Is There an Alternative to “Peacekeeping” Failures?

By Wayne McCormack for

McCormack-WayneA recent article on the Foreign Policy blog[1] describes the knowledge of White House officials about the genocide unfolding in Rwanda in 1994 and their willful decision to pull UN peacekeeping forces out of the country. The article seems startling but all it really does is add details to what we already knew about the policy decisions of 1994.

Although Clinton Administration advisors have apologized for the failure to act as 800,000 persons were slaughtered with machetes in the space of a few months, is it clear that the carnage could have been stopped? The movie Hotel Rwanda dramatically displays the futility of the UN “blue helmet” troops who were told not to fire their weapons unless fired upon. The 400 Dutch blue helmet troops at Srebenica earlier had stood by helplessly as some 8,000 men and boys were taken from the town and executed, an incident that resonates in Dutch policy decisions today.

In the Rwanda movie, the Canadian commander cries out in frustration that his troops are “peacekeepers,” not “peacemakers.” But if there is no peace to keep, then what is the point of sending an inadequate force into the middle of a brutal conflict? why put these good people in harm’s way? indeed, could their presence just inflame the situation and make matters worse?

As depicted in the movie “Blackhawk Down,” the previous fall, October 1993, the United States had experienced the dismay of losing 18 elite “Delta Force” troops to an essentially untrained mob in Somalia. Even I, with no military training, can see that when you send armed troops into a situation without adequate levels of force you’re just asking for trouble. I understand why Richard Clarke wanted out of the business as a general policy matter, although the moral implications of failing to intervene were horrendous.

In the global chaos that has emerged from the end of the Cold War, what should be the role of the so-called developed nations with their military power? Is there truly a “Responsibility to Protect” as some international experts have advocated? It is easy to see the moral argument for such a responsibility (yes, I am my brother’s keeper), but is it practical?

So today, what do we do from Syria to Yemen to Libya? What can we hope to accomplish for the poor people in the middle of Africa in countries whose names or locations most of us don’t even know? What is the point of “advisors” in Iraq against the likes of ISIS and al-Nusra? For that matter, who is fighting whom in this bewildering confrontation that links tribal loyalties more than political partners? Why are we fostering engagement in Yemen by two of our “allies,” Iraq and Saudi Arabia, who are at each other’s throats? For that matter, why do we continue to support a brutal and decadent regime in Saudi Arabia under an oil concession dating from 1945 that is no longer significant to U.S. energy needs?[2]

I am neither a historian nor a military analyst, but it seems logical that there are basically three options available for dealing with the chaos. One approach is to take at least 5 million troops from Europe and BRIC countries and overwhelm both continents. According to some estimates, the US has about 1.4 million troops on active duty while China has about 2.3 million and Russia alone almost another million plus some pretty good technical capabilities. If all of those troops with their formidable equipment were combined with NATO and India, it is hard to believe that the resulting juggernaut could not subdue readily both regions.

A second approach is to say “you have to fight back on your own and learn how to stand up to the bastards.” This is more than just harsh, it runs counter to all our instincts as human animals. The human genome seems built around the idea of group protection. We are definitely social animals, unable to survive long on our own. But forget the crude neuro-anthropology and just focus on the young girls being taken from their schools in Africa, brutalized and forced into sexual slavery. If I don’t bear a responsibility to protect them, then where is my humanity?

Granted, in the Middle East, there is some reason to believe that there are strong enough fighters who could eventually step up and protect their own culture. In that sense, I stand firmly behind the proposition that the United States has no role in the region at all. What about the oil? That’s a deal that was made by FDR back in 1945 – U.S. military protection for the Saudi royal family in return for U.S. access to Saudi oil – and the oil is no longer needed by the U.S. What about Israel? If the U.S. continues to support Israel with diplomatic and technological resources, that is fine and does not require any physical presence in the region.

In other words, two options are to return to the Era of Empire or leave people to work out their own solutions, perhaps not unrealistic in the Middle East but rather clearly an unacceptable variation on barbarism in central Africa.

And then there is the third option that we keep trying to employ – the option of half-hearted but deadly intervention. True, Genghis Khan conquered the world from the Pacific almost all the way to the Atlantic with a force of about 100,000 troops (which I assume is what Donald Rumsfeld imagined himself doing with the “lean” U.S. military). But Khan did it with overwhelming technological and intellectual capabilities backed up with far more rigorous training than his targets possessed. And notice what happened – as soon as he died his family fell into feuding and his empire collapsed in less than a century. So what was the point? True also, he created roads, postal and monetary systems, but even those disintegrated before long.

What is the point of a military invasion? When I think about Alexander, Genghis Khan, or Julius Caesar marching into a new territory, I have a couple of images in my head. What were they hoping to accomplish and who was opposing them? In each instance, some version of Pax Romana was probably alluring – it equates with the ideas of globalization, Age of Empire, colonialism, and all the other rationales for imposing one’s own civilization on other people. In some degree, those rationales make sense but we have learned that it is impossible (even if it were morally right) to impose foreign culture on indigenous populations unless you basically destroy the local culture and replace it with a new population (i.e., European conquest of the Americas).

The second image is who was opposing them and why? In many instances, Pax Romana benefitted the local population and was embraced after initial opposition. The object of the military is to destroy (or at least subdue) not win hearts and minds. But there are those who do have the job of winning hearts and minds, and perhaps they could do a much better job if it were clear at the outset that the invasion was a temporary ousting of brutal miscreants and would not be repeated if the local populace took control peacefully. I think that’s where we are in Libya today – waiting to see if the warring factions can come to some accord on their own because we are not about to go in unilaterally to make a mess of another US mission.

In the modern world, it seems utter foolishness to wage a half-hearted war throughout the Middle East and Africa which only prolongs the agony of those cultures. If we just send token troops into those regions, the half-hearted efforts may just make the situation worse by seducing peaceable people into relying on intervention that isn’t effective while creating so much ill-will that we end up aiding the recruiting efforts of the very people committing the atrocities.

But there are millions of troops which could be assembled under a single banner if the political will existed. If the United Nations were truly an integrated body, it could easily subdue the monsters wreaking havoc in both regions.

What would it take for this to happen? Merely the willingness of the U..S., Russia, China, India and the rest of NATO to relinquish at least a significant portion of their sovereignty to a world order.

Oh sure, this is an outrageous thought. Once every generation or so, the United States goes through some variation on anti-federalism and states’ rights. The European Union still doesn’t have a central mandate on the degree of prominence to give such basics as human rights or health care, let alone specific standards on labor conditions.

But just think what could be started if Russia and China joined NATO. A global military force could eliminate all serious threats to transnational conflict as well as threats of atrocities such as IS and Boko Haram and alShabaab and the rest of the vicious crews. And what would we lose? Virtually nothing – in fact, it could be argued that each country would gain by having a seat at the table with an infinitely more powerful force than it could possible command on its own, plus it would no longer be concerned about threats from powerful adversaries.

I know this will not happen in my kids’ generation but isn’t it ultimately inevitable? Would this eliminate all violence from the world? Of course not, no more than a good police force can eliminate all threat of violence from any city. But it sure would go a long way toward allowing us to concentrate on matters more truly important, such as health care and labor standards. Who knows, eventually we might even end sex slavery in most of the world.


[2]The U.S. is now a next exporter of petroleum and its products. See “Why Is the U.S. Still Importing So Much Oil?,” NPR (October 28, 2014). That phenomenon is based in part on the practice of “fracking,” which may itself prove to be an environmental debacle. But assessing the various approaches to wise energy production and usage is another story for another day.