Why Military Interventions in Africa Fail

Estimated Reading Time: 13 Minutes

By: Nick Blas

The concept of military intervention for humanitarian purposes is not new. Throughout history, there are salient examples of great power attempts at intervention for the express purpose of protecting human rights. Roughly 197 years ago Russia used human rights atrocities as a pretext for intervention in the Greek War of Independence. More recently, the United States has had a roll in several military interventions, and yet the moral and practical debate continues. Africa, in particular, has experienced contemporary conflicts, which elicited either an intervention or international discussion regarding a possible intervention. The future outlook for conflict on the continent remains high. Water scarcity, a growing youth bulge, and large migrations to mega-cities only exacerbate an already tenuous situation. Over the last few years, a principal figure in African interventions is the United States. Specifically, America was a significant member of the coalition to remove the former Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi for his crimes against the Libyan people during the Arab Spring in early 2011. While humanitarian intervention in Africa is often driven by the moral imperative to protect innocent civilians, America’s strategic culture and political will hinder its ability to achieve the desired effect, and in fact, interventions can cause more harm than good. The difficulty surrounding successful humanitarian intervention is best understood when viewed through a lens of competition between a state’s moral desire to intervene, their geopolitical interests, and the non-binding nature of international norms. Due to these factors, actual interventions in Africa have achieved only limited results.

Understanding humanitarian intervention first requires unraveling a complex set of political, legal, and ethical issues, which delineate intervention’s application of military force from other aid efforts. Humanitarian intervention is characterized specifically as a coercive action taken by a single state or a coalition of states which involves the use of force within the borders of another state to prevent widespread suffering or death among the civilian population. The concept of “responsibility to protect,” underpins the argument for intervention. The responsibility to protect was published by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) to define the international community’s responsibility to intervene in situations where a state cannot protect or threatens the lives of their citizens. The responsibility to protect is not a legal obligation and is used instead as a guideline for intervention justification. On the surface, a standard to govern the concept of military intervention to protect a population seems like an optimal solution. Theoretically, the ICISS guidelines and an operative example such as the Libya intervention would deter sovereign governments or other actors from endangering the human rights of its population, but the reality is much more complex. Without international laws to govern intervention, outside states are obliged to choose between the moral imperative to act in defense of a populace and their geopolitical interests. This dilemma leads to a lackluster application of the responsibility to protect and does little to deter determined actors from threating civilian populations. Humanitarian intervention rests on a foundation of non-binding moral obligations and standards, but the outcome of an intervention depends on the will and capability of states to respond.

United States’ strategic culture and political will inhibit the effective employment of military force for interventions because the costs exceed what policymakers are willing to risk in regards to the potential loss of life and resources. Understanding American strategic culture is important because it provides a perspective on decision-makers’ modes of thought concerning the use of force and illuminates possible responses. Furthering this point, Barry Posen helped bridge the gap between strategic culture and humanitarian intervention when he explained, “The threat or use of force for humanitarian purposes is as much an act of strategy as is the threat or use of force to achieve geostrategic goals.” In essence, humanitarian interventions must receive the same preparation and care applied in any armed invasion of another country. Instead, the opposite is true as policymakers who attach the most weight to long-term goals associated with humanitarian intervention underestimate the operational costs representative to the application of military force. The result is a lethargy that seeks to fulfill the desire for moral intervention through the simplest means. Pluralism and compromise lead to political leaders feeling like they should do something without being willing to do anything decisive. The desire to intervene is present, but the lack of political will causes an enforcement gap between the ambitions of interventionists and the ability to supply a peaceful resolution.

The environmental complexity and lack of impartial evidence to develop sound assessments also contribute to the difficulty of applying the proper means in situations where possible crimes against humanity are present. To develop assessments promptly, political and military leaders apply heuristics to help categorize the available information. The expedited nature of information processing causes two distinct problems. First, when states assess information incorrectly, they enter humanitarian interventions for the wrong reason. They develop strategic assessments through a trade-off between accuracy and timeliness. Analogies provide justification and advocacy to accelerate the speed of decision-making in place of comprehensive analysis. For example, pundits and policymakers employed the analogies of Somalia and Rwanda to justify the Libyan intervention. Neither of the previous interventions bore similarity to Libya except that they were on the same continent. Regardless, emotive calls to avoid a Rwanda-like genocide added fuel to arguments for intervention in Libya. Second, biased information creates a false sense of distinct good and bad actors, which can extend a conflict and cause more human suffering. Reports of Qaddafi killing unarmed protestors banded together numerous private organizations to lobby their governments for strong intervention. Intervention supporters based a majority of their evidence on social media posts, but the mainstream narrative missed the detail that many of the protesters were armed and violent from the first day of the uprising. In contradiction to the moral argument for intervention, choosing a single side in an internal conflict runs the risk of allowing the supported groups to seek out retribution against the previous offenders. Demonizing Qaddafi incentivized the rebels not to accept a negotiated peace and to extend the conflict as military aid continued to flow into the country.

Considering the previously presented information, attaining peace through humanitarian interventions is more difficult than expected, and considering the difference between coercive and deterrent methodologies of intervention underscores this struggle. Humanitarian intervention will either seek to deter a malicious actor from conducting crimes against humanity or will seek to coerce an actor to cease perpetrating crimes. Time is the determining factor for choosing which method is employed. If a state can identify potential threats before the assumption of hostilities, then deterrence is the optimal choice. Unfortunately, due to imperfect information, states are more likely to seek intervention after hostilities have begun. The lack of credible information and the normal friction associated with decision-making delays execution of intervention plans, placing the state’s actions firmly in the coercion category. Posen highlighted that both methods depend heavily on political will, but coercion is more difficult than deterrence because it attempts to make an adversary change an ongoing behavior. Traditionally, these aggressive actors have developed an incentive to continue their tactics; therefore any attempt to intervene will have to overcome their incentive to continue. Thus, coercive intervention depends on the difficult proposition of cross-cultural communication to determine a way to overcome a malicious actor’s will to perpetrate crimes against humanity. Respectively, the will of the local party or assailant very likely could be stronger than the will of the outside rescuers. For humanitarian intervention to be successful, states must understand coercion and apply the proper means to moderate behavior.

States look to military action as a tool to protect human rights, but because military capability and organization are designed to win wars, their tactics are not well suited to achieving conflict resolutions in humanitarian interventions.  Some political scientists, like Emily Goldman, believe America has become over-reliant on the military to solve political problems. Antulio Echeverria goes so far as to claim that the United States lacks an overarching grand strategy, which incentivizes its use of military might. These opinions are debatable, but it is clear that the military is not always the best option. The United States military maintains a doctrine of offense to pressure the enemy and deny them the opportunity to react. The offensive strategy works well in traditional conflicts, but it is counter-intuitive in interventions when the goal is to seek a reaction from the other side. Communication is crucial, and further hindering the military’s capability in interventions is their reliance on technological advantages. Specifically, the Air Force is a proponent of effects-based targeting, but regarding intervention, these tactics are not very efficient. The employment of force, in the form of counter-value bombing, in the majority of cases is inherently difficult to explain to the public. The necessity to kill civilians to prevent the killing of civilians is an incredibly difficult argument for political leaders to present to a domestic audience. Separately, rescuing states tend to fall victim to goal displacement. As good intentioned states intervene, there is a temptation to expand the mission to regime change. Shortly after the start of operations in Libya, the primary aim of protecting Libyan citizens evolved into overthrowing Qaddafi’s regime. The American approach to war lacks an emphasis on the end game, and often this approach confuses winning battles with winning the conflict.

One of the leading arguments for humanitarian intervention is the need to protect the international order and American prestige, but other nations interpret interventionist means used by the United States as a threat to sovereignty and world peace. The United States’ approach to international relations has oscillated between a liberal stance and a realist world superpower seeking its interests. In the latter instance, America as a hegemon has invested in sustaining efforts since the end of the Cold War, and without a clear rival has sought to shape the geopolitical landscape. Many countries view these actions as American exceptionalism, and humanitarian intervention is seen more as an imperialist intervention in the affairs of a sovereign state than an effort to genuinely assist. When interventions are conducted, rescuing states are not always able to control the narrative in a way to ensure the international community perceives the desired image. To overcome this negative optic the United States has sought a multilateral approach when interventions appear necessary in Africa. Multilateralism does help strengthen alliances. For example, the humanitarian intervention in Libya strengthened the American alliance with its European partners. While allies strengthened their partnerships, commitment levels varied greatly when the leading motivator was a feeling of altruism. The United States provided the largest single proportion of assets to the Libyan intervention. France and Great Britain also provided significant support and were two of the stronger proponents of regime change in Libya. While the United States was not alone in calling for the removal of Qadaffi, due to their significant contributions many in the international community view American as the primary instigator for regime change.

In conclusion, Africa is a region where complexity especially contributes additional complications to any intended intervention. Environmental problems like water scarcity will raise tensions and likely cause conflict in multiple countries. Africa is particularly susceptible to potential conflict as the added problems of a youth bulge and continued economic struggles push people to their limits. As the United States looks to the future, it should be cautious the intervention into a sovereign state should not be based solely on a moral argument. Additionally, the ability to obtain impartial evidence and attribute right and wrong to actions is questionable at best in a complex intervention scenario. Finally, the United States is war-weary while simultaneously experiencing an economic downturn and concern over the federal budget, which drives a lack of political will for continuous interventions in foreign countries. Alternative solutions to humanitarian crises should be exhausted before leveraging military force. If human rights violations on a mass scale still exist, then military means are appropriate, but it should be done considering one last factor. The United States should make any decision to enter a humanitarian intervention situation with an expectation that the cost will be higher and the chances of success will be lower than expected.

Nick Blas is an Intelligence Officer in the United States Air Force. He is a 2004 graduate of the Air Force Academy and has a master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Recently, he graduated from Air Command and Staff College and remained on staff for a second year as an Air University Fellow. He is currently an instructor in the International Securities Department.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the United States Government.

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment

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One thought on “Why Military Interventions in Africa Fail

  • October 23, 2018 at 1:23 pm

    My argument at NPS was that over the past few decades the relatively stable and slow to change U.S. policy towards Africa is more a reflection of egotistic U.S. national interests towards the continent and to a lesser extent the supporting factor of bureaucratic incrementalism, or ethical/moral obligation.


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