Is Intervention Impossible?

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 a democracy at the barrel of a gun—was always doomed to fail, and it wasn’t just that Bush utterly botched it. This debate seems somewhat odd, since this fact was plainly true from the start. The Iraq war was sold primarily as a means to stabilize the oil supply and avert a mushroom cloud in New York, not as a democracy-building project. Only a fool would have pretended that a goal very few people cared about could be neatly achieved. Sadly, there were a lot of fools in March 2003. But Rosenfeld/Yglesias’ argument is 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—it still would have failed.

Well, I agree. The United States has never shown much interest in democracy-building, it’s never been much good at it, and as I noted earlier in the week, the “civilizing” adventures of empire have usually succeeded or failed based on the internal factors in the occupied country, rather than external planning. That was as true for the American South in 1865 as it was for Kosovo in 1999. And the mere existence of a profit-seeking military-industrial complex made the looting of the Iraqi treasury a foregone conclusion. There’s no reason to think George Packer or Peter Beinart could have “remade” Iraq better than Bush. But I think this part of the TAP piece sells 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 now wants to make the military even better at smashing things, as opposed to people like Thomas Barnett who want 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 plutocrats and powered by rough-hewn nationalists; idealistic projects abroad just aren’t in the cards, except in 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 they 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 from disintegrating, but it’s hard to tell how much of this failure comes from the inherent difficulty of the task and how much from the 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? Maybe.) So I don’t think I’m quite as ready to take the same “it’s impossible” stand, although a good deal of modesty and skepticism is absolutely crucial here. I think the United States is inherently unable to do nation-building right now, yes. But that says as much about the United States as it does about the inherent impossibility in peacekeeping and nation-building, and it’s worth, I think, trying to disentangle the two.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn’t fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation so we can keep on doing the type of journalism that 2018 demands.

Donate Now