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The Dawn Of Illiberal Intervention


If a government is butchering its own people, should other countries use force to stop them?

We make instinctive responses to this. For some, it is a moral duty to do what we can. For others, the use of force is not justifiable and will only bring more suffering. Still others think it is no business to get involved unless their own country’s interests are at stake. Some probably think all three in the same stream of thought.


Christian thought and humane philosophy forged the theory of just war and every democratic leader still feels they must set out the justice of their military actions. This a complicated and nuanced process and calling the parable of the Good Samaritan in support only goes so far, because, having saved the life of the victim, the Samaritan did not then go after the robbers with lethal force, like some Roman-era Bryan Mills from the movie series Taken. But should this mean we give up on the threat, or use, of force as a means of protection the citizens of other nations when it is a fundamental component of our own?


It is twenty years since the high water mark of humanitarian intervention in western foreign policy. The assault upon Serbia in 1999 for its ethnic cleansing in Kosovo produced the intended result and was followed in time with the downfall of its bloodthirsty president Slobodan Milosevic. For the UK, there was a further successful intervention in the appalling civil war in Sierra Leone a year later, that helped to restore peace and order to a country it has close ties with.


The reality since the Cold War has, however, been a zigzag in policy. First came Somalia in 1991, where attempts to help with a famine were complicated by the targeting of a culpable warlord, resulting in US deaths and a hasty retreat by the new Clinton administration. Massacres following the dissolution of Yugoslavia and in Rwanda were not met with military intervention, but what happened in and around places like Srebrenica and Kigali shamed some key politicians and publics into a new way of thinking, enshrined in Tony Blair’s Chicago doctrine that acts of genocide can never be an internal matter and that military action from outside, after exhausting diplomatic options, is justified, based not on territorial ambition, but on the preservation of basic human rights.


Then came Iraq. Few people still believe the invasion in 2003 was right. No weapons of mass destruction were found and vicious sectarian feuds were launched. Imposing democracy on a nation bitterly divided along pronounced lines was only going to entrench these divisions. Even the neo-conservative hawks initiating the war lost out, as Iran extended its influence over the Middle East.


Then it was Libya’s turn. It is easy to forget the original goal of protecting Benghazi from Srebrenica’s fate, but this admirable wish was undermined by a lack of any forward planning or nation building. It took only twelve years between Kosovo and Libya for the collapse of the ideal of liberal intervention, which takes us to Syria, in many ways the turning point of modern western foreign policy.


The Obama administration was reluctant to involve itself in another Middle Eastern war so soon after the debacle of Iraq and it is unlikely there would have been sufficient public support for it. But the establishing of a red line that Syria’s Assad should not cross – the use of chemical weapons – and then the breaching of that red line without any consequences, has fatally undermined the project to rescue civilians from their own government’s crimes.


This short post-Cold War period has closed. The US has become more isolationist under President Trump at the very moment both Russia and China are becoming expansionist. Russia’s heavy involvement in Assad’s war on his own people and its air force’s intentional targeting of schools and hospitals may have ushered in a new era of illiberal intervention, further entrenched by the desperate pleas of the Kurds to defend them against Turkey in late 2019. A new era of great power confrontation, with new spheres of influence could be upon us. The west’s sporadic, inconsistent, damaging involvement in the affairs of other countries is easy prey for the opinion formers, trolls and bots of hostile nations, and liberal intervention was always a hard sell, when troops and bystanders are at risk.


It is unlikely governments across the world will stop murdering their citizens systematically. God help these victims, because it is not clear who else will anymore.



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© 2019 Simon Burton-Jones All Rights Reserved