Social scientists like to have a lot of variation when they study something—this way, they can figure out which aspects of the situation are likely to be related with the outcome—war/peace; democracy/authoritarianism; free trade/protectionism. The good news about the Western involvement in Northern Africa and Southwest Asia is that we have seen many different kinds of efforts. The bad news is that the outcomes have been lousy. That is, we have pretty much tried every major policy option and they have all looked pretty bad.
Massive intervention? Check. Or check minus, as the United States with some friends in Iraq and NATO in Afghanistan has not been able to snuff out violence and build self-sustaining political institutions in either state as yet. While it may be too soon to call Afghanistan a failure, it is hardly a success story. The Taliban are hardly quelled and they engage in violence throughout the country with the Afghan security forces taking a serious beating. One piece of evidence for the success argument is that the Afghan army is still fighting, but real questions can be raised about whether it can sustain this effort given the toll they are taking. Meanwhile, in Iraq the U.S. surge combined with the Anbar Awakening to temporarily reduce the level of violence in the country. But the surge was temporary and the Iraqi government largely betrayed the Sunnis who sided with the government.
Use air power to facilitate regime change? It actually worked in Libya because there were domestic opposition forces on the ground. But, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, breaking a government is one thing while building a stable, adequate government is something else. By doing the least it could do, NATO helped oust the Libyan government (despite a UN mandate that was focused solely on civilian protection). It could then walk away and let someone else deal with the aftermath and did so. However, while NATO can call its operation a success, the bloody aftermath suggests otherwise. Not only did instability lead to a tragedy for the United States in Benghazi, but has also led to trouble in the region, as evidenced by Mali’s problems over the past couple of years.
Do nothing? We have witnessed that with Syria. While there has been some arming of the opposition, no significant military intervention from the exhausted and increasingly frustrated West has been forthcoming despite ‘red lines’ being broken and civilian deaths being widespread. And it has worked really poorly for the Syrians. Now, Assad’s grip on the government is not as fragile as we thought. Moreover, if and when he eventually does leave power, his opponents appear likely to continue their fight with each other.
Thus, we have strategies ranging all to nothing producing the same outcomes: failed states, inadequate governance, continued terrorism (though not hitting North America as yet). What can we draw from this “perfect” dataset?
First, there are almost always other outsiders who will work against state-builders. Pakistan and Iran did much to undermine state-building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Russia, Iran, and various Gulf States are doing much to pursue their own respective interests in Syria that are in direct conflict with each other. Outside intervention works best if the international community lines up on one side and only one side, which largely distinguishes Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999 from the cases discussed above.
Second, local allies have more important interests at stake than those of the international community. While the United States wanted the Iraqi leadership to make and keep its agreements with those who led the Sunni Awakening, the Iraqi government under PM Maliki had its own political interests. Similarly, President Karzai has always had his eye on what was best for himself and not so much for what NATO thought was best for Afghanistan.
Third, force simply has limited utility. We cannot kill our way to good governance and popular support. The United States and its allies are adept at breaking governments; but legitimacy simply does not flow from the barrel of a foreign gun. Much of the hard work in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria necessary for lasting peace involves politics and governance rather than the deployment of violence. These are activities that outsiders do poorly in general given their lack of understanding for local context and force them into doing things that they are particularly bad at: working as coherent efforts with various bureaucracies (defence, foreign affairs, etc) cooperating.
The take home lesson is that we (as an international community) need to have a bit more humility. Outsiders can facilitate regime change but not political stability, let alone democracy, prosperity, and the rest. There is a role to be played by armies, navies and air forces, but their utility is limited and this limitation needs to be understood by the policymakers that call for their use. While U.S. Senator John McCain cannot help but advocate for the use of force in pretty much every possible situation, the rest of us need to look at the recent events with clear eyes. I am not sure if the Hippocratic oath needs to be applied—first, do no harm—but we need to be more realistic about what we can accomplish and how we can accomplish it.
Sometimes we must do something because the alternative is worse, but doing something may not be all that good either. In these and other cases, we must ask ourselves what represents the least worst outcome and how do we get there. It may be the case that there is little that the outsiders can do.