The news of Donald Trump’s missile attacks on Syrian airbases was met with mixed responses. On the one hand, many people were happy to see action finally taken against Assad’s heinous crimes. On the other, supporting anything Trump did seemed strange — this was, after all, the same person who had signed an executive order barring Syrian refugees from entering the United States. Yet among the conflicting emotions, a larger discussion began to take hold, one I found especially interesting. Is military intervention always bad?
In recent history, we’ve seen a number of disastrous attempts at military conflict resolution. Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan are just a few examples of Western interference exacerbating an unstable country rather than alleviating the humanitarian strife. Yet to conclude that military intervention is an inherently flawed policy based on poor implementation is shortsighted — it is the same logic used to criticize the religion of Islam based on the flawed practices of Muslims.
To evaluate military intervention as a policy, we need to ask two questions: first, why have previous interventions failed? And second, were the causes for their failure avoidable? If we can identify the set of flaws in previous campaigns and remove them from future interventions, we might yet be able to enact positive change through military intervention.
For the sake of brevity, we’ll limit ourselves to the example of Libya. Gaddafi had ruled as a dictator since 1969, with his anti-Western policies drawing the ire of many foreign powers. In 2011, as part of the Arab Spring, protests calling for Gaddafi’s removal quickly turned violent. Reports of “more than 2000 deaths” in the initial weeks of the uprising furthered a sense of urgency in the face of a potential humanitarian disaster. Prominent leaders among rebel forces repeatedly pled for Western intervention, with one rebel warning of “a real bloodbath, a massacre like we saw in Rwanda” if Gaddafi’s forces triumphed. After Security Council approval came on March 17th, NATO took action, “establishing a no-fly zone and launching aerial attacks on government forces.” Seven months later, rebel forces took control of Libya, executed Gaddafi, and established a democratic transitional government.
NATO’s actions in Libya were held up as a model intervention. Relatively quickly, a brutal dictator had been deposed, a humanitarian crisis had been averted, and a new democracy in the Middle East had been established. Yet just as with Iraq, the success faded quickly. Having executed Gaddafi, NATO forces “turned their backs on Libya,” allowing it to be “consumed by rampant lawlessness.” Now in control of the country, rebel forces arbitrarily detained, tortured, and executed anyone who was perceived to be a Gaddafi loyalist (62). MSF General Director Christopher Stokes even testified that patients were brought to their doctors “in the middle of interrogation for medical care, in order to make them fit for more interrogation” by rebel forces. Entire villages were razed because of the presence of Gaddafi supporters, displacing countless civilians. Today, Libya remains divided between numerous armed factions and the unpopular government “is increasingly vulnerable to challenges to its legitimacy.”
So what went wrong? The main flaw with the intervention was the lack of rebuilding following Gaddafi’s removal. Rather than provide law and order and assist the transitioning government, the forces that were so supportive during the violence were nowhere to be found after it. NATO’s actions were almost universally praised in the short term — it was the aftermath of the rebel victory, where Libya was overcome by chaos, that the intervention was undermined. The blame for this lack of post-intervention support can be attributed to the root cause behind most failed interventions: ulterior motives. As many scholars have pointed out, Gaddafi’s actions against Western interests in Africa had led to Libya’s characterization as a “rogue” state, against which action needed to be taken. The interest of Western forces was less in rebuilding Libya and more in removing a dictator that had caused them trouble in the past and likely would in the future — less humanitarianism and more opportunism.
But then the question we need to ask is, can genuinely humanitarian interventions succeed if they rebuild the targeted state afterwards? The answer, as history demonstrates, is undoubtedly yes. A textbook example has often been Nazi Germany post World War II, when regime change resulted in a functioning democracy and economy within a decade. Yet even more recently, the 2011 UN intervention in Cote d’Ivoire can be held up as a positive example. On the brink of civil war when former President Gbagbo refused to concede his loss in the election, UN forces quickly ended the violence, preventing a certain humanitarian crisis. After the intervention, security was quickly achieved with the support of UN forces. Rather than alienated, the military was integrated within the new government, preventing the slide into chaos so often seen after interventions. Swift economic growth soon followed, with Cote d’Ivoire experiencing one of the highest average real growth rates in sub-Saharan Africa. It is by no means the perfect state today, but it provides an example of a country in a better place following intervention than it was preceding it — both in humanitarian terms and in terms of a functioning government.
So is Trump right to intervene in Syria? Maybe. The ulterior motives that have plagued every recent American intervention will not magically disappear, but even an intervention done for the wrong reasons may still succeed. The key, as in Libya, will be how Western forces behave after Assad falls. If adequate support is provided for the necessary rebuilding of infrastructure and institutions, we may well see a Syria that is better off than it was before American intervention.
What does this ultimately mean? It means that we have to move away from naive characterizations of good and bad. When our politicians say they will remove forces from Syria or halt airstrikes against ISIS, that might not necessarily be a good thing. Similarly, when they respond to public outcry against humanitarian crises by invading the country in question, they may very well only exacerbate the situation. What determines the success or failure of a given foreign policy is the details, and it is the details that must guide our lobbying of politicians and our choice of votes. So the next time a politician promises to invade a country to end a violent conflict, don’t immediately praise or criticize them — ask them what they will do next.!