Friday, August 29, 2008

Making Intervention Work... let's not and say we did

Morton Abramowitz and Thomas Pickering have written an interesting piece in the latest Foreign Affairs called "Making Intervention Work: Improving the UN's Ability to Act."

Of course, since I don't believe interventionism can work, I'm compelled to respond.

The article is basically divided into 3 sections:
1. A litany of half-truths on the state of interventionism today
2. A compelling and accurate takedown of many of the more hairbrained non-UN-related schemes to legitimize and orchestrate future interventions.
3. A completely pie-in-the-sky, never-gonna-happen set of proposals for how to make the UN more pro-intervention.

I'll take each section in turn.

1. Abramowitz and Pickering start by unforgivably arguing, by fiat, that intervention in Myanmar after the cyclone would have been a great idea. (Please see my long "Myanmar and the Death of Responsibility To Protect" series a couple months back on why it would have actually been a disaster: the short version is, if you thought Iraq was bad wait 'til you try to occupy Myanmar, which is twice as big and has more punishing terrain, less infrastructure, plus great power backing.) Later in the opening section, the authors fail to distinguish between international acts of aggression (Bosnia), which are easy to justify a military response to, and domestic ones (Kosovo) that are much harder (especially after Russia retaliated to Kosovo's independence by basically doing unto Georgia what we once did unto Serbia, then laughing at us for hypocrisy when we objected). Lastly, the authors reject the idea of sanctions for two reasons. First, they argue, they hurt the already-suffering population, mentioning Iraq. True. But then, they argue that the sanctions do not impact government behavior, and they ALSO argue Iraq. This argument might have flown back when anyone believed that Iraq had developed WMD, but since it's become plain that they haven't, what can be surmised is that the sanctions put in place after the Gulf War were extremely effective. In that time, Hussein did not gas his people; invade neighboring states; or build a viable nuclear program, all of which he had done in the 1980s before the sanctions had taken place.
The authors then say that sanctions haven't affected the Burmese junta's actions either, which is amusing given that the sanctions are not UN sanctions but only from Western powers, and Burma's junta does just fine, thank you, by maintaining the ruby export racket and being a client state of China, which does not sanction them for anything.

2. Mission not accomplished, the authors embark on a list of proposed non-UN actions that could justify future post-Iraq interventions. They argue that;
- "coalitions of the willing" are a poor idea. "Many nations had misgivings over the absence of a prior UN blessing" even in Kosovo, they point out. After Iraq, these misgivings will only increase.
- regional peacekeeping forces from smaller regional players (Nigeria in Sierra Leone and Liberia, for example), have not been demonstrably effective. Nor have regional organizations like the African Union and ASEAN.
- The "League of Democracies" would have just as much legitimacy problems as a coalition of the willing, and would preclude peacekeeping efforts with important non-democratic states in various regions. I'm glad the authors agree with me on this.

3. So much for skirting the UN. The authors now attempt to reform the UN. I'm not sure either of them have ever been to Turtle Bay, but the naivete here is rather remarkable for a pair of men who have held ambassadorial posts in a combined eight countries. They propose that the 5 veto-wielding Council members agree to forgo the use of veto in a Council resolution authorizing humanitarian intervention if either the Secretariat recommended humanitarian action or 2/3 of the General Assembly membership voted in favor of a resolution authorizing a humanitarian response.
First of all, the P5 would never, ever agree to do this, but second of all, even if they did, nothing would be solved. The question would instead become "what requires a humanitarian intervention"? Never mind that the Chinese don't think the coercive humanitarian intervention is justified under any circumstance. Furthermore, since any P5 member can veto the reappointment of a Secretary-General, if China, for instance, wanted the Secretariat to not recommend humanitarian action in Burma, then Ban Ki-moon could only make such a recommendation at the cost of his job. Lastly, this policy would rebound on the West almost immediately, as the General Assembly would immediately start working on a resolution authorizing "humanitarian intervention" in Palestine, which would easily get the 2/3 votes required to pass. Ooops.
Apart from that, the authors offer an intelligent proposal that the P5 should each contribute 5,000 fully trained forces ready to go as global rapid responders (but not before falsely suggesting that lack of trained forces and planning doomed the Rwanda mission, as opposed to Council members dithering and refusing to give the force the personnel and materiel it needed to fulfill its mandate). Of course, the problem with this is that most of the would-be-interventions in question - Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Sudan -- would never, EVER consider accepting troops from the US, UK, or France. There's a reason why, out of over 100,000 UN peacekeeping personnel, only about 500 are English or American. The Sudanese won't even accept Scandinavians. And the authors' proposal of an "autonomous UN force" will be, um, politically difficult to accomplish, as they acknowledge.

Most damningly, Abramowitz and Pickering fail to surmount the two main problems with intervention. One, they fail to speak to the destabilizing and politicizing impact of coercive interventions. What would the impact be globally, and on the UN, of military forces going in to intervene on humanitarian grounds without the permission of sovereign governments? The short answer is, a lot more nuclear weapons would be the result. No one is going to intervene in North Korea, and if Iran ever gets the bomb, no one will "intervene" there either. And two, Abramowitz and Pickering fail to consider the impacts of the interventions themselves. How many successful UN peacekeeping missions have gone in and forcibly subdued a vile government that hasn't invaded a neighbor? Um, zero. There's a reason for that. UN peacekeepers are supposed to keep the peace, and if there's no peace to keep (Somalia, Darfur), or if sending them would lead to a geopolitical confrontation (Myanmar, North Korea), then it would not only not be helpful to send them, it would be counterproductive.

In the post-Iraq world, we should be looking for more ways to limit interventionism and we should be more skeptical of what military force against states that are not international aggressors can achieve. We should not be looking for new ways to justify using methods that don't work.

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