Mission Creep

Intervening in the affairs of other countries is always likely to be complex and difficult so it is welcome that the best and brightest minds are applied to investigate the conditions of success and failure. The travel writer and Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border Rory Stewart and his co-author Gerald Knaus pose the question Can Intervention Work? in their recent book of that title, part of Amnesty International’s Global Ethics Series. Their argument — that intervention sometimes works and sometimes does not — is unfalsifiable. Readers will be left nodding their heads at various points but, ultimately, shrugging their shoulders.  

Yet the picture of pro-interventionist arguments portrayed in this book is, at times, one of caricatured “liberal imperialism”. Much of what Stewart says about Afghanistan is a symptom of mission creep and bad management rather than something intrinsic to the creed of the misty-eyed, morality-driven intervener. In fact, Afghanistan never conformed to a liberal interventionist project; it was about 9/11, not the intoxicating temptation of rescuing a benighted people from the clutches of atrocity as in Bosnia or Sierra Leone. And not all of those who make the case for intervention can be tarred with the brush of the RAND Corporation’s admittedly ridiculous Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building, which the authors regularly cite as the epitome of interventionist naivety. 

When it comes to deciding whether or not to intervene, the formula we are offered is one of “principled incrementalism and passionate moderation”. But what does this mean in practice? What, for example, was the right thing to do when the Libya crisis arose? 

Local circumstances, to follow the authors’ own dictum, must dictate the response, one would assume. Not so. Stewart’s position at the time was that “while we had a moral right to protect Libyans from Gaddafi, it would be wrong to act without a full UN Security Council resolution”. In one stroke, then, he restored the “international community” to the imaginary pedestal he so derides in this book. Russia did not, as he expected, exercise its veto at the UN. Then, on March 18, as the intervention began, he warned: “The real danger remains not despair but our irrepressible, almost hyperactive actions…which threaten to make this decade again a decade of over-intervention.” After the toppling of Gaddafi, Stewart slightly adjusted his feet again. “The lesson of all this shouldn’t be inaction,” he concluded in the London Review of Books. “Intervention isn’t doomed to fail — countries can turn out unpredictably well, as well as unpredictably badly.” 

One would like to hope, as these authors argue, that it is possible “to walk the tightrope between the horrors of over-intervention and non-intervention”. Whether this book actually helps us do that, however, is questionable since its authors seem to wish to look both ways at the same time: anti-interventionist when it doesn’t work, pro-interventionist when it does. 

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