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Why Foreign Military Intervention Usually Fails in the 21st Century

When Nehru was taking a train on his return to India after studying abroad he read of the Japanese victory over Russia in the 1904-05 Russo Japanese War. At that moment he had an epiphany, realizing the hitherto unthinkable, that the British Empire was vulnerable to Indian nationalism. An earlier understanding of the colonial reality by native peoples generally subscribed to the postulates of hard power primacy making it futile or worse to challenge a colonial master, although throughout history there were always pockets of resistance.

This soft power attribute of colonial hard power by way of intimidation and a façade of invincibility is what made colonialism efficient and profitable for so long at the great expense of colonized peoples.

A traditional colonial occupation assumes that the foreign domineering presence, while oppressive and exploitative, refrains from ethnic cleansing or genocide in relation to the indigenous population.

When settler versions of colonialism emerged in relation to the Western Hemisphere and regions occupied by traditional peoples that were without either population density or some kind of industrial capability, the occupier managed to achieve enduring control typically relying on brutal means to establish its state-building claim via some form of dispossession that successfully superseded indigenous identities. Thus the indigenous identity is marginalized or extinguished, and the settler identity is legitimized as the ‘true’ identity.

There is still a mysterious connection between military inferiority and political victory. It seems to defy common sense and the pragmatic wisdom of political elites that believe in the historical agency of hard power long after the empirical record casts severe doubt on such ‘realist’ claims. Of course, and it should not be overlooked, if an occupied people mistakenly chooses to risk its future by militarily challenging the occupier on the battlefield it is likely to lose, and may suffer extreme losses. Military resistance is possible, but it needs to be calibrated to the interplay of unequal capabilities and take advantage of elements of conflict that favor the militarily weaker side.

As Tolstoy portrays in War and Peace the extraordinary Russian resilience displayed in defeating and expeling the superior military forces of Napoleon’s France, it was a matter of tactically retreating to the point that French supply lines were stretched beyond their capacities to maintain their alien and foreign presence, especially given the rigors of the Russian winter; Hitler’s war machine experienced a similar devastating defeat at the hands of the outgunned Soviet defensive forces who also understood the benefits of withdrawal.

In effect, there are tactical, geographical, ideological, normative dimensions of conflict that when intelligently activated can neutralize the seemingly decisive advantages of the militarily superior side that has the best weaponry. The history of imperial decline also illustrates the eventual neutralization of the sharp realist edge that had been earlier achieved through battlefield dominance.

The architects of colonial expansion made ideological claims that were able to give their economic and political ambitions a kind of moral justification. It was Europe’s moral hubris to insist upon an imperial entitlement premised on the supposed civilizational and racial superiority of Western peoples.

Such a rationale for conquest and occupation put forward an apparent normative claim to govern backward peoples, and additionally argued that more advanced industrial practice make more efficient use of resources than did the native population.

In the period since World War II, considering the weakening of the European colonial powers, a determined drive for nationalist self-empowerment spread to all of Asia and Africa. Each situation was different, and in some the colonial power left more or less willingly after a period of struggle, as in India, while in others long wars ensued as in Indochina and Algeria.

The wave of anti-colonial successes politically transformed world order, creating dozens of new states that reshaped the political landscape of the United Nations. The anti-colonial movement enjoyed extraordinary success in achieving formal independence for colonized people, but it did not end the role of hierarchy in structuring international relations and the world economy. The geopolitical ascendancy of the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the capitalist world economy sustained on a material basis the exploitative and dominant relationship of the West to the non-West.

During the Cold War, geopolitical rivalry and American efforts at counter-revolution directed at left-oriented political developments, led to military interventions designed to impose limits on the exercise of the right of self-determination. The Soviet interventions in East Europe, such as Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 were emblematic of such a pattern within the state socialist bloc of countries.

The United States relied on covert interventions whenever possible (as in Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954), and resorted to military interventions when necessary to uphold its strategic and ideological interests. The Vietnam War was the most important example of a full-fledged intervention designed to prevent the emergence of a left-leaning government that would strengthen Communist influence in South Asia.

The United States enjoyed complete military dominance in Vietnam throughout the decade long war, having mastery of air, sea, and land, yet proved vulnerable to certain defensive tactics of guerrilla warfare. The war was lost by the United States in the end because its political system lost patience with its inability to establish stability in support of a Vietnamese leadership that was anti-Communist and dependent on the West. Some militarists contend that the war was lost on TV in American living rooms (seeing the body bags of Americans killed in Vietnam swayed public opinion) or because the military presence that reached a half million relied on conscripted troops that gave rise to a student led anti-war movement. In other words, the war was lost politically, not militarily.

Such an understanding is partly true, but it overlooks the role of national resistance in Vietnam, and attributes the outcome to the faltering political will of the intervening side.

The great advantage of those national forces seeking to expel foreign occupation, even if indirect as in Vietnam where the United States was nominally supporting one side in a civil war, is its familiarity with the terrain and its far greater stake in the outcome. Henry Kissinger made the apt observation that in a counterinsurgency war if the counterinsurgent side doesn’t win, it loses, while if the insurgent side doesn’t lose, it wins. Such a statement, not surprisingly considering its source, overlooks the role of people, especially the greater steadfastness of those fighting for the independence of their country as compared with those seeking to impose an alien or foreign solution on a conflict.

The foreign intervener calculates whether it is worth the cost, and in a democratic society, the mixture of casualties and the absence of a timely victory, gradually undermines the popular enthusiasm that may have accompanied the earliest expressions of support. Patience among the citizenry runs out when the foreign war does not seem to be closely connected with the defense of the national homeland.

This became especially clear in the United States during the latter stages of the Vietnam War when the American public began to perceive a ‘credibility gap’ between the government’s claim that it was winning the war and a more sober account of a stalemate without a victorious end in sight. For the Vietnamese, this was not a matter of whether to give up or not, but how to continue their struggle despite their material inferiority and the adversities associated with the devastation of their country. The Vietnamese leadership was prepared for every eventuality, including a 50-year retreat to mountainous regions, being convinced that at some point the foreigners would tire of the conflict and go home.

The United States as global hegemon is incapable of learning such lessons or accepting the ethos of self-determination that has such salience in the post-colonial world. Instead it tries over and over again to reinvent counterinsurgency warfare, hoping finally to discover the path leading to victory. The American strategic community believed the lessons of Vietnam were to build better support at home for the war effort, embark on war with sufficient force to achieve victory quickly, and abandon the drafting of its military personnel from among its youth.

The warmakers also tried to design weaponry and tactics so as minimize casualties in these one-sided wars for the intervening side. At first, the adjustments seemed to work as the adversary was foolish enough to meet the foreign challenge on the battlefield as in the 1991 Iraq War or where the military intervention was itself seeking to remove Serbian foreign rule as in Kosovo in 1999. There was enthusiasm in the Washington think tanks for what were thought to be a new triumphal era of ‘zero casualty wars.’ Of course, there were zero (or very low) casualties, as in these two wars, but only for the foreign intervener; the society being attacked from the air endured heavy casualties, and much devastation, as well as the demoralizing experience of total helplessness.

In the post-9/11 atmosphere of ‘a global war on terrorism’ this same geopolitical logic applies. The violence is carried to wherever on the planet a threat is perceived, and the victims are not only those who are perceived, whether rightly or wrongly as posing the threat, but also to the innocent civilians that happen to be living in the same vicinity. There is no deference to the sovereignty of other countries or to civilian innocence, and a unilateral right of preemptive attack is claimed in a manner that would be refused to any adversary of the West.

The weaponry is designed to minimize political friction at home, exemplified by the growing reliance on attack drones that can inflict strikes without ever risking casualties for the attacker. Such weaponry allows war to persist almost permanently, especially as it serves both bureaucratic and private sector interests, and produces an almost enveloping securitization of the political atmosphere, destroying democratic freedoms in the process.

As the outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq show, despite the enormous military and economic effort by the United States, the political outcome was disappointing, if not yet clearly a defeat. And the results are strategically worse from an American perspective than the original provocation and goals.

Putting the point provocatively, many in the Washington policymaking world would be secretly glad if there occurred a second coming in Iraq of Saddam Hussein who alone could restore unity and order to the country. The American version of a civilizing mission was ‘democracy promotion,’ which proved just as unpalatable to the population being attacked and occupied as were the earlier moral claims of outright colonial administrations.

Indirect adverse consequences from a U.S. perspective of these failed intervention included the intensification of Sunni/Shi’ia sectarian tensions throughout the region and the establishment of fertile breeding grounds for anti-Western political extremism.

The West also builds support for its militarist approaches to contemporary forms of conflict by demonizing its adversary, ignoring their grievances, whether legitimate or not. The politics of demonization that fits so neatly with ascribing terrorist behavior to the other also has the effect of rejecting diplomacy and compromise.

Yet interestingly, there is a willingness to regard yesterday’s demon as today’s ally. This shuffling of ‘the enemy’ has been happening constantly in the setting of Iraq and Syria. The abrupt entry of IS on the scene is the most spectacular example of such a shuffling of alignments, having the effect of suspending the anti-Assad efforts of the United States and Europe.

There is more to these unlearned lessons than strategic failures, and being on the wrong side of history. These ventures cause millions of ordinary people in distant countries to bear the terrifying brunt of modern weaponry that kills, wounds, displaces, and traumatizes. For the intervener the outcome is at worst a regrettable or even tragic mistake, but the society back home persists in its complacent affluence; but for the target societies, in contrast, the experience of such foreign military encroachment is experienced as swallowing a massive dose of criminality in a global setting in which the criminals scandalously enjoy total impunity.

Given the way elites think and militarism is structured into the bloodstream of major states, foreign military intervention is intrinsic to the war system. We must work now as hard to eliminate war as earlier centuries worked to eliminate slavery. Nothing less will suffice to rescue the planet from free fall to disaster.

In the end, we have reached a stage in the political development of life on the planet where civilizational and species survival itself depends on the urgency of building an effective movement against the war system that remains indispensable to sustain hierarchy and exploitation, wastes huge amounts of resources, and dangerously diverts problem-solving priorities from climate change and the elimination of nuclear weaponry.

Unless such a radical transformation of the way life on the planet is undertaken in the decades ahead, two intertwined developments are likely to make the future inhospitable to human habitation even if the worst catastrophes can be avoided: globalization morphing into various forms of authoritarian and oppressive political leadership intertwined with extremist movements of resistance that have no vision beyond that of striking back at the oppressors.

How to evade such a dark future is what should be everywhere preoccupying persons of good will.

Richard Falk is an American professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University. He just completed a six-year term as United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. Falk is an associate at the Transnational Foundation for Future Research, where this essay originally appeared. 

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Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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