Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Debating the terms of the debate about intervention

In case you've been living under a rock lately, there's been an intensifying debate about whether and how to use military force to keep Qaddafi from turning relatively limited massacres into a complete blood bath.

I - and as far as I know, none of my fellow Ink Spotters - know enough about Libya's internal politics and military capabilities to justify having a firm view on what the best option should look like (although I look forward to them proving me wrong). That's not what I want to write about here.

Rather, I want to take on the knee jerk reaction from many otherwise thoughtful commentators on military affairs to any suggestion of US military action to protect foreign civilian from getting slaughtered.* I suspect that some at least will protest that this isn't what is motivating their calls for caution, but the consistency of how this debate plays out (over the last 20 years, at least) is disturbing, and suggests there's some disappointing predictability on both sides. So in the interests of getting some very bright people to put some serious thought into how to deal with this problem,

1. Military action isn't always the answer, but sometimes it is the only option to halt mass killing.

The last time this debate occurred, Ex put forth four basic questions that cover most of the important ground. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, no one - including Ex - is publicly answering those questions with regard to Libya. Most of us (again, including Ex) just don't know enough about the country, and what is currently going on there.

However, Ex, Elkus and others are all emphatically pointing out how complicated military intervention can be, and in the past have highlighted the potential for things to go wrong - very wrong, very quickly.

On this, they are absolutely correct, but it's true of all military operations, regardless of the objectives. Repeating it ad nauseam is not really contributing to the debate. Certainly, those who underplay or obscure the very real dangers should be challenged. But those who draw false analogies with little if any resemblance in the specifics of the situation are equally guilty of misrepresenting reality. And the skeptics of intervention tend to stubbornly ignore examples of success in some very hard cases.

Moreover, those of us who've studied this particular type of problem in detail would warn that history has consistently demonstrated that when groups tip over into mass killing, very little short of military action has ever proven effective. Everything else takes too long to bite, or simply doesn't bite hard enough to change the strategic calculus of the perpetrators.

So instead of vague discussions of how difficult and costly it might be, or patronizingly dismissing the other side as not understanding the complexity of military operations, those who want to weigh in should be making specific arguments about the situation confronting us.

I will say this, though: a no-fly zone is unlikely to prove effective unless the perpetrators are only able to attack civilians from the air, or value their air assets above the goals they hoped to achieve through mass killing. Given that mass killing is usually justified or even triggered by a perception of existential threat from the victims, the latter is pretty unlikely. A pair of articles (to which Ex linked) highlight the limitations of no-fly zones in general, and with reference to Libya.

2. Acknowledge that inaction has costs

As stated above, those who caution that any military operations to halt massacres will carry risks and costs are inarguably correct. Advocating for military action without honestly assessing those risks and the likelihood of success is irresponsible. But so is advocating against military (or diplomatic or economic, for that matter) action without discussing the risks of inaction.

Those risks depend on the specifics of the situation, but they are never zero, and in many cases are much larger than opponents of action are willing to acknowledge. Whether in Afghanistan, Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s, or the Horn of Africa last decade, or North Africa today, there are real strategic costs to inaction. While sometimes hard to tabulate, they can be substantial and shouldn't be ignored in the policy debate.

Opponents of military action need to offer serious alternatives, and be held to the same standard of honest assessment when it comes to the risks of their recommended course of action as proponents of using force.

3. Take the question seriously

The most frustrating aspect of this debate is many of the best military analysts out there seem to never really engage with the challenge of how to achieve US foreign policy goals when they prominently include preventing large scale killing. On Afghanistan; on drone strikes; on counterinsurgency in the Philippines and Thailand; on CT in Indonesia; on Lebanon and Israel...on all these issues, analysts whose primary expertise may be in military affairs and not the particular region feel it is incumbent on them to develop enough regional expertise (or at least consult with those who have it) to be able to competently discuss the USG's policy options. Not so with regard to situations of mass killing, especially if they occur on the African continent. Somehow, despite it being a recurrent challenge in US foreign policy decision making back to early 20th century...despite its mention in the National Security Strategy...despite the creation of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense to work the issue, preventing mass atrocities continues to get short shrift from the very people who a) tend to think Rupert Smith knows what he's talking about** and b) could help develop more realistic and effective policy options.

To my fellow security analysts, a plea: if you think the calls for intervention in Libya (or anywhere else) are ill-conceived, then engage your abilities with as much dedication and conviction as you would for more established strategic priorities. Treat the prevention of mass killing as seriously as you would any of the other goals that have to be considered in developing policy and strategy.

UPDATE: The New York Times has a pretty decent Room for Debate on the subject here. Lots of different perspectives from the commentators, with a general abundance of caution. Sadly, the most consistent point is that we don't know enough about Libya. Even sadder when you consider how much money and effort we put into intelligence.

* At no point will you find me calling this kind of operation a 'humanitarian intervention'. The term 'humanitarian' is vague, loaded with baggage, and has a very specific meaning in the laws of armed conflict (not to mention for the humanitarian community, and the UN). There isn't really a neat alternative term, but I'm convinced enough of its pernicious effect on the debate that I'd rather wrestle with other language than contribute to the confusion.

** Ironically and unfortunately, General Sir Rupert was ill-served by his researcher, fact checker and editors when it came time to write about Rwanda - he managed to get many of the basic facts wrong in his otherwise excellent book.


  1. I don't want to be excessively brief and dismissive when you've obviously put a good deal of effort into this, but it's 0230. So:

    1) I think the reason many analysts are reluctant to "treat the prevention of mass killing as seriously as you would any of the other goals that have to be considered in developing policy and strategy" is that they simply don't see sufficient justification for doing so, or the specific incidents to which you're referring seem sufficiently remote to U.S. interests as to be easily overlooked or dismissed. So why should they, really?

    2) I'm sure there's some specific technical definition for the term "mass killings," but I don't know what it is. Is it clear that this is what's taking place in Libya? What's the difference between "mass killings" and counter-rebellion/COIN that includes widespread violence against civilians?

    3) It seems plain that in many instances, we HAVE been able to simply ignore "prevention of mass killing" and haven't suffered terribly as a result. Why wasn't there a broad-based national conversation about how to prevent mass killings in Uzbekistan after the Andijan massacre? Why hasn't there been one about Darfur? Or Congo? In short, because our rhetoric does not match reality; prevention of mass killings is NOT a national interest in the same way that prevention of some specific instances of state-on-state aggression is, or "elimination of terrorist sanctuaries" (whatever that is), or any of the other interests to which we DO commit planning effort and resources.

    4) It seems to me that the real value of your point is this: the necessity of a mass-killing-prevention campaign is probably something that can only be determined by the UN or some other multinational body, but we all have a pretty good sense for where the enforcement responsibility is going to lie. If the world decides "Qaddafi must be stopped," then the U.S. should have a pretty good sense for how it would deliver on the objectives set out for the mission. On this point I suppose I agree with you: there could perhaps be some more serious discussion of "how do you actually pull this off?"

    5. That said, I'm not sure this is the point you're making. You talk about the costs of inaction, and our responsibility to be aware of risks and consequences, and so on, and this goes back to the question of intervention or non-intervention. So I just want to kick some questions back at you:

    - What are the risks of inaction?
    - What is the worst-case scenario for the U.S. if we choose to remain militarily uninvolved?
    - What is the worst-case scenario for the U.S. if we do get militarily involved?
    - How best can the U.S. secure its own interests in the political and social environment that emerges in post-Qaddafi (or post-rebellion) Libya?
    - Will possible U.S. action during the period of transition (i.e., now) impact our ability to secure those interests?

    Hell, more basically: can you outline in reasonably simple terms the way you perceive U.S. interest vis-a-vis the Libya situation (beyond the prevention of mass killing, presumably)?

    I know this was disjointed as all hell, but I'm going to bed.

  2. I think this is a really timely post.

    Just as a point of pedantry, I think that Sierra Leone is a dodgy comparison to Libya. There were several pre-existing conditions that made an intervention by a well-trained foreign military force (be it the British or Executive Outcomes) 'tip the balance' in favour of stability. Namely:

    - The RUF were not a disciplined military force; although dangerous they stood little chance against well trained and well equipped forces. Not only that, but they failed to learn from their mistakes following EO's withdrawal, and thus were defeated by the British 4 years later.
    - The Civilian Defence Forces/kamajors were instrumental in augmenting the interventions by EO and the British. I would suggest that the intervention forces and the CDF could not achieve victory without the other.
    - EO and the British had legitimacy - Strasser had repeatedly asked for outside assistance from the US, France and the UK.

  3. I think you're right about having an improved 'methodology' in the debate on Libya, but, like Gulliver, I don't see how the prevention of mass killing is a national interest/security threat.

    There are other countries with more of an interest in containing instability in Libya; the French, the Italians, neighbouring African states. If there is to be any military action, it should be them who take primary responsibility. Britain and the US, whose interests are partly affected, can do more on the diplomatic front (which ranges from UN resolutions to the darker side of diplomacy, arming rebels).

  4. First, there is a value in itself in making a statement about the complexity of military operations--especially since, as Exum points out, it seems to consistently be forgotten.

    Second, I can't add much to what Aaron and Gulliver have already posted--especially re: interests. There is an unspoken assumption that this is, in fact, a national security interest and that inaction has serious costs for the US. For some actors, yes, but us?

  5. Thanks for the responses. Excuse the brevity of my responses, as I am slammed at work just now.

    On interests: The causal path from episodes of mass killing to direct impingement on US national interests is often strong but circuitous. The impact on regional dynamics often reverberates for decades, and by the time the US has to engage, the problems have grown to enormous proportions, and are even harder to solve.

    The second way it impacts US interests is that every failure by the international security architecture to deal with an incident of mass killing undermines its credibility and legitimacy to enforce other norms. SImply put, hypocrisy makes it harder for the US to get what it wants. This isn't theoretical - this stuff shapes how the rest of the world states and societies alike view and interact with the US.

    Y'all are likely to dismiss these assertions out of hand, but ask yourself this: if you find it credible that the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 had an impact on US interests across the Muslim world (and beyond, for that matter) - essentially, a normative impact - then why are you so quick to dismiss the impact of other normative breaches? Of course, some of you may count yourselves Realists, in which case you broadly dismiss anything but structural factors in IR and security. I think you're wrong, but I don't think anything will convince you.

    On other cases: Actually, Gulliver, there have been intense discussions in the US, Canadian and European governments - including military planning - for all those cases. And European forces have repeatedly deployed to Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Chad, CAR...and of course, SL. And the Australians to East Timor and the Solomon Islands. Very small numbers of US personnel have also deployed to a number of these theaters, and there has been some substantial work by US planners on some of these cases, but I'm not going to discuss those in detail here. Admittedly not a broad-based discussion, but that's partially about how journalists - and analysts - frame the conversation.

  6. On definition: There are various definitions of various terms, and none of them really work. Yes, it includes mass killing to counter an insurgency (Darfur being a prominent example). No, the UN does not have any agreed definition, or anything like a functional mechanism for determining whether its happening in any given case. Relying on it too heavily is a formula for inaction, and don't forget - the UN is primarily its member states. And the US is a leading member state that often sets the agenda.

    On division of labor: I'm not arguing that the US can or should always be in the lead. But US leadership is often critical to galvanizing action - seriously, look back at the hash the Europeans made of coordinating action in Bosnia. So while it might not be mainly US forces, US political leadership and enablers may be important.

    On the complexity of military operations: I think this a complete canard. Of course military operations are complex, but you don't hear this excuse trotted out in response from military analysts to any other kind of proposal. Want to launch punitive attacks on Somalia (as Bing West claims Mattis might do)? Launch covert or overt attacks on Iran? Run covert operations in Pakistan? Send USG personnel into the various drug wars in Latin America? Well, people may disagree with you - in fact, they may take your proposal to pieces - but you're probably not going to be patronized in the same way.

    And on the same note, I find it remarkable how much faith many military analysts have in the utility of force when it comes to achieving more conventionally defined national interests. But contend that military force might be part of a response to something beyond that narrow range, and suddenly force can't solve anything. It's beyond disingenuous.

    Gulliver - your questions about Libya are spot on. I can't answer them - again, I just don't know enough about the situation. But they're certainly among the questions we should be asking. Like you, I'm at the shallow end of the learning curve on Libya, and until I know more, I'm going to hesitate to dismiss anything out of hand.

    To be absolutely clear: I don't know whether we should intervene in Libya or not. I just want a serious conversation about it, instead of patronizing dismissal.

  7. Finally - agree that there are few parallels between Libya and Sierra Leone. I only invoked it in reference to the wider argument.