Friday, October 27, 2006

Intervening militarily in Darfur compared with Iraq

A few days ago former Clinton senior national security staffer Susan Rice (likely headed for an even higher post in a future Democratic administration) was on some NPR talk show discussing the question of intervention in Darfur - military intervention of some kind. Rice was in favor, although vague on the details. On the other side was Eric Posner, law professor at the University of Chicago.

Rice adopted in effect a robustly idealist position, based in large part around the emerging ideal of the "responsibility to protect" - the norm that outsiders have an obligation to intervene to prevent such large scale human rights failures as genocide, crimes against humanity, etc., even if it means violating state sovereignty. It is one of those claims which divides US conservatives, in particular - neocons or, more broadly, idealists in foreign policy, including myself, Tod Lindberg, and other tend to support it. Realists - Eric Posner is prominently one - tend to oppose it. Lee Feinstein of the Council on Foreign Relations (and no conservative) has written an exceptionally good public report on the responsiblity to protect.

What interests me about Rice's position is to ask what, if anything but a horror of the label, separates it from dread neoconservatism. After all, neoconservatism in foreign policy has been correctly described as a willingness to use force for moral purposes, with a faith - misguided, many would say in the wake of Iraq - in the ability to use military force for the good. Well, Rice might reply, there are two differences at least.

The first is that the use of force we contemplate is multilateral - perhaps even the "realistic Wilsonianism" multilateralism that Fukuyama, Beinart, many Democratic Party worthies champion. It will not be, in other words, the foolish Iraq neoconservative intervention that lacked support in the international community but which was merely American unilateralism (not precisely an accurate statement but widely believed). Our intervention will be a coalition of nations backed by the will of the international community.

Is that true, however, if it were to come about? It is very unlikely that China would waive its opposition to Security Council action for forcible intervention in Sudan, either on its general hard sovereignty foreign policy position or its virtual renting out of its SC veto for commercial purpose, as in Sudan oil. The opposition of the General Assembly, consisting of the G77, the Islamic conference, and other folks who would reflexively support Sudan, is stronger still. So that means that the "international community" in this case comes down to NATO plus a few others. For many who describe themselves as "multilateralist," that is all they really mean - in practice, the support of France, Germany, and Western Europe. Multilateralism of essentially twenty countries that matter out of the 196 or so in the world. So if it is "multilateral," it is really only mini-multilateralism.

And for that matter, although Rice stresses the multilateral part, many of the folks gung ho on Darfur intervention believe that the US should simply form a coalition of the willing - shades of Iraq, anyone? - and intervene because the moral grounds demand it no matter who comes along or not. It is a moral imperative - and I must say that the difference between that position among liberal activists and neoconservatism is thin to nonexistent.

The second difference, it might be argued, between this kind of liberal interventionism and neoconservatism is that the intentions are different. In Iraq, the US intervened, it might be argued, essentially for its self-interest - oil, for some, preventively on the question of WMD for others (even if mistakenly, in the peformance). In Darfur, the US is intervening as liberals have long urged - for altruistic reasons alone, without interests, America the pure in the way that Albright always dreamed.

There are two problems with this second position. The first is that with roughly the same force and strength that the left constructed "interests" of the United STates in intervening in Iraq - oil, WMD, hegemony, etc. - one could just as easily construct "interests" for a US intervention in Sudan - oil, to start with. And mark that much of the world would see it in precisely that light - not a struggle of good and evil over genocide, but a struggle between the US and China, the hegemon and its rising challenger, over global energy supplies. In any case, the neocon case for war in Iraq was only made out late in the day as an interested preventive strike against WMD; during the earlier debate, it was made out on grounds as idealistic about eliminating a genuinely and unquestionably evil dictator, Saddam, as is now made out about genocide in Darfur. One has to be very much "inside" the idealist moral debate to see much difference between the former idealism and the latter one; anyone from the outside, looking as a realist or even simply as an outsider to highly refined Western human rightsism morality, would be hardpressed to see a difference. Both would look like idealist crusades, subject to essentially the same pitfalls.

Thus the second problem with the altruistic intent position is that it is, on the newly minted liberal-realism account of things, precisely what led the neocons into error on Iraq. Looking at Iraq through the rosy colored spectacles of the purity of their own intentions - this is Beinart specifically, but many others also - and having humility stripped away by moral hubris, neocons believed that their clean hands and pure hearts would, by themselves, lead to victory in Iraq. Purity of intention led to a massive miscalculation as to what people in Iraq wanted - we thought, liberal democracy, they thought, Islamic democracy dominated by my sect, tribe, ethnic group.

Precisely the same conflation of intentions purifying the path to victory awaits in Darfur, it might be thought. The neocons, according to Fukuyama, believed that their own goodness would overcome the tendency of grand social engineering projects (and this was also a tenet, but an ignored one, of neoconservatives) to produce unanticipated bad consequences. The same awaits in Darfur, or at least one who has taken on board the liberal realist critique of neoconservatism might be forgiven for so thinking.

One way that this tendency to substitute pure intention for reality might be found in Rice's suggestions for military action. She proposed, in the NPR interview, the imposition of a no-fly zone, or simply the destruction of the Sudanese airforce, including the helicopters that have supported the village slaughters, if the Sudanese government does not accept outside protecting forces. Military force would be used, as she said, to cause the Sudanese government pain, in the model of how Nato casued Milosevic pain in the Yugoslavia conflicts. But this strategic view has some grave weaknesses that, through the haze of good intentions, become invisible. The most important is that the Milosevic pressure situation is really very special. Strategically, much more likely is that the destruction of the Sudanese airforce does not lead to capitulation, but instead finding low tech means of doing the same thing. And the low tech solution becomes entrenched and much more difficult - impossible, even - to root out. Gradualism, gradual escalating of pain to a regime on the assumption that it will make rational decisions to capitulate, has not been a favored theory since McNamara's failure with it in the Vietnam airwar.

On the contrary, the favored view has been that of Powell and many others, that you prefer an enemy to fight with semi-high tech systems which are quickly overcome - if you proceed gradually, the enemy adjusts and, in adjusting technology downwards, makes it very difficult to combat. Only Wesley Clark, because of his experience in the very special Kosovo conflict, and former Clinton administration officials, seem to think any differently. Take away the Sudanese helicopters and it is very possible that they will discover that they can do genocide quite effectively without them - whereas if one had chosen a war of rapid and overwhelming force, they would not yet have had means of asymmetric warfare in place. And, of course, there are good reasons to believe that once the formal army is knocked out that, just as in Iraq, asymmetric forms of warfare, guerrilla warfare, terrorism, will spring up to sap the will of the outside forces.

In addition, if one goes beyond air war to ground war, even using coalition forces - there is no reason in principle why they are not subject to many of the contingencies that occur in Iraq. The force to space ratio is horrrendous; it is far from clear how the relatively small amount of troops that would be available for a very large space indeed would control that space. Many of the problems that beset the US in Iraq would find, if not precise equivalents, imprecise ones and analogies in seeking to act in Darfur. It is a significant mistake to duplicate the neocon error in Iraq and think that purity of intention and perception of moral goodness can substitute for a dispassionate and realistic plan on the ground - including the possibility that, genocide notwithstanding, there is no military option that would be acceptable to outsiders in terms of its costs. After all, that is essentially what we have accepted with regard to North Korea, largely on account of the risks of war to Seoul. Nowhere is it written in the sky that if you have good intentions and genocide to stop, there is a strategic plan that will succeed for you.

I say this as someone who is in fact committed to the responsibility to protect and action, with or without the so-called international community, with military force if necessary, to end the genocide in Sudan. Does that make me, as a sort of conservative, a neocon? Don't know and don't care. But liberals who think that they can see many and profound differences between their idealist position on Sudan and the neocon case for Iraq might consider that even if they are right that there is a deep moral difference between the two, operationally they suffer from many of the same difficulties. Gradualism runs the risk that the regime will discover far too soon (within a military paradigm) that it can get along without helicopters and many other things, and it assumes that regimes act rationally in response to pain by giving in rather than making other adjustments. Having too few troops in a vast country is practically guaranteed by the free-riding politics of an international community that specializes in insincere promises as a form of game theory - heck, it was practically guaranteed by politics even within the United States with respect to Iraq.

Anyone prepared - as I am - to use force in Sudan had better also be prepared to live with unexpected consequences that have their own (admittedly broad) analogues to Iraq - the possibility of ever wider civil war, even the breakup of the country, the uncertainties that Clauswitz, or for that matter Lincoln, noted go with war. There can be no assuming that the consequences of the use of force can be channeled as we desire, just because our hands are clean and our hearts are pure, any more than they have been in Iraq. I saw no indication that Susan Rice is prepared for that at all. And anyone contemplating the use of force in Sudan had better understand that the difference between this form of muscular liberal idealism and neoconservatism is far, far thinner than current political debates would have you believe.