The Interventionist Fallacy

by Mike Aaronson

Right now it is impossible to watch the News on TV, to open a newspaper, or to go online, without coming across discussion about the merits or otherwise of international intervention in Syria and Iran. In the case of Syria the main driver is human protection in response to the government’s brutal crackdown on its citizens, whereas in Iran the issue revolves around the threat to international peace and security posed by the government’s continuing refusal to meet IAEA demands for transparency about its nuclear programme. Nevertheless a common element is an acceptance in Western policy, academic, and media circles that coercive intervention is a perfectly legitimate subject for discussion; one may be strongly for it, strongly against, or somewhere in between, but there is little if any questioning of why we are discussing this at all. Is this not rather odd?

If one looks at the history of intervention by powerful states in the affairs of relatively weak ones the track record is not good. We may have dominated the world during the colonial period but the postcolonial legacy demonstrates just how many problems our interventions created. Iraq, Palestine, Ireland, Nigeria – to name but a few – are all examples of less than enlightened and successful British intervention, never mind the efforts of the French, Belgians, Portuguese, Spanish, and others elsewhere. One might have expected the retreat from Empire to have been accompanied by some humility about the limitations of even Great Power when it is applied in someone else’s country. Unfortunately imperial hubris was merely carried forward into the interventions of the two Cold War powers, the USSR and the USA, and the tradition has continued in the unipolar world in which we have lived since 1989.

Thus, in more recent times we have on the one hand seen the emergence of concepts such as “humanitarian intervention” and “the responsibility to protect”, both premised on a belief that in the worst cases of human rights abuse coercive intervention is not only necessary and justified but has a reasonable prospect of success. On the other hand we have become accustomed – despite the prohibitions of international law – to the doctrine of pre-emption, as used to justify the Iraq intervention in 2003 and now perhaps at its apogee under the Obama administration with targeted assassinations, whether carried out by US Special Forces or by CIA drones.

My purpose is not to argue that all such interventions are necessarily wrong or bad, but rather to suggest how surprising it is that there is such a widespread presumption of success. Surely by now we should have learned that the world is a much more complex and messy place than we might once have understood, and that interfering with processes we do not fully understand carries a high degree of risk? Even if in the short term we appear to have hit the target, it is much harder to translate this into long-term success: look at Iraq. Do we really believe that coercive interventions in either Syria or Iran are likely to do more good than harm? If anyone wants to suggest that Libya proves the contrary I would advise them to wait a little longer before bringing this forward in evidence.

What all this suggests is that we need to pay more attention to studying ourselves – the interveners – rather than focusing exclusively on those “out there” in whose lives we intervene. Why does the presumption of success persist in our mindset? It is not that there isn’t plenty of evidence as to what works and what doesn’t; it is rather that so many decisions are taken in spite of what the evidence tells us. Afghanistan is a case in point. Surely no one with the slightest understanding of that country and its history could have thought that the strategy pursued by ISAF from 2003 onwards had any chance of success? And yet a succession of Generals, Ambassadors, Prime Ministers, and Presidents – even some journalists and academics – persuaded themselves that it could – why? Now that is a really interesting question but, like the child’s statement about the emperor’s new clothes, is not what people want to hear. And so the interventionist fallacy persists, and we continue to believe we can achieve more than we actually can. Will somebody please bring on the child who is not afraid to tell us the truth?

Professor Sir Mike Aaronson is Co-Director of the Centre for International Intervention (cii)
30 January 2012

“Hitting the Target?” How New Capabilities are Shaping Contemporary International Intervention” takes place at the University of Surrey on 12 and 13 July 2012.