Stabilization: closing the doors or closing the Gap?

In two recent articles, two French prominent scholars lead an assault against the French intervention in Mali. The first is from Olivier Zajec – a researcher at ISC – in Le Monde Diplomatique (In French and behind a paywall unfortunately): he basically explains that western interventions in the last decade are characterized by a lack of strategic vision which amounts to a strategic hiccup. Unable to draw the right conclusions of past quagmires and failures, Western States would be doomed to repeat the same mistakes, especially regarding four elements he deems  necessary in order to succeed:

  1. a failure to assess the threat on its own right (by labeling "terrorists" any insurgent or ethnoseparatist movement)
  2. a failure to see how legitimacy (and especially that of the local government) should preclude any long term commitment
  3. a failure to recognize the limited role our military forces should play in unlocking the tactical situation in order to let local dynamics freely develop
  4. a failure to plan an exit strategy which would amounts to a greater  political freedom of action

The second is from Olivier Roy – a world known scholar on Muslim societies – in Le Monde: his main argument highlights the dilemma raised by the characterization of the enemy as an irreconcilable terrorist. Indeed, by labeling the adversary as a unitary actor, one would ignore the more complex political and social dynamics at play, thus precluding any chance to disrupt AQ by letting the local actors whom it tries to be a parasite to give up their protection. Put otherwise: that would prevent any opportunity to collaborate with less extremists actors whose agendas are more amenable to compromise.

Of course, both articles have strong argument, and I share them for a large part. But I disagree with each on two points:

1) The conditions outlined by Olivier Zajec are too idealistic. In other words, they preclude any intervention or stabilization on the basis that they are not likely to be met in the real world. To be fair, those four principles could be met, but only during the course of the operation.

2) hence my second point: those two pieces (and especially Zajec’s) seem to ignore the necessity to study strategy in a dialectical way. A strategy of exit, tactical operations which would unlock the situation and even a fair and autonomous analysis of the enemy would depend on the adversary’s strategy, its capabilities and its own political freedom of action and capability to unlock the situation on the ground. Iraq is a good example: the ’07-’08 surge unlocked the military situation and let local dynamics develop with a relatively low US pressure and inducement. But to be fair, during the surge, US needed to pressure, induce, persuade and leverage the various political actors (first and foremost Prime Minister Maliki). On the other hand, both pieces fail to fully recognize AQ’s strategy to embed itself in the locals’ very social fabric: when Roy uses the analogy with a parasite, he seems to forget that it is more than that. Jihadists often use gaps and fault lines, first seducing but also using coercion and intimidation in order to establish their social and political order. Of course, local societies may be tempted to rise against foreign fighters, but as the failed 2005 revolt in Anbar should demonstrate, it is likely to be crushed without external alliance (in that case, the successful alliance between several cheiks and the US military at fall ’06).

To me, closing the gap (that is, in Odierno’s words, to boost the host-government legitimacy) is a far more realistic way, under certain circumstances, than closing the doors (letting local dynamics creating more chaos and instability). The colonial era is over, and thus no western country can stabilize alone: it has to build coalitions both outside and inside the targeted state’s society. But on the other hand, as we are in a hierarchical world (maybe it could be or even it should be otherwise, but it is not), western states are the most powerful and hence have more chances to assert their interests than local states. In that perspective, if such a state (or its leaders) perceives that it has stakes and interests to intervene and stabilize, and if it calculates that the obstacles and anticipated costs are low enough to allow that, it is likely that it will act accordingly. Eventually, by doing so, it is also likely that the best course would be to help build the legitimacy of the local government. It is obviously a dilemma, since an external-imposed legitimacy is more difficult to enforce and sustain, but no dilemma can be resolved by starting from what the world should be rather than what it really is…

"Should I stay or should I go" (The Clash)

Somewhere near Sirte in October 2011, dictator Muammar Gaddafi met his fate. That event seemed to make an end to a successful western-led and UN-endorsed intervention which had aimed to protect the Libyan from a brutal repression and eventually toppled a decades-long authoritarian regime.

To some, it appeared as a good news: from now on, it would be possible to rely on military force to enforce the liberal order and, in a somewhat romanticism way, wage war for the salvation of innocent civilians. For others, that success triggered concerns that western power (and maybe others) would use Libya as a precedent in order to legitimate any intervention.

But neither occurred. On the contrary, the messy civil war in Syria and the brutal repression exerted on the population by Bacher Al Assad have not seen yet a western intervention. Proponents and opponents of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) have then argued that that situation of "double standards" is another proof of western states’ cynicism.

Underlying this assumption is a fundamentally flawed perception of what is intervention in the strategic realm and, moreover, what is its meaning in today’s international relations.

R2P and "just war": a case for intervention

As Jean-Baptiste Jengène-Vilmer argued in an insightful article in July, R2P is frequently misled as a legitimating tool to intervene. In fact, R2P is neither a duty nor a free-hand given to a particular state in order to violate the norm of sovereignty upon which the international political system rests. More accurately, it could be depicted both as a condition for sovereign states to be recognized as such and as a right given to external actors, under certain circumstances, to act under UN mandate to interfere in the internal affairs of another state in order to protect its civilians.

In short, R2P functions more like the "just war" doctrine as a set of criteria to discern when and how going to war. It is worth remembering that "just war" is not only about a "just cause" but also about consequences: war is deemed "just" when its expected consequences is not to add more harm or to aggravate the conflict. Put otherwise, that implies intervention is neither a tool of last resort nor a task to be performed in every situation where civilian population is put at risk by a specific government.

Values and interests:

States, and especially great powers, are thus more prone to intervene when there’s a strong consensus among them to do so (in the case of "humanitarian intervention") or when they have both the power and high perceived stakes to act (in the case of "regime change"). Put simply, intervention is function of a particular actor’s logic. That logic rests upon a balance between perceived interests and perceived values. Both matter: values are often framing the way a particular conflict is inscribed into that actor’s interests, and interests are of course what drive the actor to include intervention in its strategic opportunities.  It is critical to make that point because values and interests are more often than not perceived as opposed and sometimes conflicting categories. In most cases, there’s a necessity to balance between them rather than to oppose them. In the case of France in Libya, values and interests are melted to a point that is nearly impossible to really separate them. Indeed, France was willing to assert its role as both a Mediterranean power and a promoter of Democracy. On the domestic stage, intervening was also seen as an opportunity driven by the perceived necessity to act in order to restore the president’s image.

But if either values and interests shape the stakes in a particular situation, they have to be balanced with obstacles and potential costs in a strategic calculus. In a sense, Libya presented only a few obstacles: for France, the necessity to frame public opinion and international audience to present intervention as neither a post-colonial move nor a casualties-creating conflict. Those obstacles (mainly internal) drove the way France chose to intervene. That’s not to say that public opinion really mattered as an objective obstacle. On the contrary, it is worth saying that public opinion was seen by political and military elites at the time as either a potential multiplier of legitimacy or a potential constraint in case France would suffer casualties.

In the case of Syria, obstacles are much more important and constraining. First, there are those constraints emanating from the international stage (i.e. the opposition of both China and Russia at the UNSC). Second, political elites are not willing to rely on direct military force and subsequent occupation to deal with Syria. That may be explained by either the interpretation of the last decade’s interventions or by political elites’ perceptions of costs overcoming benefits. Put another way: stakes and interests are not seen as sufficient to risk military or political backlash on either the domestic or the international stage. Third of course, military operations would prove much more difficult in Syria than in Libya, for a great range of reasons.

Moreover, consequences matter: there are growing concerns that an intervention in Syria, while desirable in the light of many interests or values, would lead to unintended and unwanted aftermaths.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 seems to prove that when stakes are high enough, political elites in the world’s most powerful actor can overcome perceived obstacles. On the international stage, the US was able to do it because of its unchallenged capabilities. On the domestic stage, the aftermath of 9/11 allowed the administration to secure a large support in favor of the intervention.

In short, interventions are much likely to occur when stakes and capabilities are higher than dealing with both external and internal constraints. That’s obvious, but that has two implications. First, context matters of course. But second, the way political elites perceive the desirability of a particular course of action seems to be more important than objective constraints.

Beyond intervention:

Those points highlight the fact that Libya has not become the precedent some feared (or hoped) to be. Political elites in most western countries seem to perceive much higher costs and difficulties to intervene in Syria.

It is more likely that, in the near future, western states will choose another course of action, absent the very conditions that allowed the intervention in Libya to be  decided, waged and successfully put to an end. In reality, the alternative is not a binary one: between intervening or doing nothing.

States could choose to manage conflicts, humanitarian catastrophes or so-called "rogue states" instead. That’s not to say that we are returning back to the 9/11 era. In many ways, western elites have learnt many lessons from that period. On the other hand, they’ve also drawn wrong lessons from the last decade, especially with regards to which effects military force may and can achieve.

Managing those situations would mean that states would rely on other means to deal with them. First, states could use sanctions or other tools in order to persuade. They could also use proxies or a light footprint approach in order to avoid being entangled in these situations. More probably, great powers would choose to intervene indirectly in order to contain potentially threatening consequences for a particular areas or for themselves.

Conclusion: France in Mali

That’s why France would certainly choose not to intervene directly in Mali. More accurately, one would not expect France to rely on the same assets and on the same course of action than in Libya. First, political elites are willing to avoid any accusation of attempting to reassert control in a previous colony. Second, external threats are seen as less important than domestic issues. Third, further cuts in the defense budget would weigh on capabilities to act. Fourth, France’s political leaders are unwilling to use force by fear of potential reprisals on French hostages. It seems that we forgot the very necessity of deterrence in that particular case. If France intends to remain a global power (albeit with reduced capabilities), it would be critical to remember the political message the use of force may send to both adversaries and partners. Because force means determination, it would be regrettable to lock ourselves in the binary alternative of fear vs. posture.

"Survivre, c’est vaincre" (R. Aron)

In his seminal book, Paix et guerres entre les nations, Raymond Aron chose  to take a particular stance vis à vis the Cold War: he stated that, in order to survive, the West had to win. By that, he did not mean achieving a clear victory in the traditional sense, that is by compelling the Soviet bloc to accept a peace that would end the global confrontation of his time. On the contrary, that sentence, widely discussed and debated at the time, meant that the West had to manage the threat. Put otherwise, he thought that winning could be equated to not losing or, more accurately, to preventing the adversary to achieve a decisive victory. Of course, during the Cold War, any confrontation would certainly have led to a global nuclear struggle, with no winner in sight.

That assessment remains true today, where western countries and the international liberal order they managed to build is put at risk by extremists movements threatening to either destabilize a given area or to wage a campaign of attacks against western or western-supported societies. Furthermore, the rise of the "rest" – while not a threat – is giving birth to a world in which we have to recognize the plurality of cultures, norms and values.

An important caution is needed before outlining my main argument. I was raised in a country mostly secure in the sense that no external state threatens it (to be fair, I remember having been scared by the risk of a nuclear armaggedon when I was a child). I’m aware of the fact that today’s threats are also a matter of perception. But I would not discard them, since the actors behind those threats are real, and have the capabilities to strike. But, make no mistakes: I’m not an alarmist and I despise those so-called "pundits" who raise the specter of catastrophic attacks in order to gain more audience. I despise them just as those who demonstrate constant blindness and indulgence toward the risk of real attacks.

Deterrence: Managing threats

In the April issue of Contemporary Security Policy, Thomas Rid wrote a highly scholarly and insightful piece about the way deterrence functions in Israel’s security strategy. Basically, deterrence is a way for Israel to manage "current security" threats, i.e. bomb attacks or rockets lobbed by the Hezbollah, Hamas or other non-state organizations. Thomas explains that Israel is experiencing for a long time a kind of ‘postmodern’ deterrence, relying on punishment and reprisals designed to enforce several norms. By making its action both more predictable and more unreasonable (or, more accurately, by shaping perceptions toward those conclusions), Israel is able to establish and enforce "rules of the game" which guarantee that threats to its security remain relatively low and manageable. Of course, that strategy is not free from contradictions. But the whole strategic realm is made of contradictions which strategists and policymakers  alike are tasked to balance.

The main problem of that particular approach is its interference with the mainstream western strategic culture which values decisive victory and a subsequent strategy of annihilation. There are many reasons which could explain that preference. I do not aim to explore here its many historical, societal, cultural and political roots. Suffice to say that it is deeply internalized and plays a great role in shaping strategic choices.

Nevertheless, the US is experiencing a shift toward a more coherent and comprehensive approach to deal with "extremists" threat. The very notion of deterrence itself has been used by strategists and policymakers since 9/11. In the war against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, a strategy of attrition has been progressively adopted and implemented. In a sense, the so-called "shadow wars", their other political opportunities notwithstanding, are a first step toward the perception that threats can only be managed and not totally and decisively defeated.


In that context, it is important and critical to emphasize the discrepancy between values and actions in France’s strategy to counter "extremists" in the Sahel (and mostly  in Mali). Values are certainly a good point of departure to make political choices. Unfortunately, they often conceal the lack of political will or, worse, poor strategic thinking. Of course, I consider France to have a particular ability to pursue its own national interests on the international stage. But I’d like to underline the importance of the way we perceive threats and the way to manage them. In a sense, we are still locked to an old fashion view of deterrence as mainly a characteristic of the nuclear threat. We conceive the use of force in a sophisticated way, but we avoid to consider that coercion still plays a role in order to prevent further threat. Put otherwise: we consider that, if force is used, deterrence failed.

Of course, context and the way it is perceived matters: neither France nor the US have stakes higher than those raised by the Israeli government. But that doesn’t invalidate the opportunities set up by deterrence. On the contrary, given our perceived interests to remain an influential actor in West Africa, and given our means, such a strategy would be well suited.


In short, Aron remains relevant precisely because he underlines the importance to recognize that a realist alternative is not between winning and losing, but between winning and preventing the other to achieve its political goals (when those goals are opposed to ours). Maybe it is worth remembering that being aware of that is not cynicism. On the contrary, Aron never gave up his hope in a more peaceful world. But that world could not emerge either through the temptation of Empire or through complete abdication. That’s why deterrence, either through attrition, reprisal or interdiction has still a future. Aron once wrote that one of the main way to demonstrate power and to remain in peace is for an actor to honor his bill or to keep his promises.

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