Monday, July 9, 2012

NYT Op-Eds on intervention: The good, the bad, and the ugly

I've tried to steer clear of the debate about intervening in Syria on the blogosphere for two reasons. First, while I know a lot about this type of crisis and the challenges it poses, I don't know much about I don't know a lot about Syria. Secondly, so much of the commentary on both sides has struck me as silly and uninformed. From pro-interventionists who haven't done their homework on the utility, limitations, and implications of using military force to stop the killing, to anti-interventionists who dismiss the idea that the US has any interests in halting atrocities, determined not to let reality undermine their faith in Realism, I have seen little in the way of serious, informed discussion.

So I was impressed to find a remarkably thoughtful op-ed on the subject in the New York Times a few weeks ago. I've never read anything from Professor Dr. Volker Perthes before, but this constitutes one of the more nuanced pieces I've seen on Syria since the crisis began. I particularly appreciated his emphasis on addressing the existential fears of Syrian minorities as a key element in any viable plan (whether incorporating military force or not).

On the other side of the ledger, on Saturday Ross Douthat penned an unfortunate and ill-informed piece on the alleged second-order effects of the intervention in Libya - that is to say, the current crisis in Mali. According to Douthat, the intervention in Libya sent heavily-armed Tuaregs who had been fighting for Qaddafi back into Mali, bolstering the ranks of the Tuareg rebellion - and this much is true. That bolstered rebellion in turn launched an offensive that quickly conquered the northern half of the country - also true. The Malian government fell to a military coup, and the divisions within the rebel ranks have allowed more radical elements to gain the upper hand, violently imposing a harsh version of Sharia and destroying important historical sites. All this is true, but Douthat's still wrong on two counts.

First, the weakness of the Malian government and security forces was not new, and it's hard to gauge the impact of Libyan weapons on the balance of power between the Tuareg rebels and the Malian Army when Malian soldiers were losing battles for lack of sufficient ammunition. The discontent among the soldiers who launched the coup didn't start with the renewed Tuareg rebellion, and as the speakers at an event in May emphasized, spill-over from Libya may have been the proximate trigger, but the Malian crisis had been brewing for a long time.* On this subject, Alma knows far more, and I hope she'll chime in.

Second and far more perniciously, Douthat draws a blatantly false parallel between Libya then and Mali now:
So Mali today looks a bit like Libya did in early 2011, except with a more obvious jihadi presence: You have a weakened authoritarian government governing half the country, a dubious and divided rebellion trying to rule the other, and a humanitarian crisis looming for the civilians caught in between.
All of which is more or less true, but neglects to mention that - in contrast to Qaddafi - neither the Tuareg rebel factions nor the Malian government have embarked on systematic and widespread violence against civilians. There have been brutal human rights abuses on both sides, but there are no columns marching towards cities of more than 600K people with orders to kill every male between 17 and 40, as was the case with Benghazi.

I point this out because there seems to be a growing attempt by some to show up the alleged hypocrisy and capriciousness of interventions to prevent atrocities by equating any violence against civilians in conflicts with the exceptional cases in which they're being deliberately slaughtered. Douthat claims that's not his angle, but I notice that in assessing the impact of US actions on Malian politics, the US counter-terrorism programs that have been running for years don't merit even passing mention.

The Libya intervention was by no means perfect, and there's no question we should be cognizant of the potential unintended or downright perverse human and strategic consequences of any foreign policy initiative, military or otherwise. But in parsing the lessons of the Libya operation, let's try not to let our ideological perspectives completely corrupt our reading of facts. Or perhaps Douthat will take his own advice from January 2011 to heart:
We have theories, and expect the facts to fall into line behind them...But history makes fools of us all..Sooner or later, the theories always fail. The world is too complicated for them, and too tragic. History has its upward arcs, but most crises require weighing unknowns against unknowns, and choosing between competing evils.

* According to the speakers, US security assistance may have inadvertently contributed as well by encouraging the deployment of additional Malian security forces to the north in the absence of much political progress, thus increasing the day-to-day friction between the central government and Tuareg communities.


  1. I particularly appreciated his emphasis on addressing the existential fears of Syrian minorities as a key element in any viable plan (whether incorporating military force or not).

    I know a lot of people in this "camp" so it may be affecting my feelings about an intervention....that and the fact that intervening in a civil war doesn't seem to be as simple as writing an op-ed. I don't mean that as snark, I just didn't know quite how to word things.

    I guess what I want to know about R2P is how one decides which actions to back militarily and why some regimes seem to get a pass from the very proponents of the law? It all seems so haphazard, and there is absolutely disillusion from populations that are suffering but are not part of the correct "matrix of understanding."

    I think at this point we probably are involved and should be involved a bit given the chemical weapons and the threat to the population. But I admit, I can't forgive the great harm done on the subcontinent by some of the same peope championing R2P.

  2. MK: I've been meaning to apologize for my comments here on R2P. It's clear much of this is an emotional response from me based on ethnic identity and the ethnic orientation of friends, and so on.

    At any rate, if this is to be a meaningful "doctrine", the "alleged" (and not so alleged) hypocrisies will have to be accounted for or it will go nowhere--or unfortunately be actually harmful.

    Sorry, I can't promise I won't be emotional about this in the future but I am glad your post attempts calm.

    - Madhu

    (And now I see I really will have to give up on my holding out on Twitter. No one on the usual blogs I read anymore comment on anything. It's all gone completely silent, the passing of a technologies moment, like the radio or silent movie stars or something....)

    - Madhu


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