Saturday, April 30, 2011

Holy Degrees of Freedom Problem, Batman!

Or, how do we compare the not so nearly like?  There is an obvious temptation to compare Libya to Syria and ponder why the US has not jumped into the fray now that Syria has started killing lots of people (to be fair, the piece does show how different the cases are).  Now, I am not a Middle East expert (and I avoid playing one on TV), but this is a handy opportunity to think about how we do comparisons and then maybe we can figure out what is relevant here.

In the first week of my big intro to International Relations class, I spend a bit of time explaining that there are few perfect comparisons in the world so that we must, indeed, compare apples and oranges.  I go on to show how similar the two fruit are in nearly every way save one, and then I bite into the unpeeled orange.  The point is to illustrate most similar comparisons and that we are always comparing apples and oranges.  I then go on to compare an apple and a frisbee*--a most different comparison--where the two objects share few common properties but both can be thrown.  I then compare Iraq to North Korea to suggest why one was, pardon the continued fruit obsession, low-hanging fruit.  One key difference was oil, but that was not the only one then (or now).

*  Some have used apples vs wolverines as the alternative to apples and oranges but a frisbee is far safer in the classroom, not matter who end ends up catching with their face.

As a result of doing this every year, I have now started looking at things like Libya and Syria and think: how comparable are these two cases?  Is Syria more of an orange to Libya's apple or is it more frisbee-esque?  The similarities are obvious: two Middle East countries where the dictators are responding to protest by using force.  Asad does not have Qaddafi's fashion sense, but, otherwise, the two cases seem pretty similar.  So, it seems that we have a most similar comparison, but there are several differences between the two cases, so it is hard to tell which ones matter the most (degrees of freedom problemo).

What are the differences?
  • Libya is far closer to the heart of Europe.  Proximity matters not just in power project (which is what the realists would consider), but also in terms of migration project (what Kelly Greenhill would consider). The Europeans, especially the French, are far more energized about the Libyan situation than the Syrian one perhaps because their rising xenophobia makes any immigration politically dangerous.
  • Libya was always very isolated from the rest of the Arab world.  Indeed, Qaddafi has done a fine job over the years of alienating pretty much everyone in the region and beyond.
  • We care more about Turkey's objections when it comes to a neighbor than when it was a distant Libya (same goes for Israel and other allies).
  • Syria is AFTER Libya.  That is, the US and its allies have finite capabilities, so there is less left on the shelf if one wanted to be more coercive.  Plus, being AFTER also means that the costs and limitations of the Libyan effort make a Syrian intervention all that less attractive.  Libya reminds us that this stuff is really hard.  
We can probably think of other differences (but again, I am not a specialist in this part of the world).  The key here is that there are more differences than cases, so it is very hard to figure out which of these factors matters the most.  One thing to keep in mind is that the US was not looking to intervene in Libya but was actively trying to avoid doing so.  The Europeans got the US involved.  Lacking that push this time and facing a far more complex environment, the US is likely to do less here.

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