Reconceiving Intervention

Despite the intricacies involved, military and humanitarian interventions have become a tool of choice for the international community to solve problems of human security and disaster relief. In light of recent failures, the rationale behind the use and implementation of intervention deserves to be refined and rethought. The relief efforts in Haiti and nation-building efforts in Afghanistan have been of questionable success, while recklessly endangering civilian lives and fostering distrust among local populations. This is because policy-makers have lost the sense of humility that comes with an in-depth knowledge of a foreign environment. In order for any future interventions to be more successful than those in Haiti and Afghanistan, planning for development projects and military incursions must involve a much more careful study of local history and anthropology, and a focus on engaging with residents in genuine partnership.

New York Times reporter Deborah Sontag recently published an article detailing how the United Nations failed to accept responsibility for being the source of the cholera epidemic in Haiti, and how the ensuing relief efforts have only nurtured popular distrust of authorities. Lawyers bemoan that, in a country whose history includes numerous occasions where the rule of law has broken down, the United Nations’ refusal to accept responsibility will only “demonstrate that once again in Haiti, ‘might makes right.’” Now an international relief effort has been launched in response to the epidemic, and some health policy officials do not want to distribute vaccines, out of worries that such a measure could give Haitians “a false sense of security and become lax about hygiene.” This notion is not substantiated by anything other than idle speculation. The United Nations’ refusal to take responsibility for the epidemic, and the unwillingness of health officials to distribute vaccines, is grounded in a willful ignorance of Haitian history and anthropology. Sontag describes the overall relief effort as an “often awkward collaboration” in which “international health officials deferred to the Haitians—“our partners”—but in reality held the purse strings and know-how.” One wonders what the true value of the international community’s “know-how” is, when it does not stem from localized knowledge and engagement with Haitians.

Nation-building efforts in Afghanistan are failing because they are similarly uninformed by engagement with Afghan communities and localized knowledge. President Obama stated the goal of the military intervention as being to prevent the Afghan people from having to face a return to “brutal governance…and the denial of basic human rights.” However, a lack of knowledge and engagement with local communities may be causing some interveners to dehumanize the very population whose rights they seek to protect. The recent failure of the U.S. military to prevent the burning of Korans and a soldier’s killings of 16 Afghan civilians should prompt a careful inspection of the experiential gap that lies between military interveners and those who reside in local communities. Defense Policy Board Advisor Sarah B. Sewall ‘83 describes such events as being just a few of many instances where intervening forces “do an extremely poor job of putting themselves in other people's moccasins,” describing how “the extent to which we’ve expected Afghans to tolerate civilian deaths” is evidence that, in the mind of the interveners, “Afghans have become somewhat inured to civilian harm.” Like the Haitian humanitarian intervention, a lack of engagement with residents has prompted these nation-building efforts to become detached from the reality they seek to change.

In order to prevent future interventions from becoming botched in the manner seen in Haiti and Afghanistan, the international community will have to overhaul its approach to training policy-makers and development officials. In a recent essay entitled “The Plane To Kabul,” former diplomat and senior coalition officer Rory Stewart attempts to distill the root causes behind why intervention efforts pursue goals that are not grounded in the reality of the populations they seek to aid. His key insight is that much of the failure of interventions does “not lie simply in poor preparation, planning, decisions, resource deployment, or even the absence of a specialized cadre of interveners” but rather is “predetermined by modern Western culture,” in particular “a materialist worldview whose gods were technology and progress, which denied the reality of cultural difference and which was driven by a bizarre optimism.” This combination of over-confidence and lack of cultural awareness is clear in the rhetoric of world health officials in Haiti and in the dehumanization of Afghan civilians. Stewart is completely correct in recommending that the only way to escape such delusion is to engage in “an ever more detailed study of the history, the geography, and the anthropology of a particular place, on the one hand, and of the limitations and manias of the West, on the other,” prior to staging an intervention. Before we endeavor to aid other nations in any manner, we will have to change our own culture of intervention.

Nikhil R. Mulani ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a classics concentrator in Eliot House.


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