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Europe Steps Up

The Social Limits of Military Intervention

April 18, 1999|Zachary Karabell | Zachary Karabell is the author of "Architects of Intervention: The United States, The Third World and the Cold War."

NEW YORK — Explaining the rationale for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's intervention in Kosovo, President Bill Clinton said, "I want us to live in a world where we all get along with each other, with all of our differences." Several days later, clarifying Clinton's Rodney G. King approach to international conflict, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen summed up U.S. and NATO goals: "No. 1, to demonstrate resolve on the part of the NATO alliance; No. 2, to try and deter Slobodan Milosevic from carrying out his campaign of ethnic cleansing, and failing that, to make him pay a serious substantial price for doing so; and to take his military down as best we can through air power."

After more than three weeks of allied bombing, NATO has demonstrated resolve, and Milosevic and the Yugoslav army have paid a substantial price. However, the most important objectives--the prevention of ethnic cleansing, the protection of Kosovar civilians and the creation of a world where this does not occur--remain unfulfilled. Though NATO and the Clinton administration wish otherwise, the limits of intervention are finite, and Kosovo promises to be another reminder of that.

The use of force can achieve any number of objectives. Paramilitary action or bombing can punish or destabilize an adversary; ground troops can destroy an opposing army, and then occupy, govern and police the conquered territory. Intervention can topple one government and help bring a new regime to power. But it cannot remake another society. It cannot transform the hearts and minds of another people. While it is difficult to force dramatic change in the government of a particular country, it is nearly impossible to cause a social paradigm shift. If there is no entrenched legacy of human rights, of democracy, intervention is not going to create it.

None of this should come as a surprise. Had the NATO leaders assessed the history of intervention in the past half-century, they would have concluded that the mission as conceived could never succeed. While it is too late to prevent the ill-considered bombing of Yugoslavia, it is still possible that the lessons of the past can prevent an even greater mistake looming on the horizon.

Since the end of World War II, the United States has intervened in more than 20 countries, including: Greece (1947-49), Italy (1948), Korea (1950-1953), Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Congo (1960), Cuba (1961), Vietnam (1961-73), Laos (1961-75), Dominican Republic (1965), Cambodia (1969-71), Chile (1973), Grenada (1983), Lebanon (1958, 1983), Libya (1986), Panama (1989), Iraq (1991), Somalia (1991-92), Haiti (1994) and now Kosovo. These interventions varied in intensity and duration, but, in all cases, success hinged on pursuing narrow, modest goals.

For example, in Greece in the late 1940s, the United States provided both overt assistance in the form of money and material and covert assistance with paramilitary units and training missions. The result was that the military cabal ruling Greece was able to defeat a communist-inspired guerrilla movement. But Greece did not become an open, free-market society. Intervention had limited ends--the defeat of an insurgency--and powerful collaborators--the Greek government.

Later, in Guatemala and Iran, Washington used the Central Intelligence Agency to assist in the overthrow of nationalist governments. Again, intervention led to autocratic governments that cleaved to the West during the Cold War. In Lebanon, in 1958, the Eisenhower administration dispatched more than 15,000 troops in a peaceful landing in Beirut to quell sectarian violence and prevent a nascent civil war from escalating. In these instances, success meant that the United States, in conjunction with local groups, engineered a coup.

These early Cold War interventions gave U.S. policymakers the sense that they could intervene anywhere and succeed. That was a mistake, as events at Cuba's Bay of Pigs and in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia demonstrated. Tilting the balance toward one faction is far easier than overthrowing a popular government, as in Cuba, or constructing a civil society in the face of widespread resistance, as in Vietnam. When the United States returned to limited, realpolitik interventions, as it did in Chile and the Dominican Republic, it succeeded in replacing one government with another.

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