Ten Commandments for effective interventionism

Ten commandments for effective interventionism, building on Witney's recent publication with Richard Gowan

Senior Policy Fellow

1. Do not bite off more than you can chew. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya – there are more than enough examples to confirm that the natural sequel to the overthrow of despotism is more likely to be chaos than harmonious stability. And that nation-building, in this post-colonial era, is beyond the means of any outside power.

Nation-building is beyond the means of any outside power.

2. Do not over-promise. It follows that the aim of any intervention should be carefully circumscribed, and usually prefaced with the word “stop”, as in “stop the advance of IS forces”, or “stop a massacre in Benghazi”. More ambitious formulas – “degrade and destroy IS” – just set you up for failure, or irresistible mission creep, or both.

3. Think twice and thrice before committing. Be very sure that the interests at stake justify the risks, that no means short of military force will suffice, and that military force has a reasonable chance of working.

4. Don’t imagine that you own the script. Employing military force implies an adversary who will strain every sinew to disrupt your plan. “Exit strategies” are largely illusory, unless they are just to set a date (as in the EU’s 2003 operation in Congo) – preferably with someone else, such as the UN, to hand off to. More broadly, your intervention will set off local and regional dynamics which will be hard to foresee and largely impossible for you to control.

The aim of any intervention should be carefully circumscribed, and usually prefaced with the word “stop”.

5. Share the responsibility as widely as possible. Not just with like-minded coalitions, but also with regional actors, including regional organisations such as ECOWAS. They will still be around when you leave, will have to live with the consequences, and will likely determine the shape of the intervention’s “legacy”. And UN, or even EU, is a better brand than self-appointed “coalition” (or, indeed NATO).

6. Get – and respect – proper international sanctions. Sometimes the invitation of a sovereign government will be all the legal base that you need. But a UN resolution, or at least the explicit support of a regional organisation, will help you avoid a hostile political environment, and will facilitate a graceful hand-off. The price for this may be the limits placed on what you might later like to do; but abuse those limits, as in the expansion of the Libyan intervention to overthrowing Gaddafi, and the repercussions will be with you for years.

7. Remember that your lever needs a local fulcrum. In other words, if your effort rests on a Karzai or an al Maliki, things will not go well. Find another fulcrum, descope your aims to what you can do without local support, or pack up and go home (as the coalition should have done when Karzai stole the 2009 elections under their noses).

Accept the consequences of not owning the script.

8. Control your own decisions. Don’t allow the direction of the intervention to be dictated by events, the media, inattention, or the temptation to make it all right with “one last heave”. Intervention will always be a gamble; approach the table only with an iron “stop-loss’ policy. And find a way to get honest assessments of how things are really going on the ground.

9. Suck it up and see. Or as Napoleon, no strategic amateur, put it: “On s’engage, et puis on voit.” In other words, accept the consequences of not owning the script. Just occasionally, and despite the caveats about mission creep and not out-running your international support, this may mean exploiting unexpected success, as with the British operation in Sierra Leone. But it may also mean being brave enough to cut losses and get out with the most grace possible (so much easier, of course, if you have not over-promised).

10. Prioritise prevention over cure. In the end, it’s best to be able to avoid the need for intervention. It will always be so much easier if you have had the foresight to bolster the local armed forces, or force less partisan behaviour on the local government, before the mayhem breaks out.

For more on interventions, see the policy brief Why Europe must stop outsourcing its security.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow