A neoconservative perspective: Humanitarian Interventionism

August 22, 2011

After reading fellow blogger, Jacksonian and Blairite, Julie’s piece focusing on the (near) end of the civil war in Libya, I feel that there are gaps or flaws in the argument which should be examined.

The first is to note that the parallels between Iraq and Libya are less resonant than a parallel between the fall of the Taliban regime and the (near) defeat of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. The methods used by Western intervening forces have been similar in so far as the use of special forces and air power to suppress the military capacity of loyalist forces. However, it is worth observing the relative size of the operation, which even with tepid US military support has strained the capacities of European militaries operating on constrained peace time budgets.

The second point focuses on the claim that the Arab Spring owes its origins to the Iraq War. This is a claim that I feel lacks merit and is instead sourced in a continued defensiveness around the overthrow of Saddam. There are a number of problems facing this explanation.

The history of this claim cannot be justified. While it is true that Libya disarmed in the sense of abandoning its NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) weapons programme, this was a move prompted by fear of further US aggression against hostile regimes where the presence of NBC weapons or programmes had become a cassus belli. The Libyan government move cannot be linked to democratisation in Iraq because the active elements in the dialogue are focused on regime survival and a diplomatic shift in alliances and priorities.

The Arab Spring is recognised as beginning in Tunisia, paradoxically one of the more liberal of the Arab autocracies. What marks each transition from autocracy to something else is the unwillingness of the armies of each nation to use lethal force on a mass scale to suppress unrest, protest or open revolt. There cannot be a clear link drawn between this assemblage of events and the course of events in 2003-2008 in Iraq. On the one hand, popular unrest rooted very much in a combination of political resentment and economic stagnation resulted in a wave of protests, a counter-wave of repression by police and security forces, an escalation of protests as repression proves ineffective and finally a combination of political manoeuvrings by factions in government and a refusal of the armed forces to massacre protesters to keep the regime’s grip on power.

This is the pattern which applies to Tunisia and Egypt. However it does not apply to Libya or Syria. In the former, the existing weaknesses in the regime simply resulted in a civil war anticipated by the regime. There it was the intervention of NATO air-power which prevented the regime’s swift military reaction from succeeding in re-imposing control. In the latter, the armed forces are much more centrally controlled and the course of events has been very different, not least because of the stubbornness of the popular unrest.

We should acknowledge that the realities on the ground in Libya in terms of tribal structures,  the strength of the central government and its own radical history cannot tie the causes and outcomes of the civil war to Iraq. The Gaddafi tribe has been the dominant political group but its power has rested on a combination of tribal alliances, repression and radical Arab nationalist and Islamic rhetoric to unify the polity. This is an excellent example of the Huntingdon thesis on Arab polities in which the cultural identity is U-shaped: a strong tribal and clan identity, a weak to non-existent national identity and a strong identity as Arab or Muslim. The Gaddafi regime held Libya together by a sharing out of political honours and wealth between tribes, while ensuring his own was pre-eminent and swiftly repressing political discontent or dissent. All the while, the rhetoric of nationhood was using the language of Arab Nationalism. Here we have an excellent example of the contradictions which make up most Arab polities: a political language which is pan-national but is used to bind a nationality to a leader or ruling faction.

Another factor not be ignored is the presence of non-Arab peoples. In Iraq, the Kurds are the strongest non-Arab population and consequently the politics of Iraq has always had to take into account a political presence which is separatist in sentiment and which does not respond to pan-Arabist rhetoric or sentiment. Libya is an admixture of Arab/Arab-Berber peoples and black African tribes. Tunisia is much more homogeneous and consequently a more stable polity – paradoxically, Tunisia was the state least expected to suffer popular unrest in recent years. Each different polity has different internal strains. A excellent example is Lebanon and I would urge readers to seek out Barry Rubin’s book on Lebanon for a better précis than I can provide.

In essence, as foreign policy analysts, we cannot impose a simple causal model over the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria. The unifying factor is a popular discontent but the expression of that discontent has differed from place to place. Neoconservatives urged intervention in Libya because it was possible to do so and crucially the coalition opposing the regime was not noticeably influenced by Islamist parties. Compare this to Egypt where neoconservatives were much more sceptical about the prospect of an Egyptian Spring because we noted that the Egyptian polity was dominated by Islamist politics and was hostile to Western civilisation.

Yet, when we examine Syria, the cultural situation is ripe for intervention. The Islamists have little influence, hence the fluctuating interest of (Islamist) Turkey and its occasional threats to intervene. The Syrian government is founded around the Alawites but appeals to Arab Nationalism in its Baathist form as a unifying factor. Together with a higher degree of urbanisation and a higher degree of civilisation, the Syrian polity is both more and less fragile than Gaddafi’s Libya.

The reasons for this are not hard to find with a little analysis. The first is that the Syrian security services and armed forces are much more politically radicalised and more tightly controlled in a manner which fits a Soviet style regime. Desertion is thought to be a problem with ex-regime soldiers organising some armed resistance but not enough to slow down the regime’s repressive measures. The depth of opposition to the regime is stronger in certain respects than in Libya where the opposition was on the verge of collapse when international intervention halted the regime’s armed columns on the outskirts of Benghazi. By contrast, the massive popular unrest has not ceased, despite as Julie points out an estimated 2,200 killed by the regime.

It is also worth noting that the regime has a prior history of using massacre as a political tool to put down rebellion or subjugate manifestations of political discontent. The knowledge and experience of this past in the present Syrian regime and forces is an enabling tool to further violence. The alliance with Iran and Hezbollah must be noted as a separate factor as Hezbollah and Iranian agents have been used and have instructed Syrian regime forces in methods of suppressing popular unrest, while Iran has been funding the Syrian regime to keep it afloat until it is able to crush the opposition movement. Additionally, the role of Russia in supporting the regime must be taken into consideration. Finally, any attempt to intervene in Syria with a view to replacing the regime will have to tackle the problem of Lebanon, which would require another decade long campaign with heavy costs in treasure and blood.

These factors make intervention both more risky and less likely to occur in Syria. Add to this the observation that the European powers are generally too weak to mount even a limited intervention without US military support and that all these nations are experiencing economic and political troubles at home. Defence cutbacks have occurred in Britain, which remains fighting a counter-insurgency campaign in Helmand and Kandahar, while France has found power projection to be near impossible, especially considering the decrepit state of the Charles de Gaulle. The US military are in a political process of withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and has borne the weight of an active foreign and military policy since 2001, while the military are now planning for what are likely to be deep cuts in military expenditure.

This condition points to a deep flaw in the assumptions which underlay humanitarian interventionism and separate this tradition from the neoconservative one. This flaw is the core concept of necessary intervention, which presupposes that the conditions for intervention on behalf of oppressed populations (especially where conditions of genocide or near-genocide are concerned) either will always be present or must be created. These conditions are: political will, popular support, a benign or supportive international environment and economic and military strength.

Political will is not always present. Where a party is in government, whether as a single party or as a coalition which has a pacifistic or isolationist stance, there is little chance of moving a government to military and economic mobilisation. If this government is one of the great powers, this is a problem for humanitarian interventionists which cannot be resolved. This is even more so if this government is the United States. At present, I cannot foresee any European state possessing the will to intervene in Syria for reasons of national interest, political focus, economic distress and above all the present focus on the future of the European Single Currency and consequently the European Union.

As for the USA, that great nation is at present relatively leaderless and having to tackle economic and fiscal difficulties which preclude it from intervening. Libya was seen as internationally isolated and any campaign was though to be relatively cheap compared to a full scale military intervention. These conditions do not exist in Syria. Finally, there is a widespread delusion in Western diplomatic and political circles that the Assad regime is a key component of any peace agreement with Israel, which in turn is supposed to be the key to a pacified Middle East. These delusions are decades old. I highly recommend Barry Rubin’s book, The Truth About Syria for a comprehensive overview on Baathist Syria.

Popular support is lacking for a war (which is the essential outcome of intervention) to rescue the Syrian polity from its regime. In the USA there is a no popular appetite for a war when the economy is foundering with all the social stress this brings in its wake. Despite well documented links to terrorism from Hezbollah to al Qaida terrorism in Iraq against Iraqis and US forces, there is lacking a popular conception of Syria as an vital enemy of the USA. In part this is the legacy of Hafez al-Assad who was careful to avoid overt provocation or regional ambitions in contrast to the more flamboyant but reckless Saddam Hussein.

In Europe again, the mood is inwards looking and not concerned with foreign policy. The pacifistic tradition is stronger and broader in Europe than in the USA and military intervention is much more strongly opposed, especially in the intelligentsia, media and politics. With the economies foundering and deep monetary dysfunction within the EU, there is no likelihood of populations being supportive of intervention. Britain on the surface is an exception to this but with British politics focused on debt reduction and social disorder and the legacy of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a lack of support for an intervention outside of a narrow section of the political elite and intelligentsia.

The international environment is anything but benign towards the prospect of intervention in Syria. Those who are well briefed on foreign affairs would understand that Russia views the Assad regime as a regional ally and was not inclined towards intervention in Libya. Here is worth pointing out that the NATO coalition which conducted the Libyan air war had basically disregarded the international brief for which it was assembled, namely to protect civilian life – not to conduct an air war on behalf of the National Transitional Council. Morally, this was the right decision but it will strike a blow against notions of international law, which humanitarian interventionists at least purport to uphold. It should be made clear at this stage that this writer regards international law as a series of fictions with no real hold over the actions of a state. But for many in the Western world, international law has become a series of secular sacraments.

Certainly, China will veto any aggressive UN action towards Syria (and its master, Iran) for simple reasons of great power politics. This is an essential flaw in the universalism of humanitarian interventionism that it presents a narrowly Western narrative on human rights etc as one which other nations with different political and cultural interests and expressions should adopt. Likewise, Russia which shares none of the assumptions underlaying humanitarian interventionist thinking is not going to be receptive to their arguments.

Furthermore, the Arab League is not a reliable body for gathering the will for an international intervention. There are two quick explanations for this; the first is that expressions of united Arab political sentiment reflect internal, not external politics. The second is that since the fall of Mubarak and what is perceived as the betrayal of an ally by the West, the Arab faction around Saudi Arabia has become much cooler to the West. Here we must note the intervention by the Saudis in Bahrain in defence of a collective Sunni Arab interest and in defence of the principle of autocracy. The Arab League will not support an intervention against Syria because it sets a precedent for intervention against a fellow regime in the circumstances of an internal rebellion.

Paradoxically, the best candidate for military intervention is Israel. Israeli neoconservatives and like-thinkers have noted the absence of anti-semitism in the Syrian opposition. Yet Israel cannot intervene, partly because it is Israel but critically from two other factors. The first is Egypt, which has the largest and best armed military in the Arab world. As the Egyptian polity is becoming ever more hysterically anti-semitic and anti-Israeli (the two go hand in hand), Israel is in a quandry about its need for a Sinai policy.

Caroline Glick has argued that the IDF needs at least one or two extra divisions in the south and needs to prepare for desert warfare (the first occasion in 30 years) but this is a perspective which is unlikely to prevail until Egypt threatens Israel or attacks. The second is a point critical to modern Israeli identity. Israel does not launch wars of aggression and a war launched against Syria would fit the same mould as the Iraq War in terms of intent. Nevermind that Israel and Syria are already at war, Israel would be heavily criticised and has an unfriendly US government. The consequences could be unpleasant at best until the government changes in Washington, while any attack on Syria would require a regional war with Lebanon which remains controlled by Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.

This would be the largest war in the Middle East since 1973 and as emphasised earlier there is now a considerable danger of Egyptian military intervention in such a contest. But for me the decisive factor remains the cultural identity of Israel and the institutional identity of the IDF. Israel does not launch aggressive wars, not does it intervene in its neighbours affairs except to prop up an ally (such as Jordan in 1970). It would be a very dangerous step for Israel to take and it has too many problems to track at present. An intervention into Syria would be like poking one’s finger into a hornets nest for Israel.

I have covered economic strength (or weaknesses) but I feel the point must be held together with that of military strength. Since 1945, Europe has become increasingly militarily impotent. One of the consequences of the EU and welfare-state policies has been the introversion of European state politics. This is also a consequence of the retreat from empire with the absence of elite or popular contact with parts of the world resulting in an absence of interest. Military impotence means that the capacity for intervention is limited or lacking altogether.

Take a serious study of the European military capability and the student will swiftly discern a very high percentage of equipment being US in origin and more vital logistic support being US in origin as well.

This points to a truth regarding the pretence of European military strength: it is and has been since 1945 underwritten by US military and economic muscle. We are entering a period of indiscernible length of US weakness and withdrawal. Yet, humanitarian interventionism is impossible on the scale and frequency for which its advocates would wish without a US military capability larger than currently exists. To have their kind of active foreign and military policy means that they must face down spending choices (and not easy or small ones), yet the liberal disposition which impels many of them to their stance would likely clash with these choices and present a dilemma between social conservatism and foreign policy militarism or welfare-statism and a limited to inactive foreign policy.

Iraq may yet prove to be the triumph for which Jacksonians, neoconservatives and humanitarian interventionists still hope (and the signs remain favourable) but this dramatic change was achieved almost entirely by US arms and treasure. Indeed, the US had planned for the possibility that the plan would have to go ahead without significant international support or contingents. It is the great empire of the United States which has underwritten dreams of intervention. If European humanitarian interventionists wish to see a more interventionist policy, then they must look to Europe for the future strength to do so and this requires an attack on pacifism, internationalism and welfarism.

There is a further development which must be faced if those who dream of a polity with the strength to intervene abroad, whether to end genocide or remove oppressive regimes. They must become imperialists.

Imperare is the Latin “to command”. We also have the word imperitas, but imperialism is not necessarily occupation and subjugation as mythologically derived from the 19th Century. It is a relationship existing between great and small powers. In order to have an interventionist policy, European states must work towards becoming imperial powers with economic and military strength to impel maleficent regimes to change or be removed by force. There will have to be either conscription or large conventional standing forces equipped with the most modern weapons, together with a strong naval presence.

This could only happen realistically in Britain and France, unless a defensive and offensive alliance were agreed between militaries which can fight together. These two nations have a tradition to draw upon, whereas Germany does not and indeed still has the shadow of its own imperialistic history affecting any such debate. German geopolitical thinking though has always tended towards domination of central Europe, rather than extra-European vistas.

Finally as a part of this brief digression into the logics of necessary imperialism, European states wishing such a policy would have to disregard a core assumption present since 1919: the concept that international law is binding upon a state in the same way that civil law is binding upon the individual. This means a return to part of the Westphalian settlement of state sovereignty, which rejected the notion of extra-territorial sovereignty.

Today, the West obeys or pretends to obey the notion that the UN is the sovereign of the nation state, yet it it lacks the strength or identity to act out such a role. I have argued before that this is due to the imposition of an ideological impulsion on the UN which it was never designed to bear, namely, international sovereignty. The UN was designed as a means by which the great powers could avoid being put in a situation which would lead to another industrial war, chiefly by an international forum which preserved a useful fiction of legitimacy for state actions but which since has merely resulted in constrained wars and the promotion of terrorism by antagonistic states.

The neoconservative perspective would have no problem, indeed has no problems with disregarding legal fictions which have become harmful to the nation state and the ability of great powers to act as government sees fit. Yet I foresee terrible problems for humanitarian interventionists in that some wish to preserve and enforce international law to protect values (democracy and human rights) which are not shared beyond a pretence at the international institutions which possess theoretical sovereignty over the nation state. Samantha Power is a chief proponent of the doctrine of responsibility to protect, yet she and her fellow liberal thinkers are attempting to act out a Gordian Knot in ignoring a dilemma of implications in this doctrine.

The dilemma lies in the divergent outcomes of a state adopting such a doctrine. It first must cede its own military agency to a disparate body of non-governmental organisations, international bureaucracies and media campaigns, while developing the tools but not the benefits of an imperial power. In making this an international obligation, r2p, as it is referred, places an unbearable strain upon the international institutions which are incapable of enforcing such an obligation and places a disproportionate burden upon the United States in particular to act as the sword of the international church of liberal human rights activists.

Such an agenda is fraught with danger for the West and does not take into account the autocratic powers in the world.

At its best, humanitarian interventionism is a noble cause. But it cannot become a replacement for national policy and interests because as an ideology it would require an open-ended commitment in the form of a disinterested imperialism. When this happens, humanitarian interventionism becomes a shadow of itself, reducing people and states to cyphers of moral ethics.