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.

7 thoughts on “Military interventions: Try, try again?

  1. 1) Interventions in difficult cases like Libya (where the intervention may have to fight a dictator with a real army and not simply a ragtag rebel group) are likely to be bloody and may end up giving interventions a bad name, preventing future interventions/peacekeeping operations in more opportune cases.

    2) Intervening in Libya while remaining silent about SA’s intervention in Bahrain is hypocrisy and will alienate Muslim populations and strengthen dictators.

  2. I think there would have been no UN resolution without Arab League support. Don’t recall if similar African support was there in the case of Rwanda. However media reporting is not Arab League enforcing no fly zone, but Western Nations bombing Libya. That does not augur well at all: it provides Gaddafi with a PR opportunity at home, forst to portray himself as victim, second to portray rebels as cause of bombings.

    Very early days but at this stage there is a close parallel with the 2nd Gulf War. West perceives bad guy. West sees political opportunity to remove bad guy. West goes in guns blazing. And very vague notions of what to do next when bad guy goes.

    As for military intervention as ‘development’, ludicrous. Bombing a place the best and quickest way to ensure disdevelopment!

  3. I believe that the arguments between intervention and non-intervention as well as peaceful or forceful intervention are very tricky. There are criticisms that intervention is more like meddling and that conflicts should be left to the people and their government to resolve. There are also criticisms when the world fails to intervene in instances of mass human rights violations. People criticize the UN peacekeepers for their lack of effectiveness because they can’t use force, but also criticize intervening militaries for increasing violence. It is very difficult to find an effective balance of intervention. I agree with Dr. Blattman that peaceful intervention is not enough. I do believe military force is needed in the initial stages of intervention in order to create an environment where more peaceful measures can actually be effective. I also agree that with the UNSC making the decision to allow forceful intervention in Libya is a big step towards the UNSC being taken more seriously and as a result perhaps creating a ripple effect in which peaceful measures will hold more authority.

  4. I Wholeheartedly agree. It seems to me that Easterley’s excerpt focuses on the low probability of external intervention working. While I have only read his two paragraphs at the head of this post, I would be interested to know what it is that Easterley offers as a solution. Surely he is not insinuating that the world do nothing and just let whatever crisis may be occuring play itself out. I would also find it hard to believe that he believes that any peaceful solution such as economic sanctions, asset freezing, or the ICC would stop a government from genocide or any other crisis. If that’s the case, then it seems to me that the only other option available is to use external military action, and given the circumstances, although it may be perfect, I would much prefer that military intervention is voted on and approved by the UN and not just unilaterally as has been the case in the past. One day, hopefully there will be a method available that is proven to be much more successful than any combination of the options that we currently have at our disposal, but to make it to that point, let’s hone the options that we have. At the very least, doing somethign is much better than doing nothing.

  5. Superficially, Ivory Coast and Libya are similar in that they both have internal conflicts that the international community would like to see ended. But that’s where the similarity ends. In Ivory Coast, the international community has been negotiating for peaceful integration of the north with the south and transparent elections since 2000. This culminated in the elections (which were also supported and observed by the international community) of 2010, resulting in a clear victory for Ouattara. Gbagbo abused the SUpreme Court to disallow over 600,000 votes so he could claim victory and the the downward spiral started. Now we have over 1m refugees at least 400 dead that we have been able to count and Gbagbo is starting his usual dance about negotiating. In Libya, the rebels did not win any election, have no candidate nor any recgonizable mandate. They just don’t like Ghaddafi. How does France, NATO and the US find is appropriate to intervene there? How many people have to die in Ivory Coast before the international community decide they might want to prevent another Rwanda?

    I agree with the general spirit of the post that military intervention is rarely successful and it is almost impossible to know even post facto whether intervention prevented a worse situation. But really. Why Libya and not Ivory Coast?