Snared by geopolitical interests, post-9/11 interventions have too easily been captured by leading states. A robust law enforcement process must serve enforcers of law, not agents of geopolitical interests.
9/11 was a crime against the US and a crime against humanity. The trauma of the planes crashing into the World Trade Towers will remain an image of lasting profanity. Since then, wars have been fought to keep terrorism offshore and to eradicate extremism and despotism at their source.
Recently, there is much press commentary about the consequences of failed post-9/11 wars and intervention, renewed by the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Commentators note with alarm the spread of IS across Northern Syria, large swathes of Iraq, parts of Libya and other countries with copycat armed groups. The beheading of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya and 45 people burned to death in Iraq inevitably raise the loudest possible alarm; the grotesqueness of the events only matched by the brazenness of the executioners’ celebrations. There is a call, again, to arms.
Some blame the failure to stabilise Afghanistan after 2001 on the start of the war in Iraq in 2003. Some blame the failure of the war in Iraq on a lack of adequate planning and a failure to follow through. Some blame the failure of intervention in Libya on reluctance to put “boots on the ground” due to the widespread war fatigue that followed Afghanistan and Iraq. Some people blame the chaos in Syria on the ad hoc arming of rebel groups and an unwillingness to intervene more directly. The point being that all these wars might have succeeded if only the tactics had been better, the strategy sharper, and post-conflict reconstruction more clearly defined.
The truth is, however, that these wars were misconceived from the outset and have created a calamitous geopolitical failure from which very few lessons have been learned. The wars have also created a vast power vacuum as postcolonial regimes were toppled with no viable strategy for what comes next. Into this vacuum stepped armed groups who have sought to shore up power like postmodern medieval warlords and warring barons. The result has been a calamitous orgy of violence linked to social media for the widest possible impact in the search for territory, resources and control. The claims to religious justification cannot disguise the barbaric cruelty of the actions.
The 9/11 wars were governed by a belief that despots could be toppled and replaced by democratic regimes as a result of short demonstrations of awesome American military power, with some allies in-tow. The wars were led by people that had no understanding of the countries they were fighting in, no grasp of the culture or language, no sense of the politics and the peoples, no account of local interests and divisions, and no plan for once the fighting had begun. These wars were led by men who, at best, were gripped by the belief they had the ability to reshape other countries in their own image.
Such a mind-set might be conceived as a benign deployment of a colonial imaginary put to the service of reconstructing other societies through armed conflict in the interest of repressed peoples. But there is a less benign interpretation, of course, that such a position veils the prosecution of war fought out for resources, revenge, and, at times, for a Christian god. This is less a benevolent colonial imaginary than a crusading mind-set.
While some may claim that the wars rolled back Al-Qaeda, prevented a massacre in Benghazi and rid Assad of chemical weapons, we have to ask at what cost? The advances have not been sustained: terrorism continues to flourish, arms abound, open markets for slaves have developed, and massacres are widespread. The scale of the death toll and displacements of people have become difficult to grasp, and the destruction of infrastructure evokes images of Armageddon. By this standard, war after war has failed.
If western political leaders go to war promising security and resolution, the defeat of armed aggressors and their replacement with benign institutions and, if none of these promises are kept, surely it is the moment to seek accountability and justice. The International Criminal Court is rigged to ensure that no western leaders can be tried for crimes of war without a referral from their own states, the Security Council, or through the prosecutor’s office. Leading states have ensured that none of these routes will be followed.
The 9/11 wars were conceived against the tide of history. There are only few historical instances of democracies being borne out of war (e.g. Italy, Germany, Austria and Japan in the aftermath of WWII). But this should hardly be a surprise. Democracies depend on the most subtle cultural conditions in which people can separate the values of citizenship from sectarian, ethnic, tribal and other forms of identity politics. This shift took centuries in the West and came about through centuries of struggle, debate and the slow entrenchment of that most universal of ideas – citizenship, as a trump for other forms of particular political claims.
The 9/11 wars sought to circumscribe these processes and, instead of democracy, produced the vacuum into which sectarian and tribal identities could flourish. This was a negation of history and a negation of all that should have been learnt about how liberal and democratic cultures evolve in delicate and slow trajectories.
Given the current crises in the Middle East and North Africa (and of course, one might add Ukraine), we must ask if lessons have been learnt from the series of post-9/11 failures. In Europe David Cameron still speaks of the war in Libya as necessary and justified, while clearly acting in a more cautious manner. Obama is more explicitly reticent on the prospect of direct military engagement on the scale deployed in Libya, instead emphasising long term strategies to combat terrorism – in the form of development and self-determination (supported, in part, by arming and training local actors such as the Kurds), while using airstrikes to slow down the advance of groups like IS. At the same time, he is aware of what one might call the dilemma of violence whereby a military operation may be urgently needed, but runs the risk of, in aggregate, reinforcing the cycle of violence – a challenge seen clearly in the current consideration of whether, and how, to retake Mosul.
But these lessons have been learnt too late and at too high a price. Presumption against war and intervention must be the starting point. We have overwhelming evidence of the failure of war as a contemporary vehicle for democracy promotion: freedom cannot be achieved through war and organised violence, and a lasting peace can only be won through the consent and act of participation of the many.
Just as there must be a presumption against war, there must a presumption in favour of nurturing sites of citizenship values with a commitment to building intermediate institutions like universities, publishing houses and the press, as well as nurturing civil society, with the aim to lay down the roots of a culture of self-determination and curtailment of the use of arbitrary power.
There remain many unresolved issues about how to proceed faced with IS, Boko Haram, or despotic and repressive States, with civilians frequently caught in the crossfire. In the short-term, they must be checked by cutting off economic resources that feed their activity in tough sanctions; by stemming their access to arms; and by holding them to account as criminals, not conventional military adversaries, for their violent crimes within a framework of law and law enforcement. In the current period, this can only be done by a mixture of national and regional military arrangements. But herein lies a difficulty.
A robust law enforcement process that upholds impartial norms would need to draw on military and policing assets that serve as enforcers of law, not as agents of geopolitical interests. An enforcement capacity of this kind only exists today in embryo and in an uneven manner, and there are no institutions that can impartially apply frameworks like the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine. Snared by geopolitical interests post-9/11 interventions have too easily been captured by leading states. Building a robust law enforcement process is a long-term process and, yet, it is paradoxically a requirement of legitimate and effective short-term solutions.
In the meantime, one way to bridge the 9/11 wars to a framework of law and impartial norms would be to ensure the accountability of political leaders for their failed wars. If such leaders were formally judged by the veracity of their claims to armed intervention, as well as by the result, they might pause before pursuing the kind of disastrous 9/11 wars that have blighted contemporary history. In the absence of such mechanisms, there is a role for domestic inquiries examining the causes and consequences of war. Such inquiries have been undertaken with respect to Iraq by the Chilcot Inquiry (UK) and the Senate Intelligence Committee Report (US). However, when a review process is wholly domestic it is optimistic – perhaps naïve – to expect the degree of impartiality envisioned here.
Without such accountability, there is a great danger that whatever lessons have been learned will be short-lived and that offshore conflict might return to haunt the capitals of those powers claiming to create peace and eradicate terrorism, when all they have achieved is heinous levels of death, destruction and exacerbation of violence.
This column was first published by OpenDemocracy.