The Folly of Military Intervention

Last Friday I gave a talk at the University of Ottawa for the Institute of Liberal Studies on the subject ‘The Folly of Military Intervention’. Give that at this moment the British House of Commons is debating whether to join the war in Syria, this seems a good time to post the talk, which was filmed by one of the audience (the first couple of minutes are missing). You can watch it below.



4 thoughts on “The Folly of Military Intervention”

  1. I agree that a generally “rule consequentialist” model is usually the best one to use for public policy purposes, and I find the reasons you gave for adopting some kind of very strict rule convincing. However, I would suggest a slight modification to the rule itself. Instead of saying that countries should only go to war when their own vital interests are threatened, I would suggest that countries should go to war only to resist other countries that have engaged in military aggression, whether against the country in question or another (of course, after appropriate diplomatic approaches have failed).
    In your presentation, you mention the example of the First Gulf War. But I think the First Gulf War was fundamentally different from the Kosovo, Libya, Iraq or Afghanistan interventions, because it was a defense of one internationally recognized state (Kuwait) against the aggression of another (Iraq). I think, therefore, that it reinforced the principle that war is not a permissible tool of policy, rather than undermining it, as the other interventions did.
    On the other hand, I’m not suggesting that force be used to defend “internationally recognized states” from any and all threats, whether internal or external. The principle at stake, in my view, is that individual states have to be allowed to develop on their own, which sometimes means working their own way through civil wars, insurgencies, etc. However, when this autonomy is violated by a foreign state, I think it’s legitimate for the world community, preferably working through the UN, to act in force to restore it, even when the vital interests of other states are not involved.


    1. That is a good point, Ryan. The 1991 Gulf War was the last one fought by Western states which had my support, although as time has gone on my position has shifted a bit. In terms of ‘ad bellum’ the war met the just war criteria as well as any other has, but in terms of ‘in bello’ it left a lot to be desired – there were a lot of attacks on ‘dual use’ targets which were not militarily necessary and caused long-term ‘reverberating effects’ on civilians (e.g. loss of electrical power damaging sewer systems). The subsequent sanctions also caused great humanitarian problems.


      1. From my perspective, the problems with Gulf War 1 were as follows:

        1: Possible strategic deception on the part of the US
        US-Ambassador April Glaspie was asked by Sadamm, pretty directly, about the possible US reaction to an Iraqi move on Kuwait (Kuwait was actually exploiting Iraqi oil, and wasnt willing to budge, of course, this does not justify an “annexation” casus Belli), and directly told him that “Manners between Arabs do not concern us”.
        Sadamm saw this as a go ahead, give the previous history of Iraqi-US engagement and the rise of Iran, he may have thought that the US prefered a stronger Iraq (post annexing Kuwait) in order to balance Iran. One should also add that Iraq was heavily indebted because of the Iran war, which would not have taken as long as it did without US/western support to Iraq.
        Had Glaspie slammed down her fists on the table, Sadamms calculus would have changed a lot. Sadamm was rational, he invaded Kuwait because it represented a source of desperatly needed funds.
        2: US sanctions.
        After the war was over, the US adopted a quite frankly completely insane or simply evil policy towards iraq. Iraq used to have a middle class, which could have been enticed to overthrow Sadamm. They actually did rise up, believing that there would be an intervention to support them, but no help was forthcoming. So, Sadamm saved his rule. If the next US move would have been to lift Sadamm up from his knees and allow him to go back into the world community, that would have made sense. However, the next US move was massive sanctions killing about 5000 children per month. This was mostly a US collective punishment to the Iraqi population (sanctions actually increased Sadamms hold on power, because only Sadamm had the resources to circumvent them) for failing to overthrow Sadamm (they tried). It utterly gutted the Iraqi middle classes, and completely wrecked this country. It was not justified by anything other then pettyness, cruelty and beurocratic inertia, and only ensured Sadamms rule because every alternative to him got gutted.


  2. Haven’t watched the video, but: what is the goal, the goal of the US foreign policy? I think it’s pretty clear. The goal is world domination. Every foreign policy action – its folly or wisdom – needs to be analyzed from this angle. Because this is the only angle.

    Here’s a 1948 George Kennan quote, from an official DoS document, often repeated by Chomsky: “The U.S. has about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.” That was 1948, today’s goals are far more ambitious.

    Not having watched the video, I nevertheless pretty sure this is not the criterion by which military interventions are being judged. That’s the problem.


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