Currently, a number of countries seem to be thinking about intervening against ISIS, but that raises the question, should they, and if they do, under what conditions? In my science fiction trilogies, I have introduced an alien race that rarely intervenes in another civilization, and that is because they have two rules:
- They do not intervene unless they can be reasonably sure that the end position will be clearly improved for those suffering the intervention,
- They take total responsibility for the intervention.
In my opinion, these are good rules. Now, let’s see what has happened in recent times.
The intervention in Afghanistan is of interest because it had a clear objective: get bin Laden. They failed in that, but of course failing to reach an objective does not mean the objective was not valid in the first place. However, in my opinion it is clear that a real failure happened next. The US then seemed to lose interest, preferring to take on Iraq, and the failure to come to a quick and firm consolidation in Afghanistan meant that we had years of turbulence. The best outcome would have been to do whatever they had set out to do, then to get out, after setting up an Afghani replacement government that included the Taliban. What would have happened had they offered the Taliban the option of the US leaving provided the Taliban accepted some very basic Afghani rights? If they accepted then all would have been well, and if they did not, by informing the Afghani population as to why they were staying, they may well have got much more support. On that, we shall never know, perhaps it would not have worked, BUT did it hurt to try?
The intervention in Iraq failed both tests. The end position is hardly an improvement, and it is at least a plausible proposition that ISIS would never have arisen if there had been no Iraqi war. Yes, you can protest that Saddam was a monster. No argument from me there. Nevertheless, the fact that some monster is killing his citizens is not a justification for another country to come in, kill an awful lot more, then leave the country in some form of anarchy. Irrespective of what you think Saddam was like, if you look at what life was like for the average Iraqi before the interventions, and what it is like now, I rather fancy they would prefer the “old times”. The fact that something is bad does not justify intervention; what does is a clear determination to make things better. What actually happened is that at the time, there was no plan to put in an improved government in Iraq. The major effort, under Paul Bremer, was to remove Ba’ath members from any future involvement and fire the Iraqi army. Bremer then privatized the Iraqi economy, opening it up to international investment and gave foreign contractors immunity from Iraqi legal process. That effectively dismembered the Iraqi economy in favour of western economic interests. Note that international law prohibits an occupying power from rewriting the laws of the occupied country. Here, might was right, and international law is useless when there is no means of enforcing it. There is no evidence that any major reconstruction actually took place, as opposed to a lot of money being spent on the activity. Now, guess why a section of Iraqi society is disgruntled.
All of which brings me to what I think is a question nobody is asking: suppose the West decides to take on ISIS properly, what is the end position? Why will it be an improvement? What will it take to achieve this improvement, and how do you know the various governments will keep acting on it until the end position is reached? In my opinion, if you cannot answer those questions, you should not intervene. The fact that something bad is going on is not a justification for you to plunge in and make things worse.