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At the pointy end of the bayonet conundrum

Graeme Dobell looks at humanitarian intervention in theory and practice

Graeme Dobell 16 December 2011 2664 words

Much can go wrong even as a few good things can go right: British PM David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy with the chair of the National Transitional Council of Libya, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, in September. UK Prime Minister’s Office

Humanitarian Intervention and the United Nations
By Norrie MacQueen | Edinburgh University Press | $145.95

Can Intervention Work?
By Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus | Norton | $29.95 |

Armed Humanitarians: The Rise of the Nation Builders
By Nathan Hodge | Bloomsbury | $35

YOU can do a lot of things with bayonets, but you can’t sit on them. This rumination on the limits of military force has been attributed variously to Talleyrand, Napoleon, Cavour and even Thomas Hardy. Over the last decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has been learning anew what it means. Just as importantly, though, the international community – especially via the United Nations – has been grappling with a completely new version of the quandary. Beyond waging war with bayonets, can you also use them to carve out new governments and create peaceful societies?

Call it the bayonet conundrum: What is the best time to intervene? What is the point of intervention? How sharp should be the point of the bayonet? The conundrum has become as important to the US experience in Afghanistan and Iraq as it is for the United Nations’ understanding of itself and what it can attempt.

Lots of labels are applied to the attempt to force peace at the point of a bayonet: humanitarian intervention, liberal imperialism, armed social work, military humanitarianism, nation-building under fire, saving failed states, enlightened militarism. The descriptions can be antagonistic, ambivalent or ambitious. In UN-speak, the newest label is the Responsibility to Protect (RtP or r2p): an attempt to systematise the use of military power to protect people from their own governments. For such an innocuous phrase, the Responsibility to Protect seeks to sidestep a lot of history, not least the sovereign right of governments to do whatever they want inside their own borders.

The NATO war in the skies over Libya was a display of RtP military muscle. In helping to protect the Libyan people from their own government, NATO took a UN resolution and interpreted RtP as the Responsibility to do Precision-bombing. The intervention was messy and deadly, but the aims of the UN resolution were met. Libya will go on the UN honour roll of bayonet moments that worked, alongside names like Cambodia, East Timor, Bosnia and Kosovo.

That list illustrates the shift in UN language from the complex passivity of “peacekeeping” to the armed ambitions of “humanitarian intervention.” The UN peacekeeping tradition is about observing and monitoring ceasefires and peace deals; the new norm being born is about the use and utility of force. Peacekeeping versus enforcement is one of those cultural and bureaucratic battles that reverberate inside the United Nations.

Despite all the compromises and blunders that go with the decision to act, the human impulse that drives intervention is noble. In making that point in his book, Humanitarian Intervention and the United Nations, Norrie MacQueen argues that UN action “has saved many thousands of lives and improved millions more” and so “deserves to be celebrated as a fundamentally decent activity in an often far from decent world.” His book is an essentially positive view of what the United Nations can do, mixed in with large dollops of realpolitik. The British political scientist records how the end of the Cold War had a “huge quantitative impact on UN interventions” because the superpowers were no longer so fixated on keeping others from trespassing on their spheres of interest. But the new norms of intervention are being established by both decisions to act and decisions not to act. Humanitarian need cannot always shoulder aside the prerogatives of national sovereignty, as Syria is currently demonstrating in bloody detail.

MacQueen strikes a strange note in the first paragraph of his first chapter by finding historical roots in the great wars between Christianity and Islam: “What were the medieval crusades if not ‘collective humanitarian interventions’ at least in the justifications, and usually also somewhere in the consciences, of the crusaders themselves? Those who bore the brunt of those Christian onslaughts obviously did not see things quite in that light. But then, as now, such operations are defined differently when seen through different lenses.”

Using a present-day lens, with plenty of caveats, MacQueen sets out the theoretical evolution of intervention and then looks at how it worked in Africa, the Balkans and what he picks as perhaps the model intervention – the birth of Timor Leste. He points to all the moral, practical and national self-interest objections to intervention as he works towards his conclusion that the “whats,” “wheres” and “hows” of interventions will always be subject to passion, controversy and dispute (the actual word he uses is that wonderful academic descriptor, “problematic”). But the answer to the question of “who” should act, he argues, is clear: the United Nations, with all its obvious weaknesses, is the best agent of intervention:

Military activity is subject to Security Council approval, with all that means in the context of a body subject to multiple veto. Its machinery is slow and steady, offering only limited possibilities of rapid reaction. The forces it deploys are often multinational in the broadest, most haphazard sense. Yet these are at least as much strengths as weaknesses. They give a legitimacy and solidity which can be provided by no other international actor. In the uncertain and complex field of armed humanitarian intervention it is reasonable to describe the United Nations as the worst possible option – apart from all the others.

And that is the view of one of the optimists…

TURN from MacQueen’s balanced and lucid academic work, tightly rendered in 240 pages, to the same number of pages from two once-committed interventionists and you’ll experience the shift from the “problematic” to the world of passion, controversy and the deepest of doubts about what intervention can achieve.

Consider the proposition that, for the last twenty years, intervention has been “the most extravagant and noble, ambitious and dangerous element of Western foreign policy.” And the fact that in Iraq and Afghanistan these ambitions have produced a humiliating mess. This is the way Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus begin tackling the question captured in the title of their book: Can Intervention Work? Their answer is a mixture of possibly, no, sometimes and seldom. Mark their overall answer as a definitive perhaps, always linked to a sense of care, even modesty, about what outsiders can achieve when they step over a border, no matter how powerful the bayonet.

Stewart, now a Tory MP in the British parliament, worked as a diplomat in Indonesia at the time of the East Timor referendum and then in the Balkans, was a deputy governor of two Iraqi provinces, and ran an NGO in Afghanistan. Knaus worked for international organisations and NGOs in Bulgaria and Bosnia and is the founder of the European Stability Initiative. For them, “the basic questions about intervention remain unresolved.” Their scorecard lists Bosnia and Kosovo as successes, but they judge that Iraq was from the very outset a disaster, while Afghanistan slowly became a failure.

Beware, they warn, of the conceit that heroic leaders and detailed plans can do magic when those who intervene lack true local understanding or support. The theory of intervention they offer is one of caution and limits, linked to a readiness to walk away from the mission if it isn’t working. Knaus calls this “principled incrementalism”; the Stewart version is “passionate moderation.”

Intervention must be treated as an art not a science, and sometimes the art is to recognise failure and to stop. As Stewart and Knaus write, the inability to recognise failure is one element of the temptations, predilections and neuroses of twenty-first-century interveners:

The difficulty is to show people how intervention – with its elaborate theory, intricate rituals, astonishing sacrifices and expenditure; its courage and grandeur and fantasy – can often resemble the religion of the Aztecs or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; to show how bad intervention can be: how far more absurd, rotten, counterproductive than any satirist could suggest or caricaturist portray. And that even when all the leaders have recognised that a policy is not working, how impossible it often seems for them to organise withdrawal. An incremental approach may seem simply common sense. But overconfident policy-makers continue to be seduced repeatedly by the belief in the magic powers of planning, resources, and charismatic leadership. Intervention may be a necessary, indispensable ingredient of the international system. It is certainly capable, as in the Balkans, of doing good. And yet how easily it falls into excess.

They illustrate the bayonet conundrum with two essays: Stewart on the slow fall into disaster in Afghanistan and Knaus on the surprising achievements in Bosnia. Even in pointing to a win, Knaus says the success in Bosnia didn’t come about “for the reasons given by much of the international community.” His prime example of this is the evolution of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, or ICTY, which started off in 1993 with no status or resources, looking “more like an alibi than a genuine commitment to bring justice to the Balkans.” Slowly the trials turned those who waged wars of ethnic purity in Bosnia from heroes to criminals, “playing an invaluable role in winning the wider battle of ideas and norms... The story of the ICTY’s impact on Bosnia illustrates how long it took the international community to come to recognise even the usefulness of its own instruments.”

Stewart writes about the mismatch between what Afghanistan is and what the international bureaucracy wants it to become. A country where electricity is a rare luxury and most soldiers can’t write their own name is to be transformed into a “gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic centralised state, based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law.” He describes the bewildering blizzard of buzzwords drawn from development theory and overlaid with management consultancy that flows into multilateral policy documents.

This was the process that produced the 2006 Afghan National Development Strategy, which was formally endorsed by the multilateral institutions and adopted by forty nations as the fundamental rationale for billions of dollars of aid. The trouble with the 137-page document, Stewart observes, is that it gave no weight to ethnicity, religion, history or politics: “The following words did not appear: Pushtun, Hazara, Tajik, Islam, Sharia, jihad, communism, Northern Alliance, warlord, democracy, equality, insurgency, resistance and consent. Were you to delete the word Afghanistan from the document, and replace it with the word Botswana, it would be very difficult to know of which country you were speaking.”

The United States has surely found that money alone will not solve the bayonet conundrum. It easily won the wars of conquest in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, but it then discovered how little it knew about what to do next.

The cash Washington has thrown at trying to get it right is testimony to the size of the task. Since 2003, Congress has approved US$50 billion for Iraq relief and reconstruction, which was described by a US Special Inspector General as “the largest amount of US taxpayer dollars ever committed to aid and reconstruction in a single country.” By last year, though, relief and reconstruction spending on Afghanistan had passed $51 billion and the job isn’t finished. And those figures are only a fraction of the money flowing through the Pentagon as its budget has doubled over the decade. In 2011, the US defence budget was $733 billion ($160 billion of that for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan); back in 2001, the budget (in today’s dollars) was $375 billion.

AT THE beginning of his book Armed Humanitarians, the American journalist Nathan Hodge sets out the dollar dimension. Drawing on a decade of reporting US military operations in the two wars, Hodge tells his story through the eyes of Americans, in uniform and as civilians. This is a study of how US military-diplomatic culture and policy have been transformed by Afghanistan and Iraq, although the people of those nations don’t appear too often in the text.

Hodge writes that the military’s turn to counterinsurgency – “armed social work” – probably saved the United States from outright defeat in Iraq and helped contain sectarian violence. Partly, this change was achieved by the army’s bringing in battalions of consultants and contractors to build “coalitions of the billing.”

The US military’s own dynamics and demands drive a huge logistics machine. Hodge offers this estimate of what it costs to keep each US soldier in Afghanistan: “The mountainous, landlocked country is at the end of a long and difficult supply route. It has no ports, abysmal infrastructure, and difficult neighbours. Factoring in the astronomical cost of transporting fuel, it currently costs around a million dollars a year to keep a single US soldier stationed there.”

The demands for fuel and flying-hours mean that airfields and bases become bigger and more secure enclaves, transforming into what the US military describes as a “a self-licking ice cream cone – something that exists to serve itself.” In much the same way, Hodge writes that the fatal flaw in the US nation-building missions in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the enterprises became too big to fail. The United States had committed and must persist, but Hodge concludes that the belief in the power of nation-building ignored the broader lessons of the postcolonial era:

This approach shares another flaw with many other imperial adventures: a sort of hubris, a belief we can remake the world in our image. This was the operating assumption behind “shock and awe,” the idea that regime change in Baghdad or Kabul would automatically create functioning democracies friendly to US interests and inhospitable to global terrorists.

Nation building is based on the equally Utopian idea that “development work and poverty alleviation in combination with military action can get at the underlying causes of political violence,” according to Hodge. “The nation builders were some of the best and the brightest: smart, soul-searching people who sought answers to why the United States was failing so miserably to secure the peace in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

The “best and the brightest” is the phrase pinned on the generation of American leaders and policy-makers who took the United States into the Vietnam war. As US troops complete their exit from Iraq next month and start drawing down in Afghanistan for handover by 2014, history has ample evidence to pass an early pronouncement on this generation. But just to complicate the judgement, add Libya into that mix.

Iraq and Afghanistan started out as wars of conquest and retribution, but as months turned into years they became massive experiments in intervention. Libya looks almost clear-cut by comparison. The reckoning is about lives lost and costs incurred. Was the agony worth the achievement? Such a question starts to illustrate the fiendish complexities that crowd in on the argument about national sovereignty versus humanitarian need.

THE international impetus for intervention is not going to go away, whatever the scars that will long linger from Afghanistan and Iraq. One of the strange, wonderful things about humanity is our urge to “do something,” however much prudence and history and self-interest might advise caution. The biblical injunction to help thy neighbour meets the CNN effect, which drives the globalisation of emotions and electronic experiences.

The moral from all this in considering the bayonet conundrum is mixed and conditional: when the military and morality merge at the point of intervention, muddle and morass can mingle in with the proper use of might.

Much can go wrong even as a few good things can go right. Aligning the moral ends with the military means is a tough job for politicians and philosophers; pity and pray for the platoon commander who has to make the same attempt down in the dust. •

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In transit: Albert and Elsa Einstein (date unknown). Bain News Service/Library of Congress

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