Police and peacekeepers (crossposted at CT)
This post by Chris Bertram made a point that’s central to a post I’ve been planning for some time, so I may as well jump in and complete it. Talking about US airstrikes in Iraq, he writes
The risk of the operation is transferred by deliberate and systematic policy from soldiers to bystanders. Such a policy runs contrary to traditional views about who should bear the risk of operations: we can’t insulate civilians completely but where there’s a choice soldiers both in virtue of the role they occupy and the fact (here) that they are volunteers should take on more exposure in order to protect civilians. It is hard to escape the thought that were co-nationals of the people dropping the bombs the ones in the bystander position, different methods would be used.
An obvious comparison is with the police force. If any of us were involved in a confrontation between police officers and armed criminals, we would expect the police to risk their lives to save us. A police force that viewed protecting the safety of its own members as the primary priority would not be very effective. A police force that was prepared to pursue criminals with deadly force, and treat deaths among the general public as “collateral damage” would be worse than useless. But that is, in essence, what has been given to the Iraqi people.
This raises, I think, a fairly general point in relation to the kind of liberal/humanitarian interventionism exemplified by Bosnia and Kosovo, and (from the viewpoint of some of its backers, particularly on the left) in Iraq. Unless the intervening powers have the willingness and capacity to provide peacekeepers who will operate as a police force, with the associated attitude that protection of the civilian population is the top priority, then intervention is bound to produce bad outcomes.
The Iraq war failed this test for two reasons. The first, which has been aired at length, is that there weren’t enough troops to make this kind of occupation feasible. Gen Shinseki’s estimate of 400 000 troops, based on extrapolation from Bosnia/Kosovo looks pretty accurate now.
The second point is that the spurious WMD rationale for the war meant that the Coalition never treated the war as a humanitarian intervention. Instead, they regarded themselves as the victors in a (pre-emptively) defensive war and Iraq as a defeated enemy state, which they could reconstruct (or not) as they wished. Resistance to the occupation, violent or otherwise, was inherently illegitimate. Hence, firing on demonstrators, banning newspapers and so on was OK. As US casualties have risen, this attitude has only hardened.
The continued presence of US troops, under current policies, is doing more harm than good.
fn1. A point that’s always worth thinking about before criticising the police, though it shouldn’t make them immune from criticism.
fn2. Of course, this theme was played along with many others. But all the Coalition leaders said before the war that overthrowing Saddam wasn’t a sufficient reason for war. Their subsequent actions have been consistent with this view.