Posts Tagged ‘unintended consequences’

The Nuances of Intervening in Syria

In light of Craig’s post on the Jeremy Scahill vs. Anne-Marie Slaughter debate over intervening in Syria, Stephen Walt weighs in with some sober analysis of the situation and a further dismantling of Slaughter’s naive proposal:

The core problem with this proposal, as Paul Staniland makes clear in this incisive critique, is that it ignores basic military realities. The rebels are trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad; once we commit ourselves to arming and protecting them, how are we going to stop them from doing whatever they can to bring him down? Once engaged on their behalf, is it realistic that any government could cut them off because they had gone beyond our Marquis of Queensbury rules of engagement? Moreover, Slaughter admits that we cannot protect her “no-kill zones” without degrading Assad’s forces. In practice, therefore, her neat distinction between “defensive” and “offensive” operations would quickly break down.

In fact, her proposal would lead inexorably to an active military effort to overthrow the Assad regime. As in Libya, what sounds at first like a noble effort to protect civilians would quickly turn into offensive action against a despised regime, and in partnership with a host of opposition forces whose character and competence we can only guess at.  If that’s what Slaughter and others want to do, they should say so openly, instead of performing what can only be described as a strategic bait-and-switch. China and Russia have figured this ploy out, by the way, which is one reason they’ve been so reluctant to endorse any international action to stop the killing.

Here’s the basic problem. Once we commit ourselves to creating safe havens (“no-kill zones”), we will be obliged to defend them for as long as there is any possibility that Assad’s forces might attack. As our experience with the no-fly zones in Iraq teaches, this could involve defending them for years. And if Assad’s forces start shelling the rebel areas, then we will have to defend them or risk humiliation. But let’s be clear: “defending them” means attacking Assad’s own forces. In other words: war. And once that happens, the United States and the other outside powers will face enormous pressures to complete the job.

In fact, it is hard to believe that we could take the step Slaughter is recommending and subsequently agree to leave Assad and his regime in place. As soon as outside powers take sides and intervene, a failure to remove Assad from power would be interpreted as a striking defeat for the intervening powers and a blow to those who have seen the Arab Spring as a hopeful turn for a troubled region.

In short, there is no way to conduct the sort of minimalist, purely defensive, and strictly humanitarian operation that Slaughter describes in her op-ed, without it eventually leading to forcible regime change. And one big reason that Syria’s neighbors have been reluctant to go that route is their understandable fear of a protracted internal conflict there that would make the present carnage look mild by comparison.

I take no pleasure from that reality, and I share Slaughter’s anger and disgust at what Assad is doing. But the choice we face is stark and agonizing, and pretending that we can keep our balance on this steep and slippery slope is not helpful.

Image via The New York Times

The Considerable Risks of an Aggressive Approach Towards Iran

Malou Innocent weighs the possible consequences of the United States’ increasingly “Get Tough” strategy with Iran:

If attacked—again, if attacked—Iran would have the casus belli to retaliate, and although Iran’s military is woefully substandard, it does possess certain asymmetric advantages that deserve consideration. A great deal has already been written about the Strait of Hormuz—the shipping gateway for one-fifth of the world’s oil. But Tehran could also use Shehab-1-2, and -3 missiles to target U.S. personnel, camps and regional bases in Afghanistan (Herat, Kandahar and Shindand), Kuwait (Ali Al Salem, Ahmed Al Jaber, Buehring, Spearhead, Patriot and Arifjan), Qatar (Al Udeid), the United Arab Emirates (Al Dhafra), Bahrain (Naval Support Activity, Al Manamah) and Oman (Thumrait). In addition, Iran exerts influence in the Levant through proxies like Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, all of which can attack—and have attacked—Israel.

Another incalculable risk of provoking and potentially attacking Iran is that even proponents of attacks readily concede that it would only retard Iran’s nuclear program and thus may encourage Tehran to pursue a nuclear deterrent in the future. In December, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta—who has cautioned against, but has not effectively ruled out, a unilateral strike—has said an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would “at best” delay the nuclear program by one or two years. Robert Gates also said, “a military attack will only buy us time and send the program deeper and more covert.”

Hopefully, this author is wrong and none of these events will unfold. After all, previous American-Iranian naval stand-offs have led nowhere, and as my colleague Ben Friedman notes, “the risk of escalation is mostly Iran’s. By attacking U.S. ships, they would risk annihilation or a disarming first strike.” But it is absolutely wrong for anyone to suggest that opponents of attacking Iran neither recognize nor appreciate the threat its nuclear program would pose. And to readily dismiss the potential ramifications of provocative, “get-tough” approaches exemplifies the senselessness that lead to America’s eight-year, multi-trillion-dollar debacle in Iraq. Do the risks of provoking or attacking Iran today outweigh the costs of dealing with a nuclear Iran tomorrow? Readers can draw their own conclusions. Certainly, Iran could develop a nuclear deterrent some day in the future, but rattling the saber in order to stop it may prove a horrible idea.

Image via National Interest 

Leaked UN Report Details Atrocities in Libya Since Qaddafi’s Death

And it’s not good. Not good at all. The entire report can be read here, while here are just some of the highlights, er, lowlights:

Thousands of people, including women and children, are being illegally detained by rebel militias in Libya, according to a report by the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Many of the prisoners are suffering torture and systematic mistreatment while being held in private jails outside the control of the country’s new government.

The document…states that while political prisoners being held by the Gaddafi regime have been released, their places have been taken by up to 7,000 new “enemies of the state”, “disappeared” in a dysfunctional system, with no recourse to the law.


But the continuing human rights abuses, says the Secretary-General’s report, are the most pressing concern. The report says that “while political prisoners held by the Gaddafi regime have been released, an estimated 7,000 detainees are currently held in prisons and makeshift detention centres, most of which are under the control of revolutionary brigades, with no access to due process in the absence of a functioning police and judiciary.”

Of particular worry was the fate of women being held for alleged links with the regime, often due to family connections, sometimes with their children locked up alongside them.

“There have also been reports of women held in detention in the absence of female guards and under male supervision, and of children detained alongside adults,” says the report.

A number of black Africans were lynched following the revolution following claims, often false, that they were hired guns for the Gaddafi regime. The city of Tawerga, mainly comprised of residents originally from sub-Saharan countries, was largely destroyed by rebel fighters from neighbouring Misrata. The port city had withstood a prolonged and brutal siege in the hands of the regime forces during which, it is claimed, fighters from Tawerga were particularly aggressive and brutal.

The report says that ”sub-Saharan Africans, in some cases accused or suspected of being mercenaries, constitute a large number of the detainees. Some detainees have reportedly been subjected to torture and ill treatment. Cases have been reported of individuals being targeted because of the colour of their skin.”

The document continues: “Tawergas are reported to have been targeted in revenge killings, or taken by armed men from their homes, checkpoints and hospitals, and some allegedly later abused or executed in detention. Members of the community have fled to various cities across Libya.”

This is exactly what I had in mind when I wrote this critique of the war. More on Libya here, here, and here.

Image via The Christian Science Monitor

Guatemala Looks to Continue Misguided War Against Drug Cartels

The new president-elect of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina, is backing Mexican President Felipe Calderón by launching all-out war against the Mexican drug cartels’ presence in Guatemala. However, Pérez Molina should reconsider adopting Calderón’s militarist tactics, as evidenced by the above chart – courtesy of Juan Carlos Hidalgo.

Shortly after coming to power, Calderón launched a military offensive against the drug cartels that sent the murder rate spiraling out of control. As the chart shows, the murder rate per 100,000 inhabitants was at a ten year low just prior to Calderón’s ascent. Since then? That number increased more than two-fold thanks to greater cartel infighting as well as ever-violent confrontations between soldiers and trafficking groups.

Clearly, Calderón’s aggressive, militarist approach to fighting the cartels is antithetical to his aims – violence has significantly increased. It’s not too hard to see why. As I’ve previously written, even if drug trafficking groups and personnel are either eliminated or fractured, other criminal organizations will move quickly and violently to fill the void and reap the substantial profits enabled by prohibition. Moreover, drug cartels are set up in such a manner that most gang members’ duties are duplicative. In the event that personnel are killed or arrested, cartels continue operating without substantial reductions in their trafficking supply.

So how will such an effort against the cartels play out if, indeed, Pérez Molina launches a similar offensive? Potentially very badly, as Mr. Hidalgo points out:

Mexico’s murder rate in 2010 (21.5 killings per 100,000 inhabitants) is about half that of Guatemala (41.4 murders per 100,000 inhabitants). There are two reasons why things could get much worse in Guatemala: First, the army is ill-prepared to fight the powerful Mexican cartels that already have a presence in that country. After the peace accord of 1996, the size of the Guatemalan army went from 50,000 troops to only 16,000. If the cartels have put up a fight to the better-equipped Mexican army, one can only wonder what would happen to its smaller and poorer Guatemalan equivalent. Second, even if the army is successful in weakening the cartels, the same vacuum phenomenon that takes place in Mexico would happen in Guatemala. So far, Mexico’s two most powerful cartels, Sinaloa and Los Zetas, control different parts of Guatemala’s territory, but they haven’t engaged each other in that country yet. That could change if the army strikes a significant blow to one of them, giving an opportunity to the rival.

Guatemalans elected Otto Pérez Molina for his promise to fight crime with an iron fist. However, his strategy could certainly backfire, leaving Guatemalans much worse off than they already are.

Image via Cato Institute

Qaddafi’s Death Is Hardly ‘Victory’

When I wrote this post back in early September criticizing the decision to go to war in Libya, the rebels just took control of Tripoli, and the Qaddafi regime essentially fell. Recently, the rebels killed Qaddafi in a firefight in his hometown of Sirte. His death is now being held up in the U.S. as a sign that the Libyan war is ‘won’, thus vindicating Obama’s decision as well as this approach of military intervention. However, to couch the recent events in Libya as either validation of Obama’s decision, liberal humanitarian intervention, or some sort of military victory is highly shortsighted. As Stephen Walt put it:

We can all hope that the Libyan revolution fulfills its idealistic hopes and avoids the various pitfalls that lie ahead, but it is way too early to start bragging about it, or declaring it the model for future interventions. And if Libya does go south, enthusiasm for the “Obama Doctrine” will fade faster than watercolors in the Libyan sun.

In fact, shortly after Qaddafi’s death, some recent developments largely mirror the warnings sounded by war critics. As I wrote in my critique of the decision to intervene, “the main criticism of the Libya war, was, and remains the unanswerable questions and uncertainty of what ensues in the aftermath of Qaddafi.” Whether the war produced a government with a far greater Islamic influence than Qaddafi’s, or one equally or more authoritarian, will be played out over time. However, some recent reports are proving those concerned with the unintended consequences justified in their apprehension.

Libya under Qaddafi was largely secular. Now, The Washington Post is reporting the leader of the Libyan Transitional National Council, Mustafa Abdel Ja­lil, pledged to replace the old dictatorship with “a more strictly Islamic system…” stating, “[w]e are an Islamic state….” The Post also reports of increased strain amongst Islamists and secularists on the TNC. This represents exactly the kind of worries put forth by those against the war. The potential now exists for Libya to become unduly influenced by Islamic elements of Libyan society, potentially leading to a repressive Islamic state and/or a new home base of operations for terrorists.

Moreover, and far more disturbing, is this story via John Glaser:

Fifty-three people, apparent Gaddafi supporters, seem to have been executed at a hotel in Sirte last week, Human Rights Watch said today. The hotel is in an area of the city that was under the control of anti-Gaddafi fighters from Misrata before the killings took place.

Human Rights Watch called on Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) to conduct an immediate and transparent investigation into the apparent mass execution and to bring those responsible to justice.

“We found 53 decomposing bodies, apparently Gaddafi supporters, at an abandoned hotel in Sirte, and some had their hands bound behind their backs when they were shot,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, who investigated the killings.

This report should make anyone who supported the war recoil in horror and disgust. While even supporters of the war will admit the regime that follows Qaddafi may in fact turn out just as repressive, it’s extremely foreboding that this kind of massacre occurred just days after Qaddafi’s death.

Nonetheless, these two reports illustrate how the situation in Libya remains extremely dangerous, tenuous, and no closer to a final resolution. Rather, just like in Iraq, the upcoming months and years will decide the fate of Libya, leaving the past seven months – from the breakout of the war to Qaddafi’s death – as a preview for the real conflict. As Daniel Larison correctly points out:

While Gadhafi’s death will mark the end of Western military involvement in Libya, we should not assume that it means that Libya will not be wracked by violence for months or years to come. We should not forget that the worst of the post-invasion violence in Iraq came well after Saddam Hussein’s capture and execution. Just as it was Iraqi civilians who bore the brunt of the war over the last eight years, it has been and continues to be Libyan civilians who are suffering the most from prolonged conflict.

When dictatorships are violently overthrown, their successor regimes tend to devolve into some form of authoritarian government. Political culture, weak institutions, and post-conflict disorder all make it unlikely that Libya will be that much freer in the years to come than it was under Gadhafi. As in Iraq, it is questionable whether the possible gains will be worth the real losses that have already been and will continue to be suffered. As in Kosovo, which is often wrongly held up as a model of “successful” intervention, the post-war regime is liable to be criminal and corrupt. Twenty years ago, the liberation of Eritrea and Ethiopia from the brutal dictatorship of Mengistu was an inspiring story that very soon degenerated into authoritarianism and war. There is no reason to think that Libya’s story will be all that different.

Image via flickr user RMondolfi

A Decade After 9/11: True Costs and Lost Lessons

With the tenth anniversary of 9/11 upon us, establishment commentators and pundits will start lining up to give their retrospectives.  Unfortunately, they are unlikely to grasp the key lessons that should have been learned on that fateful day and the subsequent ten years.  As Doug Bandow notes:

The 9/11 attacks were an atrocity, impossible to justify whatever the grievances of others against America. Terrorism — targeting civilians to achieve political ends — is an immoral means, irrespective of the end.

Yet that catastrophic day demonstrated that Americans were not invulnerable, exempt from retaliation as their government intervened around the world. There are many reasons why some foreigners hate the U.S., and polls indicate that it is primarily Washington’s policies, not America’s people, freedoms, or products, which others loath.

Similarly, while the true costs and impact of war are extremely significant (both human and monetary), it might not seem that way to most Americans who are kept safely insulated and ignorant from this reality by political leaders and an establishment media overly deferential to government interests.  If more people understood the actual price of fighting these endless wars, perhaps we’d be less apt to wage them in the first place.  In an attempt to crystallize the impact of the true costs and what we’ve lost over the past decade, Columbia University Professor and Nobel laureate in economics Joseph E. Stiglitz writes:

…[W]hen…I calculated America’s war costs three years ago, the conservative tally was $3-5 trillion. Since then, the costs have mounted further. With almost 50% of returning troops eligible to receive some level of disability payment, and more than 600,000 treated so far in veterans’ medical facilities, we now estimate that future disability payments and health-care costs will total $600-900 billion. But the social costs, reflected in veteran suicides (which have topped 18 per day in recent years) and family breakups, are incalculable.

Even if Bush could be forgiven for taking America, and much of the rest of the world, to war on false pretenses, and for misrepresenting the cost of the venture, there is no excuse for how he chose to finance it. His was the first war in history paid for entirely on credit. As America went into battle, with deficits already soaring from his 2001 tax cut, Bush decided to plunge ahead with yet another round of tax “relief” for the wealthy.

Today, America is focused on unemployment and the deficit. Both threats to America’s future can, in no small measure, be traced to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Increased defense spending, together with the Bush tax cuts, is a key reason why America went from a fiscal surplus of 2% of GDP when Bush was elected to its parlous deficit and debt position today. Direct government spending on those wars so far amounts to roughly $2 trillion – $17,000 for every US household – with bills yet to be received increasing this amount by more than 50%.

Image via Reuters 

Pushing Back Against Libya War Supporters

Now that the rebels virtually control Tripoli and Qaddafi’s regime has allegedly fallen, Libya war supporters are taking a celebratory victory lap and asking for apologies from those who opposed intervention. However, I find this reaction to be quite misguided. I opposed military intervention in Libya, and stand by that now, even as Qaddafi fell. The anti-intervention argument wasn’t that getting rid of Qaddafi was going to be a problem or that intervening couldn’t help facilitate the rebels overthrowing the regime. Nor was it that Qaddafi wasn’t a dreadful person who did awful things to his people. Rather, it focused on the legality of the war and the far-reaching consequences of military action. These pertinent questions and concerns posed by opponents of the Libyan war still stand today.

The war in Libya was illegal, regardless of the supposed outcome. It’s elapsed for months now without congressional approval in violation of the War Powers Act – in fact, congress voted against a resolution in favor of the war. Moreover, the claim that military intervention in Libya didn’t qualify as ‘hostilities’ under the War Powers Act is a widely recognized fiction. On Antiwar radio, constitutional scholar Bruce Fein rightly pointed out that if ‘hostilities’ only apply when US troops are being actively shot at, then launching a nuclear bomb wouldn’t constitute ‘hostilities’. And while not a legal issue, the disingenuous justification for the war, ‘humanitarian intervention’ to prevent slaughter of civilians, was quickly revealed as a ruse for regime change.

Alternatively, the main criticism of the Libya war, was, and remains the unanswerable questions and uncertainty of what ensues in the aftermath of Qaddafi. Sure, he was a terrible leader who committed atrocities against his own people, but what guarantee is there that what succeeds him won’t be just as bad, if not worse? It’s not as if we really know who the Transitional National Council is. There’s also no way to predict what kind of government will be set up and who will comprise it. A notion of the entire rebellion as either representative of Libyan society or all liberty loving freedom fighters is downright comical. The rebellion is highly diverse and dissimilar, comprised of people from all different walks of Libyan society – the potential for violence will be great as competing interests vie for power in the new government.

Moreover, after facilitating the downfall of Qaddafi, the US and NATO can’t just turn their backs on the fallout and rebuilding process. Immediately leaving would open the US to blame for the end result or potential problems left in Qaddafi’s wake. The appearance and consequences of extracting ourselves permanently from Libya will unfortunately result in us having no choice but to be significantly involved in the affairs of the Libyans as they form a new government. Anti-interventionists argue that due to the unknown future, military intervention and regime change could yield bloody unintended consequences that nobody expects nor fully understands.

However, the most salient critique of the war is the precedent established by the president’s decision to intervene in Libya. Any pre-existing check on the executive’s unilateral power to wage war is now effectively eliminated. By intervening militarily in a country with no US national security interests and without congressional authorization, Obama provided cover for every future president who launches new wars and conflicts likely to produce far worse and long-term consequences to American interests than Libya. Whether it’s a neocon approved Republican or a liberal ‘humanitarian interventionist,’ the justification for the next illegal war will be based on the Libya precedent set by Obama.

Image via Flickr user RMondolfi

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