Edward Carpenter had a hard-hitting post at the Duck of Minerva recently about when it makes sense for the international community to intervene on behalf of rebel groups, and it hasn’t generated nearly the discussion it deserved. He comes to several conclusions that run strongly against prevailing liberal norms of human rights protection and democratization:
The existing government may not be very good – but the alternative will probably be worse. Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi – neither were model leaders by according to the liberal democratic ideal, but life for the majority of Iraqis and Libyans was better under their rule. The same can be said for Bashar al Assad and Nouri al Maliki, although in the latter case especially, “better” is a relative statement, since an average of over 1000 Iraqi civilians have died or been wounded every month as a result of internal violence (bombings, shootings, etc) during his tenure as Prime Minister.
No population has benefited from the long-running civil wars or instability that has resulted from an existing state government being overthrown by networked opposition elements; and few regional governments are able to beat these networks quickly and decisively on their own. Thus, the West should consider making short-term, limited intervention on the side of existing governmental bodies the norm. Mali is a model for this type of intervention, using a Western QRF to buy time for state and regional forces to assemble, a combined effort to eliminate the opposing network, and a planned transition to a UN peacekeeping force as the method to ensure a stable outcome and continued international involvement.
Counterexamples come to mind quickly, of course. Should the international community have attempted to defeat the RPF and keep the genocidal Habyarimana regime in power in Rwanda after April 1994? Or come to Mobutu’s aid in 1997 when the old dinosaur was finally chased out of Kinshasa by Laurent Kabila? These are both extreme cases – Rwanda for the scale of the violence perpetrated against an ethnic minority during the war, and Congo based on the sheer degree to which the state apparatus had been undermined and personalized during Mobutu’s rule. It’s not clear to me how many similarities these countries share with pre-2003 Iraq or pre-2011 Libya.
Of course, after the rebels won in Rwanda and the DRC, their outcomes have been almost entirely divergent, with a stable, developmental state emerging in Rwanda and a violent, patrimonial status quo holding strong in the Congo. Setting aside concerns about political repression by the RPF for the moment, the Rwandan example is basically the best-case scenario for the international community – a strong, organized rebel group comes in and puts the country back together after conflict’s end. To use Carpenter’s metric here, life is probably better for the average Rwandan today than it was before 1994. The Congolese case is close to the worst scenario, where armed groups continue to violently contest control of territory for years after the official end of the war, and the central state remains weak and corrupt. For millions of people in eastern DRC, life has definitely gotten worse since the early 1990s, and in most of the rest of the country things have probably changed fairly little since that point.
So how to evaluate Carpenter’s proposal? For many countries, I think it’s sound. Violent political transitions can do an incredible amount of damage, and the likelihood that a new government will be substantially more democratic or development-oriented than its predecessor seems pretty low, so trying to keep active conflict to a minimum will probably be the single most helpful thing the international community could do to protect civilians. But there’s also an obvious need to re-evaluate in the case of of genocidal violence or extreme state weakness.