Tuesday, October 21, 2003

This mess of American interventionism

Michael Ignatieff (see the previous entry) is director of the Carr Center at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, which recently published Why are we in Iraq? (And Liberia? And Afghanistan?), an essay which examines the American history of interventionism, which is not in any way unique for this moment in time, but very much a part of the American character, even as Americans deny it to themselves.

Ignatieff lays out the Five Rules of American Intervention:

  1. Never pick on someone your own size: minor rogues, but never someone who can actually deliver a nuclear bomb.

  2. Never fight someone who is more willing to die than you are.

  3. Never intervene except with overwhleming force in defense ofa vital national interest.

  4. Never use force except as a last resort.

  5. When force is used, avoid American casualties.

Then came Sept. 11 -- and then came first Afghanistan and then Iraq. These two reversed Rule No. 4. (Only use force as a last resort.) Now the Bush administration was committing itself to use force as a first resort. But the Bush doctrine on intervention is no clearer than Clinton's. The Bush administration is committed to absolute military pre-eminence, but does anyone think that Clinton's military was less determined to remain the single -- and overwhelming -- superpower? The Bush doctrine is also burdened with contradiction. The president took office ruling out humanitarian interventions, yet marines did (finally) go ashore in war-torn Liberia. During the 2000 campaign, George Bush ruled out intervention in the cause of nation-building, only to find himself staking his presidency on the outcome of nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq. Having called for a focused intervention strategy, he has proclaimed a war on terror that never clearly defines terrorism; never differentiates among terrorist organizations as to which explicitly threaten American interests and which do not; and never has settled on which states supporting or harboring terrorists are targets of American intervention. An administration whose supposed watchword is self-discipline regularly leaks to the press, for example, that its intervention list might include Syria or Iran -- or might not, depending on the day of the week you ask. The administration, purposefully or not, routinely conflates terrorism and the nuclear threat from rogue nations. These are threats of a profoundly different order and magnitude. Finally, the administration promises swift and decisive interventions that will lead to victory. But as Afghanistan shows (and Iraq is beginning to show), this expectation is deluded. Taking down the state that sheltered Osama bin Laden was easy; shutting down Al Qaeda has proved frustratingly difficult. Interventions don't end when the last big battle is won. In a war on terror, containing rather than defeating the enemy is the most you can hope for. Where is the doctrine acknowledging that truth?

The Bush administration, as no administration before it, has embraced ''pre-emption.'' It's a strategy of sorts, but hardly a doctrine. Where is the definition of when pre-emption might actually be justified? The angry postwar debate about whether the American public (and the British public, too) were duped into the Iraq war is about much more than whether intelligence estimates were ''sexed up'' to make the threat from Hussein seem more compelling. It is about what level of threat warrants pre-emptive use of force. Almost 20 years ago, George P. Shultz, as Reagan's secretary of state, gave a speech warning that America would have to make pre-emptive intervention against terrorist threats on the basis of evidence that would be less than clear. Since Shultz, no one has clarified how intervention decisions are to be made when intelligence is, as it is bound to be, uncertain. As Paul Wolfowitz, the Bush administration's deputy secretary of defense, has candidly acknowledged, the intelligence evidence used to justify force in Iraq was ''murky.'' If so, the American people should have been told just that. Instead, they were told that intervention was necessary to meet a real and imminent threat. Now the line seems to be that the war wasn't much of an act of pre-emption at all, but rather a crusade to get rid of an odious regime. But this then makes it a war of choice -- and the Bush administration came to power vowing not to fight those. At the moment, the United States is fighting wars in two countries with no clear policy of intervention, no clear end in sight and no clear understanding among Americans of what their nation has gotten itself into.


The Iraq intervention was the work of conservative radicals, who believed that the status quo in the Middle East was untenable -- for strategic reasons, security reasons and economic reasons. They wanted intervention to bring about a revolution in American power in the entire region. What made a president take the gamble was Sept. 11 and the realization, with 15 of the hijackers originating in Saudi Arabia, that American interests based since 1945 on a presumed Saudi pillar were actually built on sand. The new pillar was to be a democratic Iraq, at peace with Israel, Turkey and Iran, harboring no terrorists, pumping oil for the world economy at the right price and abjuring any nasty designs on its neighbors.

As Paul Wolfowitz has all but admitted, the ''bureaucratic'' reason for war -- weapons of mass destruction -- was not the main one. The real reason was to rebuild the pillars of American influence in the Middle East. Americans may have figured this out for themselves, but it was certainly not what they were told. Nor were they told that building this new pillar might take years and years. What they were told -- misleadingly and simplistically -- was that force was justified to fight ''terrorism'' and to destroy arsenals of mass destruction targeted at America and at Israel. In fact, while Hussein did want to acquire such weapons, the fact that none have been found probably indicates that he had achieved nothing more than an active research program.

The manipulation of popular consent over Iraq -- together with and tangled up with the lack of an intervention policy -- is why the antiwar party is unresigned to its defeat and the pro-war party feels so little of the warm rush of vindication. Even those who supported intervention have to concede that in justifying his actions to the American people, the president was, at the least, economical with the truth. Because the casus belli over Iraq was never accurately set out for Americans, the chances of Americans hanging on for the long haul -- and it will be a long haul -- have been undercut. Also damaged has been the trust that a president will need from his people when he seeks their support for intervention in the future.


There is a way out of this mess of interventionist policy, but it is also a route out of American unilateralism. It entails allowing other countries to have a say on when and how the United States can intervene. It would mean returning to the United Nations and proposing new rules to guide the use of force. This is the path that Franklin Roosevelt took in 1944, when he put his backing behind the creation of a new world organization with a mandate to use force to defend ''international peace and security.'' What America needs, then, is not simply its own doctrine for intervention but also an international doctrine that promotes and protects its interests and those of the rest of the international community.

The problem is that the United Nations that F.D.R. helped create never worked as he intended. What passes for an ''international community'' is run by a Security Council that is a museum piece of 1945 vintage. Everybody knows that the Security Council needs reform, and everybody also knows that this is nearly impossible. But if so, then the United Nations has no future. The time for reform is now or never. If there ever was a reason to give Great Britain and France a permanent veto while denying permanent membership to Germany, India, Brazil or Japan, that day is over. The United States should propose enlarging the number of permanent members of the council so that it truly represents the world's population. In order to convince the world that it is serious about reform, it ought to propose giving up its own veto so that all other permanent members follow suit and the Security Council makes decisions to use force with a simple majority vote. As a further guarantee of its seriousness, the United States would commit to use force only with approval of the council, except where its national security was directly threatened.

All this is difficult enough, but the next step is tougher still. The United Nations that F.D.R. helped create privileged state sovereignty ahead of human rights: a world of equal states, equally entitled to immunity from intervention. One result has been that since 1945 millions more people have been killed by oppression, abuse, civil war and massacre inside their states than in wars between states. These have been the rules that made tyrants and murderers like Saddam Hussein members in good standing of the United Nations club.

This is the cruel reality of what passes for an ''international community'' and the comity of nations. United Nations member states will have to decide what the organization is actually for: to defend sovereignty at all costs, in which case it ends up defending tyranny and terror -- and invites a superpower to simply go its own way, or to defend human rights, in which case, it will have to rewrite its own rules for authorizing the use of force.

So what rules for intervention should the United States propose to the international community? I would suggest that there are five clear cases when the United Nations could authorize a state to intervene: when, as in Rwanda or Bosnia, ethnic cleansing and mass killing threaten large numbers of civilians and a state is unwilling or unable to stop it; when, as in Haiti, democracy is overthrown and people inside a state call for help to restore a freely elected government; when, as in Iraq, North Korea and possibly Iran, a state violates the nonproliferation protocols regarding the acquisition of chemical, nuclear or biological weapons; when, as in Afghanistan, states fail to stop terrorists on their soil from launching attacks on other states; and finally, when, as in Kuwait, states are victims of aggression and call for help. These would be the cases when intervention by force could be authorized by majority vote on the Security Council.

Sending in the troops would remain a last resort. If the South Africans can persuade Mugabe to go into retirement, so much the better. If American diplomats can persuade the Burmese junta to cease harassing Aung San Suu Kyi, it would obviously be preferable to using force. But force and the threat of it are usually the only language tyrants, human rights abusers and terrorists ever understand. Terrorism and nuclear proliferation can be contained only by multilateral coalitions of the willing who are prepared to fight if the need arises.

These rules wouldn't require the United States to make its national security decisions dependent on the say-so of the United Nations, for its unilateral right of self-defense would remain. New rules for intervention, proposed by the United States and abided by it, would end the canard that the United States, not its enemies, is the rogue state. A new charter on intervention would put America back where it belongs, as the leader of the international community instead of the deeply resented behemoth lurking offstage.

Dream on, I hear you say. Such a change might lead to more American intervention, and the world wants a lot less. But we can't go on the way we are, with a United Nations Charter that has become an alibi for dictators and tyrants and a United States ever less willing to play by United Nations rules when trying to stop them. Clear United Nations guidelines, making state sovereignty contingent on good citizenship at home and abroad and licensing intervention where these rules were broken might actually induce states to improve their conduct, making intervention less, rather than more, frequent.

Putting the United States at the head of a revitalized United Nations is a huge task. For the United States is as disillusioned with the United Nations as the world is disillusioned with the United States. Yet it needs to be understood that the alternative is empire: a muddled, lurching America policing an ever more resistant world alone, with former allies sabotaging it at every turn. Roosevelt understood that Americans can best secure their own defense and pursue their own interests when they unite with other states and, where necessary, sacrifice unilateral freedom of action for a common good. The signal failure of American foreign policy since the end of the cold war has not been a lack of will to lead and to intervene; it has been a failure to imagine the possibility of a United States once again cooperating with others to create rules for the international community. Pax Americana must be multilateral, as Franklin Roosevelt realized, or it will not survive. Without clear principles for intervention, without friends, without dreams to serve, the soldiers sweating in their body armor in Iraq are defending nothing more than power. And power without legitimacy, without support, without the world's respect and attachment, cannot endure.

Ed Fitzgerald | 10/21/2003 02:04:00 AM | | | del.icio.us | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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