March of folly - Dr Maleeha Lodhi - Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.

A seminal book written in the 1980s has lost none of its relevance today. Little known in Pakistan, the internationally acclaimed work examined one of the most intriguing power paradoxes in history – why countries, governments or groups pursue a course of action that is contrary to their self-interest.

In ‘The March of Folly’ the distinguished American historian Barbara W Tuchman presented a penetrating insight into a number of events in history that characterise folly in government. From the fall of Troy, selected in her book as the symbolic prototype of a freely chosen calamity, to America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam, she analysed a phenomenon that recurs throughout history regardless of place or time.

“Mankind”, she wrote, “makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity”. “In this sphere wisdom ...... is less operative and more frustrated than it should be”. She contrasted how reason fails in government to the great accomplishments man has made from awe-inspiring scientific discoveries to economic and technological advancement.

Her book concerned itself with what she called the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the state or constituency involved. Tuchman defined self-interest as “whatever conduces to the welfare and advantage of the body being governed”. From that follows her conception of folly: a policy that in these terms is counter-productive.

To be considered as folly, the policy or a course of action must meet three criteria. It must be seen as counter-productive at that time, and not by hindsight. After all, she argued, quoting another historian, “nothing is more unfair than to judge men of the past by the ideas of the present.” So an injury to self-interest has to be recognised by contemporaries.

Two, a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. And three, to distinguish folly in government from the capricious whims of a single person, “the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler”, because misgovernment by a single sovereign is too frequent and too individual to merit a generalised inquiry.

Of course individuals commit folly, so why should it matter if governments do too? Because, Tuchman said, folly in government has more impact on people and obliges governments to act according to reason.

It is evident from these nuggets from Tuchman’s book why much of what she described applies to actions and policies undertaken in the present era by countries and coalitions of the willing whether in Iraq or in Afghanistan. It was exemplified here at home by the ill-conceived Kargil adventure.

The latest manifestation of the march of folly is the western military intervention in Libya. Though the maverick Muammar Qaddafi deserves no sympathy for his tyrannical rule and murderous assault on his people this does not justify armed foreign involvement. The ill-thought action threatens to cloud the Arab spring and make western nations’ intrusive role an unnecessary complication and polarising factor in the wave of indigenous change sweeping the Middle East.

To compensate for their past backing of autocratic regimes, France and Britain’s frenetic effort to get on the ‘right side of history’ in the oil-rich region pushed an initially reluctant American president to join in the effort to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. Ostensibly aimed at averting a bloodbath of anti-government rebels at the hands of Qaddafi’s forces in Benghazi there was never any doubt that the ‘allied’ effort was about regime change. President Obama stated that at the very outset.

The initial move to establish a defensive no fly zone had support from the Arab League and the UN Security Council (with notable abstentions by China and Russia). But its enforcement by a muscular bombing campaign provoked wide international criticism with China and Russia calling for an immediate cease-fire. The air strikes by Nato countries shattered whatever slim consensus was claimed by the movers of the Security Council resolution.

Resolution 1973, invoked as the legal basis to ‘protect civilian lives’, was misinterpreted to serve as a means for intervening powers to arrogate to themselves the right to overthrow hostile regimes. The humanitarian grounds invoked by those who turned a blind eye to the killings in Gaza or people’s rights in ‘friendly’ Arab states convinced virtually no one. Opinion across the world regarded the coalition’s intervention as duplicitous.

The SC resolution is now being put to even more dubious uses – to justify arming and training the rebels as it becomes apparent that the ramshackle, rudderless rebel forces cannot prevail on their own.

The Libyan intervention meets all three of Tuchman’s criterion to qualify as folly. It has been questioned in the countries leading the effort where many have asked why their governments are getting embroiled in other nations’ civil wars. Doubts have also been raised whether the Libyan uprising represents a democratic struggle or a tribal conflict.

Many see President Obama on a slippery slope, embarked on a venture in which it looks increasingly unlikely that the goal of dislodging Qaddafi can be achieved by the motley bands of rebel fighters. Although Obama has ruled out boots on the ground, reports of CIA and special operations personnel being dispatched to eastern Libya in covert support to the insurgents has heightened the risk of an expanding involvement with no exit strategy in sight.

Was there an alternate policy course to military intervention? Most certainly yes. Sanctions, application of political and economic pressure and achieving a ceasefire were among the available options in a diplomatic toolkit that could have helped to craft a negotiated political solution without the resort to armed force.

A number of troubling questions are raised by the intervention.

Why was the calculation of the intervening powers that the Qaddafi regime will quickly crumble before a ragtag band of rebels so off the mark?

Do increasing signs of a standoff between government forces and rebels mean a protracted stalemate ahead and a slide into a prolonged civil war?

Will the intervening Nato countries become party to the de-facto partitioning of Libya with the oil-rich east controlled by the so-called Transitional National Council and Qaddafi hanging on to the western part of the country?

Will the need to prop up the rebels’ administration lead to more deepening western involvement in further contravention of international law and the principle of non-interference?

Do the intervening powers know who the resistance is? If they still cannot be sure who is leading the rebels why are they covertly aiding them?

Even if Qaddafi was to go quickly through a negotiated transition how will an ill-defined and fractious opposition transform itself into a functioning government and assure stability?

Will western involvement only end with a client government being installed?

Is the US objective of preventing al Qaeda from exploiting the turmoil – recently voiced by Defence Secretary Robert Gates – being achieved by the intervention or compounded by the widening political vacuum that the Nato action has fuelled?

Has this external intervention cast a shadow over the dynamics of democratic change in the Middle East?

These unresolved issues engender deep uncertainty about the future of Libya as well as about how this will affect the rest of North Africa and the Arab world. What is already apparent is that this intervention has put at stake the stability of the region – and the interests of the intervening powers themselves, folly’s hallmark.

The announcement of initiatives by the European Union and the African Union to help bring about an immediate ceasefire now seems the only way out of a descent into chaos and lawlessness. But diplomatic solutions should have been sought in the first place rather than a rush to military intervention, which betrayed an imperial impulse.

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