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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

When intervention fails

U.S. soldiers serving in the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo in June, 2010. Photo: AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu

No one would deny that a compelling case could often be made to intervene in another country’s conflict. Whenever we witness mass bloodshed, violence against civilians, and incalculable human suffering, there is a natural impulse to want to put a stop to the fighting. However, such humanitarian impulses carry substantial costs and huge risks, and it’s important to understand what those are before demanding the commitment of a nation’s military.

The most common way intervention is understood is as a means to an end: stopping the slaughter of innocents, ending a conflict, bringing a thug to justice. But the costs of intervention are rarely discussed. In addition, the fraught history of intervention, which is marked by failure, mission creep, occupation, long-term (almost permanent) troop commitments, and heavy monetary costs, is almost always ignored.

Few interventions happen without a pervasive occupying force to ensure the peace. The intervention in Libya was remarkable, and fairly unique, for the small number of western troops used (there were, at most, a few hundred special operations forces assisting with targeting during the air campaign). But most interventions require commitments far beyond the initial phase of combat.

The 20th century’s last humanitarian intervention, Kosovo, remains unsettled. As of February 2012, there are nearly 6,000 NATO troops still in Kosovo, nearly 2,000 of which are American – 13 years after the intervention. The intervention unleashed a massive humanitarian crisis: the forced expulsion of over 150,000 Serbs, according to Human Rights Watch. The treatment of those Serbs is, to this day, a spot of contention and even anger both in Serbia and in Russia. To this day the situation in Northern Kosovo remains tenuous and insecure, thanks to the American-led NATO intervention.

The outcome of the most recent intervention in Libya remains unsure as well. The rebels we supported last year have engaged in rampant abuses, summary executions and systemic torture. NATO has also declined to investigate its own civilian casualties.

These interventions have political and diplomatic consequences as well. The transformation of the Libyan campaign from a humanitarian mission to regime change has had serious political and diplomatic blowback. A recent study by the British think tank RUSI notes that:

[T]he manner in which the initial Security Council resolution was contorted out of all recognition from the protection of civilians to, in effect, outright regime change has left a sour taste in the mouths of powers like China, Russia and India who still hold an absolute conception of state sovereignty.

The result, the report argues, is that Russia and China will presume future humanitarian interventions are really cover for regime change and will veto any UNSC support.

Similarly, the intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s was executed without much forethought about eventual consequences: fomenting regional stability, creating a class of zealots obsessed with religious warfare, and a chaotic vacuum that militants used to launch brazen attacks against the West. The U.S. is still at war in Afghanistan in 2012, in part, because of decisions made to meddle in their war back in 1979.

Elsewhere, too, intervention has a disastrous record. Despite multiple interventions, Somalia not only remains in complete chaos, but at least two states (Somaliland and Puntland) have tried to split off as independent. Somalia has remained a regional driver of instability, and the December 2006 intervention collapsed one relatively stable Islamist order and left behind a fractured, far more radicalized movement that continues to create security problems around the region.

Kosovo, to this day, is not really a viable political entity and faces consistent calls for separating the northern regions into an autonomous state.

So is it never worthwhile to intervene? Are the costs just too high? No, not all interventions are disasters. The U.K.’s 2002 intervention in Sierra Leone, for example, remained limited in scope, removed a vicious militia from the battlefield, and greatly contributed to peace in West Africa. Even though it’s required more than a decade of NATO occupation, the intervention in Kosovo stopped the worst of the killing. East Timor is finally, after a decade of Australian and U.N. occupation, emerging as a functional state.

The issue isn’t that intervention never works, or that inaction is preferable – the consequences of not intervening in Rwanda, for example, are horrifying. But all too often, interventions are advocated for and put into practice with very little thought as to how they’ll turn out, or what the international community will do once they’re over and the messy work of reconciliation and rebuilding begins. Whatever the moral justifications are for a particular intervention (and there is always some value to intervening), there also needs to be an honest discussion of what its costs will be — for the long term.

The current public campaign to intervene in the uprisings across the Arab world – Libya, Syria, even Yemen or Bahrain – is based on a radical redefinition of the relationship of society to the state through the R2P doctrine, demanding states provide or protect certain aspects of daily life for their citizens to be considered responsible. This is based on a concept we in the west find appealing; that does not always grant us to the right to dictate that same governmental philosophy on other nations.

Military power is, at best, a clumsy instrument of statecraft, and we have a terrible record of realistically predicting the consequences of its use. Normalizing the use of the military to interfere in conflicts that don’t involve us carries enormous costs that are often ignored in the heated public debate about how to end suffering. Nevertheless, those costs need to be kept paramount as we consider options — and especially if we choose to use the military to intervene for humanitarian purposes, we should be up front and honest about the likely high costs of doing so.

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and a columnist for The Atlantic. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. This is adapted from a speech Joshua Foust gave at the University of Ottawa Center for International Policy Studies on March 21.