Breaking the State

Breaking the State

Mini Teaser: One fact is certain: foreign interventions end badly. Think the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan. Libya will be no different.

by Author(s): Rajan Menon

THE MIDDLE East roils and one fact is certain: interventions end badly. For intervention leads to postwar reconstruction and postwar reconstruction leads to failure.

In the wake of the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor and Haiti—to take but some examples—“stabilization operations,” “state building” and their terminological kin have become watchwords. If these undertakings are not part of an American administration’s opening agenda, they seem to have a way of entering it. Do not be fooled into thinking Libya is any different. So it is useful to explore how it is that states get involved in these campaigns and what happens once they do. Invariably, though hardly inevitably, they do so in the aftermath of two types of military operations, each guided by rather different motives.

The first is that set of humanitarian interventions that are often prompted by calls of those who are being abused and slaughtered, whether by their own governments or by militias fighting civil wars. These interventions need not, of course, entail military force. If one visualizes humanitarian interventions as a continuum, diplomacy aimed at resolving the conflict lies at one end, military intercession at the other and various nonmilitary measures in between. Even fervent proponents of humanitarian intervention believe that it should be the last step—one taken when other feasible and reasonable responses to mass atrocities have been tried and found wanting. This said, advocates of the cause do ultimately insist that when all else fails and a government is either unable to halt internecine violence or, worse, is engaged in killing its own citizens, military action is appropriate, even essential, to save lives and end suffering.

The second category of intervention is not, pace the pious pronouncements of its initiators, driven by humanitarian considerations. These military adventures are predicated on the claim that there is a serious and imminent threat to be deterred, or a necessity to react in self-defense to a hostile provocation. This justification need not be convincing and may even be concocted; what distinguishes these acts from humanitarian interventions is that the intervening state does not present ethical considerations (saving innocents from harm, etc) as its principal motivation. The 2003 American attack on Iraq, for example, cannot be portrayed convincingly as one driven by humanitarian motives. Saddam Hussein was not then engaged in perpetrating mass murder, as he was during the 1988 Anfal campaign against the Kurds (during which the Reagan administration was backing him in his war against Iran), so the moral claims, which in any event were not at the heart of the Bush administration’s case, were unpersuasive. Of course the alleged threat posed by Saddam was hardly self-evident either, but the justification lay—if anywhere—in the realm of national security. The American attack that toppled the Taliban, by contrast, did have a casus belli, even though there are sound reasons for d­ebating whether unilateral military action was the wisest and sole recourse.

Yet no matter the cause (or rationale) for the intervention, the resultant common denominator is clear: when a regime is displaced, the initiators are forced to create a replacement and thus to enter the treacherous terrain of postconflict operations. The alternative to building institutions that eventually enable self-governance is to rule the country in which the intervention has occurred indefinitely—to engage in imperialism, in other words. Leave aside the myriad practical problems involved in occupying and governing people who are, or will soon become, determined to regain their independence. What is more important is that the days of colonialism are over and no modern variant will be acceptable to its supposed beneficiaries or justifiable to the rest of the world, or even to one’s own citizens. None of the former colonies yearn for its return, even though some well-known commentators—notably Max Boot and Niall Ferguson—have proclaimed, perhaps overcome with nostalgia for the good old days, that what failed states really require is a bracing spell of imperial tutelage, with the United States assuming Britain’s erstwhile, and supposedly benevolent, role as the guardian and mentor of those who are not quite ready for self-rule.

Moreover, both variants of military intervention segue into nation building because in the postimperial era, intervening states, especially if they are democracies accountable to impatient electorates, must present at the outset, or develop later, an “exit strategy.” That, in turn, requires plans for the establishment of a minimally effective local government. Otherwise, the intervention will encounter mounting costs (in dollars and dead) that will erode support for it at home and among allies, all the while generating the popular resentment toward outsiders that emerges against occupations.

Now, there is an alternative: departing the scene soon after overthrowing the offending regime. But the resulting power vacuum will create new threats, if not for the interventionist state or coalition, then certainly for the people it supposedly stepped in to save and for neighboring countries. The here-today-gone-tomorrow intervention is thus indefensible, even through the unsentimental maxims of realpolitik.

And avoiding protracted postconflict operations by resurrecting a sanitized version of the displaced regime will only force further moral and practical quandaries—particularly if the origin of the offenses (and justification for war) lies in the very nature of the leaders. Besides, thoroughly repressive governments are likely to have few people with clean hands who can be summoned to take the helm after the housecleaning.

Dislodging a regime by force, killing numerous innocents in the process (no matter how inadvertently), creating anarchy and then running for the door is a wrecking operation and will be seen as such.

So, intervention (whether born of humanitarian or national-security motives) ends up in the same spot: an obligation to assume the responsibilities of postwar peacemaking and state building. Former–U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell famously called this the “Pottery Barn rule”: “If you break it, you own it.” (The store, it should be said, denies having such a policy.) Intervenors who shatter a state acquire it, at least temporarily. They then enter the posteuphoria phase of making and keeping a peace, building a polity and rebuilding an economy. Innumerable nettlesome practical problems soon present themselves, and they do not admit to quick solutions, or perhaps to any at all; what is worse, given the power and wealth of intervening states, much is expected of them and disillusionment sets in quickly. Toppling a regime may be easy; creating even the semblance of a decent alternative is not.

INDEED, THE very foundations upon which these states are built create the conditions that can make postwar reconstruction a predetermined failure. As a rule, peace- and institution-building enterprises unfold in some of the world’s poorest places. This presents an immediate problem if the goal is to build institutions from the bottom up and to staff them with local personnel so that the postintervention phase does not seem a thinly veiled occupation or viceroyalty. Keeping the external hand light may be good for giving postconflict operations legitimacy, but, in such countries, it may not be the best way to maximize efficiency. Creating new national armies, police forces, and state and local civilian bureaucracies requires a substantial supply of literate individuals with basic skills—the very things that are often in short supply in poor, conflict-ridden nations.

This talent deficit is aggravated when many of the country’s most educated people flee because of the violence that triggered the intervention, or that, as in the case of Iraq, was unleashed by it. Take Afghanistan as an example. It has an average literacy rate of 28 percent, and, in rural areas, the figure plunges to 15 percent for men and 1 percent for women. Not surprisingly, about 90 percent of Afghan army recruits cannot read. Consider what this means when it comes to acquiring basic military skills: deciphering maps and manuals, using modern weaponry and carrying out elementary calculations. Imagine the difficulties that the shortage of skills poses for meeting the expectations of Afghans (and Americans and Europeans) who are eager to see self-governance and the departure of foreign troops. This same problem—the lack of qualified people—is not limited to the police and intelligence services but plagues the civilian bureaucracy as well. Gung-ho interventionists assure us that these challenges can be overcome and that they eventually are. Perhaps so. The question is how long it will take and at what price.

Corruption and economic reconstruction go hand in hand in poor societies—especially when there is little by way of a professional bureaucracy. Graft reduces popular support for the government, which, in the eyes of ordinary Afghans and Iraqis, has come to embody bribery, theft, cronyism and nepotism; the resulting loss of legitimacy makes it hard to implement a timely exit strategy, which presumes that a viable local regime is in place. Corruption also reduces the funds that reach their intended destinations because officials, central and provincial, skim off a portion; that, in turn, hampers efforts to defeat insurgencies by “winning hearts and minds.” And it nourishes the insurgents, who receive payoffs from local forces hired to protect aid workers and personnel engaged in institution building. The commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, among others, has emphasized that demonstrating the ability to provide the population a better economic future is as important in weakening insurgencies and forging peace as are military victories. If so, corruption is much more than dishonesty or waste; it is also a formidable barrier to nation building.

Image: Pullquote: Toppling a regime may be easy; creating even the semblance of a decent alternative is not.Essay Types: Essay