Punches and Counterpunches

Apologies for the lack of posts. Scientists have proven beyond doubt that blogging suffers when there is frozen weather and busy teaching periods.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I penned a small op-ed – here – that made the case against a long-term strategy of armed nationbuilding, muscular liberal interventionism and naive hyper-activism. It argued that countries should have a presumption against interfering in crises abroad, do more to husband and conserve their power, be more mindful of the blowback and unintended consequences of liberal crusading, and focus on doing no harm more than doing good. A little humility and prudence after decades of triumphalism about our power and our confident belief that we know what is good for others.

Apart from the usual fare of hysterical and eccentric commentary from the general public (there was even a ‘9/11 truther’ in there. Now you know why this blogsite doesn’t do ‘comments’!), there were two good challenges worth responding to.

The first was made over at Kings of War by ‘Formerly Grant.’ Here it is, and my answer:

This may be the result of a quick and poor reading on my part but the argument seems to be somewhat isolationist. It is entirely possible for the U.K (and the West in general) to remain involved in the Middle East and the Muslim world in general without resorting to expensive and questionable wars. Careful work with NGO’s, good ties to local intelligence agencies and careful strikes on definite targets can produce useful results. Furthermore, we have good reasons to do so. We have no reason to think that a major shift away from oil will be made in the next ten to twenty years meaning that we will need to keep our eyes on the Middle East. The extremists who launched the 9/11 attacks may have done their work in the West but the ideology that inspired them came from the Middle East. Lastly, even if the West were to actually disengage from the Middle East it would certainly not lead hardline groups to decide to call off their violent struggle against the West.


What you call isolationism I call restraint.

I don’t favour abandoning all alliances (eg NATO) or never projecting military power abroad (the hallmarks of isolationism), and accept the premise of anti-isolationists, that the balance of power elsewhere can affect our security.

But i do favour more restraint, a presumption against interventionism, and would reserve the military for guarding the vital interests (particularly geopolitical chokepoints such as sea lanes) and severe direct threats to our national security from other nation-states. A smaller, more modest foreign policy to be brought into balance with our military power. In line with the philosophy of one of America’s greatest thinkers on these things, Walter Lippmann.

You’ll forgive me for saying so, but it seems symptomatic of the corruption of debate that anyone who opposes a grand strategy of world domination, or having a vast global network of military bases, or a routine presumption in favour of intervention (military or otherwise), or the regular lecturing of other countries on their human rights record, or the idea that it is normally our job to broker peace in regional conflicts, can be tagged as ‘isolationist.’

And for the second challenge:

How many Bosnian Muslims would be left alive today if it hadn’t been for N.A.T.O.’s intervention? How many Kurds would have been wiped out by Saddam Hussein without U.S. intervening? How many more Cambodians would have died if Vietnam hadn’t intervened?


On the contrary, Bosnia, Kurdistan and Cambodia are all excellent examples of the tragic and destructive consequences that armed intervention can inflict.

The Cambodian genocide and its notably extreme nature and scale is directly attributable to the radicalising impact of the carpet-bombing of Cambodia by the US during the Vietnam war.

The Kurds: On a number of occasions, the United States encouraged the Kurds  to rise up and rebel against Saddam Hussein, and then abandoned them to punitive slaughters. The Kurds learnt pretty quickly that the only people they could positively rely on to help them was themselves. In fact, after America’s intervention in the Gulf War of 1991, Saddam committed further atrocities against them, and against the other peoples the US had urged to rebel, right under the nose of the American victors. After the invasion of 2003 that toppled Saddam, the Kurds almost certainly did benefit from the removal of their historic persecutor. But this same invasion resulted directly in massive communal bloodletting between other Iraqis, with hundreds of thousands killed and a whole state imploding into a terrifying anarchy for a time.

On Bosnia: the Balkan wars are a good example of the ‘moral hazard’ problem, where underwriting the security of others can encourage them to take risky behaviour. Without wishing to oversimplify these conflicts, it is a matter of record that some secessionist leaders deliberately used atrocities to provoke counter-atrocities, in order to generate an escalating humanitarian crisis that would draw in Western intervention in what was a civil war. In other words, lots of Bosnian Muslims died precisely because of intervention and the hope for intervention. Its also easy to forget that partly as a result of intervention effectively on one ‘side’ who we deemed to be victims, those victims inflicted their own ethnic cleansing, for example of Serbs living in Kosovo.

And if anyone wants to mention Rwanda, that was also the long-term product of an intervention. A European colonial intervention, inventing new tribal distinctions and leaving a legacy of murderous internal conflict.

Its hard to have these arguments without being absolute. I was arguing for a presumption against intervention, not a complete rejection of the idea. But its the nature of op-eds and tit-for-tat debate that both sides get a little polarised.

Anyway, its good to be blogging again.