First-Rate Intelligence: U.S. Government Understanding of the Syrian Civil War

By Jeremy Shapiro, Visiting Fellow, Brookings and Miriam R. Estrin, Postdoctoral Associate, Yale Law School

* This memo was prepared for “The Political Science of Syria’s War” conference, November 8, 2013. A version of this piece was previously published on the Middle East Channel on

The Syrian Coalition’s recent decision to participate in the Geneva II conference on January 22, 2014 was welcome news to the U.S. government, which has promoted the negotiations as “the best opportunity” to end the violence in Syria. So surely U.S. policy would want to take into account the reflected wisdom of academics and policy thinkers who have studied how successful political settlements take hold. Academics rarely agree on anything, so it is notable when a consensus position emerges, as it largely has with the academic literature on civil war termination. Even more notable, perhaps, is that this position has almost no influence on government policy.

The academic literature on civil war termination holds that civil wars like the one in Syria usually last a long time and end only in victory by one side or another. The few that do end through a negotiated settlement usually require an agreement that permits a division of political control that roughly corresponds to the division of power on the ground, a parallel agreement among all of the external supporters of the various sides, and external military assistance to monitor and enforce the agreement.

Yet U.S. policy in Syria seems to take none of this into account. The United States seeks a negotiated settlement, but specifically rejects the idea that the Assad regime might maintain some degree of control; specifically (for now) excludes Iran, a key external supporter, from the negotiations; and rejects the idea of contributing to monitoring or enforcing the agreement despite the evident lack of alternatives. This is in part because these are difficult future questions that need not be posed until the negotiations actually begin — which might actually be never. It is also because the idea of power-sharing conflicts with the idea that war is about getting rid of Assad, while the idea of inviting Iran conflicts with the higher priority U.S. interest in reducing Iranian regional influence.

But a broader reason is that the U.S. government is systemically unable to incorporate these ideas into its policy. We often talk about the government as if it were a human being. It “thinks,” it “believes,” and sometimes it even “knows” — or “should know.” Critics frequently demand that the government should understand and learn certain key facts or lessons of history. But of course the government is not an individual. It is rather a vast constellation of people and institutions, and as such it learns information and processes knowledge quite differently than individuals do. Most importantly, government “knowledge” about foreign policy issues is not learned or deduced. Rather, it is formed through a process of bureaucratic or political compromise between often conflicting theories or goals.

The result is that the government does not think and learn in clear and consistent ways. First, the government often lacks logical consistency. As a collection of people and institutions, the government is much more capable of holding deeply inconsistent beliefs than individuals are. If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “[T]he test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” then the government is a genius. The U.S. government can “know,” for example, that it is simultaneously both the leading global advocate for Internet freedom and the leading violator of privacy on the Internet.

Second, the government often relies on old information or disproven ideas. Changes in conditions on the ground or new academic insights are less likely to affect government thinking than personnel changes or domestic political developments. The U.S. government can therefore continue to know that nuclear weapons threaten to spread like a virus even if it has continually over-predicted the spread of such weapons.

Third, the government often lacks forward thinking. An important rule of governance holds that once agreement is reached on step one of the policy process, stop arguing over future questions until they are posed. This means even deep divisions over next moves are papered over until they become immediately relevant, often causing inconsistent behavior or long delays to work through internal disputes. Accordingly, the U.S. government can decide to invade Iraq without really discussing whether the goal is democratization or simple regime change.

Fourth, the government often fails to understand that competing interests (foreign or domestic) shape foreign policies on specific issues. Government leaders don’t like to spell out priorities among foreign policy interests, acknowledge trade-offs between interests, or admit that foreign policies are shaped by domestic politics. Yet these unacknowledged considerations still manage to creep into decision-making and render policies incoherent. For example, U.S. leaders who promote democracy in the Middle East have usually failed to acknowledge that the United States will likely prioritize national security interests over democracy, rendering the policy maddeningly inconsistent.

Overall, this implies that government knowledge defies easy description. What the government “thinks,” “knows,” or “understands” will need to be gleaned from multiple sources — well beyond the words of the president — and described with due attention to the preceding observations.

What the Government Knows about Syria

Within these rather severe limits, what can be said about the state of U.S. government knowledge on the Syrian civil war? Several ideas about the nature and dynamics of the civil war drive the views of government officials. These views tend to have been formed by the process of political and bureaucratic compromise, and they have roots that pre-date the Syrian crisis. They are thus quite resistant to new evidence or alternatives, even though they are at times inconsistent or simply false, and even though many individuals within the government do not accept them. We have singled out some of the most notable (and arguably most problematic) of those beliefs.

First, the U.S. government overestimates the power of momentum in the Syrian civil war. The U.S. government believes that trends in the civil war will continue and indeed get stronger, absent dramatic action from some outside actor. The “power of momentum” heuristic is the source of the beliefs that (a) in 2011and 2012, the Assad regime would certainly fall, (b) in 2013, the Assad regime would certainly triumph, and (c) that throughout, the war will inevitably spread to neighboring states and foster extremism. This is in essence a variant of the domino theory.

Second, the U.S. government fetishizes the importance of Assad. To the United States government, Assad as an individual is the most important issue in the civil war. His future in power therefore largely defines the future of Syria and the prospects for peace. This means that the United States cannot accept any negotiation that allows Assad to remain in power.

Third, the U.S. government often reverts to a simple categorization of the civil war as a two-sided conflict. The U.S. government essentially sees the civil war as two-sided — the government against the opposition — and the United States supports the opposition. The discord within the opposition is therefore a problem of unifying moderates and isolating extremists, and can be fixed through political compromise and effectively weighted representation of interests. Many U.S. allies (e.g., Jordan) do not hold this view, but the U.S. government has remained very impervious to the notion that there are many sides in the war.

Fourth, the U.S. government believes it is an exogenous actor in the Syrian civil war. Stemming from a fervent belief in U.S. exceptionalism, this view holds that by virtue of its power, its history, and its placement in the international order, the United States has a unique role to play in resolving the conflict. The United States can be the convener, the mediator, and even conceivably the enforcer of a peace conference. This notion sits uneasily with U.S. support for the opposition, but there is little ability or desire to confront the contradiction.

Finally, the U.S. government believes in the superior competence of extremists. Under this view, extremists in the opposition have inherent advantages in organizing, governing, and fighting that stem from their capacity for ideological motivation, their incorruptibility and their committed external supporters. This implies that moderates cannot compete unless they get support from the United States and its allies — and even then, they will be harder to organize and motivate.

How to Teach the Government

Many have lamented the “policy gap” that separates scholars and policymakers and prevents them from having meaningful exchanges of ideas. Much of the commentary has focused, on the one hand, on the cultural and hiring trends within academia that reward lengthy, equation-ridden papers as opposed to clear writing, and, on the other, the lack of interest and utility of this kind of scholarship inside the government. But this understates the problem. Even when scholars publish “policy relevant” and well-written pieces, there is a very limited ability for outsiders to teach the government new knowledge.

There are many reasons for this limited ability to teach the government new knowledge. It is difficult for outsiders to influence the state of government knowledge because they themselves usually disagree, as is to be expected on any complex subject. Policymakers can usually cite “experts” to bolster all sides of an argument. And even when outside experts largely agree, academic theories that present challenges to preexisting ideas have greater difficulty making headway inside the government.

For these reasons, outsiders need to find a way to connect their knowledge to an existing policy process. This means they have to move beyond the simple truth or falsity, and present their knowledge in ways that reflect an understanding of the political and bureaucratic incentives and the policymaking process. For any given debate, an outsider needs to ask which specific policymaker can benefit from this new knowledge by using the outside authority as a weapon in the inevitable internal struggles over government policy. For example, a Department of Defense policymaker armed in August 2011 with the literature of civil war termination might have been able to more effectively resist the decision to make a public statements calling for Assad to go. He would been able to use the outside empirical evidence that a political settlement that included Assad might eventually be the best route to ending the violence as a weapon in that policy struggle.

It is not a simple task, but the academic outsider who can map the institutional terrain of a current policy debate and find the appropriate insider to champion his ideas can inject new knowledge into the policy process — and enable a more intelligent government to make better policy judgments.

Jeremy Shapiro is a visiting fellow with the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. From 2009 to 2013, he served in the U.S. State Department on the policy planning staff and in the bureau of European and Eurasian affairs and currently consults for the policy planning staff. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government. Miriam R. Estrin is a postdoctoral associate at Yale Law School.

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