The era of intervention is over.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
July 24 2009 9:58 AM

The End of Interventionism

The world has lost its appetite for confrontation, and rogue regimes have gotten smarter.

Only a fool would be surprised by the series of explosions that occurred July 14 on the outskirts of the village of Khirbet Slem in southern Lebanon. The sudden detonation of Hezbollah's arsenal was indeed unusual—but the incident drew attention to something that had almost been forgotten: The presence of international peacekeeping troops in southern Lebanon, mandated in U.N. Resolution 1701, has not achieved its goal of "disarming and disbanding Hizbollah," the Shiite Lebanese militia backed by Iran. It hasn't even come close. (The resolution that ended the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah also declared, "There will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese State.") When U.N. troops approached the site of the blasts, they were stoned by local villagers attempting—successfully—to prevent the force from getting anywhere nearer to the ordnance.

For the last three years, the force deployed in Lebanon has managed to avoid trouble by maintaining "largely good" relations with Hezbollah—as the Associated Press put it. Of course, Resolution 1701 only "authorizes UNIFIL to take all necessary action in areas of deployment of its forces and as it deems within its capabilities." But that's a tricky definition. Capabilities as assessed by whom? Capabilities limited to what price in money and blood? With what consequences? Apparently, visiting a site where explosions have occurred is not within UNIFIL's "capabilities"—but at least it can maintain "largely good" relations with Hezbollah.

It's easy to mock the guardsmen in southern Lebanon, but Lebanon is just one example, and UNIFIL is just one unfit force. That's because, quietly and unceremoniously, the era of successful international intervention has passed. The achievements of Bosnia and Kosovo, the refusal to accept a coup in Haiti, the debatable achievements of Iraq and Afghanistan, even the remorseful self-flagellation over Rwanda—all marked the time of can-do interventionalism. Intervention wasn't always clean, it wasn't always forceful enough, but it was a goal to be aspired to. Not anymore.

Consider the failure in Darfur—which I have already written about here twice. Consider Zimbabwe, where dictator Robert Mugabe has made a mockery of international disapproval, demands, and even assistance. Consider Iran, a country where election fraud was condemned and people took to the streets, all to no avail. In these three cases—and many others—the international community has offered little more than soothing words and hollow statements. What's more, it has not even felt the need to mourn its inability to turn words into action. President Barack Obama was hailed for being opaque in the case of Iran, and his liberal supporters, who care intensely about Darfur, stayed mum when the new president made no detectable progress on this issue.

In this new world, caution is more important than intervention. What some have described as Obama's "cult of pragmatism" is really a nice way of saying that Americans no longer have a taste for intervention. And without American leadership, there will be none.

Intervention was always a dangerous path, and the more powerful the country involved, the less likely the world was to take a stand. (China and Tiananmen comes to mind, as does Russia's invasion of Georgia.) What has changed is the world's appetite for force, even against less daunting regimes. The default way to explain this growing reluctance is to blame George W. Bush. And of course, the bloodbath of Iraq has made intervention less appealing to the public. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, writing a year ago in the New York Times, argued that "the era of intervention is over." She continued, "The invasion of Iraq … generated a negative reaction that has weakened support for cross-border interventions even for worthy purposes."

But blaming Bush is an excuse rather than a reason. Cases like Sudan and Zimbabwe and Lebanon all show that American fatigue is not the only explanation. Also at play is the increasing ability of rogue leaders to deter the international community. To do this, they follow two simple rules learned from past interventions:

  1. Be sure there's a threat of violence should anyone attempt to intervene.
  2. Make the world believe that with just a little more negotiation, it might be possible to solve the problem diplomatically.

In Zimbabwe, this mix of menace and delay worked perfectly, as a recent Washington Post editorial convincingly argued:

[A]fter African nations brokered the formation of Zimbabwe's coalition government, strongman Robert Mugabe must be pleased with the results. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, whose victory in last year's presidential election was nullified by violence and fraud, is now charged with managing the economy; with help from foreign donors, he has managed to bring it back from the dead. World-record hyperinflation has been stopped; shops, schools and some hospitals have reopened; and a cholera epidemic has eased. Zimbabweans are finding it easier to obtain food and medical care and to send their children to school. At the same time, Mr. Mugabe's control over the state remains unbroken.

In Iran, Obama's desire to "engage" has made it difficult for him to support the opposition; meanwhile, the regime's threats are far from subtle. "The Iranian nation warns the leaders of those countries trying to take advantage of the situation, beware! The Iranian nation will react," Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned. Of course, warnings aren't enough—as Saddam Hussein learned—and negotiation alone, with no persuasive threat of violence, can bring down a regime or an organization. But combining the two is a formula perfectly tailored to current international sensibilities. It has worked well for Sudan and for belligerent North Korea.

Americans often search for explanations by looking inward to apportion blame—by pointing a finger at Bush or Obama, expressing an urgent need to prioritize the economy, or rehashing the vices of liberalism and the sins of conservatism. While all these factors no doubt contribute to the current mood, looking inward is not enough—indeed, it's just another sign of Western narcissism. The end of interventionalism is not just a sign of the mellowing of the West; it is also an indication that the enemy is getting stronger—and smarter.

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