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Great Decisions 2013: The Intervention Calculation


The U.S. conducted airstrikes against Serbian forces in 1994 and 1999, and against Libyan troops in 2011, to reduce threats of genocide and humanitarian disaster. But the sole superpower sat idle in 1994 while hundreds of thousands were slaughtered across Rwanda and bodies floated down river past horrified neighbors. Just what criteria the U.S. has used – and what it should or could use – to intervene militarily is discussed in “The Intervention Calculation.”

As a cast of former generals, diplomats, and think-tank luminaries discuss the role of U.S. intervention after World War II, generally two reasons come to the fore, humanitarian and strategic. Strategic interests remain loosely defined, several experts note, and can usually be traced to economic or political motives. Whatever the reason, interventions come at a cost, and just off-camera lurks the question, as narrator David Strathairn starkly intones, “Can we still afford to flex our military might in conflicts that aren’t ours?”

Historically among these U.S. interests, none were greater than curbing communist influence. For armed interventions such as Korea and Vietnam (and later proxy conflicts worldwide) there was always a defense budget and popular will. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and a new world stage, the criteria for U.S. intervention became less clear.

One chapter, “Economic Interests,” shows how stated interests may have ulterior motives. Desert Storm in 1991 pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait – the purported right thing to do – but also restored a neutralized oil source, removed the threat to Saudi Arabia and Israel, and straitjacketed a dictator. Airstrikes in Libya, though conducted more by NATO partners, did offer the chance (although now, it seems, equally distant) for Western multinational companies to access an oil giant. As Jonathan Tepperman, Managing Editor of Foreign Affairs, observes, “If you look closely, strategic and economic interests have been closely intertwined.”

Similar charges come from several contributors in another chapter, “Humanitarian Concerns.”  Perhaps intervention is never more justified than when under a threat of mass casualties or genocide. Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya in this case figure prominently, yet detractors remained. Russia (and China, in the case of Libya) charged that NATO had used a humanitarian excuse to intervene when the real motive (they say) was regime change.

Whatever the finger-pointing, racial and ethnic conflicts in the post-Cold War power vacuum continued to fester. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, intent on establishing white-hat recourse to pre-empt carnage, helped bring a majority of countries together under the banner of “Responsibility to Protect.” This initiative, agreed by members at the 2005 U.N. World Summit, states that all nations have the responsibility to protect their own from genocide and humanitarian crimes. Danielle Pletka, of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), comments that “R2P, as it’s known in the foreign policy community” has been a powerful message to autocrats that they can no longer rule through marginalizing or eliminating opposing groups. And NATO stands by, the narrator reminds us, ready to use U.N. security resolutions as a license to intervene.

The last chapter, “Policy Decisions,” starts by noting that historically there has been no unifying policy thread across U.S. presidential administrations defining conditions for intervention. Going forward, is this any different? Do any criteria apply?  In a twenty-first century world, in which brawn is drawn economically and majority Islamist nations experiment with democracy, the role of U.S. interests and goals of possible intervention have become obscured.

President Obama is shown proclaiming, “When our values and interests are at stake, we have a responsibility to act.” Yet this is juxtaposed with the civil war in Syria, whose regional neighborhood, Russian military base, and substantial arsenal complicate a case for U.S. intervention. Former Congressman Barney Frank is shown shrugging, “The likelihood of success is also a factor.” Such is the calculus for planning intervention, as the documentary title suggests.

Without predetermined criteria of when to step in, Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, simply recommends preparation. “History keeps dealing us cards we don’t expect,” he says, and “we simply have to have a military that can be ready for a wide spectrum of scenarios and can effectively intervene.”

Yet great decisions, like sound arguments and noble acts, should be made by informed leaders. As detectives look for the whole story, so should policymakers, and especially a global policeman. Beltway pundits who are former U.S. government managers and work for U.S.-based organizations, and often U.S.-funded initiatives, suffer from a limited viewpoint, which could also be said of “The Intervention Calculation.”

The video does mention how interventions can evolve into uncertainty, such as in Afghanistan; it should explore further, however, whether calculations consider political climate and stakeholders. A recurring frustration among allies and enemies alike is that American policymakers, with all their resources, usually fail to understand cultural and regional dynamics that, if addressed, can lead to quicker solutions and reduce the impetus for intervention (and, worse, extended stays).

Cases in point have occurred in every region, be it military intervention or simply funding projects that exacerbate tensions.  The U.S. bolstered border guards and security transit regulations along an African border, which actually increased instability, since regional traders depended on the porous border for access to local markets. U.S. rule of law programs push court systems in rural Afghanistan, where most prefer traditional judgments by council. The Arab world is traditionally distrustful of American programs since the U.S. has supported dictators (in direct contravention of its own representative system) and assisted in Israeli theft of Arab land. And in former communist bloc nations, a gradual NATO drift eastward, installation of missile systems, and training/equipping militaries cannot help but raise the eyebrows of a transitional Russia. Humanitarian motivations for intervention are all well and good, but the calculation needs to factor in perception of regional states, and local realities, to be most effective.

Another factor not explored in the video is an alternative enforcer, namely, forces from Europe. In the wake of World War II, a debilitated Europe relied on the U.S. to counter any Soviet military threat. Europe has since suffered smaller militaries, partly a result of domestic defense decisions, but with instability in the Middle East and North Africa arguably affecting Europe more than the U.S., Germany and France and/or an EU force are more appropriate policemen. Airstrikes on Libya, as Damon Wilson of the Atlantic Council tells us in the video, were carried out predominantly by non-U.S. NATO forces.

In the wake of heavy U.S. involvement abroad, the bar for military intervention in 2013 is set much higher than 10 years ago. A stagnant U.S. economy overdue for jobs, and expected defense cutbacks, has whet few appetites for further intervention. When humanitarian disaster looms, however, the most able should not shy from duty. With U.N. backing as moral justification and the ability to project power across the globe, it seems that if the U.S. has the ability to act, with a likelihood of success, not only should it act – if recent history is any guide, it probably will.

Defending America On a Budget - Great Decisions in Foreign Policy, Season 42



Jason Anderson

Jason has lived and worked for over five years in Russian-speaking countries. He spent April-May 2014 researching religious extremist groups in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He has project experience in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. He previously served as a trainer for U.S. military and civilians working alongside counterparts in Afghanistan, and as a coordinator with Afghan ministerial advisors on National Priority Program (NPP) funding proposals. Jason speaks conversational Russian and holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University.