Following the end of the Cold War, Western countries, primarily the US and Britain, embarked on a series of interventions in overseas conflicts that seemed to yield quick results in terms of an end to fighting and an apparently sustainable peace.
This began with the response to Saddam’s Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990-91 resulting in the ousting of his forces from that country. Then came Bosnia where, after some dithering and an ineffectual EU Peacekeeping mission, American intervention in 1995 brought about the Dayton Agreement bringing peace to Bosnia which has held ever since. Kosovo was next in 1999 and again NATO intervention resulted in Serbian forces leaving Kosovo and an overwhelming Western victory.
Throughout the 1990s, therefore, these positive outcomes (buttressed by further rapid and successful interventions in Liberia and Sierra Leone) appeared to lend credence to the idea that Western countries could and should intervene to end conflict, overthrow dictatorships, promote peace and above all develop liberal democracies.
As a further bonus, all of these conflicts involved minimal casualties for the Western powers involved and no long-term commitment of personnel and material was required. These were, indeed, rapid interventions and the 1990s marked the high-watermark of liberal interventionism to make the world safe for democracy and liberal values.
And then came 9/11 followed quickly by the quagmire of the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. After a total of nearly fifteen years’ these campaigns have proven to be anything but short, sharp interventions with minimal casualties. Furthermore, two countries that were invaded, precisely to make them safe for democracy and to overthrow autocracy and terror, now witness tens-of-thousands of refugees fleeing from persecution and al-Qaeda offshoots or affiliates, such as ISIS and the Taliban, currently in control of swathes of their territory.
The American project (of course there were other states involved, particularly Britain, but the US was firmly in the driving seat, militarily, financially and politically) in Iraq and Afghanistan was nothing less than a full-scale invasion intended to eliminate entirely the previous regimes and recreate these states anew as model liberal democracies with their economies based on free-market principles.
In his books Imperial Life in the Emerald City (on Iraq immediately after the invasion) and Little America (on Afghanistan between 2009 and 2011) Washington Post reporter, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, outlines with great clarity how the American project in both cases dramatically unravelled through a combination of arrogance, ignorance, naivety and, not least, hubris. Compounding all this was the fact that beyond vague aspirations to bring about democracy, there was no clear and detailed planning which meant that both occupations quickly became mired in civilian and military bureaucratic in-fighting bedevilled by often competing and conflicting objectives.
But, even if there had been sufficient planning and resources attached to the invasions and occupations it is clear from the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan that the entire concept of invading, occupying and then attempting to recreate societies with complex and long-standing socio-political, cultural and religious traditions according to some grand, abstract liberal-democratic template was fundamentally flawed and actually quite outrageous in its’ conceit.
Liberal-democracy is a marvellous political system that has brought magnificent benefits to all those who live under it, clearly evidenced by the millions of people around the globe trying to enter the EU, North America, Australia and New Zealand at great risk.
But you can’t impose or foist a political system and right-thinking views on people. Surely this must be the lesson we learn from the debacle of Iraq and Afghanistan.
One further consideration. All of the successful Western interventions of the 90s were about rebuffing and ousting an invader: Saddam out of Kuwait, the Serbs out of Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo and insurgent armies out of Liberia and Sierra Leone. Iraq and Afghanistan, in contrast, involved actually invading sovereign nation-states where, no matter how repugnant their ruling regimes were, they still had significant sources of support from among the population. Overthrowing invaders is a totally different proposition to invading a country, even dictatorships, which attested by their longevity, don’t rely for survival exclusively on a few, fair-weather allies but can call upon a large reservoir of support.
One of the key elements of the liberal interventionist narrative was that countries like Iraq and Afghanistan were ruled through fear by a corrupt few and the masses were just waiting for their moment to be liberated by the democratic and benign West.
Many an American infantry man in Fallujah or British squaddie in Helmand soon came to realise that this was not only very wrong, but actually amounted to a misleading and dangerous fable.
As we square up to face ISIS in Syria and Iraq (itself, partly the creation of the West’s disastrous mistakes in the region), we can and must learn from the follies of past liberal interventionism.