Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Humanitarian War and the Omnipotent Expert

I have made an effort in my blogging escapades to continually point out the underlying reasons for military intervention in poorer (often former colonial) states. Two things that have stood out to me are (1) the condescending display of arrogance on the part of the interventionist in regards to both differing arguments and the people involved in a conflict and (2) the high levels of confidence that these advocates have in their ability to predict the future based, presumably, on past experiences.

If you haven’t made the connection yet, these two characteristics are often exuded in Leftist intellectual circles, in Leftist popular culture, and in the Leftist’s moral compass.

Oftentimes, when I come across an advocate for humanitarian war (the doublespeak alone is enough to make me wonder), I am presented with the example of the mass slaughter of civilians in Rwanda during the ongoing conflict there in 1994. The gist of the argument seems to be two-fold: (1) that the West was hypocritical in its treatment of Rwanda and (2) that the West could have prevented, or at least, stunted, the horrific massacre of over half a million people in three months time.

What I want to do here is briefly compare the experience of Rwanda, as it is today, with the experience of the Balkans region, an area that has been on the receiving end of humanitarian war for the past two decades, and see if what the advocate of humanitarian war says is even remotely true, factually speaking.

The advocate of humanitarian war is right to conclude that the West was, and is, hypocritical in its regard to the conflicts on the African continent. In 1994, during one of the region’s more active flare ups in the ongoing conflict of the Congo Basin, the West turned a blind eye towards the situation there while simultaneously going to war in Europe’s Balkans region for the stated purpose of preventing massive losses of innocent life.

The U.S. wars in the Middle East have also been undertaken in the midst of both the ongoing conflicts in the Congo Basin and in the old British Sudan.

The policies of going to war in the name of saving lives in some regions of the world, but not in others, is indeed hypocritical, and there no more I have to say about the hypocrisy of the West in this regard.

In regards to whether the West’s military efforts could have made an impact in stunting or altogether halting the bloodshed in Rwanda, I have just two things to say. The first, I have already stated in my short essay on foreign policy and non-intervention:

We can actually take Delacroix’s calls to “do something” in Rwanda a step further and picture an alternative scenario being played out.  Picture this three-step process: 1) Hutus pointing to the bombed-out shell of a popular, Hutu-friendly radio station and the presence of Tutsi militias wrecking havoc throughout the country 2) Hutu demagogues putting forth a theory that the Tutsis are working with Western imperial powers to impose their authority once again on the Hutu people 3) The previously apathetic now also take to the streets. Not only does most of the public believe that Tutsi factions are responsible for the assassination of two prominent Hutu politicians, but the West has just taken the side of the Tutsis…just as it did during the colonial era.  The massacre may have been even worse if a single, state-owned, Hutu-influenced radio station had been bombed by the West.

The idea that the West could have prevented the bloodshed with bombs and guns is an absurd one, and I am continually amazed that such otherwise smart people are capable of writing some stupid things.

The failure to predict the future, or to even consider, alternative endings for one’s own policy prescriptions, is, as I have continually tried to point out, a delusion often associated with the Left, but has had its fair share of exercise on the Right as well, especially since the end of World War 2.

We don’t need to engage in hypothetical scenarios to get at the gist of what humanitarian war means for the peoples who are going to get some, though. Indeed, all we have to do is take a quick gander at the progress of Rwanda and the Balkans today.

The Economist recently ran a story on the encouraging progress in Rwanda, which was forced to solve its own problems after the flare up and massacre of 1994, and the regime’s desire to become the Singapore of Africa. Drawing on the two states’ current geographic predicaments, the Economist writes:

Rwanda is best known for the genocide that claimed at least 500,000 lives in 1994. It has been peaceful since then [emphasis mine -bc], but lacks nearly all of Singapore’s advantages. Singapore has the world’s busiest port; Rwanda is landlocked. Singapore has one of the world’s best-educated populations; Rwanda’s middle class was butchered in 1994. Singapore is a gateway to China; Rwanda’s neighbours are “less than ideal”, as a recent report from the Legatum Institute, a British think-tank, put it. Uganda is corrupt; Burundi a basket-case; Congo worse.

So far, not so good for Rwanda, and yet:

Rwanda has one huge advantage: the rule of law. No African country has done more to curb corruption […] The country is blessedly free of red tape, too. It ranks 45th in the World Bank’s index of the ease of doing business, above any African nation bar South Africa and Mauritius […] Investors are impressed. Visa, for example, is busy linking Rwandan shops and cash machines to its global network. It picked Rwanda out of dozens of countries as a test ground for bringing electronic payments to “frontier economies”

Not too shabby if you ask me. Let us hope that the Rwandans, together with cooperation from their regional neighbors and the international community, can continue to enforce the rule of law and pursue international trade.

It has been two decades since the Rwandan genocide occurred against the backdrop of Western hypocrisy. The conflict was forced to be played out by Rwandan (and other regional) factions, and the end result has meant that Rwandans are ultimately responsible for their future.

Contrast the encouraging results in Rwanda to those of the Balkans, which was on the receiving end of humanitarian war from the West.  Writing in the National Interest, Morton Abramowitz and James Hooper (two ardent interventionists, by the way) observe in a none too biased way:

Ethnic violence is back in the Balkans. And once again, it has taken the West by surprise […]

These arrangements were upended recently when Kosovo’s prime minister […] sent police units to two northern border posts to enforce a trade-policy decision by the Kosovo government. As Kosovar officials have frequently complained to the EU and the United States (to no avail), Serbia freely exports its goods into Kosovo but blockades Kosovar goods headed north. Kosovo’s deputy prime minister publicly warned Belgrade that unless it lifted the blockade within thirty days, Pristina would block Serbian goods entering through the north. On July 25 […] he sent Kosovar police units to take charge of two northern crossing points along the Serbian border. The action led to a confrontation with armed Serbs, and one Kosovar police officer was killed in the shooting.

What followed were scenes reminiscent of Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990s: Barricades went up throughout the north and began restraining KFOR movements; Two leading officials from Belgrade responsible for relations with Kosovo crossed into the north to show solidarity with fellow Serbs manning the barricades, underscore Belgrade’s claim over the territory and try to restore the status quo ante by negotiating with the KFOR commander; Serbs threw Molotov cocktails into a KFOR camp and set the two border posts ablaze. KFOR, as part of a compromise solution to tamp down the violence, took over control of the two destroyed border gates.

So after 20 years of Western occupation, the forced “agreements” aimed at punishing one faction (the Serbs) for the benefit of another (the other groups in the region) have pushed the region, once again, to the brink of war and bloodshed.

What is important here to recognize is that the factions actually living in the Balkans do not have an equal say in how the peace process is carried out. The West made the decision to make the Serbians out to be the bad guys, and since then, it has pursued a diplomatic and military policy adhering to this decision. The results speak for themselves.

Unlike the peaceful calm that has encompassed Rwanda’s fate, the Balkans continue to be a tragic example of the failure of Western planners to predict the future and of their failure to concede the principle that forcing one’s ideals down the throats of others has never led to good outcomes.

We have another ten years to wait before we can draw similar conclusions about the results of Western intervention in Iraq and Libya, but my money is on dictatorship, sectarian violence, and poverty to be the lot of many lives in these states of the world.  Is this what we want in Syria too?

4 thoughts on “Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Humanitarian War and the Omnipotent Expert

  1. bc-As usual your arguments are well thought out and organized(unlike my own rambling crazeiness). I too think that using the military in humanitarian “wars” is a cause not entered into lightly (I can’t say never). It is difficult to win any armed conflict (I believe) without a clear determinable single plan (such as in the Balkans, or in Somalia) and a (at least perceived)need for victory, this is why wars for peace are often times such dismal failures. It is hard to commit to killing people in order to save them.

    The thing about war is, it is best, going into it, if you make up your mind that you will have to kill a lot of the “enemy” to get them to submit, be steadfast in your application to that ideal, otherwise its more like an extremely expensive slap fight.

    We have the most sophisticated, most capable (I know, debatable), certainly most dangerous military on the planet, and we have not been able to achieve “victory” in either Afghanistan, or Iraq, who have a military force of,…okay well the laughable comparisons are endless…Now I know how you feel about us being over there…my only point is, if we were going to do it, or if we still wanna try to fix it, we have to come hard, either that or just come home. These new patty cake wars we fight are embarrassing, and make us look silly at best.

    Please don’t misunderstand, I am not for “war”, I’m certainly not for sticking the military’s nose into the middle of any other countries affairs.

    Where we may differ is I am for America and her allies (not the U.N.) guaranteeing that the vast majority of the world (our allies, free independent countries, shipping lanes, air space, even space etc,) remain free from outside threat and open competitive traders, (hopefully I am saying this right). The only way to “guarantee” such a thing is with a mighty big stick.

    Internal conflicts, or conflicts between countries demagogic leaders should have no involvement from our military (unless it violates above paragraph)

    And, I may be wrong but this is where, I feel, Rep. Paul and I disagree. I am interested in your take on this..

    As a side question, I wonder how you, feel on this issue as it applies to the American war on poverty, not the use of the military lol, but thinking we can intervene and rescue people from themselves. As an ex-homeless guy (13 yrs or so on the streets[bout 24 years off now] I have come to the conclusion that, just like the Rwandans, only the individual can save himself from himself?

    • dysfunctional unit,

      Firstly, is there a human name I could address you with, or do have a good story behind your moniker?

      Second, I agree with you on your conceptualization of war. If we’re not going to fight somebody then there is no reason to be there.

      Third, states other than the US don’t have the capacity to shut down shipping lanes or invade other states. Attempting to do so in this day and age would be political and economic suicide. Even the US cannot wholly invade or occupy other states aggressively without dealing with adverse consequences for such actions.

      Aside from the capacity to do so, states generally don’t want to disrupt a good thing. The Chinese and the Russians (and even the Iranians) are more concerned about the security of their peripheries than they are with world trade. World players today have taken the lessons of World War I very seriously, and all of ’em view disruptions of trading routes as harmful, not beneficial.

      When problems do break out in regards to shipping lanes, for example, it is best to do two things: (1) look at why such a thing occurs (I wrote something on Somalia in case you are interested) and (2) recognize that tradable goods, services, and ideas will just go around the problem until it resolves itself. That is, conflicts and disruptions just harm the people involved in the region, whether they be pirates or nascent states trying to get some respect on the world stage. Prices may fluctuate briefly, but markets always get around a problem.

      Fourthly, you are right that only the individual can save himself. This does not mean we can’t show a brotha compassion, of course, but I’m sure you already knew this.

  2. bc-I have both a real name and a good (?) story behind it. The easiest way to explain what I mean by the term dysfunctional unit is to visit http://disfuctionalunit.com/2012/01/08/declaration-of-dysfunction-article-3-section-ii/ &
    http://disfuctionalunit.com/2012/01/12/declaration-of-dysfunction-addendum-1/.
    There are obviously two other articles to the declaration, but this will provide the best explanation in the fewest amount of words.
    I think the idea that may separate us is that word “compassion”. As an individual,I have compassion (okay maybe I’m not the best example) As individuals we should have compassion, as a govt…I believe that is questionable. I am a believer in the church (whether God is real or not is moot to my argument) being the agent of compassion in my community, and I believe if you read (can get past my dysfunctional writing style)my posts, I feel, provide some strong arguments for my particular dysfunctional schema.
    As to yer statement “Third, states other than the US don’t have the capacity to shut down shipping lanes..” at this time, at least, I am glad this is the case.
    The most difficult portion of my argument is that fer me, personally, I don’t care, I am an ex-half crazed dysfunctional unit, with very few needs and proportionally not that much time left on the planet. I do, or have come to, care about the America of my Dad and his Dad,and wish I could be leaving that America to my children, a laughable idea…I know.
    Hopefully you understand I am not waxing nostalgic with rose colored glasses, but I feel as part of the generation that said ‘we can do better’ its time to admit that maybe we were a little over confident in our assessment of our capabilities lolsidc.
    By the way I thoroughly enjoy both yours and Mr DelaCroix’s posts and believe that, like our founding fathers believed, democracy can only be achieved and maintained through constant vigilance, honest, open, and (at times heated) debate and a peoples faith in providence. So the blog you write together provides me with a healthy portion of that…
    Oh and it’s Tom thanks

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