Military interventions: Try, try again?

Readers of this blog know that this author is NOT a big fan of external military intervention as an instrument of a ludicrously broadened concept of “development” that includes resolving civil wars. However, any social scientist can only argue on the basis of generalizations over a large number of cases, and generalizations have exceptions. Never say never. There COULD be that golden moment when an outside military force does something good (like the famous example of the British commandos in Sierra Leone).

Of course, we also have to take into account that unaccountable outside powers will invoke the (usually low) probability of a good outcome as justification for even more (usually bad) interventions (often motivated by their own interests). Let’s not pretend that the accountability problem is anywhere near a solution.

That is Bill Easterly reiterating his skepticism for foreign military interventions. I share his skepticism, but I also see the need for some Easterly-like searching here. Bill’s statement is a little equivocal this time. I wonder if he agrees with me?

Here are a few things I think I believe:

There ought to be international norms and institutions that enforce some basic rules, like armies and police not purposefully killing civilians.

Institutions–domestic or global–develop over decades not years. With considerable bumbling and setbacks to be expected.

The easiest ones at hand–sanctions, asset freezing–work at best in some cases and at worst in none. I regard them as reliable but insufficient tools.

The globe is experimenting with other peaceful means, the ICC being the chief innovation. Despite some early and persistent bunglings, I am hopeful that prosecutions in Kenya (and future ones in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire?) prove more fruitful, especially if Ocampo–now in his eighth unfortunate year at the helm–makes way for a less impulsive successor.

But I’m skeptical that non-military means alone can prevent massacres of innocents. I think our choice is a hard one: have more aggressive means of intervening, with (at least at first) big risks of failure, or live with a degree of war crimes.

In the category of early and persistent bunglings, we can clearly place the external military intervention. Liberia in 1990 is a case of great potential wasted (who decided it was a good idea to send in the Nigerians?), Sierra Leone a case of UK marines getting lucky, Kosovo and the post-Gulf War no-fly zone a debatable success, Iraq and Afghanistan looking poor at the moment, but we’ll probably only know in a decade or two.

In the face of failure, one has to decide whether to give up or persist. I think it depends whether you think that experimentation, however risky and costly, is going to lead to better practices and institutions, and thus better outcomes.

I for one was very surprised that the UN Security Council endorsed military action against Libya. This is big. I suspect the UNSC’s failure to act in Rwanda and the Congo, and to some extent Iraq, played a big role in their decision. That is institutional evolution in action. That makes me hopeful, because I think unified responses and moral authority matter.

Another thing that makes me hopeful: If we evolve to the point where the UNSC, or some other body, can make consistent and credible threats of prosecution and intervention, they’ll probably need to use force far less.

On the other hand, if the world threatens and then backs down, or rewards the most thuggish leaders with coalition governments, we could move in the opposite direction.

The tricky thing: however they turn out, we’ll learn very little from the cases of Libya and Cote d’Ivoire. The effects and institutions will emerge over decades rather than years. So not only do we have low accountability, we have bad feedback.

Even so, I would rather see the world try.