What Political Scientists Can Tell Us About War, Syria and Congress

Brad Plumer in the Washington Post:

3) Elite opinion on war plays a huge role in shaping public opinion. Intervention in Syria is pretty unpopular with the wider American public right now. But it won’t necessarily stay that way. A lot could depend on the words and actions of lawmakers and other elites.

At least, that’s one implication of a 2007 paper by Adam Berinsky of MIT: “When political elites disagree as to the wisdom of intervention, the public divides as well. But when elites come to a common interpretation of a political reality, the public gives them great latitude to wage war.” (See also Berinsky’s book on this topic.)

4) Broadly speaking, military interventions have a poor track record in achieving humanitarian goals. True, the Obama administration isn’t framing a strike on Syria as a humanitarian endeavor (their stated goal is to enforce norms against the use of chemical weapons). Still, Erica Chenoweth of the University of Denver has been highlighting a couple of striking papers on the consequences of intervention:

–A 2002 paper by Patrick Ragan found that outside military interventions don’t typically shorten the duration of civil conflicts. “Regardless of how the intervention is conceived – or empirically operationalized—there seems to be no mix of strategies that lead to shorter expected durations.”

–A 2012 paper by Reed Wood, Jason Kathman and Stephen Gent found that outside military interventions on behalf of rebel factions can actually increase government killings of civilians: