A poor agency of change

There is a dispiriting resemblance between recent news about former Yugoslavia and news about Iraq, the two places that bracket the modern era of intervention.

The story started properly more than a decade ago when the halting process of persuasion, interference and coercion began that eventually brought a sort of peace to the ex-Yugoslav states.

It continued, through some terrible failures and some small successes in Africa and South-East Asia, to culminate in the American descents on Afghanistan and Iraq.

What was called humanitarian intervention merged into the campaign against terrorism and then into an assault on a so-called rogue state. Very different interventions, certainly, but some important similarities are evident in the outcomes.

They suggest we should be thinking as much about the sheer difficulty of intervention as about the justification for particular interventions.

The United Kingdom’s Hutton inquiry, straddling these two questions, is only the latest indication that Western countries have exaggerated the reliability of the instruments at their disposal. Ineffective diplomacy, overvalued voluntary agencies, armed forces that promise more than they can deliver and intelligence establishments that deliver more than they should are all parts of the picture.

The weakness of institutions that claim, or are assigned, more competence than they actually possess looms as large as the decisions, right or wrong, of elected governments.

Americans and Iraqis are now arguing over what form elections should take, lurching between the twin dangers of an outcome unacceptable to the majority community and one unacceptable to anybody else.

Serbians, meanwhile, voted in large numbers for the extreme nationalist Radical Party. The success of the Radicals follows the victory of the nationalist HDZ, or Croatian Democratic Union, in Croatia’s December elections, and the earlier success of nationalist parties in Bosnian elections; an obdurate communalism, after all these years of intervention, especially in Serbia.

It is worth recalling that Serbia has been the object of intensive diplomacy, of sanctions, of war, of international legal action and, more recently, of ”democratic subversion” by outside political helpers. And yet Vojislav Seselj still triumphs. Of course, the survival of Greater Serbia thinking has been helped by Western decisions, which have preserved a Serbian entity in Bosnia and a Serbian connection to Kosovo.

Western countries made these decisions because it was easier to accommodate nationalist forces than to confront them a second or third time. Occupying armies that wanted a minimum of trouble were part of the calculations.

The scene in Iraq has this in common, that the occupiers are driven by their calculation of likely resistance as much as by their calculations of what would be best for the country. It is not clear whether Shia and Kurdish objections to the proposed United States’s political dispensation will prevail nor that, if they do, it would be a bad thing. But what does link former Yugoslavia and Iraq is an element of the intervening state or states bargaining their way out of a situation they find wearing and threatening and dropping some of their objectives in the process.

While US and British intervention in Iraq differs in many obvious ways from the continuing collective intervention in former Yugoslavia, its course already illustrates the same parabola. That arches from initial overconfidence to unexpected difficulties and on to an outcome that, if not a failure, is far from an unalloyed success.

It may always have been part of the wisdom to understand that changing other societies is hard or, in other words, that foreign policy is difficult to do. But Western countries emerged from the Cold War with the sense that they had, or were developing, some very effective externally focused institutions. Their diplomatic services, released from the imperatives of the conflict with Russia, could now concentrate on the arrangements, including those within a revitalised United Nations, for more peaceful relations between most states.

Their intelligence services, after years of extreme alertness to a single main enemy, could turn undistracted to critical problems like terrorism and organised crime. Their armed forces could now justify in new tasks the money that had been lavished on them for so many years. And the burgeoning world of NGOs represented an informal arm of policy that could reach deep into other societies and change them at the grass roots.

Some crises, like Rwanda, were ignored. Others got attention, but we were not far along before a certain Potemkin aspect became visible. Diplomacy failed to head off trouble. Foreign ministers, special envoys and senior soldiers were sent off as double and triple acts, conferences came and went, threats and blandishments were both tried, to not much effect. The failure of Western diplomacy in the Balkans and the failure of diplomacy before the US’s intervention in Iraq had this in common, that nobody could bring about coherence among supposed allies.

When the military were used, the first shock, in the Balkans, was that European armed forces, with only limited exceptions, were very inadequate.

The second surprise was that although the Americans had far greater capacity, their military also had serious limitations, a surprise —experienced a second time in Iraq.

Either they were too careful, obsessed with force protection, as in the Balkans, or, as in Iraq, they sought big confrontations in which their greater firepower could be used but that endangered civilians and were frequently counterproductive for that reason.

The most resounding intelligence failure of the whole intervention era has certainly been that of accurately assessing Saddam Hussein’s holdings of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The US and British governments would not have gone to war if their intelligence chiefs had bluntly said there were no, or very few, such weapons or programmes. You cannot spin a ”No”.

This was not just a failure in the run-up to the recent war, but a failure going back years, if the growing evidence that the weapons of mass destruction programmes were abandoned or had collapsed in the course of the early 1990s is accepted.

If intelligence is this much out, it massively undercuts the pre-emptive principle which the Bush administration favours.

But it should be remembered that Western intelligence also failed in the Balkans — failed to predict the wars themselves and failed also to take a true measure of Serbian military strength, hugely inflating it and thus inhibiting action by our governments.

Faltering diplomacy, misleading intelligence, inadequate military forces and well-meaning but not always beneficial civil action — the defects demonstrated over the years in these critical institutions suggests the necessity not only for reform, but for a new modesty in the approach to intervention. — Â

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