Hegemonic Blackmail: Allied Pressure and U.S. Intervention

Discussions of military intervention often focus on the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This is entirely understandable: the war in Iraq was a catastrophic foreign policy choice that is still reshaping the political landscape of the Middle East today.

Yet the Iraq war is unusual in many ways. There was no existing civil war or humanitarian crisis, a factor which has driven many of America’s other post-Cold War interventions in Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo and Libya. The United States also undertook the invasion of Iraq largely alone and against the wishes of other countries; unable to gain support from the majority of its NATO allies, the Iraq invasion relied on the so-called “coalition of the willing,” a small ad-hoc group of countries persuaded by the Bush administration.

In my newly published article in the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, I attempt to move past the Iraq War case to examine the broader range of U.S. military interventions. I look at the two recent civil war cases where intervention was possible – Syria and Libya during the Arab spring – to explore the role played by allies and security partners in decision-making about whether to intervene.  

Logic suggests that smaller states do have a strong incentive to seek the help of a major power ally like the United States for their interventions. As I note in the article:

“Put more simply, small states can benefit substantially from the intervention of a major power ally, particularly if they lack the capacity or manpower to carry out an effective campaign alone. African Union peacekeeping forces, for example, typically lack military assets required for their missions; training, logistical support and equipment are often provided by the United States to overcome this deficiency (Williams 2011)…. pressure from allies to join an intervention is likely to be highest when A is larger (i.e., relatively more capable in military terms) than B, and has the potential to tip the balance toward B’s intervention objectives.”

This logic bears a strong resemblence to the concept of entrapment, which has been studied before, but primarily in the context of alliances and interstate wars. In contrast, this article explores how smaller states can seek to entangle bigger ones in their civil war interventions, using techniques like lobbying, media manipulation and even altering the conflict’s strategic balance. In Libya, for example, British and French policymakers successfully swayed the skeptical Obama administration towards intervention through the use of an aggressive media and diplomatic campaign. In contrast, in Syria, Saudi and Turkish officials used many of the same tactics, but were largely unsuccessful in obtaining a U.S. intervention in that conflict.

“In the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war, British ambassador to the United States Christopher Meyer bemoaned the use of alliance ties to justify the British choice to join the coalition, noting that “there comes a point where if you hug too close, it becomes an end in itself” (quoted in Davidson 2011, p. 135). As Meyer – and many scholars – have noted, alliances can help to entrap states in unwanted conflicts.”

As this article illustrates, it’s important to understand where the pressures for U.S. intervention come from. Sometimes – as in the case of Iraq – that pressure is largely home-grown. Yet in other cases, pressure can come from allies and security partners, as those states which have a stronger interest in the conflict try to convince the United States to join them in intervening. Before joining an intervention, therefore, U.S. policymakers would be well-served to consider whether an intervention is in American interests, or merely in the interests of other states.

You can check out the whole paper, with more examples and detail, here.