Think before you Shoot: The Reality of Military Intervention

Intervention in internal conflicts is a nasty business, often with many unforeseen consequences. Such intervention is frequently unsuccessful. Such intervention often fails because intervening troops have an inadequate mandate, their forces are not sufficiently armed, and because intervention can prolong conflicts that otherwise would have ended.

Intervention in an internal conflict can only be successful with a force that is appropriate to the actual situation on the ground, not the situation policymakers wish for. Lightly armed peacekeepers can be successful in monitoring a peace agreement where it is in the interest of both sides to continue such an agreement. However, if the goal is to impose a peace upon groups who otherwise would continue fighting, overwhelming force and an acceptance of the casualties that such intervention is likely to bring is the price of victory, making such intervention very expensive in blood and treasure; such intervention must have either a compelling national interest or moral outrage to genocide to justify such a cost. Halfhearted intervention, however, is often worse than no intervention at all.

An inadequate mandate can cripple intervention. One poignant example is Rwanda. “The most unambiguous case of genocide since Hitler’s war against the Jews” (Gourevitch 1998, cover) occurred while UN peacekeepers were stationed in the country to try to ensure the success of a peace agreement between the government and the rebel RPF army. These peacekeepers were intended to keep Kigali, the Rwandan capital, free of weapons. The UN commander on the ground, General Dallaire, received concrete information from a well-placed source in the Hutu militias known as interahamwe that a major weapons cache, which was going to be used to slaughter Tutsis, was in Kigali. The informant then requested protection from the UN. General Dallaire prepared to move against the cache but was forbidden by his superiors at the United Nations, who said that such action was “beyond the mandate of UNAMIR.” Instead of allowing him to take action to protect the people about to be murdered, the UN ordered Dallaire to turn over his information to President Habyarimana, who had armed the militias in the first place. Instead of protecting someone who offered critical information at great personal risk, the UN simply informed Habyarimana that he had a leak in his security apparatus (Gourevitch 1998, 105).

Inadequately arming peacekeepers and inadequate forces also cripple intervention. The UN force in Bosnia in the early 1990s is one poignant example. When these lightly armed peacekeepers proved incapable of defending themselves, “one side literally chained peacekeepers to their armored fighting vehicles so that UN aircraft could not attack them as they violated the peace agreement without killing their fellow peacekeepers” (Snow 2010, 104-105). In Somalia, humanitarian intervention ended in humiliation for the United States and failure for the UN because not enough troops were committed to pacify the country and President Bush decided that the operation was not worth incurring many American casualties (Calvert & Calvert 2007, 275).

Intervention can prolong a conflict by giving enough aid to allow the war to continue indefinitely. As outside groups pick which side to favor in a forced peace agreement, they often make things worse (Snow 2010, 107). This certainly happened in Rwanda. When the French finally intervened under Operation Turquoise, they ensured the safe passage of the Hutus that had been massacring their neighbors out of the country instead of protecting their victims. Eventually, the RPF drove the government troops and interahamwe militias over the border into Zaire where the planners, orchestrators, and executors of the genocide in Rwanda fleeing as fugitives from justice, were welcomed into UN camps as “refugees.” These camps provided safe haven for the murderous interahamwe and soldiers to attack Tutsis in Zaire as well as cross border raids back into Rwanda. Similar camps were also established inside of Rwanda for “internally displaced persons” which also provided a base for continued violence under the flag of the United Nations. The money from these camps “went straight through the political rackets into the purchase of arms and munitions” to use to continue the bloodshed (Gourevitch 1998, 271).

In a more recent example, NATO intervention in Libya also appears to be prolonging a conflict. NATO does not have enough of a compelling interest to make a full intervention there. Without any real information on the true objectives of the rebels fighting Gadhafi, we cannot know even if the government they would install would be better or worse than the current dictatorship. NATO member states are simply not willing to suffer the kinds of casualties it would take to try to remove Gadhafi directly, resorting to half-hearted air strikes instead. And now, the rebel forces are out of money and many supplies (Stratfor 2011b) and are certainly not able to “sustain combat at significant distances from their base of power against a well-defended urban area [Tripoli] — a tactical situation that would be difficult even for the best-trained and best-equipped military forces” (Stratfor 2011a, n.p.). Gadhafi simply is trying to hold on until NATO gets tired of the cost of its involvement (Stratfor 2011a) which already appears to be happening in the United States with the growing opposition in Congress.

The international community needs to learn this simple fact: intervention is complicated, expensive, and often has unintended results. If we have a compelling national interest or we seek to prevent genocide, intervention can certainly be justified. If we decide to intervene, we must dedicate the resources and be willing to pay the cost to bring things to a successful conclusion as quickly as possible. But if we cannot stomach seeing the flag-draped caskets of our soldiers on the evening news, if we cannot have a full, unequivocal commitment to victory, then we should not get involved at all, because we will make the situation worse.



Calvert, Peter and Susan Calvert. 2007. Politics and Society in the Developing World. Essex, England: Pearson Education Limited.

Gourevitch, Philip. 1998. We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. New York: Picador.

Snow, Donald. 2010. Cases in International Relations. New York: Longman.

Stratfor. 2011. Libya: A New Rebel Front and Gadhafi’s Strategy. Strategic Forecasting. June 8. (accessed June 18, 2011).

Stratfor. 2011. Libya: Rebels Run Out of Money. June 18. (accessed June 18, 2011).

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