December 05, 2005

Walking into the Iran Trap, II: The Folly of Intervention

[Part I of this series will be found here.]

To provide some necessary background, I want to focus on what I consider to be probably the single most important principle concerning foreign intervention. The rule is one that applies to any intervention that is not absolutely necessitated by a grave threat to our nation's security -- any intervention, in other words, that is not a genuine act of self-defense. The rule is very simple in its most basic form, but no less important for that:
Intervention always leads to more intervention: the first intervention leads to unforeseen and uncontrollable consequences, which are then used as the justification for still further intervention. That intervention in turn leads to still more unforeseen and uncontrollable consequences, which are then used as yet another justification for still further intervention. The process can go on indefinitely, and the ultimate consequences are always disastrous in the extreme.
Consider a very broad example of this principle, one which has extended for almost a century. The initial intervention was the United States involvement in World War I. Almost all historians now agree that, unless you take a very expansive view of U.S. interests (one which I would contend is completely unjustified, and can be salvaged only if you view the entire world as our rightful domain), it is impossible to defend the U.S. entrance into World War I on the grounds of self-defense.

Only a few scant months after winning reelection on a "peace" platform, Woodrow Wilson began a propaganda campaign to convince the American public to swallow his plans for U.S. intervention in Europe that the Bush administration can only look upon with envy. The U.S. entrance into the First World War prolonged that conflict. Among other consequences, it helped lead to the collapse of the Russian government and the rise of the Soviet Union, and it sowed the seeds for the rise of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. In all crucial ways, the "war to end all wars" led directly to World War II. As one commentator concisely puts it:
In 1917 the U.S. government decided to embark on another overseas military adventure — entry into World War I, which involved a complex conflict between many European powers. ...

More than 100,000 American men were sacrificed in World War I. One consequence of the war was the Russian Revolution, which brought Vladimir Lenin and communism to power in the Soviet Union. Another consequence, which can be directly attributed to U.S. intervention in the war, was the chaos arising from the total defeat of Germany, which in turn gave rise to Adolf Hitler and National Socialism.
Almost everyone today agrees that the United States had no choice but to enter World War II. I will not make the contrary argument here; I will another time, and I think a strong case can be made that the U.S. might have been far better advised to let Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany battle one another. Whoever won, we would have had one less enemy to worry about, and the surviving country would have been significantly weakened; in addition, a negotiated peace might have been achieved much earlier -- thus saving much of Europe's Jewish population (and also avoiding the deaths of many millions more). In the event, when one considers the ultimate result, the major victor in World War II was not the United States, but the Soviet Union. In that article, Jacob Hornberger lays out in general terms another course World War II might have taken, had we not allied ourselves with Soviet Russia. That alliance led to a number of acts that are unjustifiable by any standard, save a crude pragmatism divorced from any concern whatsoever with justice and morality:
And what about Western participation in the murder of hundreds of thousands of anti-communist Russians after the end of the war? Despite the communist victory in the Russian Revolution in 1917, many Russians nevertheless still hated communism and communist rule by the time World War II broke out. That’s why some of them either refused to fight for Stalin’s communist dictatorship or chose to fight against it, the most notable example being Andrey Vlasov, the famous Russian general who decided to fight against Stalin and the communists after he was captured by the Germans.

In the eyes of Stalin and, indeed, in the eyes of Truman and Churchill, a Russian fighting against our partner Joseph Stalin and his communist comrades was a real no-no. So when Stalin demanded that Truman and Churchill deliver the anti-communist Russians to him after Germany’s surrender so that he could either murder them or send them to the Gulag, Truman and Churchill willingly complied. Is that what a partnership with evil to defeat evil is all about?
We should also recall that, whatever one's view of the other considerations, Roosevelt was reelected in 1940 largely because he declared: “I’ve said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” The record is indisputably clear: political leaders are never to be believed when they make such declarations. The most recent painfully transparent example is Bush's repeated condemnation during the 2000 campaign of Clinton's efforts at "nation-building" -- a policy Bush enthusiastically embraced soon afterwards, with calamitous results.

A greatly strengthened and expanded Soviet empire followed World War II (in very significant part, as the direct result of massive U.S. aid), and that led directly into the Cold War. We know too well of the part of the Cold War that reached down to deal us a terrible blow on 9/11: our involvement in Afghanistan in order to weaken Russia, when we aided the muhjihadeen. Many experts warned at the time that our temporary friends would eventually become our enemies. As is almost always the case, our leaders resolutely refused to look past the immediate conflict at the longer-term consequences. Of course, our temporary allies did turn against us, especially when we left Afghanistan to its own devices once it had served our narrower purpose.

We must note yet another consequence of our interventions that is directly relevant to 9/11 -- and this one may be especially unwelcome to liberal readers. Brendan O'Neill describes what happened in the 1990s:
The missing link in the debates about terrorism, about the shift from the more politically-oriented violence of the past to the blindly ruthless attacks of today, is the West's foreign interventions of the 1990s. It is by examining these that we can start to make sense of today's seemingly senseless terror. Such interventions, particularly in the Balkans, did much to create the conditions for the rise of the new stateless groups that are so different from old-style nationalist movements.

The end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and early 1990s gave rise to new rounds of Western intervention in the third world - interventions that were justified as defending beleaguered peoples against ruthless dictators and upholding human rights across the globe, rather than in the selfish, national interests of Western elites. From Operation Restore Hope in Somalia in 1993, to the dropping of bombs to bring 'peace' to the Balkans in the mid-90s, to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair's Kosovo war of 1999, the battles over territory and influence that defined the Cold War period were replaced with new wars that would, we were told, liberate people from tyranny.

Yet for all its stated aims, humanitarian intervention powerfully destabilised the world order, undermining the institutions that had cohered the international order in the postwar period. At the heart of the new humanitarianism there was a distinct hostility to the sovereign nation state, which had been the building block of international affairs for nearly 50 years. The Clinton administration, king of the humanitarian age, made clear its disdain for the old idea of non-intervention in sovereign states' affairs. In the early 1990s Clinton adviser Strobe Talbott outlined their preferred approach to world affairs: 'Nationhood as we know it will be obsolete. All states will recognise a single global authority.... A phrase that was briefly fashionable in the mid-twentieth century - citizen of the world - will have assumed real meaning by the end of the twentieth century.'


In undermining state authority, humanitarianism created the space for the rise of non-state actors - and it encouraged their movement across borders. This double impact of Western interventionism reached its zenith in the Balkans.

From the start of the 1990s, outside intervention in the Balkans internationalised local tensions. German recognition of the Croat and Slovene republics in 1991, Russian backing of the Serbs, American recognition of the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992 and its support for the Bosnian Muslim side - all of this transformed Yugoslavia's internal political differences into heated international issues, paving the way for a prolonged war. Western meddling ruptured Yugoslavia's internal structures, while ensuring that external pressures were increasingly brought to bear on the region. As part of this destabilising process, the USA permitted the movement of Mujihadeen forces from the Middle East and Central Asia to fight alongside the Bosnian Muslims against the Serbs.

In 1993, as documented in David Halberstam's seminal War In a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals, President Clinton gave a 'green light' to the arming of the Bosnian Muslims by Iran and Saudi Arabia, even though this defied a UN embargo against arming any side in the Yugoslav conflict (8). From 1993 to 1996 there was an influx of weapons and military advisers into Bosnia, largely organised by Iranian and Saudi officials. This opened the floodgates to the arrival of Mujihadeen fighters from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria and elsewhere, to fight with the Bosnian Muslims. All of this took place under the watchful eye of a Clintonian policy of 'no instruction' - in short, such movements should not be interfered with and, if possible, should be encouraged by a 'green light' (9).


Since 9/11, the US State Department and European officials have fretted about the consequences of the movement of Mujihadeen forces into Europe. The State Department is concerned that Bosnia-Herzegovina has become a 'staging area and safe haven for terrorists', including 'extremists with ties to bin Laden'. Some may now be looking at Russia after the Beslan school siege and asking what the hell they unleashed; they will no doubt support the Russian government's condemnation of foreign and Arab extremists in Chechnya. Yet targeting individual Arabs and attempting to rein in those forces unleashed in the 1990s will do little to bring peace to these regions. The underlying problem is contemporary Western intervention and its corrosive impact, rather than handfuls of mad Arabs.


The Mujihadeen was created and financed by the right in the 1980s, by the Reagan administration and the Thatcher government, to take on the Soviets in the Afghan war of 1979 to 1992 - that last gasp of the Cold War. In the 1990s, the baton was passed to the left; Mujihadeen forces effectively became the armed wing of Western liberal opinion, moving across borders to fight what politicians and liberal commentators in the West considered to be 'good wars', from Bosnia to Kosovo and also in Chechnya. It was the internationalisation of local conflicts by Western governments that encouraged the internationalisation of the Mujihadeen, transforming what had been a specific Afghan-based phenomenon into an effectively global force.
Many liberals remain greatly enamored of "humanitarian" interventions like the one in the Balkans -- while they continue to pay scant attention to direct consequences of this kind. Their reluctance to acknowledge and grapple with the problem is all too human -- and it is more, not less, dangerous for that. O'Neill provides much more history and detail in his article, and I recommend it to you.

Our latest intervention in the Middle East has had the same kind of result. It is highly doubtful, if not impossible, that anything resembling a genuine democracy on the Western model will take root in Iraq any time in the foreseeable future, and the country may yet devolve into full-fledged civil war. In many respects, it is tragically well on its way to that dreaded outcome even now. But there is one clear victor thus far: Iran. As I've discussed, our invasion and occupation of Iraq has defeated one enemy only to fan the flames of a worldwide jihadist movement. Similarly, this latest intervention has greatly strengthened the regional position of Iran -- one of the three members of Bush's original "Axis of Evil." Iran has been the sole victor in much the same way, in principle, that the Soviet Union was the primary victor after World War II.

These are only some of the very bitter fruits of foreign intervention: uncontrollable consequences are always set loose and, all too often, those consequences are directly opposed to what the original stated purpose had been. And yet, like the insane man, we repeat this behavior over and over again, insisting that this time the result will be different, and it will finally work -- and we'll get exactly the result we want, and no others at all.

Given the complexity of factors involved in interventions of this kind -- the complicated issues of history, culture, politics, and society and the endless variations involving how these factors interact within one country and among different countries -- the desired outcome simply cannot be dictated in this manner, no matter how great the military forces at one's disposal. You would think the current experience in Iraq would prove that, once and for all.

But our capacity to deny the obvious is limitless, and we will not surrender our idea that we can control events exactly as we wish. And so we do it again, and we may continue doing it. In the next part, I'll examine the history of Western and U.S. intervention in connection with the Middle East generally and with regard to Iran in particular, and how our continuous interventions have in very significant part caused the grave dilemma that faces us today.