Looking back iii

Two recent opinions remind me, in different ways, of George Kennan’s warning that foreign policy doctrines are mainly for public consumption and that they can lead to policy disasters  (think containment and Vietnam) by oversimplifying reality.  If you’re interestsed in this David Milne and I have written about Kennan in  Kevin Theakston ed. Volumes of Influence.

The first is an opinion by Rafael Behr at The New Statesman.  Behr attacks Cameron because on Libya the

good news story doesn’t slot into a wider strategic narrative. … To get the maximum political advantage from the intervention, Cameron has to frame the episode in terms of his vision of Britain’s role in the world – and it isn’t clear that he has one.

I worry a little when I see this.  It might be said that because Blair was driven by a well defined vision of Britain’s role  in the world (doctrine of international community) it led him from the good(ish) news story of Kosovo to a disaster in Iraq.   Which is why I was relieved to then read Andrew Rawnsley’s piece in The Observer.  On the possibility that Cameron may have stumbled across a new ‘model’ for liberal intervention – ‘intervention-lite’ – Rawnsley writes this

We should be very wary of this emerging doctrine. Just because this style of action worked in Libya is no guarantee that it will work everywhere. It is worth recalling that precisely the opposite lesson was drawn after some previous interventions. During the Kosovo confrontation in 1999, the refusal to back up Nato air power with the threat to deploy ground troops was seen as a cardinal mistake – and so it was – because it encouraged Slobodan Milosevic to believe he could prevail, thus prolonging that conflict. Iraq started its slide into bloody anarchy in the three months after the invasion not because there were too many western troops in Baghdad, but because there were too few to maintain law and order and contain insurgents and sectarian fighters before they could grow in strength. Western leaders currently sound judicious when they forswear putting any troops on the ground, even as peacekeepers. They will not be so acclaimed for their wisdom if mayhem should break out in Tripoli. Beware anyone who says we have now found a perfect formula for intervention or a magic bullet for dispatching dictators.

I think Rawnsley also has it right on 1973 – NATO P3 probably did go beyond the mandate but then again the non-NATO P2 did not table a resolution condemning that. 

Many would contend that the allies went well beyond their original mandate as an operation to protect civilians swiftly evolved into a mission to achieve regime change. I don’t have much of a problem with that. I argued from the beginning that no civilian could be said to be safe in Libya until that one-family tyranny was gone. The non-combatant members of the Security Council clearly didn’t have much of a problem either because they didn’t complain about the manipulation of the terms of the resolution. But let us not kid ourselves that sanctification by the Security Council is the sole arbiter of what is ethical and just.

This last sentence, however, poses difficulties.  By arguing intervention might be ethical and just outside the accepted institutions  liberals open the door for other (neocon?) agendas.  It’s a problem we haven’t yet resolved.

About Jason Ralph

Jason Ralph, Professor of International Relations, University of Leeds
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