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Self-Defeating Humanitarian Efforts in Africa

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Monday, January 14, 2013 at 10:14 AM

Current events in Africa illustrate the unintended and sometimes-self-defeating effects of humanitarian efforts on that continent.

First, France’s military action against Islamist insurgents in Mali raises the question why Islamists are on the rise in Mali and elsewhere in North Africa.  There are many causes, but the proximate one is the 2011 NATO invasion of Libya.  A chunk of Qadaffi’s army consisted of Tuaregs – a nomadic group whose homeland includes Northern Mali, and who returned home with powerful weapons when Qadaffi was defeated.  With assistance from their Islamist friends (including al Qaeda in the Islamic Amgreb and Ansar Dine), they took over cities in Northern Mali and declared independence.  They are now on the move south, which is the occasion for the French military action.  (Via Meadia has been all over the “Libyan afterparty” in Mali; other accounts of the causal nexus can be found here and here and here.)  The invasion of Libya was not the only USG impact on the Mali uprising.  This morning’s NYT reports that Mali’s U.S.-trained elite forces defected to the Islamists, “taking troops, guns, trucks and their newfound skills to the enemy in the heat of battle.”  The same NYT story reports, the French invasion of Mali comes “in the face of longstanding American warnings that a Western assault on the Islamist stronghold could rally jihadists around the world and prompt terrorist attacks as far away as Europe.”  And this morning, the NYT reports that despite French claims of military success, a town in central Mali has fallen to the Islamist rebels, with an Islamist leader there claiming that the French intervention had “opened the gates of hell for all the French.”

Mali is not the only country where Islamists have been empowered by Qadaffi’s defeat – add to that list Algeria, Mauritania, Niger, and of course, Libya.  Meanwhile, down in the Democratic Republic of Congo, chaos has prevailed since mid-November in the latest round of a brutal civil war.  Last November the NYT explained the complicated background to the Rwanda-supported rebels’ initiatives against DR Congo’s weak and corrupt government.  It makes clear that a significant cause of latest brutalities in DR Congo was the western-pressured move by DR Congo’s President, Joseph Kabila, to arrest Bosco Ntaganda, a rebel commander under indictment for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

The point here is not that humanitarian intervention and the ICC are bad institutions, or that they inevitably cause more harm than they alleviate.  In both instances – the intervention in Libya and the indictment and attempted arrest of Ntaganda – non-action would have meant acquiescing in the face of atrocities.  In an era when atrocities appear on our television and computer screens, not acting is hard to do.  Nonetheless, the bitter truth is that interventions to stop atrocities can have poorly understood and unanticipated second- and third-order effects that are quite bad and sometimes worse than the original evil – effects, moreover, that often exceed the capacity or will of the interveners to fully address.  As Ross Douthat said in the course of examining the Libyan afterparty:

“You know where you begin,” the foreign policy sage George Kennan remarked during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. “You never know where you are going to end.” This is the lesson that the ripples from Libya hold for American policy makers. There may be limited interventions, but there are no small wars.

Kennan’s and Douthat’s remarks are not slogans for humanitarian inaction.  But in light of the many bad unintended consequences of humanitarian efforts over the last few decades, they are profound cautions.

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