Why Interventionism Fails

by , August 18, 2007

Aggressive wars are immoral: mass murder is unforgivable, and our foreign policy of global interventionism puts us in the same moral class as any of the European imperialist powers that blundered their way through Africa, East Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East. Anti-imperialism is, first and foremost, a moral position, especially for Americans, who have always utilized the world stage to dramatize their own virtue.

Yet the question of how, when, and if we ought to intervene abroad, either militarily or in some other, less obtrusive manner, can also be settled in its own terms. The case against interventionism can be made in a purely practical, empirical framework: i.e. it can be shown that it just doesn’t work. Not because the wrong people are in charge, not due to incompetence, the wearing of ideological blinders, or some other disability or shortcoming on the part of policymakers – but because it is simply not possible, no matter who is in charge.

What rules out any really effective foreign intervention, either military or economic (i.e. taxpayer-funded “aid” programs of one sort or another), is the sheer complexity of the terrain we find ourselves on. There are just too many factors to fit comfortably into convenient equations, too many layers of historical debris to uncover and clear away, too many ancient disputes that can only be dimly understood by outsiders. The common complaint, by war critics and the neocons, is that there wasn’t enough “planning” done by the administration, that insufficient resources made available to the Iraq war effort, etc., etc. Yet no amount of resources deployed under the constraints of even the most meticulous, well-thought-out plan can achieve what we set out to do in Iraq, i.e. create a stable democratic ally, or even a stable replacement for the despotism we upended.

To take just one example, close at hand, take a look at the reporting done on the horrific bombing of a village outside Mosul in northern Iraq, in which the death toll may rise to 500. The village was populated almost entirely by Yezidis, members of an obscure pre-Islamic sect the origins of which are lost in the mists of time. The death toll from this series of suicide bombings was so high because the desperately poor Yazidis live packed very close together in mud-brick compounds.

The U.S. government is pointing to al Qaeda as the perpetrator of this horrendous atrocity, while Patrick Cockburn attributes it to “Sunni Arab Jihadi insurgents,”, and we have yet a third explanation from a commenter on Juan Cole’s blog, who sees the dispute rooted in the land question and the displacement of Yazidi and Arab settlers, and points to a different culprit:

“The Yezidis … captured a video of Izzat ad-Duri meeting with Saddam Hussein in 1998 or so in which he suggested eliminating the Yezidis in Sinjar completely. Saddam allegedly demurred, but Izzat ad-Duri is feared and reviled by the Yezidis. The authors of this bombing may well be linked to the reorganized Ba’ath, under Izzat ad-Duri, even if they managed to find some foreign youths to drive the vehicles and blow themselves up.”

The administration has targeted al Qaeda as the reason we’re in Iraq, and so every major atrocity must be attributed to them, and yet the reality is much more complex than this paradigm allows. And the question arises: if we can’t know with reasonable certainty who or what was behind this latest atrocity, the biggest single mass killing since the invasion itself, then what can we know? How much can we know about what is really going on in Iraq?

This is really the crux of the matter: it’s irrelevant how much planning we do, or how vast are our resources, because it boils down to a knowledge problem – one that has no solution. The truth is that there are too many factors, too much history, too many past injustices to rectify, and no way of either gaining or integrating such a massive quantity of knowledge and applying it to the decision-making process.

Cockburn warns that the northern part of Iraq, including parts of Kurdistan, is the next site of violent conflict: tensions are rising over possession of oil rights, centered around Kirkuk, and land rights disputes rooted in Saddam Hussein’s population transfer programs, which pit Arabs against Kurds. Caught in the middle are the Yazidis, who have traditionally tried to play off the various ethnic and religious factions against each other and thus protect themselves.

I offer this capsule description of a complex situation in the full knowledge that it provides only a shadow of the true picture, which is infinitely more variegated and rich than I could possibly communicate in anything less than a three-volume treatise. I am not conceited enough to believe that I truly understand what the situation is on the ground, nor am I convinced that, even if I went to live there for a time, that I, as an outsider, born in a very different set of circumstances, could ever truly comprehend what the region’s conflicts are all about, let alone how best to navigate them.

The conceit that we can understand, let alone decisively influence for the better, the complex interplay of historical, religious, and cultural factors operating in Iraq is what motivates the War Party to soldier on. What’s interesting is that this has been recognized by conservatives as a conceit, and a potentially fatal one, when it is exercised on the home front: massive social engineering projects like the so-called Great Society, the New Deal, etc., have traditionally been rejected by American conservatives, who see the dead hand of government as hopelessly incompetent and dangerously empowered by these ultimately quixotic gestures. Yet, today, they have their own New Deal for the Middle East.

Bush’s New Deal for Iraq, a program of military occupation and economic “reconstruction,” is failing not because insufficient money is being spent – at a price tag of two trillion, our investment is considerable – and not due to incompetence or bad planning, but because we have reached the outer limits of American power.

We are simply not qualified to sit in judgement and decide the age-old disputes of the Yazidi versus the Muslims, the Arabs versus the Kurds, the Sunnis versus the Shi’ites, not to mention the conflicts between various clans, tribes, and sub-clans. Yet, as the de facto authority in Iraq, that is precisely what we must do, and it can only lead to … a bottomless quagmire. Which is precisely where we find ourselves today.

As a libertarian, I am opposed to central planning on principle: it couldn’t work in Iraq for precisely the same reasons it didn’t work in the Soviet Union, and doesn’t work anywhere. However, at least the domestic advocates of economic planning in the US are reasonably close to, and knowledgeable about, the people whose fates they would hold in their hands. In the case of our “conservative” planners, who would map out the future of a foreign country on their drawing boards, they are treading on largely unknown terrain, without any first-hand knowledge or experience to guide them even provisionally. This is worse than hubris: it is sheer stupidity.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

Our summer fundraising campaign is faltering, and I’m beginning to panic. Yes, I know, we’ve always made it, but there’s always a first time – and, believe me, our first time will be our last. Because if we don’t make our fundraising goal, I can’t assure you that this column will continue – or that Antiwar.com will continue, for that matter. We depend entirely on the large quantity of typically small contributions that our readers and supporters send in, four times a year, to keep our heads above water. But the water, I’m afraid, is rising quickly, and we’re already gasping for air.

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