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- Published on Amazon.com
This is the second installment of a new series published by Amnesty International, whose goal is to present distinguished scholars distilling "the most vexing" issues to their "clearest and most compelling essences." Judging by this most skilled, informative and engaging treatment on intervention by two keen "hands-on" participants, Amnesty International has more than exceeded its difficult goal.
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!