December 18, 2008

On interventionism, or squaring the circle

By: David Polansky

Mr. Yglesias spends some time doing what bloggers do, which is to say needlessly agonizing over large-scale questions like military interventionism. He declares

the public conversation on preventing genocide in the United States has, over the years, come to be dominated by a kind of myopic focus on the idea of using unilateral American military force to stop genocides.

He goes on to unfavorably contrast the Robert Kagans and Max Boots of the world with a more UN-centric approach to humanitarian interventionism. Hm. And here I thought I’d be well-disposed toward anyone who disliked Kagan and Boot.

Of course, the UN solution is really no solution at all. Mr. Yglesias quotes a suggestion that the UN mandate could have paved the way to genocide prevention in Rwanda. Unfortunately, the same genocide was kicked off with the massacre of 10 Belgian UN peacekeepers, prompting Belgium to understandably pull the rest of its contingent out of the country. At which point, the Hutus were home free.

Similarly, when the Serbs in Bosnia found UN peacekeepers to be a bit of an obstacle, they tied them to trees and went about the business of killing their enemies.

The trouble for interventionists of all stripes is that it’s no longer just a matter of quelling the natives, because there are no natives anymore. Nor is it a case of Hobbesian violence, in which order must be imposed upon the “lesser breeds without the law.” Distasteful though it may seem, the violence that occurs in civil wars is instrumental: it serves real goals that most outsiders don’t understand because they’re, well, outsiders.

And since military power remains, for all intents and purposes, land power, you’re going to have to put men on the ground and those men may have to kill and die, because they’re going to be fighting against people with AK-47s and RPGs and real interests at stake.

Yglesias and others can lament how intervention always seems to be a matter of “killing other people” (perhaps this is that “liberal realism” I’ve been hearing about), but that’s pretty much what will happen when you arrive in Sudan or Somalia or what have you.

And the reason that neoliberals and neoconservatives tend to try and frame these things in terms of American national interests, is that otherwise the whole ordeal becomes pretty hard to justify. With certain heroic exceptions, most folks aren’t inclined to risk death for humanitarianism, and I assume their senses of irony aren’t sufficiently refined to start killing for it.

That’s the circle, as it seems to me, and squaring it remains an elusive prospect. Of course, one could always become a non-interventionist. But I suppose that would just be so gauche.