By Mina Shah
When someone mentions military interventions conducted by the United States in the past seventy-five years, anyone who follows current events will think about just how positive of an intervention the war in Iraq was. And how we should continue to conduct interventions if they can all go that well.
Thought (hopefully) no one ever.
There have been some pretty strong examples of U.S. military interventions gone wrong in the past fifty years. Arguably every armed conflict the U.S. has been involved in since the conclusion of the Second World War has had success rates ranging from barely justifiable to utterly abysmal. Between the war in Vietnam, the Gulf Wars and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you would think that we as a country would have learned our lesson by now — that we should be completely shying away from getting engaged in any sort of armed conflict (on the ground, with drone strikes or even in providing funding to certain sides of a conflict that we feel will help our national agenda). Put more succinctly: Military intervention is a bad idea because, first, we do a bad job with executing them and second, other countries don’t need our “help.”
Unfortunately, many Americans, including many of those higher up in chains of command of the U.S. military, are still determined to intervene in the political and military situations of other countries through uses of force, including drone strikes, and help to fund the military plans of certain conflicts.
Viewed through some lenses, the idea of intervention makes a certain degree of sense, especially if we, the Americans, can remain at a distance. In the moment of bombing via drone strikes, our troops are relatively safe, and we can “deal with” the problems that it is apparently our right and obligation to engage with. So if we continue to have the ability to intervene from a distance as an option, it might seem like not such a bad idea to keep sticking our nose in things. Continuing to be able to fund conflicts has the same sort of draw, where we get to keep our own troops visibly safe for the moment but also get to try to control situations around the world.
There are plenty of examples of times when intervention didn’t work (see all the citations in the first fully-fleshed out paragraph), but perhaps what we need in addition to that are some examples of times when non-intervention did work. Maybe, just maybe, if military leaders can be shown both that intervention is ineffective and that non-intervention is effective, we can get our military to calm the heck down.
Fortunately, we have recently gotten a very real world example about how other countries don’t need our interventions. A series of events that often get described as crises, or turn into the sorts of things where the U.S. feels the need to intervene, has happened recently and smoothed out completely without any international aid. On the 16th of September, military forces in Burkina Faso initiated a coup against the government in power. The words “military coup” sound pretty scary right? And, beyond that, it’s happening in Africa! Oh god, time for intervention, right? Wrong.
In less than a week, General Gilbert Diendéré, the military commander who initiated the coup and declared himself in charge of the nation, has been taken out of power and the country is now continuing to prepare for approaching elections.
This series of events is awesome for many reasons. First, it’s exciting that Burkina Faso was able to maintain peace while dealing with this situation. Second, these events demonstrate that other countries are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves and do not need the help of crumbling “super powers” to run efficiently. Third, these events in Burkina Faso give us an opportunity to be happy for another country’s efforts without being able to think about ourselves and our own involvement in the situation. So often when thinking about international events, the U.S. population and U.S. media frame things in terms of our own involvement (another great problem we have being self-absorption). This reinforces the idea that we are somehow needed by others the second things start to go wrong, which is in fact not the case.
Clearly, we don’t do too well when we intervene militarily in the affairs of other countries unprompted, with pretty much the worst track record of military interventions one could imagine. And apparently, other countries can take care of themselves just fine without our help. Long story short, unless people are explicitly asking for help, we don’t need to mess with other people’s political and military situations. Maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board and work on ourselves before imposing values and bullets on others.
Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.