Thus far, the intervention in Mali seems, at least initially, a banner standard for the practice, insofar as Washington is concerned. A coalition of African and European forces, with France taking the lead in the air and with crack troops on the ground, is sending AQIM and fellow travelers and cobelligerents such as Ansar Dine and MUJAO packing from the cities of Gao and Timbuktu*. The U.S. role appears for now limited to the provision of airlift, refueling, and ISR, a far less costly task than firing barrages of Tomahawk missiles and airstrikes to dismantle its air defenses and the rest of the regime with it.
The debate about the role toppling Gaddafi played in Mali’s current crisis still rages. Algeria’s government, which appears a great deal more sympathetic to the latter position, forced a bloody end to a retaliatory hostage-taking and siege in its own territory, killing foreign citizens along with the terrorists who seized the gas field. As for America’s limited role in the operation, Philip Carter rightly pointed out that even extremely limited role in the U.S. intervention comes at a price, and one perhaps too high.
If the war in Mali is – for now – the best Washington can hope for in an intervention, then the flaws it presents are worth paying attention to, for they’ll arguably be the hardest to eliminate. At the largest level, and perhaps applicable to the widest number of future crises, is the issue Carter highlights – the broken system of burden sharing. I disagree with Anne Applebaum when she posits this intervention as proof of a new European superpower. For one, let’s not give “Europe,” or even the majority of countries in it, so much credit. France is leading Operation Serval, neither the EU nor NATO are in control. That other countries are providing ancillary support is well and good, but French troops are the only Europeans openly committing to combat operations.
Not only that, but France and an assortment of other countries conducting a limited war in Europe’s historical backyard does not a superpower make. Operation Épervier, France’s long-running intervention in Chad, along with many other French operations, long demonstrated Paris’s ability to conduct military operations across northern and western Africa. Nobody ought to question that when French troops arrive in theater, they are extremely competent, and the record of French troops after Algeria and Indochina affirms this. However, that European states lack the willpower or capability to muster sufficient airlift and refueling assets for a small-scale operation in Mali, just as many ran low on munitions in Libya, is a warning sign for future planners, and an obvious red flags for any hasty claims to superpower status (not even de Gaulle was so grandiose).
If one of our most militarily capable allies cannot confidently act unilaterally in its own historical sphere of influence, or requires significant subsidization to do so, the U.S. ought question the incentives it is perpetuating for the supposed major stakeholders in its emergent security policies. Without allied capability to independently project power, burden-sharing could mean the U.S. getting locked into wars primarily of interest to its allies, while its allies will have less to offer in return during U.S.-led war efforts, which frequently require much longer logistical tails. The next war European states want American assistance in may come at a time when U.S. forces are more overdrawn and the conflict in question is more difficult, while the next theater of war America may ask European aid in may be even harder to operate in without the U.S. paying for an increasing share of the power projection.
Beyond issues of power-projection, the interaction of issues of counterterrorism, regime change, and rebellion in Libya and Mali still demand attention. Even assuming forgoing intervention in Libya would have led to the exact same outcome in Mali, resources are finite. Those engaged in toppling Gaddafi and now dealing with the aftermath of Libya might have been better spent in contingencies to limit the spillover of a longer-running civil war or surviving Gaddafi regime. Particularly since the Algerian gas field siege demonstrates that even the most successful interventions face the potential for expansion, escalation, or blowback, saving energy and assets for dealing with the vicissitudes of fog, friction, and fate is particularly prudent, especially when the next crisis presents a more direct threat.
Now, France is outlining plans to halt, or at the very least suspend, its offensive into central Mali, and let other forces take on the brunt of the ground fighting. As limited warfare in practice, France’s model initially has much to recommend it. Jason Fritz, when assessing the merit of airpower in support of unconventional warfare, suggested a rebel force unworthy of ground support might also be unworthy of air support. In Mali, France identified a threat urgent enough to merit a ground deployment and interests constrained enough to sketch a plan for that deployment to be responsible.
Ultimately, France’s ability to contemplate restrained interests relies on the political context of its intervention. It fights at the request of the local government rather than to unseat it. It fights broadly on the side of tradition against Islamist groups perceived to be foreign in origin, intolerable in behavior and alien in ideology. It fights more to restore a status quo rather than revolutionize a region.
Of course, it is far too early to tell if Mali’s war will end up being so amenable to French and broader international interests as it is now. Trying to understand the local context that will ultimately decide so, however, is more a job for analysts such as Andrew Lebovich, Alex Thurston, Hannah Armstrong, along with journalists such as Peter Tinti and Joe Penney, who have regional experience or, in the case of the last three, are in Mali now. Ultimately, while it is useful to consider at the macro-level where Mali fits into understanding of how interventions succeed and fail, the more vital questions about Mali itself can’t be answered at this level of analysis. Hopefully, though, a better conception of what interests are worth fighting for and how best for the U.S. to advance them will, even if it cannot prevent such a tumult from reoccurring elsewhere, clarify if and how the use of force can ameliorate its consequences.
* I also wanted to highlight an amazing story about the preservationists and other residents of Timbuktu, who saved the majority of the city’s collections of historic manuscripts – documents important not simply to locals but to the world’s posterity – from destruction at the hands of retreating Islamist militants. Although initial reporting suggested arson destroyed most of the records, it appears preservationists had left enough in museums to prevent militants from catching on, and sequestered the rest in safe houses. Despite the recent retreat, the location of historical materials remains guarded, in case those who tried to destroy them have a chance to return.
The French Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le
Drian, recently stated that France is willing to help impose
a “partial” no-fly zone in Syria, pending
international legitimacy and participation, and so long as it was not a full
no-fly zone, since that would be “tantamount to war.” There are several
curiosities to unravel here, and they are not exactly unique to this case.
The modern obsession with finding forms of military intervention short of war is a quixotic enterprise. As Micah Zenko has extensively studied, and co-blogger Adam has written about elsewhere, Discrete Military Operations such as no-fly zones are tantamount to wars in many respects. They are, if not sanctioned internationally, acts of aggression. They will often be treated by the target actor as an act of war. The dynamics of conflict and military action still apply.
What is particularly revealing here is that a “partial” no-fly zone is floated as some sort of non-war action, but a nationwide no-fly zone in Syria would be “tantamount to war.” But of course, imposing a no-fly zone over part of Syria or the whole of it is a matter of quantitative degree rather than qualitative difference. As I explored in a piece for the United States Naval Institute, imposing a no-fly zone in Syria would likely mean conducting intensive Suppression of Enemy Air Defense to destroy Syria’s air defenses and air force. Even a partial no-fly zone would likely require some strikes outside its limits in order to degrade Syrian airfields, early-warning radars and mobile or semi-mobile air defense systems.
Imposing even a partial no-fly zone would be tantamount to war, just as arming Syria’s rebels would be an act of war, and constitute foreign engagement in the Syrian civil war, and their success would rely on the combustible cocktail of passion, reason, and chance that all wars do. The difference between these “time-limited, scope-limited kinetic military actions” and war is ultimately an arbitrary distinction of political language which gives away when either the target or the intervening force, in order to achieve its objectives, escalates force to the point where the label is no longer tenable or useful.
In Iraq, the case is instructive on the dangers and shortcomings of such short-of-war thinking. In the wake of Desert Storm, despite the battlefield defeat of the Iraqi army and widespread desertion or imprisonment of Iraqi conscripts, Iraq maintained the will to suppress revolts in its north and south, resulting in the imposition of no-fly zones under Operations Northern and Southern Watch. The result was continued U.S. engagement in warfare against Iraqi air defenses and air forces and Iraqi warfare against rebelling forces in both no-fly zones. Saddam repeatedly violated America’s imposed standards despite the experience of 1990-91, which occasionally required the threatened reinsertion of Western ground forces or, in the wake of Saddam’s intervention in the Kurdish Civil War, and ended pretenses of respecting them due to strikes nominally aimed at his WMD program (but in practice, at many other critical political and military facilities). Ultimately, America’s political goals in Iraq, as codified in the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, required a military action everybody rightfully identified as a war.
Ultimately, although using labels such as “humanitarian intervention,” “kinetic military action,” or, to get really old school, “Quasi-War” may be politically or historically sensible, particularly in retrospect, they remain, from the perspective of military analysis grappling with prospective scenarios, frequently misleading. It is only the result of an equilibrium between the preferences of the belligerents engaged, and frequently devolve into war because each side retains the capacity to frustrate the political objectives of the other without an unmistakable increase in willpower or commitment. In Iraq, that increase ultimately came in the form of an invasion force. In Libya, luckily enough, it was a combination of NATO airstrikes and a weak government military which allowed escalation to proceed on much more favorable terms. Any application of concerted military force against a sovereign state is “tantamount to war.” Being vague or conflicted about its ends and obscure about its ways and means just makes it more politically convenient to discuss openly, but less convenient to discuss effectively.
The debate between Henry Kissinger and Anne-Marie Slaughter about intervention in Syria rests on interpretations of sovereignty and world order that are more complex than popularly depicted. By properly contextualizing sovereignty and intervention in the world system, we can come to a better understanding of what is at stake in the current debate. Post Cold War interventions are part of a great continuum of intervention that goes back at least several centuries.
Kissinger begins by noting the role that the Treaty of Westphalia allegedly played in putting an end to Europe's wars of religion, and goes on to suggest that humanitarian intervention in the Middle East is undermining the norm of state sovereignty:
The modern concept of world order arose in 1648 from the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War. In that conflict, competing dynasties sent armies across political borders to impose their conflicting religious norms. This 17th-century version of regime change killed perhaps a third of the population of Central Europe. To prevent a repetition of this carnage, the Treaty of Westphalia separated international from domestic politics. States, built on national and cultural units, were deemed sovereign within their borders; international politics was confined to their interaction across established boundaries. For the founders, the new concepts of national interest and balance of power amounted to a limitation, not an expansion, of the role of force; it substituted the preservation of equilibrium for the forced conversion of populations.
While Kissinger's conclusions are very reasonable, the problem is that interventions in the Middle East represent the endpoint of a spectrum of intervention that the United States substantially contributed to with Cold War actions many realists supported. Furthermore, there's also a big empirical problem with the Westphalia-centric interpretation advanced in the op-ed.
First, in a critique of the then-dominant trend of New Medievalism, Lt. Col. Michael Phillips observed that Westphalia was more a metaphor for an at best imperfectly observed world order than a transformative shift in international relations. The treaty itself was silent on the concept of sovereignty, and served only to codify an informal set of arrangements that had already evolved in Germany. More relevant to the balance of power in the oft-idealized pre-Napoleonic European system was the political, financial, organizational, and military difficulties involved in levying decisive war. Warfare before Napoleon is so distant to us as to be alien--a time when the public had little to do with the making of war and conscripts could not biovac near forests lest they desert. Certainly, aggressive men and women existed, but lacked the means to realize their dreams of domination. European warfare in the Americas, however, was waged as if the Thirty Years War never ended. Women and children were targeted, crops and settlements were laid to waste, and irregular forces, pirates, and militias were decisive combatants. Wars in the Americas were wars of annihilation.
As would be demonstrated during the 19th century, intervention in the international system came to take several divergent forms. First, intervention in internal affairs was countenanced when a given state's ideology made it threatening to other actors. Revolutionary France was the Iran of its era, never fully trusted because of its fanaticism, ideological crimes against its own citizenry, and desire to export its ideology abroad. Second, intervention against transnational irregular actors--often in defiance of sovereign boundaries--occured because of the threat pirates and bandits posed to travel and commerce. These actors were viewed as criminals and enemies of all mankind. Finally, non-European powers that mistreated Europeans or populations Europeans were sympathetic to were targets for humanitarian intervention.
During the 20th century the Nazis and Soviets forced a merger of all three categories of intervention. Enemies that sought to wage global ideological war, who inverted Clausewitz--as Lenin did-- to conceptualize politics as war by other means had to be fought everywhere. As Dan has observed, these struggles were if anything much more invasive than the drone wars. The US and Britain routinely violated neutrality and sovereignty, assaulting Iceland to deny it to the Nazis and invading Iran to logistically support the Soviets. The US rightly regarded the Nazis and Japanese as war criminals, but did so in a manner that legal circles viewed with a skeptical eye.
During the Cold War, this logic was taken to another extreme through covert operations against governments and movements deemed to be sympathetic to Communism. It is easy to condemn such activities today, but it is worth noting why they were undertaken. The United States had internationalized its national interest, viewing Communism itself--a borderless ideology--as a national security threat. Hence Soviet influence in states once seen as peripheral to international security became probable cause for viewing these environments as battlefronts. Some of these interventions--particularly in Europe--were justified. Others were tragic failures with devastating humanitarian consequences. It is also interesting to observe that the tools being proposed for intervention in Syria--air and weapon support to rebels--are Cold War vintage. Countless movements--most notably the Cubans and the Contras--were supported by private American air forces and/or weapons support, enabling operations in environments the United States did not view as important enough to devote ground troops to.
Today we have come full circle. Post-2001, authoritarian states are simultaneously viewed as breeding grounds for dangerous ideologies, humanitarian criminals, and supporters of threatening irregular actors. Arguments about US policy towards those states blur all three categories of intervention justification together into a formless blob. While we live in a world that is in some respects safer than ever, debates about intervention still sit implicitly within the framework of global war. It made sense to consider Fascism and Soviet Communism--idious ideologies backed by overwhelming military and political power--mortal threats to international order. But does what happen "over there" really matter "over here" in the same way today? It is difficult to argue that the same relationship exists, but many implicitly do when discussing authoritarian states in international security.
A more difficult problem for sovereignty is the threat posed by transnational groups with absolute aims. Their aims in and themselves may not be strategic threats to the United States, but they certainly pose tactical threats in the form of mass-casualty attacks. The United States usually acts in cooperation with partner states in launching airstrikes and ground raids, but has acted unilaterally when circumstances demand decisive and preemptive operations. When not launching kinetic strikes, the United States has also taken on sovereign responsibilities rightfully performed by host governments in an effort to build host nation capacity. While kinetic strikes pose some risk of blowback, capacity-building arguably poses a moral hazard by enmeshing the United States in the domestic politics of local actors who see Uncle Sam as a walking ATM. When the US tries to make unruly local clients reform, it only deepens American involvement in their domestic politics and further threatens their sovereignty.
The problem is not simple and should not be viewed as "drones bad" and "foreign aid good." Rather, it's a problem of how far the United States can go in managing threats that emerge from troubled states without either making those threats worse or making the US another party in a local civil war or violent elite dispute. Whether firing Hellfire missiles or delivering aid, the US is becoming an actor in a political system it is not institutionally well-equipped to understand or alter. How this problem will be resolved is an important question for 21st century security.
We are still struggling to figure out how we will manage our own national security without either threatening others' sovereignty or performing sovereign responsibilites that they have, for domestic reasons, failed to exercise. While precedents exist in 19th and 20th century history for American diplomatic, political, and military efforts to create domestic security either by intervening in the Western hemisphere or globally, our situation is in many ways unique. The anarchist wave of terrorism was not as cohesive as al-Qaeda and Affiliated Movements (AQAM) are today and lacks AQAM's global reach. It is difficult to see how America could have avoided striking into Pakistan to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden, a move criticized by international organizations as a violation of sovereignty despite the manifold opportunities Pakistan had to bring him to justice. History is important, but there is a limit to how much historical context can shed light on a political-military problem.
To answer the title question: no one lost Westphalia, because Westphalia is a useful myth for international relations theorists seeking a shorthand for systemic change in the international system. Drones didn't kill Westphalia, and Libya--while injurious to sovereignty--has really principally demonstrated that dictators in coastal regions without nuclear weapons, Russian-supplied integrated air defense systems, or basing agreements with the United States Navy might do well to explore alternative career options. But beyond Syria polemics, the real challenge of sovereignty lies in moving beyond the framework of global ideological war that World War II and the Cold War set in place. A different international environment requires a course correction towards security policy inclined, as a rule, towards skepticism on whether or not local security problems have international implications.
At a deeper level, the story of little Kosovo is the story of changing notions of sovereignty and international law.
After the above-mentioned genocides, one perpetrated by the late Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, both revealing a U.N. Security Council too divided to stop mass slaughter, NATO circumvented the council in 1999. It waged war for the first time to prevent Milosevic doing his worst again in Kosovo.
The war, in the words of Thomas Weiss, a political scientist at the City University of New York, ”had legitimacy even if its legality was questioned.” This legitimacy stemmed from an evolving consensus that, as Tony Blair once put it, ”acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter.”
Sovereignty, after Bosnia, after Rwanda, in a globalized world, was more than authority over territory and people. It was also responsibility.
In 2005, the World Summit adopted the ”responsibility to protect,” known by that acronym. R2P formalized the notion that when a state proves unable or unwilling to protect its people, and crimes against humanity are perpetrated, the international community has an obligation to intervene — if necessary, and as a last resort, with military force.
Member states declared that, with Security Council approval, they were prepared "to take collective action in a timely and decisive manner" when "national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."Here's the only problem with that. Popular opinion in the West -- especially Western Europe -- has basically maneuvered itself into a grand contradiction. On the one hand, R2P is a lovely policy on which Western liberals can surely agree. The sovereignty of nation-states isn't the only right that matters -- so too do the rights of individuals. Great. But once you sign up for R2P, have you seriously thought about the means necessary to reach the ends? Do you understand the full significance of this?