Category Archives: War

Misconceptions about the Syrian Civil War

If I had to guess what the three most common explanations are for the Syrian Civil War, I would go with:

  1. Ethnic fractionalization
  2. Economic inequality
  3. The Arab Spring

The problem is, none of these are good explanations. This post explains why.

First, some background. “Rationalist Explanations for War” is one of IR’s most-cited articles from the past twenty years, and for good reason. In it, James Fearon shows that the costs of war ensure that a range of settlements mutually preferable to war always exists. The takeaway point is very simple: you can have massive grievances against a rival, but those grievances do not explain why you go to war. Many countries have internal strife of this nature. Very few of them actually resolve their problems on the battlefield. After all, the parties could implement whatever the expected end result of the fighting would be before the war starts. No one has incentive to fight at that point, since they would receive an identical outcome in expectation but suffer the costs of war (not to mention risk death).

So what does this have to say about the standard explanations for the Syrian Civil War?

Ethnic Fractionalization
Syria’s population is 60% Sunni and 12% Alawite. The Alawites (i.e., Bashar al-Assad) are in power. War allegedly started because of this massive disparity.

This is a bad explanation for two reasons. First, ethnic fractionalization in Syria has existed all along. So if it caused the war in 2011, why did it not cause the war in 2010, 2009, 2008, or 2007? You can’t explain variation (peace/war) with a constant (fractionalization), yet this is exactly what this argument attempts to do.

Second, fractionalization is only a problem because of political repression. The United States is 63% White and 13% African American with an African American in power but is no where near war because of the lack of oppression. (Technically Obama is half-half, but he identifies as African American.) So if ethnic fractionalization leading to oppression caused the war, you are still left trying to explain why Assad simply didn’t relax the extent of oppression. The majority Sunni population would be pacified, and Assad wouldn’t be risking his life fighting a war. Both sides would appear better off.

Economic Inequality
Economic inequality in Syria is bad. For the latest data I could find, Syria’s Gini coefficient is .358 (2004, World Bank). War allegedly started because the impoverished had grievance.

This is a bad explanation for the same two reasons as above. First, this inequality has persisted for a long time. It’s hard to explain why war did not start in 2010, 2009, 2008, or 2007 but did in 2011. Second, if inequality was such a big deal, why didn’t Assad simply throw money at the impoverished groups? After all, those suffering are fighting (in theory) for better economic opportunities. Assad could just give them those opportunities, avoid the bloody mess, and not be risking his life. Again, all sides would appear better off.

Also, it’s worth noting that the United States’ Gini coefficient is .45 (2007, World Bank), making the U.S. more unequal than Syria.

The Arab Spring
The Arab Spring provides a better explanation than the first two because it didn’t exist in 2007, 2008, 2009 or the first eleven months of 2010 but did have effect after that point. Consequently, variation of the presence of the Arab Spring can explain variation in the peace/war outcome.

On the other hand, there is still a question of why the Assad regime couldn’t appease the protesters’ demands peacefully for the same reasons as above. In fact, Qatar did something to that effect, giving raises to key groups (including 120% increases to military officers) to preempt the need to protest.

The Simplest Explanation
The simple explanation of the Syrian Civil War is as follows. The Arab Spring acted as a coordination mechanism and/or allowed disenfranchised groups to overcome their collective action problem. This gave the protesters a sudden spike in military power. For Assad to resolve the tensions, he would have to credibly commit to giving up concessions in the long term. However, once the protesters all went home and Arab Spring coordination effect died, he would no longer have reason to continue giving those concessions. So the protesters became rebels, knowing that war and regime change were the only way to secure concessions.

The Syrian Civil War is, in effect, a preventive war.

This post is based on a lecture I produced for my Civil Wars MOOC, seen below:

Are Weapons Inspections about Information or Inconvenience?

Abstract: How do weapons inspections alter international bargaining environments? While conventional wisdom focuses on informational aspects, this paper focuses on inspections’ impact on the cost of a potential program–weapons inspectors shut down the most efficient avenues to development, forcing rising states to pursue more costly means to develop arms. To demonstrate the corresponding positive effects, this paper develops a model of negotiating over hidden weapons programs in the shadow of preventive war. If the cost of arms is large, efficient agreements are credible even if declining states cannot observe violations. However, if the cost is small, a commitment problem leads to positive probability of preventive war and costly weapons investment. Equilibrium welfare under this second outcome is mutually inferior to the equilibrium welfare of the first outcome. Consequently, both rising states and declining states benefit from weapons inspections even if those inspections cannot reveal all private information.

If you are here for the long haul, you can download the chapter on the purpose of weapons inspections here. Being that it is a later chapter from my dissertation, here is a quick version of the basic “butter-for-bombs” model:

Imagine a two period game between R(ising state) and D(declining state). In the first period, D makes an offer x to R, to which R responds by accepting, rejecting, or building weapons. Accepting locks in the proposal; R receives x and D receives 1-x for the rest of time. Rejecting locks in war payoffs; R receives p – c_R and D receives 1 – p – c_D. Building requires a cost k > 0. D responds by either preventing–locking in the war payoffs from before–or advancing to the post-shift state of the world.

In the post-shift state, D makes a second offer y to R, which R accepts or rejects. Accepting locks in the offer for the rest of time. Rejecting leads to war payoffs; R receives p’ – c_R and D receives 1 – p’ – c_D, where p’ > p. Thus, R fares better in war post-shift and D fares worse.

As usual, the actors share a common discount factor δ.

The main question is whether D can buy off R. Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is yes, and easily so. To see why, note that even if R builds, it only receives a larger portion of the pie in the later stage. Specifically, D must offer p’ – c_R to appease R and will do so, since provoking war leads to unnecessary destruction. Thus, if R ever builds, it receives p’ – c_R for the rest of time.

Now consider R’s decision whether to build in the first period. Let’s ignore the reject option, as D will never be silly enough to offer an amount that leads to unnecessary war. If R accepts x, it receives x for the rest of time. If it builds (and D does not prevent), then R pays the cost k and receives x today and p’ – c_R for the rest of time. Thus, R is willing to forgo building if:

x ≥ (1 – δ)x + δ(p’ – c_R) – (1 – δ)k

Solving for x yields:

x ≥ p’ – c_R – (1 – δ)k/δ

It’s a simple as that. As long as D offers at least p’ – c_R – (1 – δ)k/δ, R accepts. There is no need to build if you are already getting all of the concessions you seek. Meanwhile, D happily bribes R in this manner, as it gets to steal the surplus created by R not wasting the investment cost k.

The chapter looks at the same situation but with imperfect information–the declining state does not know whether the rising state built when it chooses whether to prevent. Things get a little hairy, but the states can still hammer out agreements most of the time.

I hope you enjoy the chapter. Feel free to shoot me a cold email with any comments you might have.

Negotiating with Iran: Credible Commitment Problems?

The United States, the rest of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Germany, and Iran are in Kazakhstan this week, negotiating over the Iranian nuclear program. The West wants it to stop, fearing it will eventually yield a nuclear weapon. Iran continues to claim that its program is purely for scientific and energy purposes. No one believes that. The United States’ focus has therefore been figuring out how to convince Iran to let it go.

Unfortunately, the dialogue in the U.S. has been hopelessly misguided. In this post, I will make two claims: (1) the United States can always offer sufficient concessions to induce Iran to end its program; (2) Iran does not believe the United States can credibly commit to these concessions over the long term, thus explaining Iran’s obstinate behavior. The policy implication is obvious: if we want Iran to stop proliferating, we need to stop pretending that it is difficult to buy Iranian compliance and start seriously questioning our own commitment to giving Iran a good deal.

I discuss claim (1) in the main theoretical chapter of my dissertation. Many years ago, I saw President Obama making a speech about getting Iran to join “the community of nations” and give up its nuclear program. From my knowledge of the existing political science literature, I figured it would be easy to show that no such agreement would work. After all, if you were Iran, why would accept concessions and not build when you could accept concessions and build anyway? The temptation to shift power seemingly destroys the possibility of negotiated settlements.

However, I was unequivocally wrong. The conversation about Iranian duplicity (and my own initial intuition) fails to properly analyze Iranian incentives. Nuclear weapons are costly. If Iran is offered most of the concessions it expects to receive if it were to proliferate, it has no further incentive to develop a bomb. Sure, Iran could continue proliferating, but it ultimately will not receive any more than the United States is already giving it. However, it will have to pay the cost of the weapons, which is a complete waste at that point.

Meanwhile, the United States has incentive to make this sort of “butter-for-bombs” offer. Although the U.S. would like to offer no concessions, such a strategy is naive, since this would induce Iran proliferate. On the other hand, offering the butter-for-bombs deal ensures that Iran will not build nuclear weapons. Moreover, since Iran is not paying the cost of proliferation, there is extra pie to go around. The United States can extract it.

The paper linked above gives the details. Surprisingly, these agreements work under very loose conditions. They work in an infinitely repeated interaction; they work when Iran could freely renege on the deal without any recourse from the United States; and they work even when the United States is completely incapable of observing Iranian nuclear progress. Butter-for-bombs is all about getting the incentives right. Offer Iran enough, and you do not have to worry about the deal falling through under any circumstance.

One important assumption of the above model is that the United States’ ability to launch preventive war remains constant through time. What happens if we relax this assumption? Another chapter from my dissertation asks this exact question. I show that if the United States goes from being unable to credibly threaten preventive war one day to being able to credibly threaten preventive war the next day, bargaining breaks down, and Iran develops nuclear weapons. But the blame goes squarely on the United States.

To understand why, suppose we reach the future time when the United States can credibly threaten preventive war. At this point, Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons. If it were to, the United States would respond by launching preventive war. Iran would not receive the benefits of nuclear proliferation but still waste the cost it paid to develop nuclear technology. Internalizing this, Iran will not proliferate. But because Iran will not proliferate, the United States has no reason to make those butter-for-bombs offers from before. Instead, it can offer no concessions and still induce Iranian compliance, as Iran does not have any better options.

Now think about how this endgame affects bargaining today. The United States would like Iran to accept a butter-for-bombs agreement and avoid proliferation. But consider the problem from the Iranian perspective. If Iran accepts those concessions today, then it advances to that future world where the United States can effectively leverage preventive war. At that point, the concessions stop. Alternatively, Iran could pay a cost upfront, proliferate today, and leverage the additional power to force the United States to continue giving concessions into the future. Needless to say, the second option looks a lot more attractive. Thus, bargaining breaks down, and Iran proliferates.

The problem here is not Iran’s stubbornness. Rather, it is the United States’ inability to credibly commit to continue providing concessions in the future. If the U.S. could, then Iran would have no reason to proliferate. (This was shown in claim 1.) However, Iran expects the United States to renege on the concessions, which in turn causes the proliferation behavior.

One might object that the United States would never take advantage of its strength in that manner. To anyone who doubts that, I point to May of 2003. This was the perhaps the height of American power. Things were going well in Afghanistan, we had just run over Saddam Hussein’s army, and the Iraqi insurgency had not yet begun. Iran felt enclosed. Rather than panicking, Iran extended an olive branch. Tehran sent the Swedish ambassador (who takes care of American interests in Iran) over Washington with a sweeping offer. Iran essentially waved a white flag and put everything on the table. Their demands in return were minimal: they wanted a prison swap and normalized relations. If this type of proposal arrived today, it would be magical Christmas land in DC.

I’d like to say that the Bush administration gleefully accepted the offer and sent a warm reply. But they didn’t. In fact, they sent no reply at all. They simply ignored it and chastised the Swedish ambassador for bringing it to their attention.


The domestic political consequences in Iran were bad. Moderates held the presidency at that point and pushed for the deal with the Ayatollah’s blessing. After their failure, they were pushed out of government. Mahmound Ahmadinejad’s administration replaced them.

As we all know, America’s position of strength evaporated, leading to the drawn-out insurgency. Iran knows that the decade-plus of war has left us exhausted from conflict. Preventive war is unlikely today. But given enough time, our war-weariness will fade away. Iran is concerned that the United States will immediately switch back to the firm fist of the Bush administration’s years. They see our temporary weakness as now-or-never opportunity to proliferate. And they are going for it.

How do we get out of this mess? It’s possible that we cannot, and we just have to suffer the consequences of another poor foreign policy decision from the Bush years. But if there is any hope of reaching an agreement with Iran, it must come through the United States demonstrating its commitment to ongoing concessions that will not instantly disappear at some later date. Unfortunately, the domestic political dialogue in the U.S. focuses entirely on the credibility Iranian commitments while treating our own as the word of God. This is misguided. And until we can have a serious conversation about our own credibility, we will not make any progress with Iran.

Preemptive War on the Walking Dead

The Walking Dead is cable’s most successful TV show, ever. I’m writing this after “Home,” and I’m going to assume you know what is going on by and large.

Here’s what’s important. As far as we care, there are only two groups of humans left alive. One, the good guys, have fortified themselves inside an abandon jail. The other lives in a walled town called Woodbury. They became aware of each other a few episodes ago, and they have various reasons to dislike each other.

War appears likely and will be devastating to both parties, likely leaving them in a position worse than if they pretended the other simply did not exist. For example, in “Home,” the Woodbury group packs a courier van full of zombies, breaches the jail’s walls, and opens the van for an undead delivery. Now a bunch of flesh-eaters are wandering around the previously secure prison.

Meanwhile, the jail’s de facto leader went on a mysterious shopping spree and came back with a truck full of unknown supplies. I suspect next episode will feature the jail group bombing a hole in Woodbury’s city walls.

All this leads to an important question: why can’t they all just get along? It’s the end of the world for goodness sake!

As someone who studies war, I am sympathetic to the problem. Woodbury and the jail group are capable of imposing great costs on one another merely by allowing zombies to penetrate the other’s camp. The situation seems ripe for a peaceful settlement, since there appear to be agreements both parties prefer to continued conflict.

This is the crux of James Fearon’s Rationalist Explanations for War, one of the most important articles in international relations in the last twenty years. Fearon shows that as long as war is costly and the sides have a rough understanding of how war will play out, then both parties should be willing to sit down at the bargaining table and negotiate a settlement.

However, Fearon notes that first strike advantages kill the attractiveness of such bargains. From the article:

Consider the problem faced by two gunslingers with the following preferences. Each would most prefer to kill the other by stealth, facing no risk of retaliation, but each prefers that both live in peace to a gunfight in which each risks death. There is a bargain here that both sides prefer to “war”…[but] given their preferences, neither person can credibly commit not to defect from the bargain by trying to shoot the other in the back.

The jail birds and Woodbury are in a similar position:


This is a prisoner’s dilemma.[1] Both parties prefer peace to mutual war. But peace is unsustainable because, given that I believe you are going to act peacefully, I prefer taking advantage of you and attacking. This leads to continued conflict until one side has been destroyed (or, in this case, eaten by zombies), leaving both worse off. We call this preemptive war, as the sides are attempting to preempt the other’s attack.

In the real world, countries have tried to reduce the attractiveness of a first strike by creating demilitarized zones between disputed territory, like the one in Korea. But such buffers require manpower to patrol to verify the other party’s compliance. Unfortunately, the zombie apocalypse has left the world short of people–Woodbury has fewer than a hundred, and the jail birds have fewer than ten. As a result, I believe we be witnessing preemptive war for the rest of this season.

[1] Get it? They live in a jail, and they are in a prisoner’s dilemma![2]

[2] I’m lame.

Panetta’s Second-Rate Understanding of Defense Spending

Leon Panetta, the outgoing U.S. Secretary of Defense, made an interesting claim during his exit interview. Automatic defense budget cuts will take place on March 1 unless Congress reworks the Pentagon’s allotment. Panetta urged Congress to act, saying that if the ten year, $500 billion cuts take effect, the U.S will become a “second-rate power” (his words).

$500 billion is a lot of money, so you may be inclined to agree. But anyone who has spent more than ten seconds looking at world defense spending would know the absurdity of Panetta’s claim.

Take a look at this Wikipedia article on defense spending. SIPRI keeps good data on defense expenditures around the world[1], and the Wiki gives a nice comparative visualization. Last year, the world’s militaries consumed about $1.7 trillion.

The U.S.’s share? $711 billion.

That’s approximately 41% of the entire world’s spending.

It’s more than Chinese (8.2%), Russian (4.1%), British (3.6), and French (3.6%) spending…combined.

It’s more than every non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council…combined.

So, the U.S. isn’t exactly at a crossroads when it comes to military spending.

Moreover, $500 billion over the course of ten years comes out to $50 billion a year. That would still give the United States $661 billion in defense spending, still 39% of the new world’s spending and more than 4.5 times as large as China’s receipts. Thus, even if you think of China as having a second-rate military, ours would still be substantially better.

I understand that $50 billion will result in meaningful cuts to our military. But the United States needs to reduce spending somehow. Among all the alternatives, this one seems relatively painless.

[1] SIPRI has to estimate expenditures from a lot of countries, notably China and Russia. While their figures may be underestimates, SIPRI would have to have made massive mistakes for the effects to be relevant to the argument.

War Exhaustion and the Stability of Arms Treaties

(Paper here.)

Earlier this month, I wrote about Iranian nuclear intransigence. In this post, I want to generalize the argument: war exhaustion sabotages long-term arms treaties.

This is part of my dissertation plan, so some background is in order. My main theoretical chapter shows that if declining states can’t threaten preventive war to stop rising states from proliferating, they can buy them off instead. The idea is that weapons are costly to develop. Rising states don’t have any reason to proliferate if they are already receiving most of the concessions they wish to obtain. Meanwhile, the declining state is happy to offer those concessions to deter the rising state from proliferating.

Let’s boil it down to the simplest version of the game possible. The United States has two options: bribe or not bribe. Iran sees the US’s move and decides whether to build a nuclear bomb. American preferences (from top to bottom) are as follows: not bribe/not build, bribe/not build, not bribe/build, bribe/build. Iranian preferences are as follows: bribe/not build, bribe/build, not bribe/build, not bribe/not build.

(I derive these utilities from a more general bargaining setup, so I suggest you look at the paper if you think these seem a little off. I personally wouldn’t blame you, since it seems strange that Iran prefers accepting bribes to taking bribes and proliferating anyway.)

Given that, we have the following game:


By backward induction, Iran builds if the US does not bribe but does not build if the US bribes. In turn, the US bribes to avoid having Iran build.

Great! Iran should not proliferate. But…yeah…that’s not happening at the moment. Why?

One problem is the reason why Iran prefers not building if the United States is bribing. The idea here is that bribes are permanent. By continuing to receive these bribes for the rest of time, Iran sees no need to proliferate since it is already raking in the concessions and nuclear weapons will only waste money.

But what if the United States had the power to renege on the concessions? In the future, the US will no longer be suffering from war exhaustion from Afghanistan and Iraq and will force Iran not to proliferate by threat of preventive war. At that point, the US can renege on the bribe without any sort of repercussions.

Again, boiling the argument down to the simplest game possible, we have this:


Backward induction gives us that the US will renege (why give when you don’t have to?). So Iran builds regardless of whether the US offers a bribe (it’s a ruse!). Proliferation results today because the United States can treat Iran as essentially nuclear incapable in the future. Iran has a window of opportunity and must take it while it can.

This is neat because a commitment problem sabotages negotiations. Recovering from war exhaustion makes the United States stronger in the sense that it will be more willing to fight as time progresses. Yet, this additional strength causes bargaining to fail, since Iran fears that the United States will cut off concessions at some point down the line. More power isn’t always better.

In addition to discussing Iran, the chapter also talks about the Soviet nuclear program circa 1948, which is fascinating. We often take Moscow’s decision to proliferate as a given. Of course the Soviet Union wanted nuclear weapons–there was a cold war going on! But this doesn’t explain why the United States didn’t just buy off the Soviet Union and avoid the mess of the Cold War. Certainly both sides would have been better off without the nuclear arms race.

Again, war exhaustion sabotaged the bargaining process. The United States was not about to invade Russia immediately after World War II ended. Thus, the Soviets had a window of opportunity to proliferate unimpeded and chose to jump through that window. The U.S. was helpless to stop the Soviet Union–we had zero (ZERO!) spies on the ground at the end of WWII and thus had no clue where to begin even if we wanted to prevent. The same causal mechanism led to intransigence in two cases separated by about 60 years.

If this argument sounds interesting to you, I suggest reading my chapter on it. (Apologies that some of the internal links will fail, since the attachment contains only one chapter of a larger project.) I give a much richer version of the model that removes the hokeyness. Feel free to let me know what you think.

Humanitarians Should Love War

Earlier this morning, the front page of Reddit had a TIL Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin voted against WWII thread. The comments made me go insane. Unsurprisingly, the thread attracted a large anti-war crowd. It shocked me how untenable their general position is.

On the surface, the logic seems fine. These pacifists appear very pro-humanitarian, and the argument is straightforward:

Premise 1: War kills.
Premise 2: Killing people is bad.
Conclusion: Therefore, we should never go to war.

Premise 1 is trivially true, so no complaint there. Premise 2 is frustratingly trivial–killing people is obviously bad. The only people who disagree with this are psychopaths or soulless war profiteers. Both groups are such a small percentage of the population that they may as well be irrelevant.

But that conclusion? Dear goodness, how absurdly naive!

We do not live in a vacuum. Our choices are not “war” or “no war.” International relations is strategic. We can only control our own actions. If we don’t fight, there is no magical button we can press that stops everyone from fighting.

Yet, as far as I can discern, the anti-war group lives in a fantasy world in which this is possible. And that makes me bang my head against the wall. Repeatedly.

What are we supposed to make of this? Should we be ashamed of our actions in the Persian Gulf War? Yeah, we killed a lot of people. But the alternative was let Saddam Hussein takeover Kuwait, which seems even worse.

What about our intervention in Libya a couple years ago? We killed people, sure. So what? Are we just supposed to let Mummar Gaddafi kill civilians relentlessly?

In fact, if you are a true humanitarian, you should be advocating more war, not less. The world has no shortage of bad dictators that the world would be better off without. Currently, we could be in Syria working to remove Assad from power.

The only reason we don’t is because we are selfish. War with Syria would be costly to us. Even though the Syrian people’s gain would probably outweigh our loss, we don’t fight because…well, we just don’t give a damn.

Thus, no-war humanitarians live in a fantasy world of false dichotomies. In reality, the world presents us with three options: (1) wars against everyone, (2) wars only against bad people, and (3) no wars.

Very few people think option (1) is a good idea. But a true humanitarian should fall decisively into the option (2) camp, even as most of us fall between (2) and (3). And that’s why a humanitarian should be more pro-war than the average person.

War sucks. I get it. I’d like to be the benevolent dictator of the world, fix all social injustice, and end all conflict. But we live in a world of harsh realities, not idealistic fantasies. Life is a tradeoff. Sometimes, we cannot reach humanitarian outcomes in any reasonable length of time without fighting.

If you think we should never go to war, then you need to accept the fact that you just don’t care about people in far-flung areas of the world dying because they have an evil government. Most of us already do–even if we don’t admit it to ourselves–and that’s why we don’t have troops on the ground everywhere and higher taxes to fund those efforts.


Explaining Iranian Nuclear Intransigence

Iran is almost certainly trying to build a nuclear bomb right now. For the past four years, President Obama has been trying to get Iran to back down with a combination of rewards for nonproliferation and sanctions in the meantime. Why has Iran ignored us thus far?

A lot of people believe that you simply cannot appease rising states in this manner–they need weapons to secure concessions, so bargaining is fruitless. A few years ago, I was one such person. But in my effort to verify what I thought, I discovered I was wrong, and turned my results into an interesting paper. Settlements almost always leave both sides better off, even if the rising state can freely take the concessions and proliferate anyway.

So, again, why is Iran trying to proliferate?

I have a working paper that I think provides a reasonable explanation. (It is still preliminary, so I am not posting it here. Please email me and I will gladly send you a copy, though.) Conventional wisdom portrays Iran as the villain and us as the good guys. But if you think about the situation from their perspective, Iran’s motivation will be obvious.

The United States has always had a bad relationship with Iran since the revolution. There was a glimmer of hope on September 11, 2001 when Iran (quietly) assisted us with the invasion of Afghanistan. But that cooperation tanked when Bush declared Iran part of the “axis of evil” a few months later. This infuriated Iran, and things went cold for a couple of years.

Nevertheless, Iran again extended an olive branch in May 2003 in a remarkable effort that has amazingly escaped our collective memory. Iran put everything on the table–full diplomatic relations, dropping the nuclear program, recognition of Israel, ending support of Hezbollah, help with al-Qaeda–and asked for shockingly little in return. It is the type of deal we would jump at today, so much so that it is difficult to believe it was within our grasp just nine years ago.

How did Bush respond? He didn’t.

Yes, you read that correctly. The Bush administration completely ignored the offer.

So consider how Iran views Obama’s overtures. Iran knows the United States is weak right now–yet another war in the region would be difficult at the moment. So Iran has two choices. Option one is to proliferate now while it is still an option and force the United States to play ball in the future. Option 2 is accept Obama’s concessions now and hope the United States will continue them into the future without the threat of nukes in the background. Given the experience from 2003, which would you choose?

The unfortunate part is how inefficient the result is. Both sides would be better off if the United States could credibly commit to continued concessions into the future. But because the U.S. cannot, we are stuck with Iran attempting to go nuclear.

Of course, this does not mean proliferation will certainly be the ultimate outcome. Trade sanctions could lead to some domestic shock which changes Iranian priorities entirely. The proliferation process itself is uncertain as well; it is possible that Iran will find that proliferation will take too long and ultimately give up. But until we reach that point, don’t expect U.S.-Iranian relations to suddenly thaw.

Book Review: Leaders and International Conflict

Book: Leaders and International Conflict by Giacomo Chiozza and Hein Goemans
Five stars out of five.

Disclaimer: I either read this book because it just won the Lepgold Prize or because Goemans will be grading my comprehensive exam in a week.[1] I will let you decide which is true.

Personally, I study unitary actor explanations for war. The unitary actor assumption treats a state as though it were a single entity; there are no presidents, there are no parliaments, there are no people, and there are no revolutionaries. These are clearly strong assumptions, but they are useful and justifiable.[2]

War is quite puzzling from the unitary actor perspective. After all, war is costly to both sides because it destroys stuff. Why can’t we just implement the would-be results of war without actually fighting? In this manner, both states are better off since they get what they would get from fighting but without having to pay those costs. This is war’s inefficiency puzzle.[3]

Chiozza and Goemans start with this puzzle and then break out of the unitary actor framework by looking at leaders’ incentives, which has become a popular trend among recent scholarship. Presidents and dictators control their countries’ armies at least to some degree, but the “costs” they pay for fighting may not be the same as the costs that their citizens pay. We normally think of this as being beneficial to the leaders–citizens do the actual fighting (and dying) while the leaders sit back at home and wait for the favorable results. In contrast, Chiozza and Goemans care about what happens to the leaders after war ends, especially when things go badly. Do they retire? Do they go to prison? Into exile? Die? Presumably, the expected fate of the leader weighs heavily on his decision to fight, which in turn changes our expectation on when wars ought to break out.

Specifically, Chiozza and Goemans identify two new causal mechanisms for variation between war and peace: fighting for survival and peace through instability.[4] Let’s start with fighting for survival. Imagine I am the repressive Dictator of Virgon, and I am expecting to face domestic upheaval in the near future due to a food shortage. If the domestic uprising is successful, I expect to lose my head–I have been a brutal dictator for the last ten years. Thus, I have two choices: sit back and let the revolution happen or start a dispute with neighboring Aerilon. If I start the fight against Aerilon, I can send some of the military leaders most capable of plotting a coup against me to the front lines. If the war goes incredibly wrong and they die, I am little safer because I am short a few more coup plotters. If the war goes well, suddenly I am a military genius and everyone loves me. Or the war causes the citizens to finish their rebellion. In the first two situations, I am much better off because I am alive. In the third situation, I’m dead–but, hey, I was going to die anyway. So what the hell. I might as well fight.

This has the flavor of traditional diversionary war, so it is worth noting their emphasis on the role of truncated punishment in the theory. Imagine instead that I were the President of Canceron. We are a fledgling democracy. My power is somewhat stable but not as firm as the U.S. President’s is. I face plenty of domestic opposition, some from within the government and some from within the military. Suppose I am facing that same food shortage. Again, I can choose to attack Aerilon or not. If I don’t, it is quite likely that one of my political rivals will oust me. But we are a fledgling democracy with some rule of law, so I will go back and live a nice retirement on my ten-acre estate. But fighting is much riskier. Yes, I might be successful and save my presidency. But I could also spark further domestic upheaval from my own military. And if they launch a coup to overthrow me…well, I might just lose my head. So I decide to leave Aerilon be. This is Chiozza and Goemans’ peace through instability mechanism; I avoid wars because I prefer taking a lovely retirement with certainty to a gamble between remaining president and dying.

We can attribute the difference in outcomes due to the truncated punishment. The Dictator of Virgon has nothing to lose. His punishment (dying) can’t get any worse, so he willing to fight the war. The President of Canceron, on the other hand, is not. His possible outcomes is not truncated. Fighting can make things much worse–his outcome can switch from retirement to death. Hence he’s not fighting the war.

That, in a nutshell, is the argument. The authors spend chapters three and four empirically investigating the link between war and war outcomes to leader fate. The empirics are accessible to readers without much statistical background, so that is a huge plus. The fifth chapter then qualitatively looks at leader transition and war in Central America from 1840-1918. They find that their theory explains the outbreak of a good portion–though not all–wars during that period. Credit Chiozza and Goemans for being honest here. A single theory will never explain all wars, since wars happen for a variety of reasons. I too often read material that wants to explain everything, which is laughable. Chiozza and Goemans instead make an honest effort and do not unnecessarily oversell their theory.

Finally, I offer two practical reasons to read the book. First, it is just over 200 pages. The writing is succinct, clear of extraneous information[5], and you can easily read it in half a day.[6] It can also be had on Amazon Kindle for about $15, which is remarkably cheap for an academic book that only came out a year ago. Go check it out.

[1] You may then wonder whether I actually believe this book deserves five stars–after all, if I truly thought this book was terrible, I have incentive to misrepresent. However, rest assured that I think it is good. After all, if it were bad, I could have just written no review. But by writing a review, I face potential audience costs from readers who pick up this book because of me and then think it is terrible. Thus, the audience costs make my signal credible. Game theory at work, qed.

[2] See the following video:

[3] See the following video:

[4] Technically, they split fighting for survival into two categories, but I will gloss over it for the sake of time.

[5] Fine, there is extraneous information, but it is in the form of humorous anecdotes, so that makes it okay.

[6] Unfortunately for Goemans, my comprehensive exam will not be succinct. At all. And my dissertation? Well, let’s not go there…

Dear Iran, Your Threat Is Incredible. Love, America

Apparently “Iran threatens attack” is the top trending search on Yahoo right now. Here’s a news story of what is going on. Apparently some general in the Iranian air force (Amir Ali Hajizadeh) said that if Israel strikes Iran, Iran will retaliate by attacking American bases in the region.

Umm. Okay.

Iran will do no such thing. The American public does not have the will to engage Iran at the moment. If someone will launch a preventive strike on the Iranian nuclear program, it will be Israel, not the United States. (And, as Israeli officials are finally conceding, this is an unlikely outcome.) But do you know what would give the American public the will to fight? I don’t know, how about an attack on American bases? If Iran initiates on the United States, it undoubtedly ends badly for the Iranians. In turn, anyone who has spent two minutes learning backward induction (see video below) knows how preposterous Iran’s original threat is.

This news story reflects a curious and disturbing trend in American news media. Whenever some crazy person from another country says something inflammatory, it gets reported as though it is serious business, even if it is in no way the actual policy of the regime in charge. Then rhetoric explodes for no particular reason.

The only thing Americans should take away from this news story is that Amir Ali Hajizadeh is a complete idiot.

(Of course, we have some silly people in our country who say silly things, and I am sure that the Iranian media also reports them as though they are serious. This goes both ways.)