Five more points about the Syria strike

The fear imbalance

One notable aspect of the Syria drama is the imbalance in fear levels between the United States and Russia. The Russian media has been full of warnings about a US-Russian military clash and the impending outbreak of World War III. Russian professional analysts have likewise been very alarmist. To cite but one example: Dmitri Trenin, a prominent Russian foreign policy specialist and director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote a piece for the Foreign Policy website subtitled, “Trump’s latest airstrikes are a new U.S.-Russian missile crisis that risks devastating escalation.”

By contrast, I don’t remember a single reference to World War III on American television, or even to the possibility that Syria could lead to a major conventional or nuclear war with Russia. American specialist and security officials are rather more alarmed, but as Trenin suggests, most still appear confident that the risk of a major U.S.-Russia war breaking out in Syria is low because the United States and its allies have such a preponderance of force in the eastern Mediterranean.

My take is the same as it has been for some time with respect to the risks of war between Russia and the United States: a significant risk of something catastrophic is worth worrying about, and it would be a terrible error to sleepwalk into disaster. But the point I want to make here is that I have the impression that the fear level about Syria in the American public is quite low. It seems to be somewhat higher in the U.K., France, and other European countries, but still much less than in Russia. Continue reading

Five points about Friday’s Syria strike

1. It’s not over

The Trump administration has made clear that Friday’s strike was a one-off intended to (1) degrade the ability of Damascus to produce high-quality chemical weapons and (2) deter the regime from the further use of chemical weapons.

I’ll discuss whether these objectives were achieved below, but an initial point is that “degrading” is not “destroying” – hence the ongoing need for deterrence. That in turn implies a U.S. willingness to launch additional strikes should Damascus again use chemical weapons. Which is what U.S. and allied officials are saying – there will be more strikes if Damascus doesn’t get the message.

There is, however, an important ambiguity about the deterrence signal sent yesterday (more on this below). It’s not clear if the redline for the U.S. and its allies is the use of any chemical agent specifically banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention (notably the nerve agent Sarin) or the use of any chemical weapon covered by the Treaty’s general prohibition (notably chlorine). Continue reading

The objective/subjective disconnect: Reason, unreason, and the rise of illiberal populism

[A note to readers: I was going to post this on Facebook, where I share my thoughts on U.S. domestic politics, but I decided to post it here because it’s relevant to a longer post I’ve been working on comparing drivers of, and obstacles to, change in the late USSR with drivers and obstacles in Russia today.]

I just finished reading Kurt Anderson’s terrific and unnerving book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire (A 500-Year History). I highly recommend it, although you can get the gist of his argument in his December article in The Atlantic, “How America Went Haywire” here.

Anderson describes himself as “a liberal atheist” – which is to say, his faith is in reason. His core argument is that Americans have had a long-standing and widespread (and among advanced liberal democracies, uniquely widespread) commitment to unreason, and that the American cult of unreason, which today is mostly a pathology of the right but has plenty of adherents on the left, has spun out of control. He makes the case for two big drivers taking the U.S. down the rabbit hole: (1) a “profound shift in thinking that swelled up in the 1960s, whereby Americans ever since have had a new rule set in their mental operating systems, even if they’re certain they possess the real truth: do your own thing, find your own reality, do your own thing”; and (2) the Internet, where “believers in anything and everything can find thousands of fellow fantasists who share their beliefs…”

I don’t think Anderson’s explanatory claims are particularly interesting, novel, or compelling – they are part of the story, but only part. And while I suspect it’s true that the U.S. is exceptional among the major advanced liberal democracies in its enthusiasm for unreason (consider that Americans score much higher on religiosity), he doesn’t actually look at other countries – my guess is that the closer you look, the more unreason you’ll find. But what is interesting and convincing are his arguments about the prominence of “fantasy” in American history, and the extent to which we have gone full “fantasyland” in recent decades.

As I went through the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about the contrast between Anderson’s argument and the major theme of Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. I haven’t read it, I confess, but I’ve read plenty of reviews, including a number of highly critical ones. I also read his previous and related book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. So I’m comfortable asserting that Pinker’s core argument is that, by almost any objective measure, humanity is much better off today than is generally appreciated. He points to increased life expectancy, declining violent crime, declining numbers of people being killed by famine or war (in absolute and especially per capita terms), rising global incomes and wealth, the over-fulfillment of the eight Millennial Development Goals, and so on. Accordingly, the confidence in “progress” that characterized the Enlightenment was, and is, essentially correct, despite all the handwringing and angst. And this progress is largely thanks to the turn to reason and scientific thinking that defined the Age of Reason. Continue reading

Update on the Skripal incident

On the investigation

It is looking increasingly likely that the “novichok” nerve agent used in the assassination attempt was delivered, doubtless unwittingly, by Yulia Skripal, Sergei Skripal’s daughter. Yulia was picked up at Heathrow on Saturday afternoon, the day before Skripal and Yulia fell ill, by a friend of Skripal’s in an Isuzu pick-up truck. The truck was impounded by British authorities on Monday, the implication being that investigators are looking for traces of nerve agent in the truck. Also noteworthy is the fact that over two weeks have passed since the incident, and British authorities have yet to identify any suspects by name or ask for information based on physical descriptions. So they don’t appear to have anyone on CCTV who might have dispersed the agent. Continue reading

Nine points on the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal

After chairing a meeting of the U.K.’s national security council earlier today, British Prime Theresa May read a prepared statement to the House of Commons in which she stated the following:

Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at Porton Down, our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so, Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations, and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations, the government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal…

Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country. Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others…

Should there be no credible response [from Russian authorities within 48 hours], we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom, and I will come back to this House and set out the full range of measures we will take in response…

With that as backdrop, my take on where we’re headed with the Skripal incident is as follows. Continue reading

Why Putin is unlikely to change course after March 18 (Part 3: Foreign and Security Policy)

This is the third of three memos (posts) from an imagined Putin advisor to the Russian president on policy after he returns to office for his fourth term. This memo deals with foreign and security policy, and like the others it’s broad purpose is to show why I think it’s unlikely that we’ll see significant changes in Russia policy for at least the next several years (which is about as far as forecasters should try to forecast). As with the previous two memos, I make no fact claims in what follows that are deliberately false, although many facts are left out, and despite the fact that I disagree with some of the interpretations and conclusions.

My next post will summarize my own take on the three posts.

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Strategic vision, tactical flexibility

Mr. President, our foreign and domestic critics frequently claim that you’re a masterful foreign policy tactician but lack strategic vision. That is wrong. On the contrary, you have a clearly articulated and longstanding strategic goal, which is to restore Russia to its rightful place as a great power, equal to the United States and China on the world stage. And you have been resolute, and remarkably successful, in implementing that vision.

In your early years as president, you attempted to work with the United States to realize this broad strategic goal. By around 2003 or 2004, however, you had concluded that Washington was intent on preserving its dominance and entirely unwilling to accept a balanced international system. Moreover, as the Iraq War made clear, the United States insisted that, while all other states had to abide by rules that it had largely written, it alone had the right to violate those rules, and it could and would do so at its discretion.

It was also clear that the United States, assisted by its mostly subservient Western allies, was intent on remaking the world in its own image, a utopian and revolutionary project promoting “liberalism” and “democratization” that was in fact destabilizing and immiserating large parts of the world. This is precisely what happened in Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, and Ukraine in 2004: Western-instigated “colored revolutions” brought down governments while producing only chaos, social disorder, and economic hardship.

Accordingly, you concluded that Washington would have to be forced to accept a new, multipolar order, one in which its imperialistic ambitions would be contained by counter-balancing power. That order would be based on three key principles: (1) non-interference in the internal affairs of at least the three dominant powers; (2) reciprocal recognition of respective spheres of influence; and (3) disproportionate weight in decision-making in international institutions – disproportionate with respect to others, but equal among Russia, China, and the United States. Continue reading

Why Putin is unlikely to change course after March 18 (Part 2: Domestic politics and regime stability)

This is the second of two memos (posts) to Putin from an imagined advisor on strategic planning for his next six-year term as president.

A reminder that this is my take on how an advisor might think, and what he might tell Putin. It is not necessarily what I think myself. Also, the facts adduced are not “fake,” at least not deliberately so, but many facts are left out.

The election

Mr. President, you are certain to be reelected on March 18. What is uncertain is by what margin of victory and with what turnout. In effect, the election is between you and everything else – other candidates, none-of-the-above, and those who chose not to vote. The media has claimed that our goals are 70/70 – 70 percent for you, and 70 percent turnout.

Our campaign strategy has been, as in the past, to position you as the indispensable servant of the Russian state and the Russian people.

VTSIOM polling data: Putin at 73.2% among likely voters

You in effect stand above politics, which is why you’re running this time as an independent, not as head of United Russia. It’s also why you’ve done almost no campaigning, and why you’ve put forward almost nothing in the way of a program.

We are reasonably confident that you’ll win at least 70 percent of the vote in March. The challenge is turnout: your share of the votes will go up with lower turnout, but low turnout – say under 60 percent – would undermine your authority. Turnout that is well below expectations – say, 55 percent or lower – might delegitimize your reelection, both at home and abroad, and increase the risk of political instability going forward. Continue reading