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  • Intervention in Unnatural Humanitarian Emergencies: Lessons of the First Phase
  • Tom J. Farer (bio)

The facade lights are dimming, the closing signs prepared for the first production of “Humanitarian Intervention.” Over the past few years, it has played in a number of locales. And though it has enjoyed occasional success, its big-buck backers, its most prominent performers, and the generality of its audiences seem convinced that, on balance, global policing is not worth the price.

Ever since the improvised drama of collective intervention opened, producers and directors have struggled to glean from every mishap lessons for improving back-stage mechanics and increasing the coherence of the script. Even now, with the end in sight, they and their sympathetic critics continue to discuss the lessons of this first run. But the bilious mood of actors and audiences makes contemplation of a revival to which the lessons might usefully be applied seem rather Utopian.

Disillusionment is not limited to the particular drama of collective action under UN auspices. It extends to the entire genre of intervention whether in defense of humanitarian values or, less grandly, a modest degree of law and order. The debacle of the UN operation in Somalia did not simply deter collective action in Rwanda to halt the momentum of genocide. Until the French volunteered (either to mitigate or to obscure their previous complicity), it seemed equally to deter action by those individual member states in possession of the requisite means.

Still, the air of futility surrounding efforts to improve the performance of the drama now lurching to a close on the Balkan’s Broadway probably is deceptive. The claims of “never again” await refutation by the first case of convulsion within a state whose size or resources or strategic location broadly extend the trauma of its spasms. No prodigy of imagination is required to locate candidates. Is it very likely, for instance, that the hectic dissipation of the national patrimony by tetrarchs in more than one oil-rich state will forever go unchallenged? How long can Nigeria’s military vandals [End Page 1] preside over the immiserating descent of its one hundred million people before a spark ignites the tinder? When the Nile’s diurnal flood can find nothing to irrigate other than the favelas of the hopeless, will any security force be large and united enough to sustain Egypt’s ramshackle state? And what if Algeria’s army splits? Can South Africa create big and hopeful enough middle classes before the lower ones detonate? How many Caribbean mini-states are immune to takeover by stooges for transnational criminal enterprise? Just how brittle is Mexico’s political system?

If in the midst of the new world disorder one can predict anything with much confidence, it is that an insidiously tempting case is now slouching unobserved toward the agenda of international concern. “Never again” could easily turn out to be “from time to time.” Or through a misreading of the past and a consequent miscalculation of the prospective cost and the absence of coherent doctrine, governments may flinch and then end up paying more than the cost of a sensible early intervention. Hence a bit of orderly cerebration about recent policing experience does not exactly seem a waste of time. To the extent there are answers to the questions experience has posed, we had better learn the right, as well as identifying the missing, ones.

The educational exercise, if not always a whole lot of cerebration, is already under way. Far from Bosnia where the UN operation has had to grope through the confusion of its many mandates, the usual horde of experts purport to extract lessons from the moral and material failure of an inconsequent Western alliance. Their efforts will come to very little. For the failure—albeit in reality partial—of the “peace and humanitarian” operation in the former Yugoslavia springs not from flawed technique but from palsied will. Failure cannot be attributed to unforeseen flaws in the operation’s mechanics. Failure was inherent in its design. We hardly need the assistance of experts to understand that those who design to fail will normally succeed.

The one thing Bosnia does do, however, is pose an important...

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pp. 1-22
Launched on MUSE
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