How Humanitarian Intervention Failed the World

Conor Foley has a message for the international community: Humanitarian interventions rarely work. His recent book promoting that thesis, The Thin Blue Line, was reviewed by James Traub in Foreign Policy’s November/December 2008 issue. In this interview, Foley talks about Iraq, Darfur, and the conundrum of humanitarian reform.

Foreign Policy: During your career, you have worked with humanitarian organizations in countries around the world. Do you remember when you started to become skeptical of humanitarian intervention? What happened? Describe what this experience was like.

Conor Foley: This is a complicated legal subject, and it is not possible to say: This is the view. Intervention is not necessarily a good or a bad thing.

I suppose the thesis of the book is that humanitarian interventions virtually never resolve humanitarian crises. It is like using plaster in open-heart surgery. And the attempt to portray [humanitarian interventions] as a panacea is damaging because it is just not true that they work. Over the last 20 years, there are very few that have worked and where you now see democracy.

FP: You have noted that you believe the Iraq war had a negative impact on the idea of humanitarian intervention? What went wrong?

CF: What damaged [the idea of humanitarian intervention] were two things. First, that Tony Blair tried to justify [the war] as humanitarian intervention, which it never was. Blair did manage to confuse a lot of people, and he made people suspicious of intervention elsewhere. Second was the failure of the intervention to pan out as supporters expected -- and many supporters did think that the people of Iraq would welcome them as liberators. When that didn't happen, it led to a huge amount of cynicism and despair. The war also tied up a vast number of soldiers and money; so when crises elsewhere, like Darfur, occurred, their hands were tied.

FP: What would be the ideal response in Darfur, if our hands werent so tied town?

CF: I would ask for more support for the [African Union-United Nations] mission, which needs air support. There has been a lack of political will to support intervention. Part of the reason for this is that, ideologically, [intervention] has been so demonized by the liberals [who believe that] the U.N. is all but incompetent. The people who should have been campaigning for [the U.N.] are campaigning against it. You have numerous journalists and politicians who want the U.N. to fail just to validate their criticisms.

FP: It seems like you're not opposed to intervention in principle, then. Can you imagine a successful humanitarian intervention?

CF: Successful interventions tend to be those that are supported by the U.N. Security Council, those that are properly financed, have proper goals, and those where interveners understand their mandate. That doesnt mean necessarily that the intervention will be a success: 1991 in Somalia was the first example where there was a failure, and it made the West very reluctant to respond to other [crises].

FP: You are working on contributing to another book, this time writing about innovations in humanitarian aid. What does this mean, and how would it help to make intervention more effective?

CF: [Aid innovation] means looking at the practicalities of how the aid gets delivered. How do you get a system of justice up and running in Afghanistan, for example? How are courts dealing with their caseloads, backlogs? That is going to do much more to restore the system of government than the big prestige things. A couple weeks ago, Britain delivered a hydroelectric turbine to Afghanistan, but it wont make any difference to the Afghan people. I would be surprised if they even got the thing operating. It's just sitting there for the Taliban to attack.

FP: You mentioned that there is a better chance of intervention working when it is multilateral. What are the pitfalls of working through organizations like the African Union and the United Nations? Do you get a watered-down reaction, design by committee?

CF: Obviously not just with regional organizations, but also at a U.N. level, things do get watered down. Bureaucracy is unwieldy, but that is the reality if you like the multilateralism. I dont think we have a choice about it.

FP: Can you think of a successful example of humanitarian intervention that we could use as an example moving forward?

CF: There is peace in much of the world where there wasnt 10 to 15 years ago. The extent to which thats been achieved by international versus local peace processes is debatable. In Aceh in Indonesia, there was the Finnish-led intervention. They went in and Indonesia agreed to talk; then they reformed the system and were out in a year and a half. It was a locally driven process.

On the opposite side, you see Liberia and Sierra Leone, where there was the largest U.N.-mandated peacekeeping forces, and they have restored democracy and have put some of their leading perpetrators of war crimes on trial.

Finally, there was Northern Ireland. U.S. intervention in the peace process was particularly helpful at critical junctures. Both George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton helped to get sides at the table and helped to build trust. I think thats something most Irish people would see as a positive achievement.


The Narco State Next Door?

Mexico is fast becoming the central battleground in the war on drugs, but few in the United States seem to notice the worsening violence and corruption across the border.

Beginning late this summer, Mexico's usual simmer of isolated drug slayings boiled over into all-out war. President Felipe Calderon has deployed thousands of soldiers and police to the streets and vowed to purge corrupt police officers and officials who cooperate with the cartels. Since President Calderon's crackdown first began in December 2006, more people have died in Mexico in drug-related violence than from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Over the past several months, a growing number of civilians have been caught in the crossfire.

Amid the widening chaos, Foreign Policy's Elizabeth Dickinson spoke with observers on both sides of the border. Enrique Krauze is a noted Mexican historian and author who warns of a looming Mexican narco state. Michael Sanders is a special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Enrique Krauze

Foreign Policy: More than 4,000 people have died in Mexico's most recent bout of drug violence over the last year and a half -- and the past several months have been particularly bloody. Why has the death toll been so high? Whats going on?

Enrique Krauze: Mexico did not used to have this kind of problem because we had a centralized political system. In the old times, the president was de facto king. He could be corrupt or not corrupt, but you had a centralized power to deal with the darker sides of Mexican life. One of the paradoxical liabilities of our new democracy [is that it has decentralized the] real powers of the drug traffickers.

FP: President Calderon has launched a military offensive on the streets of Mexico -- including 40,000 soldiers and 5,000 police officers. Do you think the military approach will succeed?

EK: This is not a war that can be won soon. It may be a war that cannot be won at all until we have a change [in policy]. I think [Calderon] has been doing well. The fact that [the cartel members] are killing themselves so much is because they are feeling the pain.

One of our great writers, Gabriel Zaid, has suggested that we have to focus on the jails. Some are like the offices or headquarters of crime. We have to control the jails. President Calder'n has also lately been focusing on tracking the money and tracking the big policemen and big politicians. It is not one kind of approach.

FP: What is the mood on the streets of Mexico in places where the Army has been deployed? Are people backing President Calderon's efforts?

EK: There is uneasiness and sadness and the feeling that we are under threat. But it is not hysteria. It is not panic. The internal impression is that the president is doing his job. No one considers [it] a mistake for him to have engaged in this war. But at the same time, no one would say that he has been having real success.

FP: Since the escalation of violence, there have been a number of rallies protesting the kidnapping and killing of bystanders with no connection to drug trafficking. What has been the reaction to this rise in violence against civilians?

EK: There has been a very strong [reaction]. For example, when we had a bomb in [the state of] Morelos killing people, everyone talked about terrorism. It was a complete shock. Even other drug cartels said they had nothing to do with that. [Civilian deaths are] the main reason for uneasiness. If one knew they were only killing amongst themselves, people would say, "Go on -- finish the job." Instead, people feel helplessness.

FP: Last week in Madrid, you expressed concern about the possibility that Mexico is becoming a narco state. How close is Mexico to that reality now?

EK: There are already signs [of this] in some states. There are many municipalities that are clearly under the rule of the drug traffickers, and that's frightening because of course they kill the journalists and they corrupt everything. There is a danger [of Mexico becoming a narco state], but it's still an embryo.

FP: You have also said that the war on drugs will last a long time. How long do you foresee? What needs to happen before the conflict can end?

EK: Ten years, maybe 20 years. [Colombian President lvaro] Uribe said there will be many, many people dying before you learn [how to deal with the problem]. Since 1920, Mexico has been a peaceful country. We had avoided or dodged all the wars in the world. Every country has its wars; some are religious, ethnic, civil, and nationalistic wars. This is one that destiny had in store for us.

Special Agent Michael Sanders

FP: News organizations have reported on a growing weapons trade across the U.S.-Mexican border. Is that something you have seen?

Michael Sanders: Operation Gunrunner, through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, is trying to track and trace all the weapons that are seized coming out of the United States. Some of those trafficking are sending individuals to purchase weapons at gun shows, but that's only one part of it, and that's not a very big part of it. The larger thing Operation Gunrunner is going after are the individuals who are purchasing high volumes of automatic weapons and basically bringing them from north to south and then black-marketing them.

FP: As a special agent, how do you see the evolution of this crisis in Mexico?

MS: We've conducted investigations beginning from the time that the Colombians started using the Mexicans to get the cocaine [across the border.] Then at some point in the mid-1990s, we started seeing a shift, where Mexican cartels were purchasing [the cocaine from the Colombians] and then setting up distribution networks in the United States. You started seeing the violence because [the cartels were] fighting amongst each other for routes.

Now, Calderon and his administration have started an active campaign against the traffickers. The cartels are now having to fight against the military as well as each other. Calderon is [also] going after the corrupt police and military and whatever individuals who are taking money from the cartels. He is putting on pressure. And whenever there is pressure, then these organizations are turning towards kidnapping and ransoms and extortions.

If you look at Colombia back in the 80s, it was much like Mexico is today: There were kidnappings, killings of state officials, law enforcement, and judges. Nobody was protected, and there was a lot of corruption. But you look at Colombia now under President Uribe, and you see there's still going to be crime but not like it was. What Uribe has done is to put a law enforcement presence in every county in every administration. Calderon has tried to do the same thing. He's fighting a war, and theres going to be a lot of violence.

FP: If it took Colombia more than 20 years to break that cycle, what does the timeline look like for Mexico?

MS: Colombia's a lot smaller than Mexico. And Colombia, with regard to the drug trafficking, has to get products to the United States. It's easier for the Mexicans: They can walk, swim, or truck it across the border. Colombia had to bring it all the way up either by fast boats or fishing boats, or had to get it across the Caribbean or the Pacific. It was hard. But that's a lot easier for the Mexicans.

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