By William Pfaff

Military interventions by powerful nations into lesser ones, such as now continues in Mali (and Afghanistan), and is being urged by many into the Syrian civil war, are inherently reckless since even the most powerful states can have the whole project blow up on them.

The intended outcome is rarely achieved. We won't talk about Iraq, saved from Saddam Hussein (at the price of hundreds of thousands of casualties) and abandoned to Iran's influence. The first American intervention in Afghanistan, in 1978-'79, when the Carter administration used the CIA to provoke a Russian invasion (intended by Washington to give Russia "its own Vietnam"), ended in Taliban rule, al-Qaida's installation in Afghanistan and an American invasion following 9/11, which is scheduled finally to end next year (in U.S. withdrawal and unacknowledged failure).

How will France do in Mali? At least the French were invited in, greeted with joy, and rapidly liberated the country from its Islamist invaders. Now what to do? Mali, with its restless Tuareg minority and feeble economy, is not a convincing prospect for standing alone. The troops that are supposed to make up the West African international mission of military assistance and replace most of the French forces -- among them Togo, Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Chad -- are no military powerhouses.

On the other hand, al-Qaida and the other Islamist groups operating in the Sahara and on its fringe, despite the fearsome reputation they seem to inspire in Washington, are usually not much more than former bandit gangs who have rebranded themselves according to the current ascendance in the Arab world of Islamism (giving themselves such names as "the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa," a splinter group of "al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb," which itself is not even a franchise of the ex-Osama bin Laden but an autonomous operation).

In the past, they made their livings by smuggling cigarettes and drugs or kidnapping for ransom adventurous but imprudent German desert tourists and European expatriates working for oil and gas installations in the desert, like the one at Tiguentourine in southern Algeria, recently raided by Islamists with the attackers, and some of the hostages they had taken, killed during the Algerian Army's counter-attack. The Islamist bands' long-term ambition is to establish a new global Islamic caliphate that will incorporate the United States. (Americans can hear all about this on right-wing talk radio.)

Syria's insurgents would like very much to have an American (or French!) intervention that would back their revolt and give them a victory over the Bashar al-Assad government. The conflict at present is described by Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. and Arab League mediator, as having reached "unprecedented levels of horror." The Assad government continues to receive arms from Russia, in fulfillment of "contracts signed before the civil war," Moscow explains, and from Teheran.

The rebels receive arms from such Arab countries as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but the Western countries currently observe a sanctions and an arms boycott (not, one assumes, impermeable), and seem at a loss to know whom to arm among the insurgent groups, since the most important of these groups (receiving arms from conservative Arab states) are Islamist and want to see the Assad Ba'ath Party regime replaced by a religious government applying Shariah law. Ba'ath -- dominated by the Assad family and the Alawite Shia religious minority -- is a secular party and has been protective of other minorities, including Maronite Christians, Armenians and Kurds.

The European Union is for practical purposes lacking in any foreign policy other than giving money to politically correct causes. The American government is pressed by conservatives and liberal interventionists to do something, but the American public, after the fiascos of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention the minor ones in Chile, Argentina and the Caribbean under Henry Kissinger's watch, and during the Reagan administration), is in no mood for more war, particularly when, as in Syria, no one knows where it would lead.

An intervention to rescue another country from an intrusion or an invasion intended to seize part of that country is simple to justify, but even then it is essential soberly to weigh the political framework of events, the prospect of military success and the military aftermath, and the real likelihood of leaving the object of the intervention better off than before.

Interventions meant to change the internal political situation of a country are extremely dangerous, since the ability to govern successfully is an essential mark of sovereignty, and a foreign intervention will nearly always make a conflict worse by robbing either the government or the insurgents of legitimacy and popular support by identifying them as dependent on foreign power.

The most formidable objection to an intervention is the risk of stupidity, hypocrisy and deception, or naivete. Intervention in Vietnam was based on inexcusable ignorance of the force of nationalism in post-colonial societies, and a naive American ideology of falling dominos. In Iraq it was hypocrisy, the real purpose being destruction of Iraq as a rival to Israel, and the deliberate invention of evidence justifying invasion.

America's intervention in Afghanistan rested upon continuing ignorance about nationalism and a credulous belief in the universality of American values and the possibility of building democracies in America's "own image."


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