The Case Against Intervention

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

By Ed Hancox

Recently two of my colleagues at The Mantle asked why the international community was not intervening in ongoing humanitarian crises in different parts of the world. It is a natural question to ask in light of some of the grim stories in the news of late, like the images of a 13-year old boy tortured to death by security forces in Syria or reports coming from Libya of Gadhafi's soldiers being ordered to rape women who support the anti-regime forces, then being given Viagra so they can rape some more. Such heinous actions, especially by a government against its own people, seem to cry out for intervention by the international community. But should we really intervene? The cold truth is that while intervention might seem like the only civilized course of action, there's good reason not to become involved in other people's conflicts, no matter how horrible they may be. On one hand, the international community's ability to impose order is vastly over-estimated by the pro-interventionists; and secondly, there's evidence that in the long run intervention can do more harm than good.

Calls for intervention in places like Sudan, Cote d'Ivoire, the DR Congo and a host of other places have taken on a new urgency since a NATO-led coalition began its humanitarian intervention in Libya in March - if we can intervene in Libya, the logic goes, why not these other places?  The military action in Libya has ostensibly been to protect civilians from the Libyan military loyal to Moammar Gadhafi. The catalyst was the belief (the correct belief, in my opinion) that pro-Gadhafi forces were about to take the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, and mete out a brutal punishment on the Benghazis for their rebellion. Targeted air strikes kept the Libyan army from taking Benghazi, but another Libyan city, Misrata, showed the shortcomings of aerial intervention; in Misrata, Gadhafi's army moved their tanks and heavy weaponry into the narrow city streets where it was difficult to hit them without causing widespread collateral damage. As a result, the army blew large parts of Misrata to bits, causing untold civilian casualties in the process.

Misrata illustrates that for an intervention to be effective it means putting troops on the ground. Of course the United States has been out of the boots-on-the-ground humanitarian intervention business since Somali warlords killed 17 US soldiers on the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 (events dramatized in the movie Black Hawk Down). So, even if the United States is out of the intervention business, other nations can launch their own missions, right? Yes, but no other military in the world has the logistic capabilities of the United States military; and any general will tell you that its logistics that wins wars. Outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates chided the membership of NATO on this fact during his farewell speech to the organization, saying that the group has turned into a “two-tiered alliance” thanks, essentially, to a host of European countries cutting back on their own defense spending, and by extension ability to conduct military missions outside of their borders, in favor of riding America's logistic coattails. If a country can't project military force outside of their borders, they can't take on a meaningful humanitarian mission abroad; its hard then to imagine how a humanitarian mission on a scale large enough to have a serious effect in a place the DRC or Somalia could happen without the involvement of the United States, and that involvement politically is a non-starter at home.

But let's assume the logistics could be worked out, the question then becomes should we intervene? Here I would argue there's a good case to be made that we should not and its provided by the nations of the former Yugoslavia. I recently wrote a brief piece on the passing of Lawrence Eagleburger, the former Secretary of State under President George H. W. Bush. Eagleburger was the driving force against intervention in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s as Serbian-led Yugoslavia launched a brutal war against independence-minded Slovenia and Croatia. The conflicts that raged through Yugoslavia in the 1990s, extending to Bosnia and later Kosovo, saw the most-brutal fighting in Europe since the end of World War II. But the situation today has drastically changed. Slovenia is a peaceful and prosperous member of the European Union, while Croatia, which has also recovered from the war to become a sought-after tourist destination, has just received their final approval to join the EU.  Serbia is finally shaking off the last vestiges of the war with the recent arrest of Ratko Mladic, the last major fugitive from the era of the conflicts. Serbia has cast aside nationalist/isolationist firebrand leaders like Slobodan Milosevic in favor of pragmatic, Euro-centric leaders who see integration with the EU as the best path forward.

By contrast, sixteen years after the end of hostilities, Bosnia remains a divided nation. The United States intervened in the Bosnia conflict in 1995, dragging the warring Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim), Croat and Serb factions to peace talks in Ohio that came to be known as the Dayton Accords. The peace agreement that came as a result of months of negotiations created a federal state in Bosnia consisting of a Bosnian Serb entity (the Republika Srpska) and a Bosniak/Croat entity; the two sides have made limited progress since in establishing a truly unified state. In the book To End a War about the Dayton Accords, Richard Holbrooke, the lead negotiator for the United States, talks about delaying a final agreement on the Accords because Bosnian/Croat forces had begun to score victories on the battlefield against the Serbs; the logic was that the more land they gained in combat was less land they would have to negotiate for in Dayton. At a panel discussion I attended on the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Accords, Holbrooke also candidly admitted he felt his big mistake during the negotiations was agreeing to the name “Republika Srpska” since he did not realize the nationalist connotations it held for the Bosnian Serbs. One has to wonder though if the US had not decided to impose a 50/50 division of land at Dayton, if the Bosnian/Croat forces would have continued their success against the Bosnian Serbs, perhaps an eventual peace agreement would not have included the Republika Srpska name, and perhaps Bosnia would be further along the road to becoming a truly unified state.

The remaining 1990s Yugoslav conflict zone, Kosovo, has also not fared well since the end of hostilities. The US/NATO intervened in a big way in 1999 with a three-month bombing campaign against Serbia to bring about an end to that conflict. The United States, Great Britain and France intervened again in 2008 by recognizing the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo, short-circuiting a United Nations-backed series of negotiations with Serbia on Kosovo's eventual status. Its hard though to call independent Kosovo a success: The country's main sources of income are remittances from Kosovars abroad and foreign aid, illicit activities make up a bulk of the domestic economy, and the government is rife with corruption, including allegations of vote-rigging in their most recent elections and charges that ranking members of the government were once involved in a human organ smuggling ring. Not exactly the kind of place you'd choose for your summer vacation.

Thanks to the wonders of modern telecommunications, the brutality of global conflicts can be beamed to us 24/7. In the face of such atrocities, the desire to do something is powerful. But the question must be asked, should we? Or even can we in any meaningful way? And even if we can, in the long run, will our involvement improve the situation, or perhaps make it worse? They're tough questions to ask, especially as our fellow humans suffer for our inaction, but they are questions that must be asked, and answered, the next time someone calls for intervention in some corner of the world.

Um, Bibi? It's 2011...A Very Perry Ramadan
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Perhaps, Ed, there can be no doctrine of intervention, and that each case must be handled individually. Surely the Jews in Germany would have preferred earlier intervenion, and the Rwandas would have preferred ANY kind of meaningful intervention to prevent the death of some 800,000. Genocide is an extreme measure, I'll concede that, but I guess the point made in the R2P community is that it is better to try to prevent mass killings than to be sorry for never having given it a shot. Sure, Libya may not be going so well, but what would have happened had NATO not intervened? Well, we'll never know... These are not easy conversations, and they are not easy in/actions to leave/take. (Can't we all just get along?) It is a conversation that will not soon end.
 
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Rwanda is a good example. The genocide there occurred in a space of about eight weeks - not enough time to mobilize and deploy a military force of meaningful size to a landlocked African nation. And I think that is the key - meaningful intervention. I would argue that an intervention by the US, NATO, UN, whomever, shouldn't just be a few hundred troops to protect a single refugee camp somewhere, but a massive enough deployment to stop whatever humanitarian crisis is occurring. We should have the discussion on whether/whenther not to intervene on those grounds. Half-measures of humanitarian intervention tend not to be effective (see Misrata) and only serve to weaken the appetite of the public for such action while emboldening the despots out there. -e.
 
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Great piece, Ed. To go off Shaun's comment, the interesting thing about R2P is that it does actually stipulate there be a "reasonable expectation of success" in order to justify intervention. This highlights that even the pro-intervention/R2P crowd acknowledges there are times when intervention can do more harm that good. As you said, the struggle is in our powerful desire to help even in helpless situations. This will definitely be an ongoing dilemma, particularly for the US. You are right that we are uniquely skilled in such actions, and thus bear a great deal of the burden.
 
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When not writing about international affairs, Ed Hancox works in nonprofit development. He holds a M.A. degree in International Affairs from The New School where he worked as a research associate on a project examining Russia's transition from Communism.