Looking at Iraq, Libya and Syria together, it seems safe to conclude that Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gadhafi and Hafez Assad were, and Bashar Assad is, the lids on their respective pots of sectarian tensions that boil over into large-scale violence, killings and displacement if the lid is removed. The uprisings of 2011 by the end of 2015 had produced more autocracy in some Gulf states, a return to military dictatorship in Egypt, anarchy in Libya and a brutal civil war in Syria. Velvet revolutions they were not. The “Arab Spring” darkened into the Islamist Winter and then the restoration of the authoritarian state as it failed to make the transition from the politics of street protests to the politics of democratic good governance.
These perverse mutations are on top of the catastrophic consequences of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The desperate majorities that had fervently prayed for and welcomed the end of Saddam and Gadhafi grew equally disenchanted with the corrupt, sectarian and dysfunctional governments that followed, without the capacity to provide order, ensure public safety, deliver social services, keep Islamist extremism and sectarian hatreds in check and protect minorities.
Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya have stopped functioning as sovereign states. The entire region is consumed by Sunni-Shiite rivalry, jihadist movements fighting by all means necessary to overthrow existing political structures, internal conflicts in every country between fractured religious and tribal groups that starkly highlight the artificiality of “national” borders drawn to imperial convenience during the colonial era, and the accumulating pathologies of bad governance. As noted by Henry Kissinger in a Wall Street Journal article on Oct. 17, the mutually reinforcing trends to instability are compounded by the U.S. retreat from the region producing a “geopolitical shambles” of the Middle East order underwritten by the U.S. since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Afghanistan, Libya and Syria all involved foreign interventions in badly fragmented countries. Western involvement deepened the sectarian fissures and tipped the hostile groups into open civil war. In all cases the justification included humanitarian goals that downplayed the presence of jihadist elements among groups opposing the local authoritarian regimes. But in no case did the regimes installed by force of foreign arms succeed in consolidating power and state authority to the point they could survive a total military withdrawal of their foreign backers.
The collapse of humanitarian ideals into sectarian bloodbaths has discredited externally directed liberal state-building as a normative enterprise, regardless of whether it is U.N.-authorized or unilateral. To the extent that the United Nations as an institution has been damaged, it is because the organization is part of the post-1945 architecture of a liberal international order. And the return of Russia, even if only as a pale shadow of the Soviet superpower, is not a happy portent for the effective functioning of the U.N. Security Council.
Some common lessons can be drawn from these cases, as well as the Kosovo intervention of 1999 and the Iraq war of 2003. The most obvious and important is the limited utility of the use of force in contemporary conditions. Indeed hardly any international use of force since the Korean War has been uncontroversial and unambiguously successful. Even the first Gulf War left Saddam in power, after all. Non-responsibility to protect (R2P) operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have been no more successful than the R2P-authorized mission in Libya.
Syria (and other conflicts as in Sudan) prove that R2P does not guarantee collective U.N. action on all occasions when it is needed and justified. Nor, as Libya proved, does it guarantee successful outcomes when the U.N. does approve military action to protect populations at risk of slaughter. But nothing in recent history suggests going around the U.N. ensures success either. The use of force today is inherently controversial and problematic. In polls published in June 2014, Americans said the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were not/were worth it by 71-22 and 65-27 solid margins respectively.
No humanitarian crisis is so grave that the plight of the trapped civilians cannot be made even worse with an outside military intervention. Good intentions do not guarantee good policy outcomes in faraway lands, not even by exceptionally virtuous powers: The swath of ungoverned territories from Afghanistan through the Middle East to North Africa is graphic evidence of that.
If the primary pathology in the region is the lack of local good governance institutions, the military — seemingly the only instrument available to the U.S. — is not just ineffectual; it is counter-productive, for it destroys and degrades the fragile physical and institutional infrastructure that does exist.
The second critical lesson therefore is that for the major powers, going through the U.N. reduces the diplomatic transaction costs and contributes to the consolidation of the principle of a world governed by the rule of law in the use of force. In the post-unipolar world, it will be much easier to prevent unilateral use of force by non-Western rising powers if the U.S. subjects its own interventionist instincts to the discipline of multilateral norms.
The main focus therefore should be on improving R2P implementation to safeguard against abuses and failures while channeling individual outrage to rid the world of atrocities through U.N.-centered collective action. For states will remain the basic unit of international affairs for the foreseeable future and the periodic threat or outbreaks of atrocities within state borders will generate pressures for external intervention. This is why rumors of the death of R2P are much exaggerated.
The third important lesson, conversely, is that unilaterally reinterpreting a U.N. Security Council mandate to expand the mission and the means builds resistance. Other countries resent being exploited as useful idiots and will withhold cooperation on future issues until such time as credible checks are put in place to prevent self-interested expansive reinterpretations of U.N.-authorized operations.
Fourth, it is remarkable how the ghost of Iraq 2003 hovered over the choices in Syria. This was most evident in the seven-hour debate in the British Parliament in August 2013. Prime Minister David Cameron, seeking authorization for airstrikes, warned: “We must not let the specter of previous mistakes paralyze our ability to stand up for what is right.” Syria in 2013 was not about taking sides in the internal conflict, regime change or invasion. He acknowledged that “The well of public opinion has been well and truly poisoned by the Iraq episode” — which war he had in fact supported from the opposition benches 10 years earlier. Parliament rejected his request 285-272.
U.S. director of national intelligence James Clapper similarly channeled CIA director George Tenet on Iraq in saying that the evidence of the use of gas by the Assad regime, although robust, was not “slam dunk.”
The fifth lesson is the invaluable utility of multilateral treaty-based arms control agreements and verification machinery for ensuring conformity with global norms on weapons of mass destruction. Without the prior existence of the Chemical Weapons Convention and its implementing agency based in The Hague, it would have been much more difficult to resolve the crisis over allegations of chemical weapons use in 2013 and eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. Multilateralism may have its imperfections and shortcomings, but like old age it is still better than the alternative.
Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non- Proliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University.