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Pape’s flawed model of intervention

February 3, 2012

Robert Pape, without necessarily invoking the term “Responsibility to Protect,” has been arguing for months that a new norm is afoot in US intervention decision-making: one in which internationally sanctioned, multilaterally approved interventions to stop “mass homicide” are the rule of the day, so long “as long as they have a viable plan, with minimal risk of casualties for the interveners.”

Well, fortunately, as we all know, there’s never any trouble with coming up with a viable plan, or predicting risk of casualties. By “minimal risk,” Pape seems to mean air and sea power. Despite his claims to desire offshore balancing, Pape appears never really to have had any problem with frequent interventions, just as long as they did not entail a whiff of his most hated bugbear, occupation.

What is sorely lacking in Pape’s analysis is any sense of second-order effects, or, well, useful criteria for choosing when to intervene. Pape argues:

Rather than seeking regime change to prevent genocide, President Obama focused on the narrower objective of preventing “a humanitarian catastrophe” and explicitly ruled out foreign-imposed regime change.

How is preventing a humanitarian catastrophe during a government’s suppression of revolt a narrower goal than preventing genocide or regime change? In fact, preventing regime change and genocide often explicitly requires either regime change or the complete severance of a murderous government’s grip on sovereign territory. The notion that President Obama meaningfully ruled out regime change is completely laughable, as it became obvious to NATO and everyone else after the Libyan attack on the rebels in Benghazi was successfully repulsed that eliminating Gaddafi’s desire to seize and suppress urban centers of revolt was not going to go away so long as he remained in power. NATO military support continued through the period of stalemate and into the capture of Tripoli. Pretending this was all done without the goal of regime change is willful misreading of the evidence.

Pape further argues:

In the past few decades, the United States and other countries have successfully intervened for humanitarian purposes on three other occasions — in 1991, to stop Saddam Hussein’s attempted massacre of the Kurds in northern Iraq after the gulf war, and to protect first Bosnians, in 1993, and then Kosovars, in 1999, from the Serbs’ attempts at ethnic cleansing. All three humanitarian interventions occurred after thousands of people had been killed and exponentially more people had been injured or displaced. And all three were successful and saved thousands of lives.

Pretending that the first phase of Operation Provide Comfort was simply a stand-alone military operation is completely ahistorical. Without the massive suppression of Iraqi military capability which occurred during the Gulf War, an intervention to protect Iraqi civilians would have had a very different risk calculus. Furthermore, the continuation of Provide Comfort II and the dissatisfaction with the ongoing air campaigns over Iraq had a significant effect on the decision to make regime change in Iraq official United States policy in 1998 through the Iraq Liberation Act – which in turn, of course, contributed to the American decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

As for the war to protect Bosnia, pretending the intervening forces waged a bloodless and risk-free war only makes sense if one ignores the major ground combat carried out by the Croatian army and its affiliated militias (which received significant training and support from their supposed civics teachers at MPRI). Croatian and Bosnian military actions sustained and resulted in significant numbers of battle deaths and led to the additional displacement of refugees and a not-insignificant (though less drastic than their Serbian counterparts) number of atrocities.

In a significant amount of intervention cases, militarily significant ground action was necessary to set the stage for the supposedly low-risk option of air support to become useful (Kosovo being among the cases where it was not, although it raises problems we will come back to later). Pape further argues that Syria must create a defensible enclave before the low-risk air power campaign he recommends becomes desirable. But how would these safe areas be created except through massive amounts of ground combat and loss of Syrian life?

Finally, Pape simply doesn’t put interventions into the broader context of a US strategy. In one of his older articles, he argues that the US has an enlightened self-interest to help others, so they will in turn help us. No, really, that’s the grand strategic case. Not even a buzzword or anything:

Now the answer is staring us in the face. If we reject steps to help Libyans avoid a humanitarian crisis because there is “nothing in it for us,” why should others support us when there is?

Karma does not govern international relations. Helping Libya hardly means that Libya will help us in the future, even on other matters of liberal humanitarian governance that interventionists find important. While national goodwill is nice, the translation of that into useful international behavior is neither guaranteed nor immune from changing circumstances. Again, American relations with France are ample proof of this. But consider also the Libyan rejection to act on ICC warrants to arrest Omar al-Bashir, or the looming prospect of al Qaeda or other groups gaining influence within Libya. Even if Libya’s government is able to achieve a credible unity of authority and monopoly on force, would it necessarily be in Libya’s interests to fully cooperate? It is even harder to imagine that Libya would be of much use in alleviating threats to US interests outside Libya’s borders. Given France’s interests in stemming the flow of African migrants to its shores, it is easy to see why helping Libyan rebels might have been in its best interest. Did the US need to intervene in Libya to maintain the good favor of France? Probably not. US relations with France survived the debacle of the Iraq war, after all. Besides, because the United States, unlike any other power, has such widely dispersed interests and unique military capabilities, it is hard to imagine that even major powers such as France could provide the same degree of support to US military operations that the US did in Libya in, say, Asia. International relations are transactional, to be sure, but arguing that failing to intervene in a case of mass killing will be fatal to foreign support to the US is ridiculous. The US cannot stop every mass atrocity, and has even failed to stop actual cases of genocide. Yet most countries do not premise their cooperation with the United States on its moral bona fides, but on their own national interests and their own conceptions of international norms.

Indeed, those conceptions should make us skeptical of the broader international effect of a foreign policy guided by the principles Pape outlines. Continual US intervention with air power will only increase paranoia and enmity by regional powers and great powers about America’s use of force. That the US will not be perceived as threatening or revisionist because it targets countries on a humanitarian basis is an empirically unsatisfying logic. As David Shambaugh has argued persuasively, the Chinese takeaways from the 1990s humanitarian intervention Pape praises have been very negative in their effect on China’s geopolitical outlook, and significant in their decisions to pursue military modernization. The counteracting effects of the humanitarian intervention model Pape outlines will be long in coming, but the likely result will be an increasing proliferation of the feared A2/AD capabilities that American planners are now orienting our military towards confronting. It is not simply China which feels uncomfortable about R2P. Brazil, India, South Africa, and many Asian countries with strong conceptions of sovereignty all dislike the notion that a government killing its citizens justifies US military intervention. Essentially, the conditions that make the low-risk, multilaterally-sanctioned interventions Pape lauds may be tacked onto receding trends in international politics: the geopolitical dominance of the United States and western Europe over rising powers, especially Asian ones, and the limited dissemination and development of A2/AD doctrines and technologies by potential targets of US-led intervention.

Far from being a model for intervention, the cases Pape describes have all been significantly more complex in their execution and significant in their battle costs than he is willing to acknowledge, and none have had particularly beneficial or often even benign effects on America’s national interest. That Pape argues that the intervention in Libya succeeded because it was not an intervention for regime change makes it quite obvious that a robust conception of desired end states or the military and political means to achieve them is conspicuously absent from this model of humanitarian intervention, as it is from so many others. As Andrew Exum, in conversation with Adam Elkus and Robert Caruso, noted, planning for intervention cannot stop at figuring out how to minimize risk through air power. Simply waiting for a situation to develop into a case where standoff fires become feasible is not a strategically sound way to improve human welfare or protect the interests of the United States.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 5, 2012 7:05 pm

    In case any other non-military-experts are wondering, A2/AD=anti-access/area denial. (I had to google it.)


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