Michael KreponThe Commitment Trap

Scott Sagan wrote a typically fine essay in the Spring 2000 issue of International Security on “The Commitment Trap.” His subject was the Bush administration’s use of “calculated ambiguity” to deter Saddam Hussein from using chemical or biological weapons in the run-up to the second Gulf war. After disavowing chemical weapons (1992) as well as biological weapons (1972), senior U.S. officials have sought to deter their use by others by issuing warnings of “absolutely overwhelming” and “devastating” responses. These code words imply the use of nuclear weapons.

Scott argued, persuasively in my view, that veiled threats to use nuclear weapons trapped U.S. officials. If CW or BW were actually used by an adversary — regardless of their scope and military effectiveness, whether from top-down dictates or breakdowns in command and control — Washington could feel impelled to carry out its threat, thereby inviting immeasurable but significant costs to its international stranding and to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Alternatively, by refraining from carrying out its nuclear threat, Washington could also lose international standing, inviting new adversaries to call its bluff and old friends to question the protectiveness of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. To avoid these awful choices, Scott proposed that calculated ambiguity be replaced with a clear and credible U.S. commitment to respond to CW and BW use with prompt and devastating conventional retaliation.

One measure of the devaluation of nuclear weapons is the decreased utility of nuclear threats, whether blatant or veiled. Only one state currently employs blatant, crude and credible nuclear threats. By making them, Pyongyang increases its separation from states that are not in the grip of paranoia. Veiled nuclear threats have been more frequent. Along with the second Gulf war, they were made during intense crises between Pakistan and India from 1999 – 2002, but were notably absent after the 2008 crisis sparked by terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Russia, which has increased its reliance on nuclear weapons, has no reason to threaten their use, making any public statement along these lines to seem strangely atavistic. Major Powers in possession of nuclear weapons lose rather than gain standing by making veiled nuclear threats against weaker states.

The commitment trap that Scott wrote about two decades ago has changed significantly. As before, the trap is set by drawing red lines and making assertions that certain actions are “unacceptable.” What’s different is that these public statements are prompted not only to deter actions – currently by Syria and Iran — but also to delay or prevent actions by a friendly state, Israel. Another big difference is that the commitment trap is no longer about the veiled threat of using nuclear weapons. Nor is Scott’s proposed remedy — prompt and devastating use of conventional capabilities – a likely option.

The commitment trap is now about drawing red lines and then feeling obliged to back them up with selective, conventional military strikes. The prelude to U.S. air strikes in Syria could be the establishment of a no-fly zone. For some, military action is not a trap – it’s a long-postponed necessity. For the Obama administration, rhetorical devices employed to deter and to buy time are running out of time.


  1. John Schilling (History)

    The nearly complete abolition of chemical warfare after 1918 was perhaps the greatest achievement in the history of arms control. An international norm that held even through five years of total war; France, Italy, Germany and Japan all allowed themselves to be conquered rather than deploy chemical weapons even as a last resort in national self-defense. The only regime to subsequently engage in open chemical warfare, was ultimately destroyed for its troubles. It would be sad to see this consensus end.

    And yet, to maintain it will require the strongest of commitments. Chemical weapons, after all, work. And they work particularly well against rebellious civilians, militias, and other assorted paramilitaries. With Gaddhafi in particular as an object lesson, with the Pinochet precedent effectively ruling out quiet retirement abroad, why would any dictator refrain from using every weapon in his arsenal to maintain his hold on power?

    What, exactly, we would need to commit to in order to prevent this, is subject to reasonable debate. We no longer have the option of promising eye-for-an-eye retaliation. Promising the use of nuclear weapons as punishment for any violation of the no-CBW norm is likely to be effective if the promise is credible, but as you note leads to potentially ugly consequences. At the other end of the ugly axis, we could commit to making sure that dictatorships are never overthrown by armed rebellion in the first place.

    It would be nice if we could credibly promise that any dictator who uses chemical weapons against his own people would be removed from power through a clean, surgical military intervention by Western powers, but after the anything-but-clean experience of Iraq, I don’t really see that as an option.

    What does that leave us?

    • Thomas (History)

      Just a nitpick John: the Japanese repeatedly used chemical weapons during their invasion of China (e.g., Shanghai, Wuhan, Changde).

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      —-A question:

      —I read somewhere that during WW II, at least ne island in the Pacific was held by the Japanese, and the U.S. military intentionally reject the advantage of using chemical warfare agents, on the grounds of not violating international law.

      —So instead, they burned them out wiht flame throwers, and used satchel charges to trap them inside their tunnels.

      —I think I support the idea of *not* using chemical weapons. But flamethrowers sounds almost as brutal as mustard gas burns.

      —Was the logic really that there were *no* advantages of using chemical warfare agents, and that the the rules against such weapons could be honored easily, for taht reason?

    • John Schilling (History)

      Incendiary weapons are every bit as brutal as chemical weapons, arguably more so. But for a mixture of historic and tactical reasons, there isn’t any treaty, rule, or norm against burning one’s enemies alive, and that isn’t likely to change any time soon. There is not a general rule against brutality in warfare, nor can there be until we abolish warfare. Don’t hold your breath on that one.

      In 1919, a unique set of circumstances got the world to generally accept a rule against one specific form of brutality, the use of war gasses against people. And yes, that being 1919, there was some early confusion as to whether “people” meant just white people. Now that we have that cleared up, I think it is probably a good thing that we have and may be able to keep that rule.

      As far as clearing Japanese tunnel/bunker complexes in late WWII is concerned, mustard gas would have been more efficient than napalm. I suspect the logic was that, at
      those particular times and places,

      A: American tactical and logistical supremacy was sufficiently overwhelming as to ensure a safe and total victory with conventional weapons and thus no need to risk giving the enemy implicit permission to start using the unconventional weapons,

      B: once the safe and total victory was won, someone was going to have to clean up the battlefield, and

      C: War gasses are Pure Undiluted Evil, everyone knows that, and the Americans are the Good Guys.

      If, instead of having to clear tunnel complexes on small islands isolated by the United States Navy and the subject of focused attention by the entire American war machine, the problem had been one of clearing millions of suicidally fanatical Japanese from Japan, I suspect the question would have been revisited.

      Instead, of course, we found an entirely new way of brutally killing people, and one against which no rule had yet been made.

    • Carey Sublette (History)

      Chemical weapons have been used since WWI – largely against civilians.

      Countries that have done so include Japan (in China, also so some extent against Chinese soldiers), Italy (in Ethiopia), Egypt (in Yemen), Iraq (in its own territory of Kurdistan; also against soldiers on the battlefield against Iran), and by Germany against millions of captive civilians.

      Every use since WWI has been carried out by a party that did not expect to see retaliation in kind from those attacked (or by anybody else on behalf of those attacked).

      Incendiary weapons haven’t been banned, but there has been a growing consensus moving in that direction. At the very least customary barriers to their use seem to be rising.

      Same with anti-personnel land mines for which there is a broadly supported treaty (the Ottawa Treaty), but with a host of major nations objecting.

    • rwendland (History)

      Re whether “people” meant just white people in 1919.

      Only 3 years later Japan was one of the war victors that ratified the “Treaty relating to the Use of Submarines and Noxious Gases in Warfare” (as did the U.S.), which contained most of the Geneva Gas Protocol wording within it. This suggests there wasn’t really a problem with non-white people.

      Sadly, for many Chinese at least, France did not ratify re submarines, so it did not come into force. Another 3 years later Japan did not ratify the Geneva Gas Protocol (nor did the U.S.) – showing a significant missed opportunity had passed 3 years earlier in the immediate WW1 aftermath.

    • krepon (History)

      Your comments are always welcome.
      More than the not-quite perfect norm of non-use of CW since WWI, a far greater achievement in the history of arms control has been the establishment of a norm against the use of nuclear weapons on battlefields. This norm has even been reinforced by a companion norm against the testing of nuclear weapons. (Again, an outlier or two refuses to join the rest of the international community.) Norms are reinforced by deterrence, diplomacy, divine intervention, and a few other key instruments.

  2. Carey Sublette (History)

    John leaves out a very practical reason for not introducing chemical weapons in the Pacific – the U.S. military did not want to deal with the logistical hassles and hazards of shipping and storing chemical weapons.

    The Bari Harbor disaster in Italy was a lesson in the problems that simply having them in-theater created.

    *(“Incendiary weapons are every bit as brutal as chemical weapons, arguably more so.” I would say certainly more so. I would much rather be burned by mustard gas than napalm or white phosphorus. The pain, long-term disfigurement and impairment from thermal burns is much worse.)

    **Also note that use of flamethrowers and other hydrocarbon-based incendiaries in tunnels and bunkers is a form of chemical warfare – the primary cause of death is inhalation of carbon monoxide and smoke particles (which can reasonably be characterized as an “asphyxiating gas”). It is simply one where the chemical agent is generated on site. And in the case of WP the phosphorus is a toxic chemical that can cause direct poisoning.

    • John Schilling (History)

      That was sort of implicit in my point B, “someoene has to clean up the battlefield”, but yes, the troubles begin before the actual deployment of the chemical weapons.

      If you don’t need the extra specific lethality, if you’ve got enough shipping capacity that delivering a hundred tons of napalm is no more inconvenient than delivering one ton of mustard, yes, you really would rather use the napalm.

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      About the Bari Harbor incident: in the raid, the German airforce hit two ammmunition ships. Only one of the two had mustard gas shells on board, of course.

      But my thoght is, during WW II, how many ammunition ships blew up. On all sides, Allied, Axis, by accident, by air raid, or by “we don’t know what caused it”?

      —If statistically speaking, an ammunition ship had a predictable chance of blowing up, then predicitng that another Bari Harbor disaster with chemical shells would happen would be easy. Which means the only way to prevent those kinds of chemical accidents, is to not send them on ammunition ships. Or am I wrong?

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      —-Article about an ammunition ship that sank during WW II, that it is feared could still explode.


  3. shaheen (History)

    Michael – a timely and appropriate post. But the wrong premise. It is extremely questionable to say that “overwhelming and devastating” has to mean nuclear. In the minds of US policymakers – of that time and of today – it could be conventional. Whether it’s a good idea or not to keep the adversary guessing is a different matter.

  4. Moe DeLaun (History)

    Another excellent post & discussion. I look to our deep human past for some explanation of the variance in evil attributed to different kinds of military mass destruction.

    Our hominid relatives and ancestors only rarely experienced percussive events, such as volcanic explosions or falling tree trunks. Thus “bangs” draw our attention and excitement, as does the rhythmic thud of firearms. The oldest known ceramics from Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic suggest some were deliberately made to explode during firing, perhaps like ritual firecrackers.

    Fire, however, is another matter entirely for small groups of large animals. At large fire can ravage productive landscapes and force relocation; up close fire can carry away property and people. Its grisly impact on flesh is frightening to all cultures. Thus, a long-held and deep-seated fear of fire and its use, despite its role in shaping our very nature. But since fire is a frequently-encountered natural phenomenon as well as a human tool, the conceptual barriers to its directed use seem lower. The horrible old tactic of forcing a crowd into a building, locking it shut, then setting fire to the structure could conceivably be some kind of mutated hunting drive. Is a firestorm from 30,000 ft easier to manage emotionally because it’s like a prairie fire on the horizon?

    Gas and poison and BW are again different matters. Epidemics and viral tides we shall always have, and they likely have had dramatic effects upon ecological history. (Consider beautiful Baltic amber – ancient tree sap, golden with light and archaic creatures – the result of a gigantic disease that killed a continent-sized forest.) However, although infected garments, rotting carcasses and other vectors have been dumped in wells and thrown over walls for millenia, the widespread witnessing of mass biological malfunction and death in WWI and the 1918 influenza may have triggered thoughts of the great plagues of Western history, and the disruptions they caused.

    Nuclear weapons combine all three killings – “bang,” “burn” and poison – into one technically sweet package. Much of the Bomb’s history, I suggest, has been an evolution from seeing It as a “bang,” a percussive weapon or firecracker, to seeing It as a “burn” and a poison, and thus useful only in the most dire and exact circumstances. Many ideas for harnessing the power of nuclear explosives have come a-cropper of the burn and poison aspects [Project Gasbuggy, Project Carryall]. The development of the neutron bomb can be viewed as an attempt to remove a nuclear explosive’s “bang” while turning the “burn” and poison into a sterilizer rather than a plague zone.

    When looking ahead to directed energy weapons, I suggest that the reluctance to fully field the Active Denial System (a truck-mounted microwave zapper for crowd control) will show up again in a public recoil when the first people are set on fire by laser weapons in the field. Or, gods forbid, tailored epidemics are detected. Rayguns zapping robots is one thing, that’s just “bang”; a new form of “burn” or poison will always be something else entirely.

  5. Fred Miller (History)

    Remember the value of an ounce of prevention. The best way to finesse a Commitment Trap, or any trap, is to avoid ever encountering it. If our choices are reduced to looking unreliable, going nuclear, or going massively conventional, it is because we have allowed a wide range of other options to expire.

    We arm unstable governments to the teeth. We help them develop nuclear and chemical weapons. Inevitably, some will turn against us, or their people overthrow them, and the new regime sees us as the Evil Empire.

    This happened in Iraq, is happening in Iran, and may happen in Egypt or Pakistan. Syria is different only because it is a client of our rival, the USSR/Russia.

    Our main export to many nations, and to most poor nations, is military might. The Pentagon far overshadows the State Department as our primary tool of foreign policy.

    Instead of discussing whether it is preferable to die by fire, poison, or just by being hit by a piece of metal, we might consider that most people don’t really care. They don’t want to be killed by us or our enemies, slowly or quickly, not even painlessly.

    If our policy toward the Middle East had, in the 1970s, been such that the children of the region had received an education similar to children in South Korea, Japan, or Germany, I suspect that we wouldn’t be having this discussion and that we wouldn’t be wondering how to stop fanatically ignorant factions from sending us suicide bombers from a variety of countries in three continents.

    A few times in history, we have managed to turn away from paticularly brutal weapons. Many more times, we have turned away from use of any form of weapon in our relations. War between families, communities and tribes is unheard of in most of the world. War between cities, common during the Medieval era and the Renaissance, is unheard of. Nonviolent overthrow of unjust regimes has become the most common method, even against the most brutal tyrannies.

    It is certainly useful to keep working to ban or at least discourage certain weapons, but this may not be possible even if it is necessary. We know that education and economic fairness work powerfully to reduce use of any weapons, including the most inhumane. We should be emphasizing the reduction and elimination of warfare as our most reliable and effective strategy for eliminating inhumane weapons.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Fred writes in part:
      “If our policy toward the Middle East had, in the 1970s, been such that the children of the region had received an education similar to children in South Korea, Japan, or Germany, I suspect that we wouldn’t be having this discussion and that we wouldn’t be wondering how to stop fanatically ignorant factions from sending us suicide bombers from a variety of countries in three continents.”

      Keep in mind that most of the instability in Egypt – on both sides, the liberals and islamists – are college educated unemployed and underemployed. Because they DID start the education-first track in the 60s and 70s, and it worked, but they have not developed a first rate economy to employ all the educated, worldly, smart people coming out of school…

  6. Cthippo (History)

    Part of the problem here is not that we can’t do overwhelming conventional force to remove dictators who use WMDs, but that we have so often screwed up the aftermath of doing so. I’m talking not only of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also places like Egypt and Libya where (relatively) peaceful regime change led to even more hostile governments. It’s not so much that the populace of the western democracies have soured on the use of military force to stop humanitarian crises, but that they have come to realize that it’s not just the war, but the aftermath that gets ugly. On the one hand this is probably a good thing as it makes us less likely to repeat the mistakes of the past, but on the other it does make it difficult to use force in situations like Syria where it might be appropriate to do so.

    As it stands now there is a small chance the Assad regime could remain in power, but I think the provable large scale use of WMD would change that, and I suspect Russia is telling the regime exactly that.

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      —Thought: when the Albanian government collapsed, back in the 1990s, the public looted the arsenals. The major thing in it were Kalishnakov rifles, so it wasn’t that important. But what happens –if– a chemical weapons owning state just disolves into general looting?

  7. Cthippo (History)

    Probably not much.

    The problem with CW is that there just aren’t that many groups that would be interested in having them, nor would they have the ability to use them.

    A large, well organized terrorist organization (think Al Queda circa 2001) might be interested in obtaining them, but there just aren’t many of those out there any more. Al Queda today is more like McDonald’s, they share branding, but each branch is independently owned and operated.* Probably none of the terrorist groups out there today could effectively use CW on a target. The only exception I can think of would possibly (very unlikely) be Chechnya separatists.

    The local militias and criminal organizations (Think Somali warlords ca. 1992 or Lebanon in the late 80s) wouldn’t find them useful for themselves, nor could they likely find a buyer for the weapons. Odds are, they wouldn’t even want to have them around because they would perceive the weapons as being more dangerous sitting in their own arsenals than wherever they found them.

    A rebel or insurrectionist army (Think Free Syrian Army) would perceive CW as being not tactically useful to them because even if they could effectively launch the weapons they would not have the equipment to operate in the contaminated area and therefore couldn’t exploit the effects. The other problem for these groups is that they see themselves as being the army of the people and the fallout from the inevitable civilian casualties from CW use would be counterproductive to their goals. When you’re Chairman Mao’s fish swimming in a sea of peasants you don’t want to poison the waters.

    I think the most likely outcome depends on who finds them. If it’s joe citizen they would get left behind. If it was a criminal / commercial gang they would sit in a warehouse somewhere until they could find a buyer, probably another country with an established military which would at least safeguard them properly. If it’s a rebel / warlord type organization they would try to sell them to the US / UN / EU / NATO / whoever else is around with guns for either military supplies or political favor.

    Bottom line is that there just isn’t much demand for WMDs, and what demand exists is in the form of functioning governments with a need to deter other functioning governments.

    *Before someone gets mad at comparing Al Queda to McDonalds, let me make it worse by saying McDonald’s food probably kills more people each year than Al Queda terrorism does.

  8. Andrew (History)

    Perhaps this whole situation begs the question, should protective NBC equipment or anticholinergic drugs/autoinjectors etc. be something that makes up a significant portion of nonlethal aid to the FSA (or really, any rebel faction)? I’m not sure if anyone is in the position to know, but is that something that’s already being delivered? Maybe most importantly, is providing that aid an implicit signal that we can’t deter (further?) chemical attacks by Assad?

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Andrew wrote:
      “Perhaps this whole situation begs the question, should protective NBC equipment or anticholinergic drugs/autoinjectors etc. be something that makes up a significant portion of nonlethal aid to the FSA (or really, any rebel faction)? I’m not sure if anyone is in the position to know, but is that something that’s already being delivered? Maybe most importantly, is providing that aid an implicit signal that we can’t deter (further?) chemical attacks by Assad?”

      If there are enough chemical attacks going on that defensive equipment and medication are necessary to the rebels’ health, then the US should start bombing.

      The one or two incidents we’ve seen so far, only one of which has good physical evidence, are short of that standard.

    • Andrew (History)

      I don’t think it would be good to wait for a massive chemical attack to start thinking about providing some form of NBC protection, however minor (an ounce of prevention… etc.) – even if just from a humanitarian, rather than tactical perspective. In an isolated, large attack, it could definitely save lives. And it’s not as though we really need to care about gas masks falling into the hands of the Al-Nusra Front. Furthermore, even just seeing the rebels walking around with gas mask might make Assad think twice about the costs & benefits of chemical weapons use.

      As Jeffrey reflected on in his recent post, if the US does start bombing for any perceived transgression of red lines, Assad won’t really have a reason not to coat Damascus in a fine layer of nerve agents. And at that point I think the FSA would be very grateful for any protection they might have on hand. These are, of course, morbid hypotheticals – but worth considering, I think.

  9. Amin (History)

    Syrian rebels have made use of the deadly nerve agent sarin in their war-torn country’s conflict, UN human rights investigator Carla del Ponte has said.



    • John Schilling (History)

      “According to the testimonies we have gathered”, the Syrian rebels have been using nerve gas.

      The only thing interesting about that is the fact that Del Ponte would attach her reputation, and indirectly that of the UN Human Rights Council, to an anonymous accusation. It is not, or at least ought not be, newsworthy.

  10. markob (History)

    The Sagan commitment trap would exist because of the way states “calculate credibility.” Failure to act upon declaratory policy is said to incur reputational costs, i.e. negatively affects the credibility of a declaration to use military power. However, Daryl Press had an interesting neorealist analysis demonstrating that states do not “calculate credibility” during crises based on the following through of commitments that declaratory policy entails.

    No matter how many times a state fails to follow declaratory policy it’s credibility will be adjudged by other states to be very high so long as that state has the required military capabilities to carry out declaratory policy, and the issue that is at dispute between the state that has made a commitment and other states is over that states vital national interests.

    If that is true US National Command Authority should not be worried about the reputational costs associated with failure to adhere to declaratory in a crisis concerning national security, and so there’s no commitment trap either.

    The commitment trap would be a concern for a hegemonic power that employs nuclear weapons in order to maintain world order.

    This, it seems to me, is one example of the broader realist point; when it comes to nuclear weapons declaratory policy is an irrelevancy. Only capabilities and strategic nuclear war planning matters. That would be a pity because that means a lot of scholarly research on nuclear weapons policy is also a waste of time.

    However, given the way in which nuclear weapons are used to maintain world order by a hegemonic power strategy and policy becomes a problem and so we have academic strategic studies.

    One possible weakness of the Press analysis is that, from my understanding, declassified documents show that Soviet leaders during the Cold War were especially frightened of the United States even when dealing with issues not vital to US national security interests (understood as security of the homeland and NATO). US nuclear strategy worked, and not necessarily for deterrence.

    Press’ argument was published in an academic monograph