Monthly Archives: May 2012

Poll: Is Military Intervention in Syria Now Likely?

On the heels of last Friday’s massacre in Houla, calls for Western intervention in Syria are growing louder. Russia and China (whose assent would be needed for UN Security Council authorization of a Libya-like military operation) are still opposed to military intervention, but NATO has a history of bypassing the UN to take action alone, as in the 1999 Kosovo War. Is such intervention now likely? Take the poll below and tell us your thoughts.

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

The weekly quiz is now live in MyPoliSciKit. Good luck!

Missile Defense, the Security Dilemma, and Russia-NATO Tensions

Russia tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) last week after NATO confirmed its commitment to building a missile defense system.

At a NATO summit in Chicago last week, members of the 28-country alliance reiterated their commitment to building a missile defense system.  The system would place radars and other anti-missile hardware in Turkey, Romania, Poland, and Spain.  NATO claims the missile “shield” is designed to protect Europe from a ballistic missile launch by a country such as Iran, but Russia–the former Cold War adversary of NATO–alleges that the system is intended to neutralize its missiles and strongly opposes the deployment of such a system.

Going back at least to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972, missile defense has been regarded as a threat to the stability produced by Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).  MAD is the strategy of nuclear deterrence that both the U.S. and the Soviet Union adhered to for much of the Cold War.  This doctrine states that if one side launches a first nuclear strike, the other side will retaliate with unacceptably devastating losses (i.e., if you destroy my country, I’ll destroy yours).  Hence, no rational leader would supposedly contemplate a nuclear strike, knowing this would be tantamount to national suicide.  But a missile defense that reliably prevented nuclear retaliation would upset this balance and tempt its owner to launch a first strike with impunity.  The ABM Treaty prohibited the construction of national missile defense, thereby keeping both the U.S. and Soviet Union vulnerable to retaliation and maintaining MAD. (President George W. Bush pulled out of the ABM Treaty after 9/11, citing the need to develop missile defenses against new threats).

President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was an ambitious attempt to develop a missile shield that would render nuclear missiles obsolete, but it faced serious technical and political obstacles and was never built.  But smaller defenses that can stop a limited number of missiles are more feasible and have been pursued by recent U.S. administrations–and now, NATO.

Even if a missile defense shield does not render its owner immune to retaliation, critics charge that it could increase tensions and provoke enemies to build up their arsenals in an effort to penetrate the shield and maintain their deterrent capability–thus sparking dangerous and unnecessary arms races.  This suggests a security dilemma may be operating here: steps that countries take to make themselves more secure may paradoxically make them less secure.

While it does not appear that the limited system envisioned by NATO could even come to close to threatening the Russian nuclear deterrent (given its thousands of nuclear weapons), if Russia perceives the defense system as a threat then  its responses could make NATO countries less secure.  Thus far Russia’s numerous threats, missile tests, and other saber-rattling efforts indicate NATO may indeed be facing a security dilemma in the context of missile defense.

What do you think?  Is NATO’s planned missile defense a good idea, given the threats faced by Europe and the likely responses of Russia?  Let us know your thoughts by scrolling down and taking the poll on missile defense posted on May 22.

The Media, Tipping Points, and a Massacre in Syria

Images of rows of bodies in Houla, Syria–many of them women and children–were publicized by many media outlets on Saturday.

It is difficult to predict when policymakers will decide that “enough is enough” and it is time to intervene to stop genocide, mass starvation, and other humanitarian crises. Some crises, such as the Rwandan genocide, never produce that level of commitment, or “political will,” from the international community (or at least from one powerful actor with the means to stop the carnage).  But widespread media coverage of particularly galling atrocities appears to be one catalyst for intervention.  For example, in 1995 the massacre of 8,000 civilians in Srebrenica, along with the subsequent shelling of a Sarajevo marketplace, galvanized NATO countries to take military action against Bosnian Serbs.

So there is some reason to believe that the news today that Syrian government forces have massacred approximately 100 civilians (perhaps as many as 50 of them children) in the town of Houla, together with the presence of graphic video and pictures to tell the story, could have the ability to shock world leaders into finally taking serious action on Syria.  So far, the UN has taken the largely ineffective steps of sponsoring an oft-violated ceasefire and sending unarmed monitors to watch the events unfold.  As discussed previously in this blog, the UN Security Council has failed to take stronger action at least in part because Russia, a staunch ally of the Syrian government, has veto power over any Security Council resolution that might authorize force or harsh sanctions against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Political scientists have noted both the agenda-setting and framing power of the media.  Agenda-setting refers to what the media chooses to cover (which can dictate what issues are on citizens’ and policymakers’ minds), while framing involves how the media chooses to cover an event (the “spin” that is given to the facts).  Grotesque images paired with a clear identification of the guilty party–whether the full story is given or not–can be a powerful incentive for policymakers to take notice, particularly in democracies where they are accountable to the public.  The rise of blogs, Twitter, cable news, and other outlets beyond traditional print or TV news outlets has made it more difficult for the media to act in conscious unison to promote an agenda, but has also made it possible for events and interpretations to travel farther and faster than ever before.  (The unprecedented Kony 2012 campaign is but one example of the potential such media hold).

Whether today’s events in Syria will set off the kind of media firestorm that might force world leaders’ hands remains to be seen, but some leaders are already calling for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council, so it appears possible that we are approaching some sort of “tipping point” when it comes to Syria.

Poll: Is NATO’s Planned Missile Defense a Good Idea?

This week at the NATO summit in Chicago, NATO members reiterated their support for a missile defense system–a system that Russia strongly opposes and critics call too costly and unnecessary. But its supporters say a missile defense will help to deter (and if necessary, counter) an attack from Iran or another “rogue” actor. Take the poll below and tell us what you think.

Is a Counter-Revolutionary “Concert of Arabia” Rising?

Saudi King Abdullah is pushing to form a coalition of Gulf monarchies that can contain the chaos of the Arab Spring.

Nearly 200 years after the Concert of Europe, is history repeating itself with the rise of a Saudi-led Concert of Arabia?

In 1815, in fearful reaction to the power of France and the democratic yearnings unleashed by the French Revolution, the great powers of Austria, Prussia, Russia, and the United Kingdom formed the Concert of Europe. The Concert was intended to contain France after the defeat of Napoleon, but it was held together by a shared desire (particularly on the part of Russia, Prussia, and Austria) to contain democratic aspirations and maintain monarchic rule.  In fact, these three conservative eastern monarchies formalized their mutual interest in stopping revolution through the Holy Alliance.  In his book Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger argues that it was combination of perceived threat (from France) and shared values (anti-democratic sentiment) that held the alliance together.  One might point to the Cold War-era bloc of Western democracies as another example of an alliance held together both by a shared threat (the Soviet Union) and shared values (anti-Communism). 

Fast-forward 200 years.  Saudi Arabia is pushing for a union of Middle Eastern monarchies to contain the fervor of the Arab Spring: “Saudi Arabia’s rulers fear that the contagion of popular revolt could reach their country’s borders and stir its own disenfranchised citizens and residents, including dissidents, members of minority groups and foreign workers, analysts said. ‘They don’t want the spirit of our uprising to reach their shores,’ said Sayed Hadi al-Mosawi, a Bahraini opposition politician.”  Saudi Arabia is worried not merely about democracy but about the rise of Iran and the power of its Shiite allies in places like Bahrain and Syria.  You can read more about Saudi Arabia’s “counter-revolution,” going back to last summer, here.

As discussed previously in this blog, this concern for maintaining stability and fear of the chaos the Arab Spring might unleash is a perspective shared by Western “realists.”  Does this put realists on the “wrong side of history,” or is their perspective a prudent one, given the unknowns associated with empowering popular movements (including the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical groups) in the Middle East?

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

The weekly quiz is now live in MyPoliSciKit. Good luck!

Poll: Is it time for the UN to take tough action against Syria?

With over 9,000 Syrians dead since the uprising began 14 months ago and UN peace efforts faltering, some critics see hypocrisy in the UN’s weak response (as compared to its tough stance in Libya). Should the UN authorize the use of force to protect civilians in Syria? Take the poll below and let us know what you think.

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

The weekly quiz is now live in MyPoliSciKit. Good luck!

Greece, Israel, and the Peculiarities of Parliamentary Politics

Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the rising Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) in Greece, has refused to join a coalition with the political parties responsible for Greece’s bailout deal, which came with harsh austerity conditions.

Parliamentary democracies (e.g., Greece, Israel) are different in several respects from presidential systems (e.g., France, the U.S.). They have different rules for government formation, elections, and frequently party representation, with important implications for the process and substance of policy.  Events in Greece and Israel over the past week provide good examples of the distinctive strengths and weaknesses of parliamentary systems.

In parliamentary systems the executive branch (led by the prime minister and cabinet) relies on a parliamentary majority for its selection and retention in power.  This means that the government must have the consent of a relatively broad coalition of parliament members–typically coming from a range of parties who don’t see eye to eye on all issues but have some basic goals or principles in common.  This system often makes it easier to pass legislation and get things accomplished, since the executive and the legislative branches are not working at cross-purposes (as can happen with “divided government” in presidential systems).  But it also means that when members of parliament are themselves divided or fragmented into polarized groups, forming a government–and keeping it in power–becomes a real challenge.  Greece’s recent parliamentary elections produced a parliament severely divided on issues such as Greece’s adherence to the austerity measures imposed by its creditors, which has made it extremely difficult to form a government.  If a government is not formed soon, new elections will be called.

In contrast, in Israel this week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu averted the need for new elections and achieved a “master stroke” by inviting the opposition Kadima Party into his ruling coalition, thereby “creating the largest and broadest coalition government in recent memory, one that no single faction can topple.”  While a government needs only a simple majority of the Israeli parliament’s (Knesset’s) 120 seats, this new super-coalition boasts 94 seats.  This deal simultaneously buys time for Kadima, which would have lost seats if elections were held soon, and helps to strengthen Netanyahu’s power.  While this new government does not give Netanyahu a “blank check” (since coalition members can always withdraw), some analysts believe this move may be calculated to allow–or at least credibly threaten–bold action such as a preventive strike on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

What do you think the politics of parliamentary systems will mean for Greece’s future in the eurozone?  For Israel’s willingness to take military action against Iran?  Would a presidential system be better able to deal with the domestic and foreign policy challenges facing Greece or Israel today?