[Previous] [Main Index] [Next]

Wednesday, August 6, 2003


This is the third article in a mini-series on the US commitment --- hedged carefully and rightly so --- to intervene in the raging Liberian civil war that has been plaguing that country off-and-on for almost two decades . . . something we did briefly in 1990 in the Bush-Sr. era, though it was limited to evacuating US citizens from a new flare-up in the fighting.


[1] As the first article tried to show, the problem of intervening in Liberia reflects a much larger problem for American foreign policy: how and when the US should intervene in a civil war --- usually in either a failed-state or one ruled by a brutal dictatorship --- where there are no important security or economic interests at stake . . . instead, humanitarian ones full of political significance for the local population. On the whole, prof bug favors an intervention, carefully hedged, based on the model we helped pioneer in East Timor in 1999 and 2000, then part of Indonesia. The local states with a major stake in Indonesian stability --- Australia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore --- provided the effective peacekeeping forces on the ground. The US role was carefully limited but important in backing this UN-sponsored intervention: we provided logistics and air-lift capabilities as well as significant intelligence and diplomatic support, but did not send troops themselves onto East Timor soil. In the end, the multilateral intervention proved successful. East Timor completed its secession from Indonesia, then held elections and has been stable ever since.

The key point in the East Timor model: the regional states near a country in distress ---- again, almost always a failed-state and breakdown in civil war or one ruled by a cruel dictatorship brutalizing large parts of the population (as in Rwanda in 1995 or Kosovo in 1999) --- have the most at stake in that country's stability and any spillovers onto themselves; and hence they're the ones that should be energetically encouraged to take the leading role in any multilateral intervention . . . and above all when it comes to providing the bulk of multilateral forces on the ground. Not the US. Call that lesson one of multilateral interventions in which the US will participate, but where no major security or economic interests are engaged.

Only if we have a major security or economic interest at stake should large numbers of US troops be committed on the ground. There's one exception: a clear genocide as in Rwanda. In the spring of 1994, with preparations for the genocide on display for several weeks, somewhere between half a million and a million Tutsi and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by a kill-crazy government and hordes of running-amok Hutu zealots. The outside world stood by; it did nothing. The UN did nothing; the French and Belgian peacekeepers on Rwanda soil were withdrawn, rather than fight and protect the locals being massacred in alarming numbers; and to our shame the US did nothing either and helped block an effective UN intervention.


[2] Article two in this mini-series started by listing anew some legitimate concerns, vented in the first article, that the critics of any US intervention have voiced:

1) the African states providing the multilateral forces in Liberia aren't nearly as stable or effective as those in Pacific Asia that guided East Timor to independence, and their militaries aren't remotely as disciplined or efficient either. The latter is a major problem. As the chief UN Human Rights officer in Liberia in the mid-1990s has just observed (August 8th, 2003), the sorry record of the West African states in the coalition that provided peacekeepers in that country in that mass-murdering period was worse than many of us even thought. The African peacekeepers didn't protect the population; they stole, pillaged, raped, and even murdered, while running a lucrative drug-trade.

2) East Timor, a small country of fewer than a million, had and has a remarkable national unity, based on a lengthy period as a Portuguese colony and conversion to Catholicism; by contrast, Liberia, about 2.5 million, is fragmented along 18 ethnic lines, and national unity is fragile at best. It's also a desperately poor country.

3) Most of West Africa is something of a mess, politically and economically, even though a British intervention in Sierra Leone in 1999 helped end a traumatic decade-long civil war there, at any rate for the time being, and French forces are active right now in the Ivory Coast. Guinea, another direct neighbor of Liberia, is ruled by a military dictatorship. That said, keep in mind that Ghana, a much larger state (20 million or so), is directly east of Sierra Leone and has managed a democratic transition since 2000, after what was considered to be fair elections. And Nigeria, the biggest state by far in Africa --- a population of around 130 million --- is in the same regional neighborhood, its main reason for providing the bulk of the multilateral forces . . . even though Nigeria's government has ruled with fraudulent elections and its authority over much of the territory, especially in the northern Islamic areas experiencing waves of Islamist zeal and attacks on non-Muslims, is in doubt.

4) And finally US troops are spread thin around the world, with 130,000 now committed to Iraqi stability during its post-Saddam transition, with another 30,000 participating world-wide in peacekeeping operations elsewhere.



Eventually, in the analysis that the second article in this mini-series unpacked, there emerged 3 pivotal lessons for US multilateral intervention whenever, recall clearly, there aren't direct and major security interests at stake in the target country.

Lesson One we've just mentioned

In countries where the local populations need humanitarian and political help, but where no clear US security or economic interests are engaged, the US government should encourage the local regional states to take the initiative in supplying all or most of the multilateral forces on the ground. Our role should generally be limited: in particular, mainly to logistics and air-lift support, active diplomatic involvement, intelligence and reconnaissance, and --- the case in Liberia --- training the multilateral forces if they need them. (In Liberia they do: that includes forces being committed eventually by Senegal and more remote African states as part of the wider UN mission.)

At times, if active fighting by rebel or government forces flares up, a limited US role as advisers and some air power might prove advisable too. At times, too, amid continued war-fighting, a few squads of special forces on the ground can make a difference as far as protecting a local population goes. Beyond that, if large regional peacekeeping forces can't stabilize a turbulent domestic scene and protect the population, there's no peace to keep, and only if we discover an important security need should we send larger US forces into the country. There may be exceptions here, especially a clear case of genocide as in Rwanda in 1995; but except for such cases, they're hard to generalize about in the abstract. One thing for sure, though: any large-scale US forces --- say, a 1000 or more (two batallions or so) --- shouldn't intervene unless there is a clear promise of quick and successful destruction of bad-guy locals: their leadership, their militias, and their sources of arms.

All of which leads immediately to . . .


Lesson Two

More generally, we have to be very careful, not just now, but in the future, what kind of multilateral intervention that we might end up with if we decide to go ahead and aid a population in distress . . . above all, remember, if we have no major security or economic interests there.

What happens if we're not careful? If we're not --- if, for instance, we let a humanitarian intervention slide into a UN-sponsored war-fighting, nation-building role as in Somalia in 1993 --- we risk the kind of disaster that overtook our Rangers in Mogadishu in September that year: as it turned out, our small forces on the ground weren't intended for such a mission, which the Clinton administration led slide, with UN prodding, from a straightforward humanitarian mission to protect food supplies to a nation-building intervention that required war-fighting against the designated bad-guy warlords in a civil war being waged by various warlords and tribal clans. At no point in the new mission --- essentially four or five months of direct interference in a raging civil war --- did the Clinton administration show any understanding of how the initial humanitarian objectives had changed, any more than it displayed any resolute will-power to fight effectively if an armed political struggle against a powerful warlord and his thuggish supporters required it. The outcome? A poorly prepared Ranger-assault into the center of Mogadishu in September 1993 to capture General Mohamed Farah Aideed and his henchmen. Equally disastrous, there was really no will in the Clinton administration for further war-fighting once 18 Americans fell in that urban battle. We cut and ran. The rest of the UN forces swiftly followed.


The US isn't the only country guilty of such blithe unwillingness to confront the reality of where multilateral forces are sent.

Recall Bosnia, where, between 1992 and the summer of 1995 under UN auspices, France, Britain, Holland, and some non-European countries committed large forces to peacekeeping. As it soon turned out, there was no peace to keep in Bosnia. A bloody civil war was being waged all the time between large Serb militias, heavily armed and supported by the Yugoslav government, against Muslim and local Croat forces on the ground, with the Croatian government supporting Croat militias . . . and, for that matter, the US covertly arming and training Muslim forces. By early 1994, much of American military planning focused on how to save the beleaguered, non-combatant West European militaries, repeatedly ignored by Serb forces and eventually more and more humiliated by them too. In this manner, with startling repetition, the UN mission was shown to be a bluff. Tens of thousands of heavily armed British and French forces on the ground were shown to be empty huffing-and-puffing infantry and armored columns, little else. By summer's end in 1995, Serb forces were overrunning all of the UN safe-haven cities and massacring thousands of Muslim civilians; and it was only the decision of the Clinton administration to begin using American air power that changed the battle momentum, a fairly quick routing of Serb forces, and then offensives by Bosnian Muslim and Croat forces that engaged in their own ethnic cleansing.

By November, the US had brought the warring parties to a conference table and mediated a peace in Bosnia that has prevailed. Peacekeeping forces remain on Bosnian soil 8 years later. And they have been effective because there has been a peace to keep.


The Third Key Lesson

Quickly observe something. We did ultimately use decisive military power in Bosnia. Why? Quite simply because the Clinton administration decided by the summer's end in 1995 that, with the entire UN mission a shambles, the whole stability of the Balkans was at stake --- along with NATO's credibility in the region. It was that interest that then led to the NATO-sponsored war with Milosevic's Yugoslavia in 1999 over Kosovo, an intervention that also ended successfully . . . including the fall of Milosevic, a democratic government in Belgrade, and more or less stability in Kosovo.

Hence the 3rd lesson about multilateral interventions: we need to be clear as a country what the stakes really are for the US . . . and how quickly they can change once we do intervene with military forces. The point here can be tersely rephrased: even if a major security interest isn't initially at stake when US military forces intervene somewhere, it can be created by the very presence of US military forces on the ground . . . even for a humanitarian mission. Refusing to fight if it then turns out to be essential can be disastrous. Cutting and running --- the US case in Somalia in September 1993 after the Mogadishu fiasco, and for Britain and France and Holland in Bosnia two years later in the summer of 1995, when their forces remained on Bosnian soil but wouldn't fight Serb forces slaughtering Muslim civilians --- will likely be even more disastrous. Bluntly put, failures here can create the impression that the US --- or our allies --- has neither the will to fight nor any tolerance for casualties that effective military action might entail.


A Clear Warning About This By A Former CIA Head

Recall here the comments of James Woolsey, our former, highly talented CIA head , whose trenchant on-target remarks were quoted in article two. Writing in a British weekly in July 2003, he asked why it was that our Islamo-extremist and Islamo-fascist enemies felt emboldened to attack the US even on our soil in September 2001 or blow up US embassies abroad earlier or attack and kill hundreds of Marines in Beirut in 1983 with impunity or defy repeatedly UN Security Council Resolutions about disarmament and human rights (Iraq and, on human rights and terrorism, Taliban Afghanistan).

His answer is worth setting out at length:

" . . . for all practical purposes we hung a 'kick me' sign on our backs in the Middle East.

First, we convinced many people there that we did not give a damn about the people in the region and that we cared principally about its oil; that it was a filling station for our large sport utility vehicles. Secondly, we convinced them that we were a wealthy, feckless country that would not fight.

Starting in 1979, when our hostages were seized in Tehran, we tied yellow ribbons around trees. In 1982-1983, our embassy and marine barracks were blown up in Beirut and we left. Throughout the rest of the eighties, there were various terrorist attacks against us, mainly sponsored by Iran, and we prosecuted a few terrorists here and there - we sent the lawyers, basically - and we would occasionally lob in a bomb or a cruise missile from afar. In 1991 in the course of the Gulf war, we encouraged the Kurds and the Shi'a to rebel against President Saddam Hussein, then we signed a ceasefire agreement which left the Republican Guard and their armed helicopters intact, and the bridges intact. We stood back and watched the Republican Guard massacre the Kurds and Shi'a whom we had encouraged, thereby convincing all and sundry that once the Americans and their allies had secured the oil of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, they did not give a damn about the people of the Middle East.

In 1993, Saddam tried to assassinate former President George Bush in Kuwait. The best response that Clinton could come up with was to launch two dozen cruise missiles into an empty Iraqi intelligence headquarters in the middle of the night, thereby presumably responding effectively to Iraqi cleaning women and nightwatchmen, but not particularly effectively to Saddam. In 1993, our helicopters were shot down in Mogadishu, our rangers were killed and again, as a decade earlier in Beirut, we left. Throughout the rest of the nineties, with the USS Cole and East Africa embassy bombings and the like, again we prosecuted a few terrorists and occasionally launched a cruise missile or a bomb at a tank or a surface-to-air missile site.

No doubt if you were in al-Qaeda, in Iraqi intelligence, or one of Khamenei's advisers assessing things at the end of the twentieth century, you would have had to say that the Americans - from this wealthy, feckless, spoiled country - would not fight. You would have had some evidence for that. Now, just as that was the assessment of us by the Japanese at the beginning of the 1940s, and just as they were somewhat surprised after Pearl Harbour, after September 11 both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and now the Ba'athists in Iraq, are somewhat surprised. However, there is still a long way to go. "



Part 4 of this mini-series --- which should appear soon (August 7th or 8th) --- will then elaborate on these three lessons in more general theoretical ways. In particular, as we'll see, different kinds of interventions need to be distinguished and clarified, with a clear eye as to the military and political implications of each . . . even as we recall that an initial mission can slide into a more ambitious one without our being fully aware of it. At which point, either disaster for the initial mission might suddenly emerge, or we have to be ready to escalate our presence. Hence the importance of the theoretical analysis that the fourth article will concentrate on.

The different kinds of interventions that will figure in that article are worth noting here, baldly and with little elaboration:

[1] War-Fighting, where our forces intervene in a raging civil war --- possibly with outside help (as in Bosnia 1992-1995) --- and have to be large enough and backed with resolute political will in Washington to fight effectively and decisively against a designated bad-guy side. If no clear bad-guy side can be found, we ought to be much more wary of intervening in this way.

[2] Peace-Keeping. Under such a mission, the US and others under supply forces to keep a tenuous peace that the local combatants --- ethnic factions, warlord factions, or just anti- and pro-government forces --- agree to establish for whatever reason. Here the key point is to be sure about the willingness of the combatant sides to rely on outside mediation and humanitarian relief. If they're not, then we need to be clear in our mind that renewed warfare could erupt quickly; and if we're not prepared to fight decisively in such circumstances, we should be wary of intervening this way.

[3] Humanitarian Relief. Here, even if a civil war is being waged --- say, in northern Iraq in March and April 1991 between Kurdish rebel forces and Saddam's brutal military after it had been vanquished in the first Gulf War --- there might be ways, assuming we're not willing to intervene on one side or the other and fight, to carve out a safe-haven territory, protected largely by air-power and a few troops on the ground with military aid to the local forces, and stop the massacres and other assaults by the cruel dictator or aggressive civil war factions. The aim would be to protect the local population while providing emergency medical and food supplies. As a possible twist --- note, possible: it's a matter of political judgment in Washington --- we might eventually strengthen the political and military capabilities of the local population for defending themselves and even independence. If, oppositely, air power and limited US military assistance to the beleaguered militias of the population we're helping can't maintain the safe haven, then we have to rethink the mission and decide whether we want to beef it up or not for more energetic and decisive war-fighting. (Fortunately, as the experience in Taliban Afghanistan showed, small US special forces and local militias can, in conjunction with air power, create a markedly powerful military presence on the ground.)

[4] Nation-Building, something of a continuation of all three of the first interventions if -- if -- we decide to go ahead in this political direction. And also, as we're finding in Afghanistan and now Iraq, the most demanding of all.

To repeat, these key points will be clarified and elaborated on in the fourth article of this mini-series.