Archive photo of President Barack Obama, holding a conference call with advisors
© White House, via Flickr
Archive photo of President Barack Obama, holding a conference call with advisors
Last updated: October 15, 2014
A Machiavellian guide to the fight against Islamic State

"Military interventions prolong conflicts, and weaken democratic institutions"

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Surprisingly, Machiavellian maxims suggest that the international community should largely abstain from, rather than escalate, the use of force in their confrontation against ISIS and Assad.

“Men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones he cannot, therefore the injury that is to be done to man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.”

America should either use force decisively or not use it at all. Unfortunately, current American policy does the former. American airstrikes are aimed at “degrading and destroying” ISIS, but ISIS quickly adapted by becoming more dispersed, and embedding themselves within the communities they control. This is unsurprising; a study by the RAND Corporation finds that while American drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan reduced insurgent violence in the short term (roughly four weeks) they failed to produce a statistically significant decrease in violence in the long term. Airstrikes exacerbate anti-American grievances amongst groups that are currently focused on more pressing regional issues; thus, they may be radicalizing individuals who previously did not have the inclination to participate in, or devote resources towards, strikes against Western targets.

2. “A prince should make himself feared in a way that if he does not gain love, he at any rate avoids hatred. | “To incur hatred without any advantage is the greatest temerity and imprudence.”

Airstrikes will likely attract more support for ISIS. Look to Yemen, where America’s ongoing campaign of airstrikes actually increased support for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In 2009, when President Obama began his campaign against AQAP, there were only 300 core AQAP members in Yemen; today there at least 700, and hundreds of tribesmen informally allied with AQAP in their insurgency against the American-backed Yemeni government. The collateral damage caused by airstrikes, coupled with perceptions that the Yemeni government was a puppet of the Americans for allowing America to engage in (what they perceived) as naked violations of Yemeni sovereignty, “angered the powerful tribes which would have prevented AQAP from gaining strength”.  Stepped up American involvement in Iraq, whose government already has serious legitimacy problems, could easily lead to a repeat of this scenario.

3. “There is nothing so self-defeating as generosity... it is wiser to incur the reputation of being a miser, which brings forth ignominy but not hatred, than to be forced by seeking a name for generosity to incur a reputation for rapacity, which brings you hatred as well as ignominy.”

America currently faces a strong temptation to be morally generous by using military force to solve a number of moral problems. Kurds, Christians, Yazidis, and Shiites have all suffered egregious human rights abuses under ISIS rule. As I write, most analysts predict that ISIS will manage to overrun the city of Kobani, placing thousands of Kurdish lives in jeopardy. On the opposing side, America faces pressure not to do anything that may undermine efforts to unseat Assad. However, since ISIS and the Assad regime are enemies, attacking one strengthens the other: the US should either pick sides, or distance themselves from the conflict. 

Furthermore, America is supposed to help Iraq formulate an inclusive, democratic government, but empirically, military interventions prolong conflicts, and weaken democratic institutions. A study by Patrick Regan of Binghamton University found that external military interventions prolong conflict duration, because outside parties have an incentive to allow conflicts to continue until their goals (usually a stable regime pliant to their interests) is established. Interventions that provoke opposing interventions “dramatically” increase conflict duration. This is worrying given that a renewed American presence in Iraq would likely provoke a response by Jabhat-al-Nusra.  Another study by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of NYU found that military interventions tend to undermine democratic institutions, because external powers are willing to cut deals with autocratic-leaning leaders and groups because they have the power to impose stability, and are willing to accede to the interests of the outside power, even if it defies domestic opinion. Thus, using force to satiate moral cravings will likely create more problems than it solves.

4. “One should never let a problem develop in order to avoid a war, for you end up not avoiding the war, but deferring it to a time that will be less favorable.”

On one hand, it seems like quarantining ISIS – with the help of the Assad regime – and launching airstrikes against actively plotting Al-Qaeda cells may be America’s best bet. However, many critics, in line with the Machiavellian maxim presented above, would argue that this strategy merely puts off the inevitable. This argument is predicated on the assumption that the Assad regime and ISIS will be more powerful in the future. However, a policy of containment – which America appears to be pursuing – would substantially weaken ISIS. The international community could work to deny ISIS access to oil funding, prevent foreign fighters from entering ISIS held regions, and set up safe havens for civilians adjacent to ISIS held regions. This would result in a poorer ISIS, and a poorer ISIS would be less able to use coercive force and provide public goods. The former would undermine their ability to retain power through violence, and the latter would undermine public support in the areas they hold. Removing Assad is also a bad idea because:

a) America being responsible for ensuring a moderate government emerged from the resulting power vacuum.

b) America bearing the majority of the costs of the intervention and the nation-building which would follow.

c) The loss of American lives in a vicious counter-insurgency, led by groups like Jabhat-al-Nusra, and (likely) Iranian proxies, as Iran views the Assad regime as an important ally.

d) The collapse of nuclear negotiations with Iran, which are already on thin ice, as Iran would view an American assault on Syria as a threat to their national security. This is especially worrying given that the conflict has provided the US and Iran an unprecedented trust-building opportunity; Iran offered to work with the US to fight ISIS, and Iranian special forces, which helped Shiite militias murder American troops in Iraq during our occupation have been ordered to lay off American troops.

e) Angering Russia, which would feel uncomfortable with an American military presence so close to their borders.

There may be a time when bringing the fight to ISIS, and supporting efforts to depose the Syrian regime makes strategic sense. However, now is not the time.  

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