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February 25, 2012

Meet the New Imperialism

by Mike M

The half-thought-through ideology of global intervention on behalf of … it’s not entirely clear what, has reached a fever pitch in the shadow of the undeniably tragic events in Syria.  But what’s clear is not so much that we need to act decisively in that conflict; it’s that we need to act decisively to rethink this doctrine of unending global meddling before it burrows its way permanently into the mindset and practice of US national security strategy.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, field marshal of the interventionist army, has made the case to add Syria to the list of the beneficiaries of our global goodwill.  The willingness of the piece to wish away doubts, risks, and consequences is quite breathtaking, as is the ability—in the wake of a half-dozen interventions that have managed to leave in their wake chaos, sectarian war, and states and societies utterly unprepared for the transitions that come next—to forget the lessons of the extremely recent past.

Why must we intervene?  “Syria is far more strategically located than Libya,” Slaughter argues, “and a lengthy civil war there would be much more dangerous to our interests.”  This is confusing, as just yesterday we were told that Libya—oil, refugees and drugs pouring into Europe, etcetera—was “crucial to our interests.”  But then, in the interdependent world of the Responsibility to Protect crowd, everything is critical.  Once we’re done with Syria, presumably, “Pakistan’s strategic location, ownership of nuclear weapons and blah, blah make our action there far more necessary than Syria, or Libya, or Iraq, or …”

But of course when everything is critical nothing is.  And I guarantee you this:  The American people are going to run out of patience for these joyless micro-wars real quick.

Then, too, if civil war is the risk in Syria, I can see why Slaughter would want us dispatching our brigades.  Because as is obvious from Iraq, and as begins to become obvious in Egypt and Libya, once we intervene in a place in some form or other, it calms right the hell down.

As a fine little Guardian feature points out, folks like Slaughter and Stewart Patrick were arguing that the smooth Libya op would inaugurate a new era of humanitarian intervention—but “that was then.  Now, on the first anniversary of the uprising against the regime and with Libya in increasing turmoil, the certainties of last summer look less compelling.  As recent reports by human rights groups and journalists have made clear, the country has descended into rival fiefdoms of competing militias, not least in Misrata, which … has set itself up as a ‘city state’ with its own prisons and justice system.  Human rights abuses are rife.  Corruption is endemic.  The new post-Gaddafi state, far from coalescing into meaningful institutions, is becoming ever more fractured.”

Bottom line:  There is a strong—I would say unarguable—case for two points:

  1. Intervention in and of itself offers no meaningful advantage in terms of civil war or other instability risks, unless the intervening parties are prepared to stay for years and do ground-up nation building; and
  2. Not only is nobody ready to do that, the last decade has proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that even if we had the will, we do not have the way—we have no proven models to get a country from where Libya is today to the status of, say, Portgual.  We do not know how.

Now add another problem:  The whole basis for the R2P strategic argument—the idea that unstable, fragile states pose the new threat to world peace—is more a claim than a proven fact.  One significant recent study, for example, looked at the connection between state failure and states that generate international terrorism, and found no comprehensive link at all—just a very complex set of contingent connections.  Syrian instability might cause problems in the Middle East; but then again it might not—there are a dozen scenarios that could play out, some advantageous to the US and some not.  The R2P ideology has us chasing a risk that has never been truly proved—just laid out in nice prose, by the likes of Robert Kaplan, with one assertion and non-universalizable example piled atop another.

And then, as is so often the case with amateur military strategists like Slaughter, the details of her operational proposals are ramshackle, contradictory and, at times, just plain dumb.  It’s one thing to toss around terms like artillery batteries and tank columns and another to comprehend the practical import of such things.  She says, for example, that arming the opposition would only invite civil war and a regional proxy war—and then immediate goes on to propose creating “no kill zones” which outside powers would use to train and arm the opposition.  Why does the existence of a no kill area obviate the risk of proxy conflict?  Because the outsiders could then “control” the situation?  Good luck.

Mostly, though, Slaughter seems to think, like all those happy to go rushing off to battle for a good cause, that war is something you can cut into little slices like a roast, and serve yourself up just the amount you want.  Which is, of course, an ahistorical and tragic confusion.  Once we start meddling in the conflict, we have bought in.  If we send special forces into Syria to train opposition fighters and they get fired upon and fire back and kill Syrians, what’s to stop the regime from conducting direct attacks against US assets in the region?  Once we start bombing things, we’re going to be killing people—hundreds, thousands—and not all are going to be Assad’s thugs.

My favorite line in the piece is this:  “The key condition for all such assistance, inside or outside Syria, is that it be used defensively — only to stop attacks by the Syrian military or to clear out government forces that dare to attack the no-kill zones.”  Yes, that’s a classic lesson of warfare—that we can draw a bright line between what is “offensive” and what is “defensive.”  Perhaps we can have little UN referees in place, in black-and-white striped shirts, calling foul when a given artillery shell strikes them as just a bit too “offensive” in its reach.

I suspect many of the Libyan troops slaughtered on various roads by NATO bombs cared little for the niceties of offensive or defensive war.  Once NATO was in for a penny, it was in for all the pounds it needed to leverage to get the outcome it had promised.  The same would be true in Syria.

The issue isn’t that liberty and reform are a bad thing.  Obviously, US policy should leverage world support for freedom.  But there’s an immense gap between standing rhetorically tall for such a principle—and, when a country decides to make its own way there, jumping in with two feet to help it along.  (I’d be much more sympathetic to the humanitarian warriors’ cause if they spend a tenth as much time worrying about the aftermath as they did about shoving the autocrats aside; in this way, they are precisely Rumsefeldian.)  The concept—the strategy—of arrogating to ourselves the right to choose the course of history for other nations, even if some people in those nations have begun to move in a certain direction, can only be described as imperial.

As a clue to the real character of this emerging strategy, I might—in a turn of phrase suggested by a very insightful colleague—define the interventionists’ credo this way:  “When forces hostile to the continued progress of the free exercise of dignity attempt to turn the path of any nation against the liberty of its own people, it becomes a problem not merely for the country concerned, but a common problem and concern for all countries.”

This is, in effect, the R2P doctrine.  It is also the Brezhnev Doctrine:  “When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries.”

We have met the enemy, and defeated the enemy … and become the enemy.

“The international community can draw on the power of nonviolence,” Slaughter concludes, “and create zones of peace in what are now zones of death.”  We must realize, in a clear-eyed and unambiguous way, how bizarrely and dangerously Orwellian such language truly is, and what this doctrine is doing to our foreign policy—and to our world.  Because as much as the plight of a beleaguered people fighting for justice tugs at the heart—and it should—there are broader strategic principles at stake.

Once we place the weight of our national credibility behind the idea that powerful collections of countries can decide that they know the right future for another people and that they, as a result, will gather up their arms and deliver that future at the point of a gun, we will have reversed decades of work to establish precisely the opposite idea.  We will have offered a gold-plated justification for any aspiring emperor to intervene in the name of some Higher Principle.  Stability, for example, always sounds good, and it trips easily off the tongues of spokesmen in Beijing and Moscow as easily as Washington.

Advocates of armed intervention offer the excuse that they are cut from different cloth than the imperialists of old:  They are, we are assured, inspired by a mission to do good.  But those who marched their armies into other countries have never, in their own minds, been inspired by anything else.

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