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On western military interventionism

Things are not as clear cut as one would like to believe: like war and peace, black and white, good or evil. As in real life, there are few obvious moral, or immoral solutions. Take Mali.

Patrice de Beer
19 December 2013

On January 1, this year, openSecurity published a Lookahead, mentioning a « peace-war-peace bell curve » in the Central African Republic (CAR) and calling neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo a « failed state ». One year later, as the Congolese appear to have started to negotiate among themselves an end to their unending internal conflict, the situation in the CAR has blown up into a bloody civil and religious war which has led French troops to intervene under the United Nations aegis.

The failed state, now, is the CAR, although you can hardly ascribe « failed state » to a country which has never been stable since it attained independence from France in 1960. Dictators followed one another, one of them even anointing himself « Emperor » Bokassa before fleeing shamefully to France two years later, ousted by a coup in 1979. He had been further accused of showering former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing with diamonds plus occasionally devouring fellow countrymen.

This is the second French military intervention in Africa this year and since Socialist President François Hollande took office in May 2012. The first was in Mali last January, to stop jihadists who had already seized the north of the country, threatening to overthrow the Bamako government. That military intervention was called another ‘war on terror’, this time real as the arrival of Al Qaida followers in Bamako would have meant the destabilisation of the whole Sahel. Meanwhile, while Paris did receive military support from neighbouring African countries, it got none from its NATO allies except for the help of a few transport planes. Europeans seemed little concerned.

This time, 1,600 French soldiers were added to the African soldiers already on the field, for “humanitarian” reasons it was said, as the situation was out of control. The mostly Muslim Seleka militias which had overthrown the Chadian president last March had been looting and killing civilians – mostly Christians – at random while anti-Seleka militias started retaliating against the Muslim minority. This landlocked country surrounded by other unstable countries like Congo, Chad or both Sudans, was in tatters, short of food and medicine as well as law and order.

This is a rough sketch of a situation so confused that Hollande's promises that French troops would limit themselves to peace keeping operations (PKO) for a few months will be very hard to keep. But not only this. French public opinion, already shocked by the present dire economic and social crisis at home is hardly in favour of helping others, while some opposition politicians have – for electoral reasons a few months before local and European elections – defied decades-long “national cohesion” traditions around French troops overseas.

The French President, though widely criticised for lacking authority and decisiveness in domestic politics, has shown himself unexpectedly tougher when it comes to rescuing (African) allies, defending human rights in Syria, or during recent nuclear negotiations with Iran, thus gaining in Tehran the nickname of “Little Satan”. US President Obama's equal indecisiveness in foreign policy matters, alongside the British House of Commons turnaround on Syria, has left Hollande standing alone.

The bulk of the criticism of French interventions in Africa – apart from the, obvious, mention of French economic interests there – has targeted the fact that western interventions overseas have been and were a permanent failure, as stated by former Labour minister for Europe, Denis MacShane in a Le Monde column dated December10 on what Rudyard Kipling once called “the white man's burden”.

Sure, this has been so in many cases, the most obvious being the Bush-Blair attempt in Iraq. NATO intervention in former Yugoslavia at least succeeded in stopping the massacre by Serb nationalists of Bosnian Muslims and Croats, not to mention war in Kosovo. Even if the situation there is far from a success in having restored communal cohabitation and the rule of law to the region.

Yet things are not as clear cut as one would like to believe: like war and peace, black and white, good or evil. As in real life, there are few obvious moral or immoral solutions. Often, in these crises which are blowing up one after the other throughout the world, either of the possible reactions can be equally dangerous, if not wrong. And one is left to choose between the lesser of two evils, the rock and the hard place.

There can be politically or morally wrong interventions under the guise of false democratic pretences, like in Iraq, for which we are still paying the price, and will continue to do so for years. Or unjustified non-interventions like the British and French one during the Spanish Civil War, which could have prevented Hitler's decision to launch World War II. And which was followed in 1938 by the epitome of cowardice and short-sightedness in Munich of French and British prime ministers Daladier and Chamberlain, who handed Czechoslovakia to Hitler in exchange for a few months of a shameful and worthless peace.

The support of Sarkozy and Cameron to Libyan rebels in 2011 against legal - but tyrannical and threatening because of his arsenal of missiles and his long documented use of foreign terrorism - authorities, has led to a chaos which has spread across Libyan borders. Would it have been better, or worse had Gaddafi been left in power, seeking revenge against his neighbours and western interests? Shall we ever know?

French passivity in Mali could have weakened the whole Sahel, threatened with the taking of hundreds of foreign hostages by Al Qaida's allies. Thus necessitating a rescue operation in the worst conditions or, worse, the birth of a new terrorist state, like the Taliban's Afghanistan. National interests in the region as well as the safety of French nationals were certainly another reason. But what credibility would western countries have maintained had Paris not responded to the SOS from an overwhelmed Malian government?

The problem is also wider than the legitimacy, or the efficiency, of what former 'French Doctor’ and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner once called the “Droit d'ingérence” (the right to interfere) for humanitarian reasons.

We have already mentioned the Realpolitik behind some interventions. But we should not forget some reasons behind non-interventionism. Ideological – Don't interfere with your former colonies or in developing countries as it stinks of imperialism – idealists – They can do it themselves – or more selfish ones – Why should we get involved in this mess, let the French do the dirty work and bring home the body bags, or - Is it really the right moment to act ?, sometimes hidden behind loftier pretences.

In short, there is not a single, one size fits all, answer to international crises. Each case has to be studied on its specifics. There cannot be a clearcut and harmless answer as there are no bloodless wars. And, if negotiations must always be preferred to war, or have to be tried first, there sometimes comes a point where it can become a facesaving excuse for doing nothing and letting innocents die.

Like in Syria. Finally, in a world where experts must have the last word, where a case has to be studied at length, where a long democratic and international process has to be followed – within the UN or elsewhere - some interventions have to be planned months ahead, and the final decision taken within hours. Had we waited for the UN Security Council to convene, the UE or NATO to organise a summit, Mali could have been overrun.

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