November 06, 2005

Liberal Interventionism: Who Needs It?

I've been trying to think of something clever to say about the fate of liberal interventionism in the wake of the Iraq war, but nothing's coming. Nadezhda, though, brings up a good point:
[I]t's a mistake to focus too much on Iraq as a centerpiece of a debate over when to intervene. Humanitarian concerns, and even democracy promotion, were simply not why the BushAdmin went to war.
That comes after her excellent explanation of how the war's key architects, especially Cheney and Rumsfeld, aren't really neocons, but rather nationalists who "want to sustain US hegemony by... by continually using US power to eliminate enemies and dissuade potential competitors." True enough. On the other hand, you'd be hard pressed to find any "intervention" by the United States done primarily because of "humanitarian concerns." Kosovo often gets trotted out as a "good" liberal intervention—done to prevent ethnic cleansing, as the story goes—but here, for instance, is how Sidney Blumenthal described the Clinton administration's thinking in 1999:
Kosovo was the central challenge remaining to full European integration after the fall of the Soviet Union. If the crisis there were allowed to fester and ethnic cleansing allowed to succeed, Europe would be inundated with refugees. The human tragedy would be appalling. This might well demoralize the center-left political parties, but right-wing ones would seize on the developments to gain influence, exploiting fears about increased immigration and asylum seeking. NATO would seem a feckless, purposeless organization: If it could not be mobilized to ward off this new threat in Europe, what use was it? The incentive for former Warsaw Pact countries to join it would be drastically reduced; NATO expansion would become an empty exercise.

Moreover, the absence of U.S. power would trigger traditional rivalries among the European countries and hamper Britain's influence, given its link to the United States. Reform in Russia would be slowed down or derailed, as conservative political forces there would be galvanized by Serbian defiance of the West. And without the Balkan puzzle solved, Turkey and Greece might also be propelled into renewed conflict.
Notice that the fate of the actual people being massacred ranks far below strategic concerns—saving NATO, stopping all those filthy refugees from flooding Europe, and making sure the conflict doesn't spread outwards. Indeed, in his first radio address after his Senate trial, Clinton focused on the national security threat posed by Serbia, rather than humanitarian issues: "Bosnia taught us a lesson: In this volatile region, violence we fail to oppose leads to even greater violence we will have to oppose later at greater cost." Human rights, obviously, played some part in the selling of the war, but the fact that Kosovo really was important strategically—at least in Clinton's mind—explains why we went. It was a direct threat to the "liberal internationalist" order, much like Saddam Hussein was a threat to Dick Cheney's world order.

Now fair enough, the U.S. can't stop humanitarian crises everywhere, and if we're going to choose between, say, Kosovo and the Congo, we may as well factor in "national interest" to make that choice. And as world orders go, I somewhat prefer Bill Clinton's to Dick Cheney's (which is why, among other things, I think the Iraq war was a much worse idea). Still, as with Iraq, the humanitarian reasons for the Kosovo intervention were mostly a happy gloss to make people feel better about the war. Meanwhile, the "Clinton doctrine"—which stated that the United States has the right to intervene, without UN approval, when countries commit gross human rights violations—does little more than provide the United States an extra excuse, in case it needs one, to use military force abroad for other purposes.

For liberal interventionists, all of that might be okay so long as human rights are still served—who cares why we're stopping genocide so long as we're stopping it, right?—but in practice, that doesn't always happen. In Kosovo, NATO failed, for starters, to deploy adequate security after the bombing campaign ended, and as a result, ethnic Albanians began retaliating against non-Albanians—kidnappings, looting, murder, the works. "Oops." Maybe that was just a mistake in the execution, but funny how we seem to hear that excuse a lot. The United States also "blundered" by failing to secure Baghdad in early 2003. "Oops." Etc. A long string of mishaps ensued in both places. Was that just because rebuilding a country is extremely difficult? Well, yes, but it's also true that interventions that aren't carried out primarily for humanitarian reasons will, more likely than not, end up making a lot of these sorts of mistakes.

So what does all this mean? Even an administration that truly cares about using military force to promote democracy and human rights abroad—something we're never likely to get, mind you—will still have to pick and choose where to intervene. So it will likely choose based on strategic concerns, or other ulterior motives. (Public opinion is another big factor—it's hard to sell a war on morality alone.) Those "other" concerns will often end up dominating the conflict, and could thwart the humanitarian focus, or even make the intervention counterproductive from a human rights standpoint. This certainly won't always be the case—Britain's military presence in Sierra Leone in 2000 wasn't exactly carried out with the noblest of intentions, but it still did a great deal of good—but the logic of intervention is pretty grim. At the very least, it's reason to be wary. Phrased another way, while I think that, for instance, NATO should stop the genocide in Darfur, I would also be very suspicious if, in an alternate universe, NATO actually was interested in sending troops into Darfur. If that makes sense.

At any rate—and this post is dragging out, I know—we should also realize that in the years since the Cold War ended, war and genocide have been declining dramatically, and this hasn't come about because of humanitarian interventions by the U.S. and other First World powers. No, it's come about, in part, because colonial empires and Cold War rivals have stopped inciting war in the Third World, and because the international order has become more "activist" in all sorts of non-military ways. According to the 2005 Human Security Report, since 1990 we've seen:
  • A sixfold increase in the number of preventive diplomacy missions between 1990 and 2002

  • A fourfold increase in peacemaking activities between 1990 and 2001

  • An elevenfold increase in the number of economic sanctions in place against regimes around the world between 1989 and 2001

  • A fourfold increase in the number of UN peacekeeping operations between 1987 and 1999
  • One could go on. And the HSR provides evidence that these things, along with economic development and human rights law, all work as far as making the world less violent. Meanwhile, the rapid spread of democracy in the 1990s has helped to curb war, and most of that has been accomplished without American invasions. The basic lesson here, it seems, is that "humanitarian interventions" are really a somewhat minor issue in the grand scheme of things. (Although I still worry that allowing things such as, say, genocide in Darfur undermines that order by setting a bad example for other would-be genocidaires.) So while I doubt that liberal interventionism can ever serve as a workable basis for U.S. foreign policy, the positive side is that it may not matter much. The hard evidence suggests that the most effective things the U.S. can do for human rights are, first, to stop fueling conflict abroad—regulating the global arms trade would be a nice start—and second, to bolster the international order that genuinely has done a lot for world peace of late.
    -- Brad Plumer 9:10 PM || ||