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Proxy Wars and Hotspots to Watch: A Conversation with Eli Berman

With the US drawing down forces in a number of global hot zones, and the Biden administration promising a break from Trump-era disengagement, Eli BermanIGCC research director for international security studies and professor of economics at UC San Diego, revisits his book Proxy Wars: Suppressing Violence Through Local Agents. The interview has been edited for length.

Feb. 2, 2021 | Interview by Lindsay Morgan


news_eli-berman-panel.jpgPowerful states have used proxies to pursue foreign policy objectives for probably as long as there have been nation-states. What is a “proxy” and why does working with or through proxies make sense?

Our problem with ISIS in Syria is typical. We have interests—suppressing a terrorist threat—but are reluctant to deploy forces to do so. The solution that great powers and medium-sized powers have come up with is to deputize a local ally who we incentivize to do it for us. For instance, using Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish forces as a proxy to suppress ISIS—our common enemy.

How does a country like the United States get a proxy to do what it wants?

What the U.S. discovered in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Colombia, and in many of our other adventures and misadventures, is that the local allies who we choose to pursue our interests—well, they have their own interests. Even if you give them resources and training, they don't always use them to fight the Taliban or ISIS. Sometimes they use them to chase down their political opponents, and then return to barracks. In short, proxies cheat. When the incentives aren’t strong enough and monitoring isn’t tight, agents cheat. In six out of nine case studies in our book, the principals who observed cheating tightened up the incentives and monitoring and managed to achieve proxy compliance. So, the good news is that most of the time, proxy wars can work, but only when managed very, very carefully.

So, you get a proxy to do what you want through a combination of incentives—carrots and sticks—and monitoring.

Exactly. What's most surprising is not that incentives work, but how often the principals initially overestimate how misaligned their own objectives are with those of their proxies. You have a character like Maliki in Iraq who says “Oh, yes. We definitely want a liberal democracy and we're going to have an inclusive government and it's going to include the Sunni.” And we tend to buy that line. We tend not to be as skeptical as we should. As a result, the United States tends to naively provide unconditional aid, rather than conditioning military and civilian aid on performance.  

The United States is in the process of reducing its force presence in Afghanistan in line with the 2020 agreement with the Taliban. How might our ability to influence local partners in Afghanistan change in the absence of these forces on the ground? What do you predict for the Biden administration?

When you withdraw American forces, you lose the ability to monitor. Not totally, because the satellites are still there, and you can still listen to phone calls if you are inclined to do such a thing. But without actual personnel on the ground, monitoring gets worse and leverage declines very, very rapidly. That means our allies and our own personnel are less safe, which means they can do less things. And as we lose leverage, somebody else gets more leverage—Iran, Pakistan, China, Russia. 

It's a little early to predict what the Biden administration will do. But I would expect to see a slow ramping up of forces—if domestic politics allows —so they can succeed at counterterrorism and make sure there's a rapid response force if security deteriorates and our local allies are endangered. The Ghani government is probably the best government a principal could ever expect in Afghanistan, and it's certainly a strong American interest that it succeeds. But without knowing how the Senate would respond, and how the House would respond, and how isolationism will express itself in the Biden era, it's difficult to predict. Amazingly, Afghanistan is more predictable right now than domestic politics here in the United States.

The Afghanistan papers seem to demonstrate the failure of the United States to address the corrupt practices of its local partners in Afghanistan, which, some argue, damaged U.S. military operations over the long term. Is this an example of the difficulty of a principal monitoring an agent, or is it a case where the U.S. was constrained and didn't have effective means to address corrupt practices?   

I have mixed feelings about the anti-corruption effort in Afghanistan. When the United States launched its anti-corruption activities, they said the same thing you did: “corruption is getting in the way of our counterinsurgency effort.” Well, maybe. Or maybe the counterinsurgency effort needed better governance. The ABC of counterinsurgency is secure the space, then build. Building means you need a local government that provides services to local people so that when the rebels come back, the local population prefers the local government over the rebels. If they prefer the rebels, it's over. Of course, we would prefer that the government be inclusive and honest and reflect our values. But if we initially chose as our proxy a patronage-dependent politician, then we might want to let them build their way, rather than undermine the build.

Yemen is the site of a complex web of proxy wars—with the United States, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Iran, all supporting various factions. The previous U.S. administration designated the Houthis, a Shia militia supported by Iran that controls much of North Yemen, a foreign terrorist organization. How significant is that designation?

Yemen is in an absolutely catastrophic situation. It's stuck between Iran and the Sunni Gulf States, who want to conduct proxy wars in lots of places, including Yemen and Syria, with callous disregard for human life. They're allowed to do it because the United States has removed itself from diplomacy that addresses this kind of human suffering in the way we used to. That retreat started under the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” but became a vacuum under Trump. From the point of view of American interests, the pivot is understandable. We need the oil less, it's an expensive deployment, and, if anything, we're protecting oil that's for the most part flowing to Asia; China might do that job better.

But as we pull out, China moves in, Russia moves in, and the regional powers—Iran and Saudi Arabia—increase their influence. No champions of human rights among them. Yemen and Syria are in a bad place and until we work out a deal with China and Russia and the local powers to shut down these conflicts, the population will continue to suffer.

That’s a grim prognosis.

It didn't have to be that way. We had an ally in Yemen who was behaving, and the situation was mismanaged. There’s a very clear chapter in the book on exactly that by Ben Brewer. We had an ally who was trying to comply with what we were asking and got confused by our mixed signals under the Bush administration, and gave it all up. Our ally fell and ever since, there’s been chaos in Yemen. It was a solvable problem, but we abandoned an ally.

In a review in the London Review of Books, Tom Stevenson suggests that proxies are neither effective nor necessarily cheap, and he cited Abigail Vaughn's chapter on Columbia and Ryan Baker's chapter on El Salvador to suggest that the use of proxies may be morally dubious and stimulate violence rather than suppress it. What's your reaction to Stevenson’s question about the efficacy, cost, and legitimacy of using proxies? 

Managing other humans through proxies is, yes, dubious—especially if those proxies don't have the same regard for human rights that we do. In that situation, as Stevenson points out, the principal absorbs some legal and ethical responsibility for what the proxy is doing, especially if it arms and otherwise increases the coercive power of a local government. There's also a related line of criticism that powerful nations are repeating the sins of the colonial era in disregarding human life, not to mention the environment and other things we hold dear, which we wouldn't allow to happen at home.

These are ethical arguments. I think the main counterargument is: what's the alternative? The United States remains the necessary superpower. I think it’s our responsibility—the U.S. and Western powers—to manage these situations as well as possible. For instance, when the Taliban ran Afghanistan, it was worse in every dimension. It wasn't just that girls weren’t going to school. The punishment for homosexuality was they would drop a wall on you.

That's not to say that we always choose proxies as carefully as we should—but I think you have to start by recognizing that in many parts of the world, the options are very limited.

Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general who is considered by some to be the master of proxy warfare, was assassinated in January 2020. What does his assassination portend for conflict in the Middle East and beyond?

Soleimani was a terrorist and organizer of terrorism; from an ethical point of view, I have no problem with his assassination. But the event highlights something important about deterrence. The people who applauded the move said, “The Iranians will be deterred.” The people who criticized it said “That was reckless. We don't know how the Iranians might respond.” It turned out that the Iranians were not in the mood to start a new war or attack Saudi Arabia, because they had bigger problems. So, they satisfied themselves with a relatively minor attack on bases in Iraq.

The general lesson about deterrence is that usually what we see in these confrontations with medium-sized powers, and even with the great powers, is that if neither side wants to escalate they will find an excuse not to, even in the face of provocation. Usually it's the case that both sides want to de-escalate. And so we don't see individual attacks sparking regional wars. Both sides usually understand the deterrent capability of the other, and there are lots of ways that the medium-sized powers can make each other quite miserable, including pulling out of trade agreements and applying sanctions—things that are not violent but are in a sense coercive. 

You’re working on a project with IGCC on cyber security, and I’m wondering if the same point about deterrence applies in cyberspace.

Absolutely. Many of us were really, really surprised that the Obama administration, and certainly the Trump administration, were very, very slow to react to cyberattacks, including election interference and the assassination of spies and diplomats on foreign soil.

There are two possible reasons that cyber attacks aren’t being adequately deterred: one is that we've been asleep at the wheel, and the other is that the other side has some capability which is so great that we're afraid of what the counter-attack would look like. The last attack was the worst hack ever of government and industry here in the United States, and the fact that we didn't see a response leads you to wonder: am I protected as an individual? 

This is a little far from Soleimani, but I see a strong analogy to our government not having a methodical approach to deterrence, which our enemies and allies recognized.

What are some of the key hotspots to watch in 2021?

The hot spots in our great power confrontations are clearly the most important. If we want to have fewer troops in the Middle East, but at the same time want the Middle East to be stable, then we need to watch Iran, Syria, and Yemen. Depending on how the Biden administration chooses to confront Russia, certainly the Ukraine, other parts of the Eastern European periphery, and maybe the Central Asian republics, are key. 

In the confrontation with China, the hotspots include the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. But China, through the Belt and Road initiative, also has aspirations to compete in Africa and South America. And so there are lots of places where great power competition with China will unfold. There are also some medium-sized powers that are stepping in to fill voids and vacuums, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

It's hard to point to individual places—the world is changing, especially in the Pacific Rim, in dramatic ways. And the Biden administration is coming into a world which is worse in many ways than what those same folks left four years ago.

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