The perils of good intentions

This is my review of Can Intervention Work? (Amnesty International Global Ethics) (Norton Global Ethics Series) by Rory Stewart,Gerald Knaus.

Focusing on Afghanistan since 2001, Rory Stewart identifies reasons for the failure of intervention to achieve a "sustainable solution". Goals have been unclear, obscured by buzzwords and western-style "management speak". Leaders sent in to sort out the problems have stayed for only short periods, with foreign specialists remaining ignorant of the local culture since they rarely set foot outside protected compounds for security reasons. So, each successive surge of ever larger numbers of troops, with additional resources and revised policies, has failed to stabilise the situation.

Little heed was taken of McNamara's "lessons" from Vietnam, notably that "there may be no immediate solutions. We failed to recognise the limitations of modern high-technology military equipment, forces and doctrine…We viewed people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own experiences. We do not have a God-given right to shape every nation in our own image or as we choose. We exaggerated the dangers to the United States".

In contrast to Stewart's somewhat rambling, anecdotal contribution which often seems overly concerned to display his literary style, Gerald Knaus produces a systematic, coherent and very informative analysis of the relatively successful restoration of peace in Bosnia from the late 1990s, although recent events may have undermined this. Triggered, some say too late, by shame over inaction in the face of genocide in Rwanda and Srebinica, intervention in Bosnia largely took the form of targeted bombing and training to support Croatian and Bosnian soldiers against the Serbs.

Knaus examines four interpretations of intervention in the Balkans. He is critical of the "planning school of nation-building" as developed by the American Rand Corporation think tank which argues that the number of troops and resources needed to subdue a population of a certain size can be calculated "scientifically" using formulae. It is a simple questions of inputs versus outputs. The fact that Vietnam at one point had more than 600,000 troops covering a population of 19 million suggests the inadequacy of this approach, which is also likely to be prohibitively expensive anyway for a large country.

At the other extreme is the "sceptical futility" school which Knaus finds too negative: "if you understand the culture, if you avoid counterproductive violence……… if you train the local forces well, if you pick your allies wisely, if you protect enough civilians and win their loyalty and more you might succeed," but that there are too many "ifs" to make this likely.

Knaus concedes that a period of tough, authoritarian "liberal imperialism" may be necessary as practised by Paddy Ashdown when High Representative in Bosnia, but he clearly favours what he calls "principled incrementalism", a kind of "muddling through with a sense of purpose" in, for instance, the process of enabling displaced groups to return with a degree of grassroots organisation.

Although very interesting and chastening reading, this book might have been more effective if ideas could have been integrated into a continuous whole, rather than presented in two separate sections by different authors with some repetition. Coverage of a wider range of war zones would also have been useful to demonstrate key points.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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