Saturday, September 7, 2013

Least Confusing Part of Syrian Crisis

The least surprising aspect of the Syrian crisis is that the American people are not thrilled about the idea.  There are heaps of reasons, but let's start at the top:
  1. The findings on casualty sensitivity and civil-military dynamics is not that Americans are fearful of the costs of war, but that they tend to oppose wars when the elites are divided.  Consensus signals that it is worth it, that the stakes are high enough.  Of course, there could be some other stuff going on--that when the stakes are high, publics support and then elites do not divide.  But the key idea here is that with the folks in Congress, the folks in the academic world (as if the public cares what the pointy-headed folks say), and the rest of the elites are either opposed onr unenthused.
  2. The stakes themselves.  Fighting for norms!  Woot!?  Um, no.  Despite the rhetoric of America as the defender of liberty and such, unless a conflict can be defined somehow as an issue of national security, Americans tend not to get thrilled.  Vietnam was about Munich and about dominoes.  Iraq in 2003 was about 9/11 (even if they did not say that directly) and mushroom clouds.  Libya?  Well, the people were not asked, but the US had a negative history with Qaddafi, so that was a bit easier.  Assad?  No SNL sketches about him.
  3. The financial context.  The American people get it that war is expensive and that two big wars have been super-expensive (even if they have no clue about the total cost).  As some memes have captured it, we are cutting spending everywhere but might spend millions on a pretty confusing conflict?  
  4. Yes, this is after Iraq/Afghanistan/Libya (not so much Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Philippines and other US interventions that have quite literally flown beneath the radar).  So, there is war fatigue. Legitimately so, as the military is stressed, the economy is stressed, and the media is stressed.  
  5. The case for the war has kind of sucked.  Obama himself has made it clear that he would prefer to avoid another war. His officials have made a lousy case for it (John Kerry being the prime exemplar, reminding us why he could not beat Bush).  Who do we support in this?  The rebels might not be as chock full of bad guys as feared, but they make the KLA look like boy scouts. (update: see Jay Ulfelder's most excellent poker analogy
  6. We have learned that regime change is not the end of the story but the beginning.  Iraq is now an ally of Iran, more or less.  Karzai repeatedly bites the hand that feeds him (and props him up).  Libya is a mess.  So, one lesson learned could be: do no harm.  
  7. Credibility is a lousy reason to go to war. Perhaps the American people don't buy Schelling.  Perhaps Schelling would not buy Schelling these days.
So, pick your reason why the American people are opposed to the war.  They are abundant.  We shall see what Obama does with a divided Congress--a supportive Senate and an opposed House.  Maybe he sends only half the missiles?  Maybe he only send those weapons that have longer time horizons? I have no idea.

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