U.S. officials too often succumb to the temptation to try to impose order and justice in unstable or misgoverned societies around the world. The temptation is understandable. It is hard to learn about—much less watch on the nightly news—brutality, bloodshed, and gross injustice and not want to do something about it. Some foreign policy intellectuals, including the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, have become strident lobbyists for the notion of a “responsibility to protect” vulnerable populations.
But it is a temptation that wise policy makers should avoid. U.S. meddling has frequently caused already bad situations to deteriorate further—especially when Washington has based its humanitarian interventions on the false premise that the subject of our attentions is, or at least ought to be, a coherent nation state. As I point out in an article over at The National Interest, U.S. administrations have made that blunder in Bosnia, Iraq, Libya, and other places.
In many parts of the world, the Western concept of a nation state is quite weak, and the concepts of democracy and individual rights are even less developed. The primary loyalty of an inhabitant is likely to be to a clan, tribe, ethnic group or religion. U.S. officials appear to have difficulty grasping that point, and as a result, the United States barges into fragile societies, disrupting what modest order may exist. Washington’s military interventions flail about, shattering delicate political and social connections and disrupting domestic balances of power.
An especially naive and pernicious U.S. habit has been to try to midwife a strong national government in client states when the real power and cohesion lies at the local or subregional level. Thus, Washington still insists on keeping the chronically dysfunctional pretend country of Bosnia intact and on international life support more than 17 years after imposing the Dayton peace accords that ended the fighting there. Similarly, the United States harbored the illusion that Hamid Karzai could run a strong, pro-Western, democratic Afghan central government from Kabul, and even Karzai’s ineptitude and extensive misdeeds have not entirely dispelled that notion. In both cases, the national cohesion, underlying democratic values, and strong civil societies needed for such a scheme to work are woefully lacking.
One would hope that U.S. officials would be sobered by those bruising experiences, but there is little evidence of that. Even now, the Obama administration continues to flirt with intervening in Syria. That would be a huge mistake. Syria’s ethno-religious divisions make those of Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya look mild by comparison. Bashar al-Assad is undoubtedly a thuggish ruler, and the humanitarian situation in Syria is tragic. But a U.S.-led intervention could cause Syria’s fragile political and ethnic tapestry to unravel entirely, and that might make the current situation far worse. The Obama administration needs to exercise great care and restraint.