The Delusion of Impartial Intervention
The United States and its coalition partners’ decision to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya seemed to be a vindication of the fragile “responsibility to protect” norm. But just how strengthened RtoP will be depends on how well the intervention turns out.
This article appears in the Foreign Affairs/CFR eBook, The New Arab Revolt.
Physicians have a motto that peacemakers would do well to adopt: "First, do no harm." Neither the United States nor the United Nations have quite grasped this. Since the end of the Cold War unleashed them to intervene in civil conflicts around the world, they have done reasonably well in some cases, but in others they have unwittingly prolonged suffering where they meant to relieve it.
How does this happen? By following a principle that sounds like common sense: that intervention should be both limited and impartial, because weighing in on one side of a local struggle undermines the legitimacy and effectiveness of outside involvement. This Olympian presumption resonates with respect for law and international cooperation. It has the ring of prudence, fairness, and restraint. It makes sense in old-fashioned U.N. peacekeeping operations, where the outsiders' role is not to make peace, but to bless and monitor a cease-fire that all parties have decided to accept. But it becomes a destructive misconception when carried over to the messier realm of "peace enforcement," where the belligerents have yet to decide that they have nothing more to gain by fighting.
Limited intervention may end a war if the intervenor takes sides, tilts the local balance of power, and helps one of the rivals to win - that is, if it is not impartial. Impartial intervention may end a war if the outsiders take complete command of the situation, overawe all the local competitors, and impose a peace settlement - that is, if it is not limited. Trying to have it both ways usually blocks peace by doing enough to keep either belligerent from defeating the other, but not enough to make them stop trying. And the attempt to have it both ways has brought the United Nations and the United States - and those whom they sought to help - to varying degrees of grief in Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti.
Wars have many causes, and each war is unique and complicated, but the root issue is always the same: Who rules when the fighting stops? In wars between countries, the issue may be sovereignty over disputed territory, or suzerainty over third parties, or influence over international transactions. In wars within countries the issue may be which group will control the government, or how the country should be divided so that adversaries can have separate governments. When political groups resort to war, it is because they cannot agree on who gets to call the tune in peace.
A war will not begin unless both sides in a dispute would rather fight than concede. After all, it is not hard to avert war if either one cares primarily about peace - all it has to do is let the other side have what it claims is its due.
A war will not end until both sides agree who will control whatever is in dispute.
Is all this utterly obvious? Not to those enthusiasts for international peace enforcement who are imbued with hopes for global governance, unsympathetic to thinking of security in terms of sovereignty, or viscerally sure that war is not a rational political act. They cannot bring themselves to deal forthrightly in the currency of war. They assume instead that outsiders' good offices can pull the scales from the eyes of fighting factions, make them realize that resorting to violence was a blunder, and substitute peaceful negotiation for force. But wars are rarely accidents, and it is no accident that belligerents often continue to kill each other while they negotiate, or that the terms of diplomatic settlements usually reflect results on the battlefield.
Others sometimes proceed from muddled assumptions about what force should be expected to accomplish. In a bizarre sequence of statements last spring, for instance, President Clinton threatened air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs, then said, "The United States is not, and should not, become involved as a partisan in a war." Next he declared that the United States should lead other Western nations in ending ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, only to say a moment later, "That does not mean that the United States or the United Nations can enter a war, in effect, to redraw the lines . . . within what was Yugoslavia."
This profoundly confused policy, promulgated with the best of lawyerly intentions, inevitably cost lives on all sides in Bosnia. For what legitimate purpose can military forces be directed to kill people and break things, if not to take the side of their opponents? If the use of deadly force is to be legitimate killing rather than senseless killing, it must serve the purpose of settling the war - which means determining who rules, which means leaving someone in power at the end of the day.
How is this done without taking someone's side? And how can outside powers pretend to stop ethnic cleansing without allocating territory - that is, drawing lines? Yet Clinton and U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali did not make threats to protect recognized or viable borders, but to enforce naturally unstable truce lines that made no sense as a permanent territorial arrangement. Such confusion made intervention an accessory to stalemate, punishing either side for advancing too far but not settling the issue that fuels the war.
Some see a method in the madness. There are two ways to stop a war: having one side impose its will after defeating the other on the battlefield or having both sides accept a negotiated compromise. The hope for a compromise solution accounts for a misconceived impartiality.
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