By Alex de Waal and Bridget Conley. (Image: Adrian Wallace via Flickr, 2007).

WPF’s employee of the month in September 2021 is military intervention. Military intervention is the privilege assumed by the great power of the day. For thirty years the world power has been the self-styled “indispensable nation”: the United States of America. It has been a disaster for America and for the worldwide project of stopping atrocities and protecting civilians from harm.

At the end of the Cold War, the United States assumed the role of global hegemon, projecting its soft power, financial power, and military power. It has sustained that for thirty years. During the span of this generation, American liberals and conservatives alike have largely taken it for granted that Washington DC can and should, shape the global political settlement. And although the demise of the Soviet Union and end of the arms race between it and the U.S. was an opportunity to reset the world order in a more cooperative, less militaristic manner, the role of the military within the American political system has not diminished. To the contrary, it has grown relentlessly. As Rosa Brooks writes, “everything became war and the military became everything.”

The collapse of the USSR was the biggest-ever failing of the U.S. intelligence community. Not only the CIA but almost the entire national security system didn’t foresee when, how and why the Communist system would end. That colossal failure was disguised by the triumph of liberal democracy in central and eastern Europe—something went right for the democratic, capitalist west, and the military wanted to claim some credit.

The hollowness of the military explanation was quickly forgotten because of the spectacular battlefield success of the U.S.-led Coalition over Saddam Hussein in 1991. The reconquest of Kuwait was a conventional war, both in the nature of the fighting and also in the international principles it sought to uphold and the multilateral political instruments deployed to that end.

At the tail end of Desert Storm came Operation Provide Comfort: the safe haven for the Kurds, enforced by NATO airpower and including a humanitarian airlift. It was an improvisation. But it opened a new chapter in the use of force: military-humanitarian intervention. The generals were skeptical at first but soon came to love it.

In the dog days of the George H.W. Bush Administration, the doctrine of military-humanitarian intervention got its first outing: Operation Restore Hope in Somalia. It seemed like an unalloyed good: America using its unquestioned military supremacy to feed the starving. But in reality it was far more problematic. At the time (in his resignation letter to the director of Human Rights Watch) Alex de Waal asked, does this represent “the stormtroopers of a new philanthropic imperialism or the vanguard of the humanitarian international?”

The commonest grumble at the time was double standards: why were the Marines sent to Somalia rather than Bosnia? General Colin Powell reportedly said, “We do deserts, we don’t do mountains”. American special forces soon found out that they didn’t “do cities” either: their operations to capture General Mohamed Farah Aideed descended into massacre and probable war crimes. Unwilling to countenance a war that might entail a level of American casualties comparable to the bloodshed inflicted on Somalis, the Bill Clinton Administration decided to cut and run.

The underlying problem was that any “humanitarian” intervention is a war-fighting exercise and as such its success lies in its political strategy to achieve a political goal. But in Somalia—and indeed in almost every subsequent intervention—these have been at best inadequate, at worst non-existent. This means that generals get to run the wars, and politics and diplomacy become the servants of the military, and a combination of escalation and American casualty minimization becomes the default logic until it becomes a self-justifying cycle. The logic of the march of folly—committing more lives and more resources on an unending treadmill rather than admitting to error—applies as much to contemporary interventions as it did to Troy, the Flanders trenches or Vietnam. It took the U.S. government just ten months to learn this in Somalia in 1993. When the emotions, commitment, and stakes were much higher in Afghanistan it too far longer to relearn this elementary lesson.

The Mogadishu debacle caused bewilderment and a brief and equally disastrous tack in the opposite direction, which contributed to inaction in the Balkans and Rwanda.

Military-humanitarian intervention got its reputation rehabilitated in the Balkans—though without deserving it. Many who had been clamoring for assertive action to halt mass atrocities by the Bosnian Serbs (and the Serbian government) and for breaking the siege of Sarajevo applauded when NATO jets finally began their bombardment of Serbian positions around Sarajevo. It was an impressive show of force. But as Bridget Conley shows in her book How Mass Atrocities End, specifically in the chapter on Bosnia-Hercegovina, the wrong lessons were learned. The U.S.-led NATO bombing was far from a straightforward magic bullet: air power did not alter the course of the war. Rather, the limited bombing supported a robust regional peace mediation led by Richard Holbrooke—after ethnic cleansing had accomplished its deadly work. The ground war was everything for the belligerents and it was already largely over.

The 1995 NATO bombings may not have been crucial in ending the war in Bosnia, but the operation rehabilitated the standing of military-humanitarian intervention, at least among western publics. The British intervention in Sierra Leone, the NATO campaign to halt atrocities in Kosovo, France’s Operation Artemis in Congo and Operation Sangaris in Central African Republic, Australia’s negotiated intervention into East Timor.

Whatever the complex politics of these crises and the role of local factors and diplomacy in their resolution, the soldiers invariably got the headlines. One consequence of this was that a series of efforts to reassess the nature of sovereignty and recalibrate international obligations to protect civilians—such as the doctrine of “sovereignty as responsibility” and the “duty of non-indifference”—were overwhelmed, distorted and discolored by the urge for the most powerful nations to use force to impose solutions on post-colonial and post-Communist countries in crisis. Despite the pleas of the authors of the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty that the “Responsibility to Protect” did not automatically entail military intervention, many people in formerly colonized countries saw it in precisely those terms.

The release of the ICISS report in 2001 was overshadowed by the Al-Qaeda crimes of September 11 and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. It briefly appeared that liberal hawkishness was no longer relevant. But in fact, there was a remarkable isomorphism between the interventionism of the neo-conservatives and counter-terrorists and that of the liberal establishment. These two different political wings made common cause in Afghanistan in the name of women’s rights, democratization and statebuilding. In a junior form they did so too in Somalia after the Ethiopian invasion of 2006. And a human rights argument haunted justifications of the U.S.-led war in Iraq—did it not topple a dictator and set the people free from his oppression?

As with the humanitarian imperium’s earlier outing in Somalia in 1992-93, the failures in Afghanistan today (and foreshadowed in Somalia once again) cannot be put down to the incompatibility of central Asian culture and western democracy (explanations favored by military punditry) but once again the simple fact that a war must be fought for an attainable political objective, or it becomes endless and futile. When the political compass is discarded, so too the moral one.

The convergence between the neo-con agenda and liberal imperialism was made clear by a protester’s sign at a Save Darfur rally in Washington DC: “Out of Iraq, into Darfur.” The R2P agenda for protecting civilians at risk of massacre in Darfur again obscured politics in favor of a vision of American-inspired intervention as a moral enterprise that had no need for the politics of peace. President George W. Bush couldn’t spare U.S. troops for Darfur and decided that well-armed UN peacekeepers would do instead, which in turn demanded that there be a “peace agreement” for the UN to swing into action. Pressure from the White House translated into deadlines imposed by the UN Security Council. The result was that the peace process in Darfur was rushed to a premature conclusion and consequently failed. Neither peace nor a UN mission that could protect civilians was accomplished.

Military-humanitarian intervention reached its zenith in Libya in 2011. “We won the argument over stopping genocide” wrote Gareth Evans, the interventionist apostle of R2P.

It wasn’t so simple. In its preamble, UN Security Council resolution 1973 emphasized the protection of civilians in imminent danger in Benghazi and endorsed an African Union initiative to find a negotiated solution, but in its operative paragraphs it authorized the U.S., France and Britain to use all necessary means. Skeptics feared that it was an act of perfidy: regime change camouflaged as R2P. And so it proved. NATO unceremoniously prevented the African Union heads of state from flying to Tripoli, and their further mediation efforts—backed by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in a rare venture into multilateral cooperation—were dismissed out of hand. After ten years of civil war in Libya, the African leaders’ wisdom appears validated.

Sadly, the African Union has never recovered from the snub and the associated efforts by France and the U.S. to divide and rule its more influential member states.

Even worse for civilian protection, the Russians learned the lesson that they shouldn’t trust America’s stated intentions at the UN and applied that lesson to the point of destruction in Syria. When President Barack Obama finally decided that his red line had been crossed (when the Assad regime used chemical weapons on civilian targets), we raised the question, to what end was he intervening? International actors threw money and weapons into the war in Syria, but just enough to prolong violence and devastate the civilian population.

Budgets alone do not capture the conceptual harms of reducing foreign policy to a militarized imagination—but they are indicative. The U.S. State Department, UN peacekeeping and global mediation capacities have atrophied (Biden has proposed a significant hiring spree for State, which suffered woefully from the Trump years). The Defense Department and its “overseas contingency operations” budget are massive – nonetheless, military leaders and like-thinking members of Congress constantly bemoan how they are not getting enough. The arms industry has flourished—Including weapons of digital warfare that spilled over into the domestic and civilian sectors, and drone attacks, which have transformed into an international extrajudicial assassination program with extensive civilian fatalities. Everywhere preparation for or use of violence is ascendant.

Advocates for R2P will argue that interventions to protect civilians have been most notable for their absence. Myanmar’s expulsion of the Rohingya is perhaps the signature example – no concerted help ever materialized. It was only the Bangladeshi policy of allowing refugees a bitter sanctuary that staved off even worse outcomes. But perhaps the most problematic outcome of the turn to military intervention as the favored means of civilian protection was the abdication of the imagination. Protection became a militarized concept. An alternative international politics of protection – creating and sustaining the regional and multilateral institutions and mediation processes that might form a bulwork against militarism that feeds atrocities – never stood a chance. Despite long-standing consensus that prevention is better than response, increasing investments in cooperative politics, for example, never claimed the caché of developing military doctrine or mandates (whether they were used or not).

Too much energy was spent on refining unilateral military capacities, hiding behind the assumption that when atrocities occurred, they would be perpetrated by “enemies” whom one might consider overthrowing, such as the Afghan Taliban, the Sudanese and Libyan governments, or ethnic militia in Congo. That “allies” might commit atrocities – as in Sri Lanka, Yemen (Saudi Arabia and the UAE), South Sudan, and now Ethiopia, was a thought to be banished. What, after all, would be the point of drawing attention to atrocities if no militarized response designed to bring enemies to their knees would conceivably be threatened?  It is no accident that today the anti-atrocity community is turning its attention to the Uighurs, a people who has suffered terribly in China for decades, but whose cause only recently has garnered increased attention. The Uighur case illustrates atrocity prevention as the human rights bolster to the geopolitics of confronting enemies – not the geopolitics of increasing protection.

Under Republican and Democrat presidents alike, deference to military intellectuals has become pervasive. The burden of proof is on those who advocate for not taking military action. The virtues of being the world’s bully are taken for granted; those who are bold enough to suggest that there are diplomatic options, or that America should not enjoy the privilege of being the global superpower that doesn’t need to justify itself, are portrayed as dissenters. Only now, as the failure in Afghanistan becomes undeniable, are dissenters getting a voice.

President Joe Biden is well-known for having been a critic of the war in Afghanistan and advocating withdrawal from his first days as vice president twelve years ago. He reportedly had no illusions about the prospects of victory in that war. But there is little sign that he is prepared to demote the predominance of the military in American strategizing, spending, or values. Some of those who support his decision to end the U.S. war do so not because they are against militarism, but instead they think America has just been fighting the wrong war. Rather than pursuing an impossible goal in a strategically marginal country, they argue, the U.S. should have been gearing up for strategic competition with China.

The long-promised “pivot to China” is today led by a fiasco over sales of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia—it is doubtful that China is quaking, but clear that France is alienated. The role of the arms traders in setting strategic priorities is uncomfortably evident.

Will this be the next delusion imposed by the militarists? Having got the Cold War so wrong, but survived to maintain their dominance through an assortment of rationales for armed interventions for three decades, are they going to go back to their (preferred) modus operandum of a supposed peer competitor demanding a new arms race? Is this what “America is back” means?

This pivot is happening at a time when it is clear that distrust between the U.S. and China was the single most important factor in impeding the ability of the World Health Organization to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic in a timely and effective manner. And when even greater levels of global cooperation are required to meet the challenges of rapid decarbonization, stopping mass extinction and detoxifying the planet to make it safe for living things.

The greatest damage of the myth of military intervention is that it sustained the hegemony of military thinking during the span of a generation when there was an epochal opportunity to move beyond the notion of foreign relations a muscular exercise in dominating the world.

Global politics never has – nor will it ever – be neatly summarized into a single narrative of intervening heroes confronting evil actors, regardless if these opposites are defined by the Cold War, humanitarian interventionism, anti-terrorism or a new epochal confrontation with China. What these narratives did (and do) supply, was a logic for escalation that ceded the initiative from political insight and granted it to military might. Budgets and investments followed: given their extraordinary level of resources it is no wonder that the American military can do stunning things at the operational level. But this has impoverished the imagination of a country that has not yet learned to similarly value its capabilities for peaceful action.

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