortunately, the deal prevented US airstrikes against Syria, which STAND advocated against based on their potential negative consequences for civilians.  While the deal offers some diplomatic progress, there are still many questions surrounding the actual effects of the deal on the course of the conflict.

The chemical weapons agreement, while representing a positive instance of multilateral cooperation, will do little to end the broader conflict.  It only focuses on chemical weapons, which have killed a small percentage of civilians.  Its implementation will happen over the course of a year and there is no guarantee that plan will be effective.  Assad may renege on the agreement or his government may be unable to release all the chemical weapons stockpiles to international monitors due to the intense nature of the conflict.  Finally, the chemical weapons deal could distract crucial diplomatic energy from a broader deal.  This deal is tenuous as is, and if Russia and the United States lose the desire to negotiate an end to the conflict, it may have few practical consequences for Syrian civilians.

While the deal could have negative consequences, there are also plenty of reasons to be hopeful.  First, the deal opens new diplomatic channels between Russia, the US, and Syria.  This warming of relations could potentially lead to a negotiated solution, the best possible endgame for Syrian civilians.  Second, days after the agreement, the Syrian deputy prime minister indicated that the regime would be open to a ceasefire, marking the first time the Assad government has openly signaled its willingness to pursue a negotiated solution.  Finally, in a speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Obama pledged an additional $339 million for humanitarian aid.  It will still not meet the total need of the enormous humanitarian crisis, but it is a big step forward.

There are still numerous challenges ahead for diplomatic progress in Syria.  Islamic extremists are unlikely to accept any deal, and their influence has grown with a recent merger of multiple groups.  Similarly, other opposition groups have made it clear that negotiations that involve Assad staying in power will not be feasible.  Despite the numerous barriers to an inclusive, diplomatic solution, STAND continues to support a negotiated solution, increased humanitarian aid, and a complete arms embargo.

“No War in Syria”: A Response to the Anti-War Left

17 Sep

Debate over intervention in Syria has raged across the blogosphere with particular intensity since President Obama’s announcement that he would seek congressional approval airstrikes on Syria’s military infrastructure.  Fortunately, that potential disaster was averted by the recent chemical weapons deal.  During this debate, one strong voice against intervention came from the anti-war far left.  Though I agreed that the administration’s plan was an atrocious idea, I was seriously disappointed by these arguments; they were generally sloppy, simplistic, and sometimes even downright racist.  However, I saw few mainstream commentators or even bloggers I read take on this issue.

The “No War on/in Syria” rallying cry really irked me.  There is already a war in Syria and on Syrian civilians, a war in which over 100,000 people have already died.  Arguing from the “No War on/in Syria” starting points espouses a US-centric point of view and general ignorance.  It’s also important to differentiate Obama’s proposed plan from how we conceive of ‘war’ generally.  The mandate and timeframe of the intervention were both explicitly limited, and there would have been no American troops on the ground.  Another problem with the left’s aversion to intervention was criticized well by Ari Kohen, “The idea that staying out of the Syrian conflict is so obviously good “for humanity” is just as monstrously foolish as the idea that shooting missiles at Syrian targets is so obviously right and good. But Madonna and so many thousands of others are absolutely certain that humanity is obviously best served by sitting idly by while so many people are killed.”  Many among the anti-war left would hold the respect for human life as one of their dearest values, but simply arguing against any type of intervention at-large without understanding the potential impacts is a direct contradiction of those values.

The knee-jerk reaction from the left against the Obama administration’s plan distorted and essentialized the Middle East.  The American interest in Syria was assumed to be somewhere between oil and imperialism, forcing Obama to state that Syria would not be ‘another Iraq or Afghanistan’.  This line of argument has become well-entrenched post-2001, but it couldn’t really be farther from the truth in Syria.  Yes, Obama’s decision to go to Congress for authorization was a political decision, but it was not an attempt to please the military-industrial complex, conquer foreign peoples, or any of the other false narratives anti-war groups propagated to score political points.  Another well-known trope hijacked by those opposed to intervention in Syria was the terrorist bogeyman (this is not to say that extremist groups do not play a major role in the Syrian opposition).  Ironically, the anti-war left had fought against dehumanization and Islamophobia since 9/11, but were more than happy to reproduce these racist stereotypes and partner with the far right or even Bashar al-Assad to improve its visibility on a hot-button issue.

None of this is to say that intervention in Syria was a good idea.  Intervention would likely increase civilian casualties, close off diplomatic avenues, and do little to change the facts on the ground.  In my opinion, those are the right arguments.  As I noted on facebook, there is nothing more frustrating than people that agree with you but delegitimize themselves by making poor arguments.  The anti-war left heroically and persistently fought against America’s follies in Iraq and Afghanistan, but have let themselves and their supporters down on Syria.

Syria Policy Statement

5 Sep

*This post originally appeared on the STAND blog.  It outlines STAND’s official policy on Syria.

STAND has kept a close watch on Syria from the first days of peaceful protests in 2011.  Since then, we have have been shocked and dismayed as cycles of violence have become further and further entrenched.  We have consistently urged the United States government, as well as other international actors, to create and implement strategies to mitigate violence against civilians.  However, we feel that the Obama administration’s proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Syria is not one such strategy.  Therefore, STAND strongly urges Congress to reject the current plan of action, and in turn urge the Obama administration to pursue alternative strategies aimed, first and foremost, at protecting the lives of all Syrian civilians.

There are multiple reasons STAND does not feel it can support strikes.  First, relevant academic studies suggest that this intervention will likely kill more civilians than it will save.  Second, the limited timeframe and mandate of the intervention will likely not change the fundamental dynamics of violence in Syria.  The Assad regime will come out only marginally weakened and more motivated to exact revenge on civilians.  Third, STAND believes that a negotiated solution to the conflict would provide the best situation for civilians even despite the current unlikelihood of that happening.  An airstrike campaign will only decrease the already slim chances of bringing the various players, both Syrian and international, to the negotiating table.  Furthermore, a military intervention will divert crucial resources from other more productive avenues.

Instead, there are three strategies that STAND urges the United States government to adopt to facilitate civilian protection.  First, we urge a total weapons embargo of Syria.  The United States is certainly not the only player supplying arms, so it should put diplomatic pressure on Russia, Iran, the gulf countries, the EU and all other international players to cease providing weapons to various groups in Syria.  We believe stopping the flow of arms to all sides to be justified in the interest of civilian protection.  Second, we urge the United States to lead the international community in raising the $3.5 billion the UN has requested in humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and IDP’s.  This is one of the most concrete ways the international community can aid the millions of Syrians in need in the midst of a crisis that is quickly consuming the region.  The United States should also pledge to allow Syrian refugees to seek asylum in the US.  Lastly, we urge that the United States continue to work with international actors to find a negotiated political solution to the conflict in Syria.  In the interest of civilian protection, the United States should do its absolute best to end this conflict as soon as possible.  It is neither in the United States’ national interest nor in the interest of Syrian civilians to pursue policies that will exacerbate the conflict while simultaneously closing off avenues to end it.

Quickfire Thoughts on Obama’s Syria Announcement

31 Aug

Obama’s big Rose Garden announcement today deserves some attention.  I don’t have time to write a full post, so here are three reactions I had.  Any pushback is appreciated.

This was not Obama’s first choice

Obama has been quite cautious on intervening in Syria despite significant pressure to the contrary.  His approval of arms transfers smacked of an attempt to silence the critics.  This is evidenced by the fact that the FSA is yet to actually receive any of those arms.  The chemical weapons attack on Ghouta presented another instance in which pressure from within the administration and from other countries (France and Israel primarily)  forced Obama’s hand.  Enforcing the norm against chemical weapons likely played a role in Obama’s decision to take this route of action, but it is clearly a compromise to ‘do something’ rather than an intentional strategy Obama believes will help achieve his objectives.    Passing the buck to Congress was a brilliant political move.  Instead of taking unilateral (or perhaps multilateral if France and Israel jump on board) action, he’s making congress take the blame for an intervention that’s both widely unpopular and unlikely to achieve positive results.  These factors may mean an intervention doesn’t happen, allowing Obama to not use military force and coming out looking looking less weak than inaction would have.  Whatever Congress decides, it also improves Obama’s image as a consensus-seeker.

This is not a humanitarian intervention

Charli Carpenter said it well on Foreign Policy.  It’s not R2P because it’s not going through the UNSC.  Also, the scope and target of the mission are not consistent with protecting civilians.  Studies on interventions that target the incumbent demonstrate that they actually lead to more civilian deaths.  If an intervention was open-ended, and included a more expansive mandate, it could possibly decrease civilian casualties.  While my STAND colleague Hannah Finnie drew  my attention to the similarities between Obama’s speech and LBJ’s Vietnam speech, I think further escalation beyond a limited timeframe and mandate is unlikely.  Two key phrases encapsulate this line of thinking.*  First Obama said, “We know our military cannot solve the underlying conflict in Syria.”  This points to a limited and focused intervention.  Second, POTUS argued that the “ancient sectarian differences” present in Syria are impossible to solve with military force.  This is reminiscent of Clinton’s thinking on Bosnia (influenced by the Robert Kaplan book Ghosts of the Balkans), which caused him to be very pessimistic about the benefits of intervention.  While the US did eventually did get further involved in Bosnia, it was not at Clinton’s behest.  Obama’s buck passing has squashed the possibility of expanding the mission, at least for the foreseeable future.

Intervention, if it happens, is unlikely to be successful

Obama stated that the primarily goal of the mission was to enforce the norm against chemical weapons.  While there is generally an international consensus against chemical weapons use, it’s important to remember Syria hasn’t signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, so it didn’t break that international law in the Ghouta incident (it was still a war crime according to my basic understanding of international law).  The limited timeframe  of this intervention makes deterrence against further use unlikely, however.  Assad already knows that Obama is reluctant to use force, and assuming the bombing happens, it’s unlikely Assad will be cowed into refraining from chemical weapons use following the conclusion of the US mission (doubts about CW’s strategic value aside).  There is simply not the political will for a open-ended mission that would potentially prevent the long-term use of chemical weapons.  Even then, it’s unclear what the value of such an intervention would be.  Many more civilians have been killed by conventional means than chemical weapons, and even if the latter arouse our disgust.  Deaths are deaths, and if a limited intervention is going to cause more than it prevents, it’s clearly a bad policy.  I seriously doubt that this is what Obama wants, but when military inaction becomes impossible, he’s judged that seeking congressional approval for a piecemeal strategy that’s bound to fail is preferable to a large-scale, boots on the ground intervention that has a slightly higher chance of success.

*I don’t have the speech transcript in front of me, so these were transcribed from memory.

When Reasonable Lungs are too Tired to Shout Anymore: On Arming the Syrian Rebels

15 Jun

After months of stumbling toward some sort of military intervention, the Obama administration has finally fallen across the finish line and decided to arm the Syrian rebels.  This decision, for the most part, initiated a massive collective groan in the American foreign policy community, and once we’d all come to terms with the stupidity of the decision, we, as nature dictates, started to argue about why it happened.

The reasons for the collective groan are obvious, and there have been no shortage of voices that have sketched out in vivid detail why arming the rebels (or other proposed military options) is a boneheaded idea.  Firstly, there isn’t a long-term game plan.  Arming the opposition will moderately augment the rebels’ military strength, but not enough to topple Assad.  According to past experiences with arming rebels (Afghanistan), these arms will eventually get into the wrong hands.  Other proposed options, such as a no-fly zone (NFZ), or cratering government runways, similarly won’t do enough to topple Assad or stop the slaughter of civilians.  No one’s seriously talking about military intervention, which is the only option with long-term logic, even if that logic is also fatally flawed.  Secondly, all of these “strategies” point back to the larger issue of what the goal of American policy in Syria is.  There are three possible options: civilian protection, toppling Assad, or intensifying a proxy war that taxes Iran and Hezbollah at minimal cost.  It’s obviously not the first.  And it’s not the second for the reasons explained above.  Daniel Drezner has argued it’s the third, but that explanation falls short too.  If Obama really saw Syria as the perfect place to engage in a proxy war with Iran and Hezbollah, why didn’t he do it earlier?  Why wait until chemical weapons use is impossible to deny (it was clear as day in April)?

Ultimately, arming the rebels is not the result any coherent, grand strategy.  Rather, it is the consequence of moral and militaristic pressures on the Obama administration.   Diverse sources, from John McCain to Anne-Marie Slaughter to the State Department, have nudged the White House to “do something”.  These calls to action, lacking any strategic legs to stand on, rely on two strategies: moral, emotional appeals and misleading statements regarding America’s credibility.  The first is the most common.  Moral appeals on Syria minimize crucial strategic concerns in favor emotional parallels with past atrocities and empty declarations on the moral necessity of action.  While less common, some conservative politicians and pundits have thrown down the credibility gauntlet: if America does not intervene in the face of such atrocities, it will lose respect among fellow nations.  This ignores the high probability that military intervention in Syria, in whatever form, will fail, and that there is a strong global consensus against American intervention in the Middle East post-Iraq.  The lack of any serious strategy means fractures within the decision-making apparatus (which exhibits some of the characteristics Pearlman describes) have produced exceedingly bad policy at an even worse time.  The future is bleak for Syria.