from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Guest Post: Indirect Intervention—Why and When

July 26, 2012

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Here is a guest blog by my colleague Mark P. Lagon, adjunct senior fellow for human rights at the Council, as well as international relations and security chair at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program.

Despite a reputation as arch-hawk, in her twilight years the first U.S. female UN ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, privately opposed invasion and occupation in Iraq. (I knew, as she was my mentor.) Biographer extraordinaire Peter Collier documents this fact in Political Woman. Her qualms and preference for another avenue offer insights for leadership and multilateral action today, especially regarding Syria.

Sometimes a government so acutely threatens its own people or its neighbors that external actors must step in. Sometimes global governance requires globally changing domestic governments.

Most observers would think of four options. First, is direct military intervention with a UN Security Council imprimatur, such as Operation Desert Storm to repel Iraq from Kuwait or Operation Uphold Democracy to replace Haiti’s junta.

Second, a "minilateralist" option without formal UN legitimization is embodied by NATO bombing Serbia to prevent ethnic cleansing in Kosovo after Russia blocked Security Council approval.

A looser "coalition of the willing" option was seen in the Iraq intervention starting in 2003, opposed by two neoconservatives: Kirkpatrick privately and Frank Fukuyama publicly.

The merits of stated pro-democracy goals and post-facto approval by allies or bodies aside, pure unilateral action is the fourth option – like the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983.

Yet the Kirkpatrick preference is another viable option—embodied by the “Reagan Doctrine” aid to insurgencies against Soviet-backed governments in Angola, Nicaragua, Cambodia, and Afghanistan. My 1994 book The Reagan Doctrine tries to answer how in the late Cold War the United States got in the business of aiding insurgencies—rather than counterinsurgency as in Vietnam and El Salvador (and Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years). Avoiding full, direct intervention after Vietnam was one reason.

This option typically involves three actors: (1)  an indigenous opposition movement enjoying varying degrees of unity, popular backing, and authentic roots, (2) a sanctuary state offering them a base to regroup and from which to mount military efforts, and (3) a substantial patron power funding and arming them, often through the sanctuary state.

The Reagan era cases highlight two prerequisites for this option to serve global governance. One test is the will and capacity of the United States and the international community to follow through and help an insurgency transition into an efficacious, pluralism-protecting government. The United States neglected Nicaragua after aiding the Contras. Then U.S. secretary of state James Baker reportedly said that Central America after the Cold War should return to the back pages of the newspaper. Nicaragua has been mired in acute poverty and corruption with not-so-benign neglect. Ironically, the Sandinistas are once again in power with the same illiberal President, Daniel Ortega.

The other test is looking hard at just who the insurgents are and what they will become. President Reagan called the U.S.-backed insurgencies "freedom fighters" who were "the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers," supported by France in the American Revolution. Given the direct multilateral intervention in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban, it is noteworthy to recall how the United States backed the Muslim fundamentalist resistance to Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, some elements of which became the Taliban. (Truth be told, the world also committed the sin of neglect in Afghanistan after the Cold War as well.) Even columnist Charles Krauthammer, who approvingly gave the approach the moniker "the Reagan Doctrine" noted the perils of the United States backing elements of the genocidal Khmer Rouge in a coalition of insurgents against a pro-Soviet regime in Cambodia.

My last guest post looked at the global and domestic governance issues of civil strife in Libya, noting that the “responsibility to protect” required responsibly examining an opposition movement for commitment to liberal governance in weighing whether to back it.

In the most striking humanitarian calamity in the world today, Syria’s government has through a long train of abuses forfeited its legitimacy and justified revolution, a la John Locke. It has contravened its responsibility to protect its own people—indeed proactively subjecting its people to massive harm. That fact justifies the international community stepping in to protect the Syrian people.

Perhaps the most feasible option is the Reagan Doctrine formula.  The vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, Danielle Pletka, offered a measured, thorough assessment of the actors in question: various insurgent groups, sanctuary states like Turkey, and other patrons like Saudi Arabia. While indigenous actors, local sanctuary states, and great power patrons like the United States may have some parochial interests involved, it would be wise to back the best of the insurgents before a slaughter already claiming tens of thousands of civilians balloons further. That is, as long as the United States pays close attention to the nature of who it backs and is prepared to follow through helping a new state govern and govern justly.

The perfect is the enemy of the good. Being too pristine in “the fog of civil war” about vetting the liberal credentials of armed insurgencies risks just standing by as a house burns. Awaiting some nonexistent better alternative to materialize risks the same. Better stability and governance in Syria, the region, and the world would likely result from working with a responsible rising power, Turkey, to help those already willing to help themselves in Syria.