October 20, 2005

Is Liberal Interventionism Dead?

Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias have a new TAP article arguing that the war in Iraq—or at least the "liberal hawk" idea that Iraq could be made into a democracy at the barrel of a gun—was always doomed to fail, and it wasn't just because Bush utterly botched it. They say that even if the war had been sold and fought exactly as the liberal hawks wanted—as a way to turn Iraq into a liberal democracy—with a different, more competent administration, it still would have failed.

Well, agreed. The United States has never shown much interest in democracy-building, it's never been very good at it, and as I noted earlier in the week, the success of our nation-building adventures abroad have usually depended on internal factors in the occupied country, rather than the competence of our plans. That was as true of the American South in 1865 as it was of Kosovo in 1999. And sad to say, but the mere existence of a profit-seeking military-industrial complex made problems like the looting of the Iraqi treasury pretty much inevitable. There's no reason to think an invasion run by George Packer or Peter Beinart could have "remade" Iraq better than Bush did. That said, I think this part of the TAP piece sells the idea of liberal interventionism somewhat short:
Intervening requires us to take sides and to live with the empowerment of the side we took. Tensions between Kosovar and Serb, Muslim and Croat, Sunni and Shiite are not immutable hatreds, and it’s hardly the case that such conflicts can never be resolved. But they cannot be resolved by us. Outside parties can succeed in smoothing the path for agreement, halting an ongoing genocide, or preventing an imminent one by securing autonomy for a given area. But only the actual parties to a conflict can bring it to an end. No simple application of more outside force can make conflicting parties agree in any meaningful way or conjure up social forces of liberalism, compromise, and tolerance where they don’t exist or are too weak to prevail.
That's obviously true of the United States' military, which has classically been good primarily at smashing things, although our twenty-year-old soldiers have adapted to "mission creep" unbelievably well in Iraq. But Donald Rumsfeld wants to make the military even more focused on smashing things—as opposed to people like Thomas Barnett, who wants to see a more fully developed "SysAdmin" side—and regardless of what you want to call it, the "Jacksonian tradition" in American foreign policy has never had much interest in anything more than overwhelming bloodletting in the defense of the national interest. We're a nation ruled by speculators and powered by Southern nationalists; as such, idealistic projects abroad just aren't in the cards, except in very rare circumstances.

But the United Nations complicates the tale somewhat, since their peacekeeping forces actually have succeeded in reconciling a large number of post-conflict nations. Post-WWII UN operations in Congo, and post-Cold War peacekeeping forces in Namibia, El Salvador, Mozambique, Eastern Slavonia, Sierra Leone, and East Timor should all count as successes—the UN disarmed the parties, demobilized militias, held relatively free and fair elections, and put the countries on a path towards sustained civil peace. So in one sense, outside forces can "make conflicting parties agree in [a] meaningful way," and if those UN missions didn't conjure up, as TAP puts it, "social forces of liberalism, compromise, and tolerance," they at least pointed the way down that path. Those countries, save for the Congo, are all peaceful democracies today. We know it can work because it's been done.

On the other hand, even the UN can't seem to stop a country on the brink of disintegration from doing so, but it's hard to tell how much of that failure has come from the sheer difficulty of the task and how much from poor implementation. The original UN peacekeeping mission in Somalia obviously flopped, but it was also severely undermanned. Same with the initial UN force in Bosnia. (Could a more robust operation—say, 20,000 more troops and American commanders—have averted many of the Balkan crises later in the 1990s? Who knows?) The UN actually enforced (rather than just "kept") the peace in Eastern Slavonia and East Timor, both successfully, when it had enough troops. So I don't think I'm quite as ready to say "it's impossible", although a good deal of modesty and skepticism is absolutely crucial here. I think the United States is inherently awful at nation-building right now, yes. But that says as much about the United States and its military as it does about the inherent impossibility in peacekeeping and nation-building, and it's worth, I think, trying to disentangle the two.
-- Brad Plumer 3:08 PM || ||