July 1, 2006  

Knowing where to stop

An examination of what should be expected from military intervention

IN 1864, Prince Alexander Mikhailovich Gorchakov, imperial chancellor and foreign minister to Czar Alexander II, dispatched a circular to Moscow’s embassies abroad. Stung by Western criticism over Russia’s military expansion into Central Asia and the Caucasus, where a spectacularly bloody and brutal counterinsurgency campaign was underway, Gorchakov’s memorandum defended Russia’s right to exercise the same dominion over the “half-savage, nomad populations” along its imperial periphery as enjoyed by other great powers. “The United States in America, France in Algeria, Holland in her colonies, Britain in India — all are drawn to a course where ambition plays a smaller role than imperious necessity, and the greatest difficulty is knowing where to stop,” he wrote.

Knowing where to stop — that perennial dilemma of the hegemonic state — remains as relevant and contested a topic in foreign affairs today as in Gorchakov’s era. Is the U.S. trying to do too much, or too little, in the world? Are military deployments to support fledging democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan strategically prudent, in accord with the national interest, or are they the symptoms of imperial overreach, doomed to failure? How much control can and should great powers assume over the fate of failed states?

These are some of the questions that animate “Enforcing the Peace,” the recent book by Barnard College professor Kimberly Zisk Marten that examines the parallels between the nation-building missions undertaken by Western democracies over the past 15 years and the liberal-minded imperialism practiced by the U.S., Britain and France a century ago. Both phenomena, Marten notes, involve the use of military forces to make foreign societies look more like the West; and both, she grimly concludes, illustrate why “outsiders, no matter how well intentioned, cannot credibly force that kind of change on others.”

Marten is not opposed to foreign interventions per se; she’s just skeptical about how much they can reasonably be expected to accomplish. Consequently, she urges peacekeepers to scale back their ambitions, abandon “abstract goals” such as the promotion of liberal democracy, and instead narrow their focus to “one and only one overarching purpose: to provide security — along a country’s borders, in support of humanitarian aid delivery, and for the purpose of establishing broad-scale public order — until a new indigenous government can take over those functions itself.”

“Enforcing the Peace,” in other words, is an argument about knowing where to stop. In its emphasis on “the limitations in our capabilities and in the effects that our actions can have,” the book represents the leading edge of what might prove to be an important force in post-Iraq strategy makeup: a sort of modest interventionism, profoundly suspicious of elaborate social engineering schemes hoisted on foreign societies, yet still willing to use Western power to advance certain discrete objectives, including — in contrast to traditional realpolitik — altruistic ones.

Irrespective of whether one embraces or rejects Marten’s conclusions, there is much to commend about “Enforcing the Peace.” The book does a particularly good job teasing out the colonial heritage of peacekeeping, outlining the military tasks undertaken by constabulary forces during both periods, such as playing favorites with indigenous leaders, re-engineering local demography, and meting out collective rewards and punishments to co-opt civilian populations.

Marten also identifies other less-appreciated symmetries, such as the extent to which “in the colonial era, as in peacekeeping operations today, interests and ethics reinforced each other.” From the French mission civilatrice to the Bush administration’s forward strategy of freedom, Western democracies, it turns out, have always justified their foreign interventions with a mixture of self-interest and humanitarianism.

“Enforcing the Peace” deserves special praise for keeping an even, dispassionate tone while navigating through what amounts to an ideological mine field. Marten neither fetishizes nor demonizes imperialism, being perfectly clear-eyed about the terrible crimes committed by its practitioners as well as the lofty ideals these same individuals often espoused. Of the many books that have tried to link the contemporary geopolitical moment to the age of empires, “Enforcing the Peace” is one of the least strident.

Marten is similarly balanced in her treatment of more recent interventions. “Nowhere have the liberal democratic military peacekeeping operations of the 1990s created liberal democratic societies,” she bluntly acknowledges, while still noting that these missions achieved other important objectives. In the Balkans, for instance, Western power put an end to genocide and effectively stabilized the region. Yet, she adds, “if foreign troops withdrew, both Bosnia and Kosovo would almost certainly reorganize themselves into ethnically divided territories that practiced illiberal policies toward minority groups.”

“Enforcing the Peace” argues that this failure by peacekeepers and imperialists alike to bring about enduring change has been, in part, a function of limited political will. “In both eras,” Marten writes, “intervention in the periphery was a relatively low priority for the great powers.” The book also notes the contemptuous attitude of military elites toward constabulary and nation-building assignments — as epitomized most recently by Gen. Tommy Franks and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose disdain for Phase IV planning in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq helped guarantee the chaos that followed it. As Marten trenchantly points out, “Like the empires of the last century who rewarded their officers for war-fighting, not pacific colonial duty, the leaders of peacekeeping operations today find that their ability to get their goals met is hampered by a narrow definition of military professionalism.”

Marten also argues convincingly that multilateralism has constrained the ability of peacekeepers to operate effectively.

“It is often impossible for various countries and nongovernmental actors, each operating under their own, independent set of liberal democratic norms, to force any consistent political vision on anyone else,” she observes. “This means that the participants in complex peacekeeping often champion a mutually incompatible variety of liberal democratic ends. They do not share a common definition of what they hope to accomplish on the ground.”

The solution to this problem, Marten proposes, is for a single powerful state to take responsibility for a peacekeeping mission, albeit backed up with some degree of multinational support. She profiles Australia’s role in East Timor as an example of this model, comparing Canberra’s performance favorably against the transatlantic muddle in Bosnia and Kosovo, and praises the U.S. primus inter pares approach in postwar Afghanistan — ironically enough, as the Bush administration has been moving toward abandoning its quiet unilateralism there in favor of precisely the multilateral, NATO-driven construct that has caused so much grief in the Balkans.

Part of the secret of success in East Timor was also that the Australians had a broad mandate to reach a relatively modest end-state: maintaining order and protecting the country’s newfound independence, which the overwhelming majority of the indigenous population supported. As Marten notes, “Once the goals of the international community became more complex, the ability to maintain cohesion over operations was lost.” And so re-emerges the question of knowing where to stop.

In its call for a more restrained and narrowly focused kind of interventionism, “Enforcing the Peace” is certain to find a receptive audience in many quarters. The argument has instinctive appeal especially now, coming in the thick of Iraq, which has seemingly laid bare the limits of what America can hope to do in the world. The book is also no doubt correct in its assertion that peacekeeping operations are more likely to succeed when their objectives are tangible and measurable, and that foreign soldiers alone cannot hope to “impose” democracy on a hostile population.

But “Enforcing the Peace” takes its otherwise sound critique several steps too far, particularly in advocating a strict agnosticism about whether a liberal, democratic order emerges in failed states. Marten insists peacekeepers should limit themselves to “cementing the authority of leaders … minimally acceptable to both the international community and a variety of domestic factions.” But what if these same leaders are politically authoritarian and disrespectful to the human rights of minorities and dissidents? Would Washington still send large numbers of soldiers to help such a regime consolidate power?

Marten thinks it could. Yet, as she repeatedly observes, Western governments depend on public support to dispatch troops abroad — and that support is hard to secure, much less maintain, if the mission isn’t perceived as morally just.

Consider the elections that have been held in Iraq since the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Marten would presumably argue that the U.S. had little interest in pushing for them and instead should have left indigenous power brokers to figure out on their own how they wanted to govern themselves. But this ignores the fact that these elections, in addition to helping Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds figure out how to share control of the country, have helped demonstrate in graphic terms to the American people what their soldiers are fighting for. Conversely, when U.S.-trained security forces commit atrocities, U.S. support can be expected to go wobbly — precisely because it undermines the moral legitimacy of the war.

Indeed, it seems strange that, after detailing how countries like the U.S. and Britain have consistently framed their foreign interventions in the language of freedom and human rights over more than 100 years, Marten thinks they can so easily break the habit. For better or worse, liberal democracies want wars they can believe in. At the same time “Enforcing the Peace” underestimates the value of democratic norms in legitimizing foreign interventions, it dramatically inflates the importance of multilateralism in performing this same function. Not only is multilateralism, with all its flaws, what “provides complex peacekeeping operations with international legitimacy,” Marten insists, “[i]t is what separates them from colonial efforts.”

But this argument, repeated throughout the book, is patently absurd. As Marten admits, “imperialism was designed to take resources from the colonies for the benefit of the empires, while complex peacekeeping operations are designed with the intention of assisting target countries to become more self-sufficient.” Surely this is a more fundamental distinction than whether troops happen to receive a blessing from Turtle Bay?

It’s also worth noting that colonialism was capable, in a sense, of multilateralism — insofar as the domination of particular regions by particular powers was often determined not unilaterally but through international summits such as the 1885 Berlin Conference, in which Africa was carved up among the various European states by mutual consent.

The folly of conflating multilateralism and legitimacy becomes even clearer in Marten’s treatment of Iraq, where she argues the Bush administration’s go-it-alone approach has made it “easy for domestic opponents [of the new government in Baghdad] to tar those in power with the ‘imperialist lackey’ label, and to gain support for their violent opposition to them.”

This is a bold claim, yet Marten doesn’t provide a whit of evidence to support it. On the contrary, when a U.N. resolution endorsing the U.S. presence in Iraq was adopted in late 2003, it had absolutely no effect in damping the insurgency. That is because legitimacy for the people responsible for the violence in postwar Iraq has never flowed from U.N. diktats, but from their own largely autonomous ideologies. Indeed, any question about how the insurgents perceived the U.N. should have ended after August 2003, when they blew up its Baghdad headquarters.

By making the amorphous “international community” the arbiter of legitimacy, Marten misses the fact that it is actually the inhabitants of the country dispatching troops, and the inhabitants of the country where they are headed, who have a disproportionate say in determining what this term means. The imprimatur of the United Nations or another multilateral body might influence their understanding of legitimacy — but it also might not. Certainly, it’s nowhere as important a factor as Marten portrays it.

To the extent that “Enforcing the Peace” lands wide of the mark on these questions, perhaps it’s because the book is too narrowly focused on intentions and operations of peacekeepers and the international community they theoretically represent, and insufficiently interested in the societies in which they find themselves. Despite profiling various interventions, Marten doesn’t bother to say much about how Afghanistan is a different place from Haiti or Kosovo or Iraq. On the contrary, by championing a single model for peacekeeping, she implicitly suggests that these variations aren’t that important.

That’s too bad, because Marten’s analysis might well have led in another, more productive direction. If, after all, as she suggests, it is the indigenous population, not foreign military forces, who will ultimately guide the long-term political and economic development of a society, a one-size-fits-all approach — with a blinkered emphasis on internal security — is arguably the last thing peacekeepers should want to adopt. Yes, interventionists should know their limits, but these are likely to diverge dramatically, depending on where they are and what the locals need and want of them.

Rather than constraining soldiers within a policy straitjacket imposed from on high, it would seem far more sensible to seek to determine, from the ground up, what kind of mandate makes the most sense for improving people’s lives, based on the unique local circumstances. In some places, this might mean a strong emphasis on security, with little involvement in politics; in other cases, it might mean something radically different. Such an approach would lack the neatness of Marten’s formula — but then, that’s precisely the point.

“Enforcing the Peace” in this regard presents a powerful lesson: that those who propose to define the boundaries of American power deserve the same scrutiny and skepticism as those who, just a few years ago, waxed poetic about the boundless strength of the U.S. Before blindly embracing new strictures, it’s vitally important to think hard about whether they would help policy-makers avoid mistakes and address the underlying problems confronting our nation, or instead simply sugarcoat them. The Bush administration, after all, entered office hawking many of the same bromides about selective engagement and the irresponsibility of open-ended nation-building commitments as its critics now hurl at it. But as Prince Gorchakov might have warned, imperious necessity has a way of trumping ambition in foreign policy — especially for hegemonic states, operating on the edge of their power.

Vance Serchuk is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.