Force: The Real ‘F’ Word

War seems so simple. Take the tragic case of Zimbabwe, suffering under the odious Robert Mugabe. The economy is collapsing; people are starving; disease is spreading. When the people tried to vote him out of office, his thugs brutalized everyone in his way. All that matters to him is retaining power. What to do? "Has anyone in that part of the world thought of the ‘f’ word – force," asks the Washington Times?

It’s easy to think about. Indeed, if the people thinking about the "f" word had their way, the US, and some of its allies, would be very, very busy.

There would be intervention to remove Mugabe from power (it would have to be the West, since no one "in that part of the world" has the capacity to easily occupy Harare). There would have been an invasion of Burma, to forcibly provide assistance after the recent typhoon and probably enforce regime change as well. There would be intervention in Sudan to stop the killing around Darfur, and perhaps to march on Khartoum. There would be a "peace-keeping" force for Congo to end what is in fact a regional war. There would have been intervention to save Lebanon from Syria’s grasp, perhaps even seizing Damascus along the way. And there would be another effort in Somalia, tossing out the Islamists, suppressing the warlords, killing the pirates, and recreating the Somali state.

In short, if one thinks seriously about the "f" word, a very full agenda awaits America.

The desire to intervene hither and yon currently resides primarily in the imaginations of editorial and think tank warrior-wanna-bees, but the incoming administration may soon give the impulse life. President-elect Barack Obama has indicated his sympathy for so-called humanitarian intervention, his UN Ambassador-designate, Susan Rice, has avidly supported the concept, and Samantha Power, a campaign and transition aide likely to end up with an important administration post, also backs the idea. As always, Washington is overrun with people willing to risk other people’s lives for supposedly good causes.

The appeal of humanitarian intervention is obvious. Congo’s interminable wars have consumed millions of lives. More than one million people likely have died throughout Sudan over the last couple of decades. The Burmese junta ruthlessly represses both activists promoting democracy and ethnic groups fighting for autonomy. Lebanon has suffered through civil war, foreign invasion and occupation, and brutal meddling for more than three decades. Somalia is the prototype of a failed state, going from brutal dictatorship and endless war to social implosion and endless conflict. Zimbabwe, once a prosperous breadbasket for the region, has been destroyed by the vanity and greed of Robert Mugabe and his murderous posse.

The "f" word seems like the simple answer. Just intervene and fix the problem! Oppressed peoples will throw flowers and candies at their liberators, ethnic, religious, and political differences will dissolve, and the lion will lie down with the lamb.

Unfortunately, however, humanitarian intervention rarely seems to work out that way. War is the most brutal instrument, designed to kill and destroy, difficult to control, and unpredictable in consequence. Even granting a genuine desire to help – an objective often secondary among presidents and prime ministers, and defense secretaries and foreign ministers, no matter how well-intentioned they declare themselves to be – the means is ill-suited to the end. God is better able than governments to bring good out of so much ill.

Exhibit number one is Iraq, of course. The recent drop in violence is significant precisely because it reflects a reduction in extraordinary levels of murder and mayhem. The unnecessary US invasion and botched occupation turned much of the country into a charnel house. Estimates of the number of dead Iraqis starts in the tens of thousands and runs up to a million or more. Even more have been injured, and several million Iraqis have been forced from their homes, many into foreign exile. Iraqi society has been brutally torn asunder.

The nation may eventually heal, though how completely and how quickly remain unclear. But the consequences of the supposedly simple act of removing a reviled dictator turned out to be far more complicated and costly than the enthusiastic ivory tower advocates of war suggested.

Few of the other cases of intervention for humanitarian purposes, broadly conceived, worked very well. Ronald Reagan’s 1983 insertion of US military forces into the violent maelstrom known as Lebanon, where an estimated 25 different factions had been battling for years, was the worst decision of his presidency. Using the U.S.S. New Jersey to bombard Lebanese hillsides merely highlighted America’s impotence: Washington was incapable of suppressing military conflict or effecting a political settlement.

In 1994 the US threatened to invade Haiti to restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a violent but admittedly popular demagogue, to power. Haiti continued to languish in poverty and brutality. Ten years later Washington orchestrated Aristide’s ouster, followed by a new military occupation.

Bombing ethnic Serbs helped stop the conflict ravaging Bosnia – which, however, would have ended almost before it started had Washington not pushed the Bosnian Muslims to reject the Lisbon accord in 1992. The result was years of horrific war costing tens of thousands of lives. Now Paddy Ashdown, who served as the EU-appointed High Representative for Bosnia, and Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the Dayton Accord ending the war, warn that the artificial Bosnian state, preserved with so much blood, is in danger of breaking up.

The allied victory in Kosovo led to two waves of ethnic cleansing by the ethnic Albanians, America’s supposed allies, against Serbs, Roma, non-Albanian Muslims, and Jews. The nominally independent government in Pristina, dependent upon Western largesse for its survival and run by former guerrillas once termed "terrorists" by US officials, is widely seen as a black hole of regional crime and possibly Islamic radicalism. NATO’s aggressive war against Serbia offered Russia a perfect precedent and pretext for Moscow’s attack on Georgia in August.

President Bill Clinton famously turned a feeding mission into a warlord-hunting campaign in Somalia, with disastrous results. A foolish raid into the heart of Mogadishu cost 18 Americans and an estimated thousand Somalis their lives. The American people exclaimed "what the f***!", and the intervention was effectively over. Ethiopia’s more recent intervention, backed by Washington, has cost thousands more Somalis their lives and generated as many as a million refugees – while leaving the country in chaos.

There’s no reason to believe that campaigns in Sudan, Congo, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Burma, Lebanon, or any of the other potential targets of the "f" word would turn out any better. The desire to reach out and resolve horrendous conflicts and clean up terrible killing fields is laudable. But while war invariably transforms societies, the results usually end up far worse than intended. And those at the receiving end of America’s supposed good intentions, such as so many innocent Iraqis, usually suffer the most.

Moreover, the US government should not be risking the lives of its own people, those serving in the armed services, as well as those put at risk by the blowback that so often follows military intervention overseas, without something substantial at stake for their own society. Servicemen and women are not gambit pawns to be sacrificed in some global chess game. War is murder and brutality writ large, something sometimes necessary in self-defense, but never an appropriate tool for attempted social engineering in other nations.

Yes, let’s think about the "f" word. And let’s agree not to use it except as a last resort, in defense of vital interests, when all other reasonable options have been exhausted. No more promiscuous interventions, generating hostility and violence around the world. No more wars of choice, with bombs dropped and armies unleashed to achieve the unachievable. No more blood-stained collateral damage, explained away in rhetoric mimicking the "you’ve got to break eggs to make an omelet" argument once advanced by communists to defend the enormous human cost of their revolutions.

A policy of peace truly would be change that we all could believe in.