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Consistency and Precedent

March 24, 2011

There are two arguments, one employed against intervention and another employed for it, that I find extremely unconvincing. The first is the notion of consistency and double standards. According to this argument, the Libyan intervention is hypocritical and wrong because we do not also intervene in other countries with worse humanitarian conditions.

That there are equally ugly and far uglier regimes and conflicts in the world is manifestly true. Consider the brutality of the Congolese Civil War, the tyrannical Burmese government, and North Korea. Consider also the Arab uprisings in Bahrain and Yemen, both of which have been met with force and have some potential of civil war if they proceed further. Or, now, consider the violence unfolding in Syria. Why do we not intervene then? Because, obviously, there are geopolitical circumstances which make it impractical or downright undesirable. Yemen and Bahrain are US partners, and the US does not have the military capability to intervene everywhere, nor has the violence reached the scale Gaddafi’s has.

Arguing for consistency in foreign policy is foolhardy. It defies the fact that US resources are scarce, and that intervention must be judged not on its own rights as a thought experiment, but in the context of all other foreign policy developments, commitments, and constraints. Indeed, it’s unreasonable and impossible to expect consistency for foreign policy. Not all nations and crises are equal, and there is no threshold we can universally apply to say that any case merits intervention. Double standards are the stuff of foreign policy. As Damir Marusic, in his excellent post here, also argues, this argument ducks criticism of humanitarian intervention from its fundamental flaws.

It should be noted no successful foreign policy can be entirely consistent. The international arena is too complex to make consistency possible. There are too many variables, to many unknowns, and too many actors and interests at play for any one principle to meaningfully guide all action. Even the realist appeal to “the national interest” does not generate meaningfully consistent action, since multiple interests must be prioritized against each other and circumstances shaping interests change.

On the other hand, this same world of complexity and constraints renders ludicrous an argument for intervention, that of setting an international precedent. A precedent implies that by undertaking intervention in Libya, we are going to prevent future or current human rights abuses in other countries. This argument has a huge flaw, namely, we’ve been conducting such “example-making” arguments for decades, and there’s not much evidence we’ve deterred anyone.

The intervention in Somalia did not deter the Hutus of Rwanda. The intervention in Bosnia did not prevent Kosovo. The intervention there did not prevent human rights abuses in the Caucasus or China. Et cetera. Realistically, human rights abuses and odious regimes operate first in a local geopolitical context. Genocide occurs in perceived existential geopolitical struggles. And because bad actors, like realistic humanitarians, recognize the global context and geopolitical circumstances matter for intervening states, they may pause or quiet their behavior, but generally resume some kind of human rights abuse once the noise quiets down, or just ignore it confidently and go on slaughtering others.

How many precedents do need to set? The answer is, we cannot set enough. The real heart of the precedent argument is that proponents of humanitarian intervention want to establish a principle for the foreign powers intervening, and not just for bad actors. By creating a precedent for intervention, a norm will make sure, hopefully, that great powers will more consistently intervene. But because the idea of consistent intervention is politically unpopular and geopolitically untenable, the argument of setting a precedent for behavior of potential bad actors becomes important, grossly distorting the cost-benefit analysis of intervention.

The idea of a deterring precedent is not a simple strawman, it is present at the highest levels of government behind intervention:

Alain Juppe also said he hopes the airstrikes in Libya and the boisterous quest for freedom and democracy in the Arab world will serve as a warning to autocratic regimes elsewhere, including in Syria and Saudi Arabia.

“The job of dictator is now a high-risk job,” Juppe said, noting that some autocrats – including Gadhafi – have been targeted by the International Criminal Court.

I can understand why the Arab Spring would make Assad or the Saudis afraid, but why on earth would Libya? There is not any consistency in international affairs, indeed, Libya required the legitimation of the same Arab states, such as the GCC, that were oppressing their own citizens. Nobody believes that France is really about to go and start a bombing campaign in Syria or Saudi Arabia. Syria and Saudi Arabia are much better prepared for such a thing than Libya, and somehow I do not see other Arab states or even the US and NATO signing off. Particularly since it has its military tied up in Libya, an intervention in these states is less credible, and during the intervention, Syria has actually stepped up its bloody repression.

This is exactly why the argument of precedent is so ludicrous. War (or limited-time, limited-scope, kinetic military actions which are something totally different, obviously) here serves, with apologies for repeating my last post’s point, as a substitute for policy – in this case, a lack of effective policy on Syria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or Yemen for pursuing humanitarian interests there. While France may feel a lighter conscience, during the lead-up and start of the intervention, regimes have only increased their brutality.

Arguments of consistency and precedent should not be the guiding principles of any foreign policy. The international arena is not governed by constitutional law. Unpredictability, erratic behavior, inconsistency and tragic repetition are part of a system too complex for us to goad into some resemblance of reciprocal, lawful consistent and predictable society, particularly at the margins where humanitarian interventions occur. Flexibility, not rigid adherence to the principles of consistency, or reliance on precedent to compensate for inconsistency, must govern foreign policy.

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