Sam Seitz

The United States has spent much of the past three decades fighting wars over humanitarian concerns. Frustratingly, few of these interventions have borne fruit, and they tend to generate an immense amount of frustration and war weariness among American citizens. From Somalia to Yugoslavia to Libya, American and coalition forces continue to risk life and limb with little to show for it, and vexation over the interminable conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria grows by the week. So what makes these kinds of interventions so difficult?

1. No vital interests – It is rarely obvious what the U.S. gains from spending immense amounts of money on seemingly peripheral conflicts, and this makes it difficult for American leaders to build support for intervention. While there are usually some nebulous national security concerns, such as regional instability breeding terrorists or creating disruptive refugee flows, these threats are usually much too abstract to galvanize the public. This difficulty is only magnified when interventions go south. After the Somalia debacle, for example, there was simply no desire to get embroiled in Rwanda despite there being strong moral grounds for intervening. Of course, humanitarian concerns can supplement strategic concerns – it never hurts to have a strong moral cover for an invasion of another country – but they are rarely sufficient by themselves.

2. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t – Another major issue is that a country in a position to intervene (the United States, for example) will be blamed regardless of what it chooses to do. If American policymakers sit idle and allow an atrocity to occur, they will receive enormous amounts of criticism for failing to use their mighty military to protect the helpless. If they do intervene, however, and there is even a minor amount of collateral damage or misconduct by their soldiers (and there always is), they will also be criticized. The core issue is that we can never know what would have been had the country acted differently. What we do know is all the suffering that occurred as a result of how it did choose to act. So, just as some believe that NATO broke Libya by intervening and should have allowed Gaddafi to snuff out his opposition, many others believe that Syria’s current predicament could have been avoided had the U.S. acted with more force. It is easy to paint an optimistic counterfactual when we know all the problems with the status quo. This does not mean, however, that the counterfactual accurately represents what the alternative would have looked like.

3. Internal chaos – The most common reason for a country to intervene is the emergence of civil conflict in another country. These kinds of conflicts are particularly complex because they fracture the country, creating a complex network of competing groups. Negotiating the politics of all these actors is difficult, as alliances are always shifting. And the situation is compounded by the fact that local interest groups tend to exploit the chaos to settle personal grievances – killing rival families, stealing from estranged relatives, etc. This further complicates the mission of the intervening force by making the establishment of even basic law and order nearly impossible. After all, an intervening soldier must understand not only the broad cleavages (Shia vs. Sunni, urban vs. rural, Tutsi vs. Hutu) but also local village grievances that emerge in the wake of state collapse.

4. Increasing multipolarity – For all the problems the U.S. faced during its interventions in the 1990s and 2000s, it at least had the advantage of being the clear global hegemon. Now, however, it increasingly must contend with rival great powers intervening in civil conflicts, which only magnifies the difficulty. Syria is a great example, as the Assad regime has benefitted from immense support from the Russians. This has made it almost impossible for the United States to effectively replace Assad with a new, more peaceful regime. It also exacerbates the conflict because it means that both sides have a near limitless supply of outside arms. Consequently, it has become even more difficult to find a peaceful solution to the Syrian Civil War.