With Iraq War 'a crashing failure,' expert calls for caution in U.S. military interventions

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Syl Kacapyr

Some of the best cases for U.S. military intervention have been overlooked, while some of the worst have been embraced, said international relations scholar Robert Keohane, speaking on campus Oct. 13. Thus, America should be cautious when using military power abroad but refrain from becoming isolationist, he argued.

Keohane, professor of international affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, gave the talk "When Should the U.S. Intervene? Criteria for Military Intervention in Weak Countries" to a packed Lewis Auditorium as part of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies' Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series.

"Remember one thing: In 10 or 15 years from now, when the president proposes an intervention, be cautious," Keohane said. "This is a topic of pressing international concern because ... we have a propensity to engage in this sort of activity, and it hasn't always turned out well for us."

Keohane proposed a model to evaluate whether intervention in a "weak" country (one that could not resist American invasion) is justified. Key to his model is the distinction between interventions that defend or pursue America's "crucial" interests, and those that do not.

The Persian Gulf War and the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan were examples of interventions for crucial interests that receive a "passing grade" on his report card, Keohane said. But Afghanistan's ever-expanding list of goals (evolving from deposing the Taliban regime to "nation-building, democratization [and] women's rights") are a downside to the intervention.

Keohane emphasized two important recurring problems in U.S. military interventions that are not crucial to American interests: the lack of a clearly defined exit strategy, as was the case at the start of the 2003 Iraq War, and the need for a "coherent opposition group that will be capable of leading the country in a more decent manner than the people we're throwing out," Keohane said. The second criterion, he added, has not yet been clearly met in NATO's Libyan intervention.

This second requirement was one of four additional and stricter criteria that Keohane proposed for noncrucial interventions, such as the "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) doctrine. Keohane appraised R2P, first supported explicitly by the United Nations in 2006, as "one of the most imaginative and best acts of the U.N. in my view in the last decade." It holds that in cases of crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing, if a state does not protect its own civilians, the international community is responsible to assist the victims.

Keohane lamented the United States' failure to intervene during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, even though it represented a better case for noncrucial intervention than U.S. military undertakings in Somalia, Kosovo or in Afghanistan and Iraq today.

As opposed to Rwanda, "The Iraq War is a genuine, crashing failure" on all counts, Keohane said. Emphasizing the complexity of noncrucial interventions, Keohane said, "These are hard cases, and I have to admit, rarely do all the criteria line up."

He concluded, "So when you think about intervention in the future, be aware of what Stanley Hoffmann called the 'hell of good intentions.'"

You have to ask the tough questions."

Paul Bennetch '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.


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