08/21/2012 02:24 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2012

Revolutions Are the Norm -- What Will the Candidates Do?

The current conflict in Syria deserves a critical examination on its own merits, but it also deserves examination as part of the larger post-Cold War trend that defines the current strategic environment. If anything characterizes the post-Cold War era, it's political instability -- a competition for the right to govern in the absence of superpower backing. It began with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and continues through the Arab Spring. These revolutions are likely to continue. What will the candidates do?

The revolutions that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union are easy to understand as the direct descendent of the Cold War's end. It's also possible (plausible) that what's been called the Arab Spring is a second act of the same play with different actors on a different stage. Throughout the Cold War major and small powers took sides with one of the two superpowers. Russia exerted strong control over Central Asian states by incorporating them into the Soviet Union and exerted a weaker form of control in Eastern Europe by backing left-wing autocrats. The U.S. countered by propping up, in many cases, right-wing autocrats. Some sophisticated small powers, e.g., Egypt's Nasser, successfully played both sides against each other. The Arabs are now revolting against the autocrats once backed by Soviet and American sponsors.

In January 2006, the Economist wrote about "Bloodless Regime Change: A Rainbow of Revolutions." Many of the rainbow revolutions were entirely political and were resolved with minimal resort to physical violence. It's understandable why they haven't found a place in America's public memory. In some of these peaceful transitions from autocracy to democracy, the same individuals who mastered the former one-party system had the political skills to win election in a multiparty system, sometimes resulting in democratically elected autocrats, electocracy versus democracy.

In some of the more drawn-out, violent transitions, political leaders developed from within the revolutionary, populist, pro-democracy ranks. Some years ago, a contrarian strategist, Edward Luttwak, wrote an article titled, "Give War a Chance." Not many strategists have the stature to write such an article, but there's an uncomfortable truth to his recommendation. Lasting change is more likely to come from bottom-up, broad-based, indigenous movements that develop political leaders. Great power interventions postpone the war-induced exhaustion that can lead to a political solution. Luttwak advises letting small wars burn themselves out.

These are two quite different transitions. When revolutions move from political processes to armed, the menu of options remains pretty much the same.
• Stay out of it
• Seek a diplomatic solution with belligerents, regional actors or global actors
• Impose an arms embargo to starve the conflict
• Supply the weaker side to give them a fighting chance
• Supply the favored side to promote a desired outcome
• Intervene with standoff strike capabilities
• Intervene with ground forces to separate the factions and end the conflict
• Regime change followed by protracted nation building
• Some combination of the above

None of these options are terribly attractive. Asymmetries are predictable and pronounced. Syrians -- those with power and those without -- are the biggest stakeholders with their survival on the line. If Assad is deposed, the ruling Allowite minority likely face a bleak future. Neighboring states are next in the hierarchy of stakeholders. Regional instability could threaten the survival of current power relationships. And although remote actors in Europe, Asia and North America have little at risk, they may exert disproportionate influence.

More important to the election season, individuals and political factions exhibit a consistent pattern of behavior. For example, Senator John McCain reliably prefers direct and early military intervention, beginning with enforcement of no-fly zones, ratcheting up to air strikes, and to training and equipping the weaker side. But he is slower to commit ground forces. Freshman Representative McCain opposed Reagan's ill-fated deployment of Marines into Lebanon without a mission. Representative Ron Paul reliably opposes direct military intervention on the grounds that U.S. vital interests are not at stake and that intervention is likely to increase anti-Americanism. Regardless of whether or not you agree with their policy preferences, I think both McCain and Paul deserve respect for their consistency and for playing an active role in the national dialogue. Members of Congress who reliably support presidents from their party and oppose presidents from the other are not deserving of that same respect.

As well as prominent individuals, there are political factions that exhibit a predictable response. Some reliably reject subordination of U.S. forces to U.N. command and, more to the point, prefer unilateral action; other factions are inclined to intervene through international institutions even when U.S. vital interests are not at stake. Some reliably exhaust options through diplomatic channels before resorting to military force; others equate diplomacy with appeasement and are quick to use military force. I wrote about burden sharing in an earlier blog post, so I won't repeat it here.

These predictable and persistent patterns of behavior are symptoms of what's called national security strategy or grand strategy. When we vote for a president, we are choosing a strategy. Unfortunately, not many candidates are as visible and consistent as McCain and Paul. When it comes to grand strategy, most candidates are a major question mark. When these candidates speak publicly on foreign policy or national security, it may be an honest expression of their internalized strategy -- an expression of their world view--or it may be nothing more than party-line rhetoric to win election. Will they walk what they talk once elected?

Obama has now exhibited a recognizable pattern of behavior. Without foreign policy experience himself, his vice president brought decades of service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Obama brought the war in Iraq to a close and is drawing down the war in Afghanistan. He changed national strategy against al-Qaeda and associate movements from regime change and nation building to manhunt. The approach taken to the political uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt was diplomatic rather than military. In the case of Libya, the Obama administration responded with limited military strikes from offshore, without ground forces, with U.N. authorization, without U.S. congressional authorization, and through the NATO alliance. The response to the violent uprising in Syria has largely been diplomatic later augmented with covert non-lethal aid to the rebels.

Mitt Romney has no track record to interpret. He's in the same position as Obama four years ago, and that position is common. Without a history of action to examine, we can only consider his campaign speeches and the record of his assembling national security team. Each party has a small cadre of national security and foreign policy professionals. When their party occupies the White House, members of the cadre occupy political appointments across the executive branch and advise, even guide, presidential decision making.

According to National War College professor Michael Mazaar, a policy clash is brewing in Romney's advisory team. Robert Zoellick will likely be one prominent adviser. He is what political scientists call a realist and professionals call a seasoned pragmatist, a throwback to a past Republican Party, more at home in the Bush 41 administration. But other prominent advisers will be hardliners and neocons who are highly interventionist and quick to resort to military solutions to spread democracy, idealists. We saw this kind of split advisory system in the Carter and Bush 43 administrations. Carter never resolved the conflict. Bush 43 resolved the conflict by marginalizing realist Colin Powell and being strongly influenced by the idealist neocons. Neither Romney nor Ryan has any foreign policy credentials, but they will be receiving conflicting realist and idealist neocon advice. Diverse policy options in the hands of a decision maker can produce positive outcomes, or it can produce confusion. It depends on the decision maker.

With respect to a nuclear Iran, the only prudent thing either Obama or Romney can say is, all options are on the table. We'll have to infer their eventual choice of action from the available evidence. A more thorough discussion must be deferred for another day.

In spite of popular belief, the overwhelming evidence is that democracies and autocracies are equally prone to war. The evidence is equally compelling that states in transition between the two governing forms are much more war prone than stable democracies or autocracies. Stability is a better predictor of war proneness than is form of government. Should we support stability? Should we force instability? Should we cautiously manage at arm's length?

When one of these revolutions results in a change from autocracy to democracy, we shouldn't expect peace to break out. Transition in either direction threatens existing power relations, and few give away power without a fight. Once a transition occurs, there's no reason to believe it will stick. Optimistically, we can hope for two steps forward and one step back. To varying degrees, we can see how complex and drawn out the process can be by looking at Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt. Only the most naïve would expect a quick fix in Syria or elsewhere.

We should expect to deal with an abundance of instability and we should know where our candidates stand on military intervention. Should the U.S. intervene on the ground as in Afghanistan and Iraq and stay to support democratic development? Should the U.S. cautiously tip the scales as in Libya? Or should we "give war a chance" as Luttwak suggests? Which candidate most possesses the wisdom to navigate the troubled waters ahead?