REVIEW: Can Intervention Work?

Book by Rory A. Stewart and Gerald Knaus

Stewart and Knaus grapple with the seminal question of modern international affairs: can intervention work? By this they mean: can the West, using military force, end wars, halt genocide, topple dictators, replace them with friendly governments, and build nations, without making things worse? Their answer is yes—but not as often as many of us think, and only with limited goals, and more humility and local knowledge than has typically been the case in recent decades.

Stewart, a young British member of Parliament who gained fame for a book about his 2002 walk across central Afghanistan, says foreigners intervening in a failing or war-ravaged country too often succumb to mission creep. Their mandate swells, drawing in ever more resources and troops to little beneficial effect. “There isn’t an insurgency,” a military friend told Stewart after a 2005 reconnaissance trip to Helmand province in Afghanistan, where Britain was about to deploy thousands more soldiers, “but you can have one if you want one.”

Stewart has argued for years against sending more soldiers to Afghanistan. What is needed instead, he says, is a “light long-term footprint.” Commit, but don’t try to do too much. Foreign soldiers, diplomats and aid workers, deploying for in-country tours that are so short British imperialists of a century ago would scoff in disbelief, don’t develop the expertise to implement grand plans designed in faraway capitals. “We—the foreign government organizations and their partners—know much less and can do much less than we pretend,” says Stewart.

Gerald Knaus, a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, focuses his half of the book on Bosnia, where he has practical experience dating from the 1990s. The West’s intervention in Bosnia succeeded, says Knaus, because it forced a peace agreement that warring parties signed on to; because the prospect of membership in the European Union was an enticing carrot for reformers in the region; and because the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia defanged and delegitimized the nationalists and ethnic cleansers who were indicted by it.

The intervention was restrained from the outset—ground troops were not deployed until there was a peace deal to enforce—and while the mission and its tactics evolved, it never reached what Knaus describes as open-ended utopian social engineering. “This is an argument for prudence, not recklessness,” he writes.

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