Intervention and Resistance
Richard FalkTwo discordant images dominate current debate about recent failures of US foreign policy. Together they reveal a deep-structure of confusion about interventionary diplomacy under US/UN auspices.
Writing about Somalia in the Washington Post, George Will observes knowingly, "If we don't have the stomach for full-blooded colonialism ã we don't, and shouldn't ã we should get out quickly. The alternative is a slow self-inflicted torture of futility." Anna Quindlen makes a seemingly contradictory point, but with identical policy implications, when she concludes in a recent New York Times column that "we are flummoxed by how to be humanitarians in tanks." Where Will assumes that greater resolve to dominate is the key to successful intervention, Quindlen thinks that success is contingent on our becoming less baffled.
These views about the failures of interventionism are not only confused; they are dangerously misleading. George Will seems to have forgotten Vietnam and Afghanistan ã failed superpower interventions that were certainly, to use his calculus of effectiveness, full-blooded and sustained. More to the point, Will quite incredibly overlooks the collapse of colonialism despite the full-blooded efforts of France (recall Indochina and Algeria) to sustain control almost regardless of consequences.
The failure of intervention is not a matter of weakness of political will or an insufficiency of great power military capabilities. Instead, it is about the limits of military power in the post-colonial world. What is increasingly (though not invariably) demonstrated is a capacity for national resistance in the target society. Mobilized above a certain threshold, that resistance makes it nearly impossible to carry an intervention to political completion, no matter how much pain and destruction a great power is prepared to inflict.
Quindlen's remark exhibits a parallel confusion, this time about the importance of the sensibilities of the intervening side. The fact is that when it comes to successful intervention, it does not much matter whether the tanks are humanitarian or not; the crucial issue is the presence or absence of a serious movement of national resistance.
Both Will and Quindlen reveal the inability of the imperial mindset ã whether colonial or humanitarian ã to acknowledge a loss of control, to understand that in the late 20th century the receiving end of an interventionary policy holds most of the political cards. Holding those cards does not overcome societies' vulnerability to devastation and disruption from military intervention; indeed that vulnerability has increased as a result of high tech weaponry and tactics, and the priority accorded to avoiding casualties on the intervening side. But the balance of political forces has decisively changed.
One further element in fixing that balance is a peculiarly American need to conceal selfish motivations, combined with an unwillingness to provide altruistic ones with more than superficial support. It is nearly impossible for an American leader to acknowledge that an economic interest ã oil or investments ã is driving an intervention. Yet without such an interest the political process will recoil from the costs. Thus, the familiar patterns of interventionary discourse: exaggerate the threat posed by the target society, and/or promise that the military phase of the intervention will be virtually costless (for the intervening side). The Gulf War was perfect from these perspectives: Saddam Hussein was Hitler, and, apart from one Iraqi SCUD that accidently landed in a barracks area in Saudi Arabia, more casualties came from "friendly fire" than "the enemy."
Of course, these generalizations about the current political balance require qualification. Each intervention depends on a particular context, with its own interplay of interventionary and resistance efforts. The outcome is not necessarily failure. Success may come if resistance is more or less absent or if the intervening side is prepared to pay a disproportionate price.
The United States did succeed in staging a military operation that restructured the government of Grenada in 1983. But, then, Grenada is a tiny island hardly visible on most maps, and its leadership never attempted to organize any serious resistance against an invading superpower. Earlier, in 1965, the United States intervened in the Dominican Republic, removing a radical government from authority. But there was no sustained national resistance (despite the absence of consent). Earlier still, the restructurings of German and Japanese political life after World War II were certainly the result of interventionary force. But that required a major war, unconditional surrender, and prolonged military occupation of entire countries. The Soviet Union relied upon the same kind of interventionary authority in Eastern Europe. But unlike the United States, it never legitimized its presence by obtaining consent or its equivalent from the occupied countries, and eventually its presence was angrily ended through a movement of nonviolent resistance.
Moreover, military superiority is not entirely irrelevant, even in the face of resolute national resistance. The intervening side often has the option to destroy and abandon, inflicting pain and damage, and possibly changing the face or disposition of the leader. The bombing of Libya in 1986 is alleged by some to have chastened Qaddafi. The bombing of Panama and abduction of Noriega in 1989 inflicted destruction and changed a few faces, but accomplished little by way of political structure.
Furthermore, non-interventionary uses of military power can succeed. The Gulf War ã to the extent that it was about the restoration of Kuwaiti sovereignty ã was a successful, though perhaps unnecessary, war. It reversed armed aggression across an internationally recognized border, without any attempt at political restructuring or state-building. What succeeded in the Gulf War might more properly be termed "self-defense," while what was avoided was "intervention" ã perhaps wrongly, given the degree of disruption inflicted upon Iraqi society and considering the high level of popular resistance against a brutal tyrant in the aftermath of his military defeat.
All these qualifications notwithstanding, the essential point remains: the political utility of force is considerably diminished.
George Bush, for all of his cynicism, seems to have understood the limits on force in the post-colonial world. Vietnam was probably formative, but the failure of the interventionary effort in Lebanon after the 1982 war likely exerted a decisive influence on his thinking. Although the battlefield phase of that war resulted in a one-sided Israeli victory, subsequent efforts to occupy and internally restructure the Lebanese state were a failure, especially for the United States. The defining incident was the fall 1983 terrorist bombing that killed 241 US marines in their Beirut barracks, prompting Ronald Reagan to reverse commitments and hastily withdraw, abandoning the political mission. Reagan's teflon coating was never more helpful!
If George Bush knew enough to avoid testing his capacity to get away with an interventionary failure, Bill Clinton unfortunately seems particularly deep in the swamps of confusion surrounding intervention. Sometimes he acts as if the issues are matters of resolve, will, and good intentions; sometimes as if what counted were the sufficiency of capabilities, US credibility as world leader, and the related need to follow through with an interventionary effort until victory, no matter what the consequences. What makes the whole thing worse is the absence of any plausible geopolitical arguments of the sort that "sold" Vietnam over a period of years to an American citizenry that had grown captivated by falling dominoes and the zero-sum logic of the Cold War era.
Part of what is driving current hesitations, vacillations, and reversals is that Clinton obviously lacks a feel for the obstacles to intervention that arise from national resistance and the absence of consent. Moreover, he wants simultaneously to avoid an image of "weakness" and run a successful presidency with a low-profile foreign policy. That is a hard combination, and the world refuses to cooperate. The only low-visibility option would be withdrawal and isolationism. This in turn would provoke a high-visibility reaction at home, undoubtedly led by Wall Street and its conviction that the globalization of the world economy must be militarily safeguarded by the United States, a role epitomized by the victory in the Gulf War, duly celebrated on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal.
So the Clinton leadership is beset by a crossfire of contradictory images and goals, further aggravated by the pretence that such difficulties don't exist. It has proposed interventionary initiatives, especially in Bosnia, and then backed off, sending signals that undercut Muslim resolve to negotiate from a position of virtual defeat. The effect has been to prolong the war without being willing to offer protection, much less to coerce a just solution. To meet the pressure to do something, the administration has backed, and even tightened, anti-Serbian sanctions, although the evidence suggests that their main impact has been on the Serbian civilian population. This has weakened anti-Milosevic democratic opposition in Belgrade, and now swung considerable support to the Serbian ultra-right that even challenges Milosevic's nationalist credentials. It only compounds the evasion to dump these interventionary assignments in the lap of the UN, yet insist on retaining political and operational control over the extent of US participation.
Still more disturbing is the bias toward military means that shifts most of the risks and all the costs to the society that is supposedly the beneficiary of intervention. Such tactics undermine humanitarian claims, and are played out by relying on air and naval power, cruise missiles, and overwhelming firepower, and avoiding encounters with opposing military forces on the ground. To the extent that high-tech warfare one-sidedly inflicts death and destruction on the civilian population and its societal base, or on a conscripted army, intervention is nothing more or less than terrorism (that is, the deliberate use of violence against innocents). In this regard, the 1000 to 1 casualty ratio reported to result from the Gulf War should have been the occasion of shame rather than celebration. There is also an affinity to torture: the torturer inflicts pain without being at risk.
Of course, motivations for foreign policy are complex and often multiple, as are explanations to the public. This is especially so when political leaders are themselves baffled, or give that impression. For these reasons, US policy toward Somalia inevitably reminds us of Vietnam, a rather startling association given that Vietnam has always seemed a lethal byproduct of the Cold War while Somalia is an outgrowth of the implosive geopolitics of what was once called "the new world order." Also notable is that Vietnam was a unilateral undertaking, while Somalia has been carried out in response to a UN mandate, with the unusual feature of the Secretary General complaining that the United States should expand the mission beyond its initial and limited goal of providing humanitarian relief.
The comparison of Somalia with Vietnam is startling, perhaps, yet revealing. These two monumental foreign policy failures both underscore the fundamental structural challenge of interventionary diplomacy ã the importance of resistance in target countries ã and highlight that such resistance exists whether the motivations for intervention are colonialist, humanitarian, ideological, or mixed. Furthermore, it should be obvious by this point that the likelihood of success is not necessarily increased by globalizing the auspices, and flying a UN flag.
To be sure, not all in-country resistance to UN initiatives should be understood as opposition to "intervention." In early October, a couple of hundred paramilitary thugs in Haiti scared off a formally authorized UN mission, acting on the basis of an agreement negotiated with de facto holders of power in Port-au-Prince to restore the democratically elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. This is a disaster of an opposite kind to that of Somalia.
Of course, the American failure in Somalia, tempts pseudo-resistance elsewhere. Such was the political meaning of the slogans shouted as the UN forces disembarked in Haiti: "We're going to make this a second Somalia here!" But this is pseudo-resistance in two ways. Since consent was given, the UN mission should not be labeled as interventionary at the outset. Also, the overriding purpose was to sustain the form of the Haitian state desired by its citizens. The refusal to follow through in Haiti is as misguided as the overly ambitious intrusion into Somalia's unresolved domestic political struggles.
What, then, is the litmus test of intervention? The world is far too messy to permit an entirely satisfying response that covers the nuances of the array of instances. Yet a useful test can be proposed.
A military initiative from outside a sovereign state is "interventionary" if it proceeds without the consent of the target society; it is highly interventionary if it proceeds in defiance of the will of the governing authorities or in situations of strife or anarchy. Somalia is an especially problematic case from this perspective: there was no clear and agreed upon source of consent, and some opposition from the outset by clan leaders who were providing a degree of governance in Somalia. The original and narrow definition of the mission was predominantly humanitarian (securing famine relief), with little interventionary content. But the later, more expansive definition ã which gradually took precedence ã was profoundly interventionary, invoking a state-building rationale. With the United States now preoccupied with "an exit strategy," the narrow conception is again returning. Moreover, the political reality of clan governance is at last being acknowledged after a period in which General Aidid, in particular, was demonized as "warlord" and "gangster" ã a criminal with no stature as a political leader.
As American casualties rose in Somalia, exclusively in the area of south Mogadishu loyal to Aidid, it became evident that the civilian population was not entrapped. Instead it was following clan leadership to the extent of gruesome celebrations of anti-Americanism ã most vividly, dragging a dead American through the streets while a cheering crowd of civilians watched. The UN flag was not respected, and the Somali resistance treated the US Government as the real intervening authority: if only the United States' will to remain could be destroyed, the operation would effectively end, or at least the state-building aspects would be put on permanent hold. And indeed, this is what has happened. As of mid-October the various participating countries that make up the UN military presence are announcing their withdrawal dates, the United States has sent Robert Oakley as a special envoy to negotiate with the clan elders, and Washington has issued a call to hand the whole undertaking over to the Africans, possibly within the framework of the Organization of African Unity.
It is too early to draw even preliminary conclusions, especially as the Somalia experience is likely to take several unexpected swerves before it comes to an end. As of now, it seems evident that the UN peacekeeping role has been badly tainted and American claims to world leadership eroded. There are two aspects of failure: an inability to avoid arousing deep-seated civilian resistance to the US/UN presence and the related message to the world that resistance is increasingly likely to discourage the pursuit of UN goals however worthy (as in Haiti).
If such impressions endure, or become "lessons," the effects could be quite damaging. The UN peacekeeping role would be substantially discredited, seen in the United States as inept and in the South as a tool of US foreign policy. Additionally, the United States could either withdraw altogether from participation under UN auspices or limit its role to the protection of vital strategic interests (control of oil reserves and oil prices, in the case of the Gulf War). To renounce intervention seems constructive, but such a renunciation does not need to imply either pacifism or a repudiation of peacekeeping and peacemaking.
Quite the contrary. Within the global village it is more important than ever to strengthen preventive diplomacy ã restricting the sale of arms, avoiding IMF austerity schemes in situations of precarious state/society stability, encouraging recourse to the World Court and other procedures for dispute-resolution. Also crucial is restorative diplomacy that provides auspices and encouragement for negotiated transitions from violent encounters to conditions of civil peace and constitutional governance ã as in El Salvador, Namibia, Cambodia, seemingly notable UN achievements ã with the UN available to help with the reestablishment of governance based on participatory politics.
In conclusion, the case against intervention under US auspices seems virtually unconditional as matters now stand, and the case against intervention under UN or regional auspices is only marginally weaker. I insinuate the word "virtually" because in the face of massacre and genocide there should be no hard-and-fast rules that preclude response. It is conceivable that historical circumstances could recreate conditions of viability for a certain type of humanitarian intervention, especially if authorized and implemented in the spirit of transnational democracy, based on a commitment to occupy the target society until moderate governance is restored, and built on a willingness to share the human costs and work with indigenous political forces, as the UN has been doing quite effectively in Cambodia.