The Moral Hazard of Proxy Warfare


It has been a very bad month for advocates of the “indirect” approach to U.S. national security policy. U.S.-trained rebels in Syria handed over their weapons to al-Qaeda; and the United States has been forced to sit back helplessly and watch as Russian bombers target CIA-backed rebel forces. The Department of Defense’s train-and-equip program has been cancelled after blowing an obscene amount of money to train what amounts to a fire team of operational fighters. The separate CIA proxy program remains, but nonetheless faces an uncertain future. And that’s just a small slice of what seems to be a flood of bad news about the outcomes of train-and-equip programs designed to create pliable, pro-American proxies to fight our wars. Even the most vociferous critics of President Obama’s Syria policy, however, fail to notice the larger problem.

Proxy warfare, while tempting, is by definition what economists call a “moral hazard,” or a situation in which one party can take risks that will be wholly borne by the other party in the partnership. Because no American lives are on the line, and men saying they will fight America’s enemies are not uncommon, U.S. policymakers often imagine they can create a “third force” to advance American interests. Not only does this attitude lead to ill-chosen interventions, it also ignores the asymmetry of interest inherent in asking others to risk their lives for a distant foreign power.

Certainly the raising of proxy armies has an undeniable appeal. The United States can achieve its strategic aims without devoting blood and much treasure directly to the fight. Moreover, in certain situations proxies may be the only way to influence the outcome. In fact, certain states — such as Iran and Pakistan — have exerted influence far above their normal station in international politics through their backing and direction of proxy forces. During the Cold War, the United States both benefited from its proxies and was harmed by the proxies of other powers, offering a misleading lesson about their effectiveness. So why shouldn’t the United States use proxies?

First, the interests of proxies and their sponsors may not be aligned. It is quite understandable, for instance, that Syrian rebels would care more about fighting the hated dictator Bashar al-Assad than taking on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). To Americans, ISIL is the main problem. But to many Sunni Arab Syrians, it is a distraction from the real horror of Assad’s murderous repression. Even if their aims did converge a bit more, proxies understand full well that their distant sponsor has limited interest in their struggle. At the end of the day, the friendly CIA officer working with them can always go back to his or her family and children in a peaceful and prosperous country. The proxy, however, cannot do the same because “home” is the very battleground that is being contested. Hence, proxies are canny survivors that will do business with anyone willing to lend a helping hand. Do not be surprised that the ostensibly pro-American Kurds will cheer on Russia’s airstrikes. They care only about their own fight, not Washington’s geopolitical rivalry with Moscow.

Proxies also create perverse incentives for U.S. decision-making concerning intervention abroad. They are cheap, flexible, scalable, and above all else expendable. Because a dead foreign proxy will never come home to the United States in a star-spangled coffin, the United States can engage in adventurism of questionable direction and value. A far older mess with proxies, the Bay of Pigs, nearly triggered nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The broadening of the Vietnam War into a struggle that destabilized the whole of Indochina was possible due to the ease with which the United States raised armies of proxies that could act as foot soldiers in the expansion of an ultimately futile war. The White House’s petulant response to criticism of the Syrian train-and-equip program suggests a lot about the problematic incentives that proxies present to American national security policymakers.

In blaming political opponents for supposedly forcing it to train a Syrian opposition army, the White House unintentionally revealed its Syrian decision calculus. The White House claims it invested in the Syrian train-and-equip program, in other words, in large part because it wanted to deflect potential criticism from domestic hawks. There are a lot of valid reasons for supplying weapons, training, and large sums of money to a Middle Eastern group of militants. It should go without saying that getting political opponents off your back is not one of them. If, indeed, this was one of the core drivers of the U.S. effort to back Syrian rebels then we should not be surprised that it has turned out to be a bloody disaster.

Finally, there is something very unjust and disturbing in the way in which the United States can encourage men to risk their lives under the false hope that Uncle Sam will be with them the whole way. In reality, we will write them off and abandon them to their fates as soon as supporting them becomes inconvenient. That is, unfortunately, the reality of international politics. If we are forced to choose between, say, keeping faith with the men we have backed in Syria and avoiding a confrontation with Russia, we will obviously not trigger World War III over a group of rebel fighters in the Middle East. But therein lies the problem. Is it right to encourage others to fight and die for us under false pretenses of U.S. support? More often than not, when following through on our promises to proxies poses far lesser challenges for us, we elect to let them burn instead of lending a helping hand. We have a long and sordid history of this, and our hapless Syrian pawns are only the latest to realize that the United States’ promises cannot be trusted.

This is, to be sure, not a blanket call to abandon the policy and strategy of using proxies to aid American interests. It is, however, a call to recognize the perverse incentives inherent in the enterprise, and the difficulties of pulling it off. Proxies are often deployed in situations where using any form of coercive force may not be in America’s interests. Proxies also allow policymakers to dodge the question of whether or not intervention is justified. We certainly — as opposed to rare situations like the Cuban Missile Crisis — will avoid any severe long-term costs. But the men who fight for us will pay with their lives for being foolish enough to believe that our word is our bond; and those who do not can be expected to do whatever it takes to survive (including flirting with our enemies). Like anything else associated with American defense and national security, the training and funding of proxies ought not to be done glibly. It should be accompanied by sober assessment of the risks, costs, benefits, and challenges inherent in the matter. However, due to the enormous temptations that proxies pose to pressured policymakers looking for solutions to difficult security problems, it is unlikely that such sober assessment will always occur when proxies are considered.


Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University and a columnist at War on the Rocks. He has published articles on defense, international security, and technology at CTOVision, The Atlantic, the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel, and Foreign Policy.


Photo credit: Freedom House