Writing that piece about Libya on Friday put me in mind of a couple of articles I flagged months ago but never did anything with. The first was this June Politico piece by Philip Gordon, who was the Obama White House’s coordinator for the MENA region until earlier this year. Gordon is admittedly biased toward defending his former boss’s record, but he makes a pretty decent argument here for reducing and realigning America’s role in the region:
Given the stakes, the desire to “do something” is understandable but this approach is potentially even more dangerous than walking away. Only recently, we saw that U.S. interventions in the region (Iraq) can be enormously costly ($1 trillion, 5,000 U.S. lives, half-a-million Iraqi lives and the United States’ global reputation) and only bring unintended consequences—like the exacerbation of the Sunni-Shia divide and the creation of ISIL. Using force to get rid of Assad is a noble goal and no doubt would remove one real problem—but it would surely create many others, including potentially even more instability and sectarianism in Syria, as well as creating genuine U.S. ownership of the problem. The notion that limited airstrikes would lead Assad to abandon power—and turn leadership over to moderates—would be a particularly egregious case of placing hope over experience.
When implying the United States can “fix” Middle Eastern problems if only it “gets it right” it is worth considering this: In Iraq, the U.S. intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly disaster. In Libya, the U.S. intervened and did not occupy, and the result was a costly disaster. In Syria, the U.S. neither intervened nor occupied, and the result is a costly disaster. This record is worth keeping in mind as we contemplate proposed solutions going forward.
Granted, the US has actually intervened in Syria, but that intervention came well after the situation there had become a “costly disaster,” and that’s Gordon’s point. If there’s some correct calibration of American policy that can make things better in the Middle East, rather than worse, we haven’t figured it out, and we’ve been trying since the end of World War II.
Not intervening at all feels impotent and callous. The desire to Do Something is powerful both for people who see war as the only answer when confronted with perceived threats to American interests and for the “Responsibility to Protect” crowd, people who want America to alleviate humanitarian suffering by force, if necessary. Obviously real threats need to be countered, but the definition of a “threat” and of “American interests” always seems pretty broad. On the other hand, I sympathize with the humanitarian interventionists and kind of used to be one of them myself back before I’d really started thinking about these issues. But now I believe that, as in bioethics, there’s a powerful case to be made that “first, do no harm” should be the guiding principle behind all foreign interventions.
“First, Do No Harm” is the title of the second piece I thought of on Friday, a 2010 essay from analyst David Reiff in The New Republic. Reiff also went from being a liberal/humanitarian interventionist to a skeptic of intervention altogether, and he addresses the question of whether the US has an obligation to aid people who are suffering in places like Darfur, Iraq, Syria, etc. head on:
How can anti-interventionists pay so little heed to the views of the victims? It is a fair question. I would respond first as an American: I do not want my country to be the world’s policeman, even in the most humane sense of that word. It seems to me that assuming this role has been a disaster for the United States. As W. H. Seward said in his eulogy to John Quincy Adams, “democracies are prone to war, and war consumes them.” For make no mistake, these military interventions on humanitarian or human rights grounds are wars, not armed philanthropy. Sorry, the military-industrial complex is no myth. Our power to intervene in Darfur is inextricably linked to other elements of our hegemony, and to the militarization of our society and our economy. Like it or not, support for the former, no matter how high-minded, idealistic, and compassionate (unlike some, I have never doubted the moral sincerity of the liberal interventionists), entails the perpetuation of the latter.
No matter how noble a particular intervention may seem on paper, the act of intervening itself taps into the worst elements of militarism, expansionism, and colonialism. It’s never “neutral” and never benign; it’s always meant to influence a particular outcome.
It also sets us up as the global arbiter of right and wrong, and this inevitably has consequences that we never even see coming. Foreign intervention on behalf of one group today sets up some other group to be victimized tomorrow, once people have stopped caring. Intervening in Kosovo to stop Serbians from ethnically cleansing Kosovar Albanians allowed the Kosovar Albanians to turn around and ethnically cleanse the Serbs. Nobody seems to have seen that coming, and when it did come, Kosovo’s 15 minutes of fame had long passed and nobody was paying attention anymore.
Reiff, for all his skepticism, does believe that the US should have intervened to stop the Rwandan genocide in 1994, yet he also has to acknowledge that the victims of that genocide, the Tutsi, later took control of Rwanda and then launched an equally destructive (despite the fact that they got rid of Mobutu) series of wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, next door. And the little Western intervention that did take place there only made the situation worse, all the way around. Would more Western intervention, in time to stop the initial genocide, have led to a better, more stable Rwanda and DRC today? Maybe, but I’d feel more confident about saying that if anybody could point me to the example of a truly successful humanitarian military intervention.
Hilariously, the first Google result in a search for “successful humanitarian intervention” is another TNR piece, by Isaac Chotiner in 2013, titled “N+1 Is Wrong. There Have Been Successful Humanitarian Interventions,” which, in what seems like a bit of false advertising, doesn’t actually bother making the case for a single “successful humanitarian intervention.” The closest Chotiner comes is a brief mention of India’s intervention into the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 to stop the Pakistani army’s genocide in then-East Pakistan, which may actually be a good example of a successful intervention. But it was also an intervention by a regional power into a conflict that was already directly impacting it (India was the primary destination for Bangladeshi refugees fleeing the genocide). As such, it may not apply very well to the scenario of a Great Power intervening in a distant conflict in which it doesn’t really have a strong national stake. Consider, for example, that in that very same war, the United States intervened on the side of the génocidaire Pakistanis, sending weapons to Islamabad and stationing a carrier task force in the Bay of Bengal to try to back India off, because the Cold War rivalry with the Soviets (who supported Bangladeshi liberation) was seen as more important than the human suffering that Pakistan was causing. This is not a shining example of America’s ability to assess a foreign conflict and make a moral decision about winners and losers.
This 2012 piece from Democracy Journal identifies Kosovo and Libya as two examples of successful humanitarian interventions. For reasons that have become obvious in the ensuing three years, Libya today isn’t a successful case of anything, and Kosovo is a failed narco-state where the people we intervened to protect turned around and committed major war crimes against the people we intervened to protect them from. That seems to me like defining the word “success” down just a tad. These cases also raise another issue, which is that maybe America isn’t terrible at the actual “intervention” part of “humanitarian intervention,” it just sucks at doing all the things it should do after the intervention to ensure that things don’t collapse. We can bomb Libya until the Bad Man is dead and bomb Serbian forces in Kosovo until they quit killing people, but we don’t seem to be very interested in checking in after the bombs start dropping, probably because, well, there aren’t any bombs dropping anymore. But the failures of these interventions are in many ways failures to provide aid and technical assistance in their aftermaths.
I’m not saying that humanitarian intervention is necessarily bad on principle. And certainly with the benefit of hindsight you can go back and pick apart just about anything. I’m also not saying that we should ignore or downplay the very real suffering that’s happening in Syria or elsewhere. But I think we have enough of a historical record now to say that even if the principle of humanitarian intervention shouldn’t be seen as inherently flawed, our bias should be toward staying out of other nations’ events, and there should be a heavy burden on those who support a particular intervention to demonstrate why it will work this time.