Can Intervention Work? Hardcover – Aug 30 2011
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"I devoured this brilliant Burkean tract at a sitting. Is it too much to hope that it will be read not just in Downing Street and the Foreign Office, but also the State Department and the White House?" Peter Oborne, The Daily Telegraph "This is a book for our times..." The Spectator "Can we intervene in foreign countries and do good?...Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus are well placed to pose and answer these questions." The Economist "...Stewart and Knaus are both practitioners and scholars - with particular experience in Afghanistan and Bosnia, respectively. The combined effect is pessimistic, without actually ruling out further interventions." Gideon Rachman, The Financial Times, non-fiction favourites of 2011 "Rory Stewart MP and his co-author ask when it is right to intervene in another country and why it can all go disastrously wrong." The Sunday Times "A fresh and critically important perspective on foreign interventions." Washington Post "Presenting a well thought-out argument which compels us to change the way we conduct interventions..." Soldier --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
About the Author
Gerald Knaus, founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative, is a Carr Center Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The prose is elegant, the approaches balanced, and the end notes a reader's delight. In one relatively short book (the two timelines alone speak volumes), we learn the pros and cons of two specific interventions, as well as lessons from others. The authors home in on what has worked and why, and what has not worked; and, why we have persisted in cases of failure.
First up is Stewart, who had me at page one of "The Places in Between," his remarkable account of his 2001-2002 walk across Afghanistan; who solidified his standing even more with "The Prince of the Marshes," recounting his year as a Deputy Governor of the occupational government in Iraq. This incredibly talented individual is now a Member of Parliament. The book is the culmination of a year-long course he and Knaus taught recently at the Kennedy School of Government.
Stewart's answer to the title's question is: yes, but only if the intervention is rooted in "practical wisdom" of the particular area's history, geography, and anthropology. He uses Afghanistan as a textbook example of a total failure by leadership to recognize and take cognizance of Afghan realities. Stewart, rather, through his own first-hand experiences, shows why a thoroughly-informed local understanding is preferable. There is "no substitute for experience"-- and for intervention to work, such local wisdom must displace the "theoretical knowledge" that premises too many interventions. Practical wisdom also, Stewart writes, is imperative to counter-balance the understandable "limitations and manias of the West" likely to be raised against most-nearly any intervention. And, where even practical wisdom does not provide enough knowledge to be successful, a major power or coalition must be willing to acknowledge and act on a new article of faith, i.e., that failure is an option.
A wonderful analogy is Stewart's belief that intervention should be taught the way mountain rescue is taught. Can you actually do any good, under the best assessment of real-cliff circumstances? If so, go in, but only with the right gear and a good guide. If you cannot do any good in the best exercise of current practical wisdom, do not go. There is "no moral obligation to do what we cannot do."
Gerald Knaus follows Stewart and presents the 1990's intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina as a textbook example of successsful intervention. As he so skillfully recounts, the "astonishing success" was not so much the result of a grand design as much as it was a winning muddle. Knaus, consequently, answers the title question: "Yes, because it did."
Like Stewart, Knaus enormously benefited from journalistic, humanitarian and governmental experience in Bosnia; he has "practical wisdom" of the area. He had high rank in the one year Office of the High Representative (the entity set up to keep the peace after the Dayton Accord), and more recently has been Director of the European Study Initiative. Knaus writes lucidly and, like Stewart, without any condescending tone. Like Stewart, he has some great inside stories to tell (although nothing quite so spirited as the tale of Stewart, in his boxers, taking "what should we do now?" phone calls from Richard Holbrooke).
I skeptically thought Knaus had the easier case to make, but I'd forgotten until reading his account just how controversial and muddled the Bosnia intervention was. The Soviet Union had crumbled; Balkan wars broke out leading to a horrific genocidal campaign by Bosnian Serb forces, which controlled 70 percent of the area. More than 1,000,000 people fled or were displaced and 100,000 were killed.
The world was aghast but paralyzed. Certainly the sane forces needed to help bring an end to the mass atrocity crimes. The Bosnian government was trying; but, an arms embargo, among other things, hindered its efforts. Ultimately, a changing campaign of intimate but forceful diplomatic efforts (along with lifting the embargo and limited air strikes under Clinton), brought an accord, which itself exceeded all hopes for a renewed and thriving country.
From this, Knaus posits a new theory for successful intervention: "principled incrementalism...muddling through with a sense of purpose." It stands in stark contrast to the theory favored by some other administrations--"The Planning School"--whereby the RAND Corporation, believe it or not, has published abstract playbooks and quantified how-to steps for interventions, as if a cookie-cutter were appropriate.
But perhaps Knaus did have the easier case. In Bosnia all had a clear guiding "sense of purpose"--putting a stop to genocide. No coherent sense of purpose seems to have been articulated and conveyed for Afghanistan. Stewart and Knaus, together, illustrate that if a major power can't acquire the practical wisdom to declare a strong sense of purpose for an intervention, it should pass.
As I finished, the dictator of Libya is on the edge of being over-thrown, by rebels supported by a NATO coalition. President Obama expressed from the start an unwillingness to have the U.S. get too involved, although we participate and support the NATO forces. In so doing, it appears that this time he and his advisers have learned some of the excellent teachings of Stewart and Knaus. If their book is not already on his nightshelf, it should be soon, and on those of many others!
The arguments presented in the book are not about the cons of intervention, although from the breadth of the critique one might get the impression they are. Rather, the authors examine two interventionism theories purporting to offer a universal success formula for intervention: The planning school which dominates the U.S. approach and is most notably advocated by the RAND Corporation and its "Beginner's Guide to Nation Building", and the liberal imperialist school promoted by Paddy Ashdown, the High Representative in Bosnia. Both theories set impossibly high standards, e.g. "failure is not an option, any price is worth paying", and are ignorant of the fluid nature of local conditions and the complex interplay of politics among various host factions and their neighbors. In what they introduce as "principled incrementalism", or "passionate moderation", the authors set out to prove intervention is not conducive to a one size fits all, grand theory scientific approach. Every country and its circumstances are different, and much preplanning, planning while executing and local knowledge is required and often ignored, and the local players who are also often ignored can play an important role in overcoming obstacles.
Roughly 1 out of 4 military interventions have met with success since the early 1800's, and the authors are wise to point out done the right way, there is a chance future interventions can achieve sustainable success as well, but let's not be obsessed with cookie cutter democracies with "abstract theories of governance, development and state building."
My ongoing interest in our Middle East efforts had drawn me back to Stewart's up front perspectives once again. His personal experiences in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq have enabled his spot-on understanding and his blunt communication of what he sees. Are our leaders so blind? His assessment of the systemic problems existing within today's international policy process should not be ignored any longer. His is a unique and all encompassing look. Our policy of Fear must be abandoned.
The historian in Stewart draws upon our past failures in Vietnam and includes reminders of the British experiences in Afghanistan in the 1800s and in Iraq in the 1900s. Some of his descriptions include the actions of an assortment of the leaders involved [in their own words] along with the discussions of key figures like Holbrook and Petraeus. His summary of Military Optimism [pp. 50-57] is classic and should help to drive home how surreal the problem is and how difficult it is to define and qualify even in the words of the policymakers. His is a voice of uncommon reason that deserves your full attention.
Bob Magnant is the author of 'The Last Transition...', a fact-based novel about politics, the Internet and US policy in the Middle East...