informed citizenship and military intervention

Damascus by night (Wikimedia Commons)

As the Obama administration contemplates military intervention in Syria, with heightened enthusiasm (or is it urgency?) following the disclosure of the Syrian government’s probable use of chemical weaponry against its own citizens, we the citizenry are cycling through the now well-trodden exchanges: How successful can military intervention be? (And what does that even mean?) Should we take a utilitarian outlook that privileges lives spared or money saved in the short run; or recognize the imperialist tradition and the long-term destabilizing influence our legacy of intervention has wrought? How carefully—and to whom—are the Western powers obligated to respect the various international bodies, laws, and traditions that have been set up to manage this kind of thing—particularly those in the region?

At our first meeting of the semester last night, the Leopard table—of which i was not a part—dove into this topic with some tensions of its own. I’ll leave it to them to share their opinions. But among the evidence that was invoked was one of a series of recent posts at the Monkey Cage, a widely renowned political science blog. Spurred on by developments in Syria, peace and international studies scholar Erica Chenoweth has been sharing excerpts from the recent research into the efficacy of military intervention in civil wars—and it has given me quite the pause.

For those who don’t know, i was vehemently anti-war during the lead-up to the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq, and even went to DC in 2005 for what had become an annual protest. Over time, however, i was disabused of some of the central reasons liberals gave for opposing the war, formulated a humanistic case of my own in favor, and became a cautious supporter—too late to impact the dialogue on Iraq, but just in time to make support for the intervention in Libya an easy choice for me. Lately my internal pendulum has been swinging back, and the studies shared at the Monkey Cage are hastening it along.

We seem to learn that military intervention on behalf of (or irrespective of) the prevailing government can amplify that government’s use of violence against its own people, but simultaneously that intervention that tips the balance toward either side incentivizes the other toward violence against civilians (with no mitigating influence attributable to democracy or international organizations detectable). Finally (so far), we are told that those civil wars in which foreign powers intervene tend to last longer.

Of course, every case of possible intervention is different. Still, helpful comparisons can be made, and factors that tend to favor “successful” interventions can be identified and promoted. And my reading of the situation in Syria, and of the United States’ and its allies’ outlook on it, doesn’t look promising in these terms.

Now, i am not any sort of political science enthusiast or foreign policy wonk. I really don’t know what i’m talking about here—but, again as an informed citizenry, we are obligated to each other to understand issues as best we can with the information available to us, express our opinions (with tentativeness proportionate to our uncertainty), and update them as better information and new considerations come our way. So, if you have strong and informed opinions, if you take considerations i haven’t laid out into account, and if you have evidence that can help me and others better situate ourselves on these topics, please share!

8 thoughts on “informed citizenship and military intervention

  1. Note: for those confused about what the “Leopard Table” is: the Freethinkers are trying out different modes of discussion. The “Leopard Mode” is equivalent to a debate, while other modes are focused simply on sharing.

  2. The Leopard table came to a consensus on several points:
    1) Popular support for military intervention is one deciding factor in the effectiveness of military intervention (though nobody had evidence to present other than intuition).
    2) The U.S. should be isolationist, getting involved in foreign affairs only when there is a danger to the safety of its citizens.

    I share Cory’s dilemma. I have a great desire to be involved in international humanitarian efforts, but military intervention has not shown itself to be effective. Perhaps the solution is to simply keep the U.S. as a country out of foreign affairs entirely and let its citizens involve themselves on an individual level through the support of NGOs (like the Red Cross).

    NGOs are frequently partners of local governments and work to change the government by changing the culture, not the leaders directly. Ideally, this would avoid all military conflicts. However, this doesn’t really address the issues that countries in a state of civil war are experiencing, but the evidence seems to show that it is best to let those run their course.

    • On efficacy, we should bear in mind that the cited studies may only be suggestive. There may be confounding factors and common causes (for instance, the duration of exceptionally long civil wars might make intervention by an exasperated international community inevitable) that cannot be taken fully into account due to the coarseness and sparseness of the available data. (If we subset the data according to common features then we may end up with too few data points to do meaningful statistical analysis.)

      Erik Voten, also at the Monkey Cage, has just posted another skeptical response to the implicit idea that these studies can (or should) inform our policy toward Syria.

  3. I think the biggest point of agreement is the idea that if the U.S. is experiencing a clear and intimidate threat, that action should be taken to remove it/deal with it. I see this as an extension of the idea of personal self defense. The grey area comes in when deciding what constitutes a ‘clear and intimidate threat’. Does this mean that we have to have been attacked to respond militarily, or just see that there is a high likelihood of an attack in the near future?

    The situation becomes significantly more complicated when discussing a clear and intimidate threat against a group of people other than the U.S. This is certainly the case in Syria. If response to a direct threat against the U.S. can be seen as an extension of self defense, so too can intervening in a foreign conflict be described as intervening in the attack against another person. Is this analogy sound? What do you think justifies intervening in an attack on another person, and what does that imply if applied to the interactions of countries?

    I apologize for not really explaining my own viewpoints on the issue, I don’t really have a concrete opinion at this point. I do however think that this analogy is a good way to go about analyzing the situation.

    • I would certainly agree that a direct attack to the U.S. would be reason enough to respond. I don’t think that we even need to consider a high probability that there will be an attack as a reason for pre-emptive self-defence. If we establish ourselves as providing an overwhelming response to any attack, the number of attacks will be few.

      It could be argued that by not trying to head off threats, we run the risk of an attack on U.S. citizens. However, that risk exists regardless of a policy either way and the most recent devastating attack (September 11) accounted for fewer than 0.2% of deaths in the U.S. that year (see and In all, the cost of getting involved in a military conflict in pre-emptive self-defense probably outweighs the risk of an attack.

      To address the analogy: I think it is faulty. Acting in self-defence is different than acting in the defence of another person (or country). The latter is inserting ourselves into a conflict that doesn’t involve us and there may be no payoff other than acting upon our moral inclinations. There are some instances where involving ourselves in another group’s self-defence is warranted, as in the case NATO, but that situation involves a potential payoff at a later time. Another situation where involving ourselves in another country’s conflict would be a form of self defense is if there is a high number of civilians or military personnel station in that country or POW. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to engage in a military conflict beyond the minimum needed to withdraw our citizens.

      • notkilroy, i don’t think that’s the analogy Lyle meant to defend. Rather, there are two parallel analogies: that of self-defense at the individual level versus at the international level, and that of other-defense at the same two levels. Do you think that the analogy of international military interventionism to interpersonal forceful intervention holds? We tend to agree, at a societal level, that we are responsible for the violence we take no steps to prevent; we are culpable for our inaction. I think it’s reasonable to contrast that principle to any isolationist foreign policy.

        I do have some problems with the analogy, though. One is that we operate under a fairly powerful and mature (if heavily biased) governing structure, whereas the international organizations that attempt to manage affairs without warfare are less so on both fronts. Another is that military intervention has long-term repercussions beyond “saving people”; it harkens to an historical imperialism (even if we don’t view ourselves as imperialist today) and can catalyze cultural animosity (and prejudice) that is more harmful than the personal animosity that might result from intervening in a fight.

  4. notkilroy- I did not intend to equate self-defense with the defense of others, rather, I intended to draw an analogy between the individuals and countries in similar context. A statement made about how individuals ought to act under the conditions of self-defense and defense of another may provide a justification (or lack thereof) for the actions of a country in analogous circumstances.

    Cory- I agree that the analogy breaks down when some real-world factors start coming into play. The consequences and long-term repercussions of the actions of a country are very different than those for individuals. And creating a precedent in which intervention is constantly justified makes us prone to intervening for the wrong reasons, imposing our cultural norms and world views on others. I think that on a basal level, acting to prevent violence against another, even if there is no immediate threat, is justified. It is when these other factors come into play that intervention of countries in foreign conflicts becomes unjustified. If the risks and negative consequences outweigh the potential benefit, action cannot be justified, no matter how horrendous the situation.

    So then, how do countries decide what actions to take? Is there a large enough body of evidence to effectively determine the potential risks/consequences of an action? I think that there are two many variables to evaluate almost any situation completely. How then to evaluate different courses of action?

  5. Another point, that I think notkilroy hit on is that we have a limited capacity for action. In this case, problems have to be prioritized in some manner. Prioritization might put involvement in particular foreign conflicts down at a point where they might be justified, but there are more pressing matters that require attention. How problems are prioritized depends heavily though on what body of people things are being prioritized with respect to. A US prioritization and a world prioritization would look incredibly different.

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