Blood on the Doorstep: The Politics of Preventive Action

Blood on the Doorstep: The Politics of Preventive Action

by Barnett R. Rubin

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Throughout the 1990s, U.S. policymakers by and large thought they could insulate the country from the collapse of distant states and the spread of war and disorder in some of the world's poorest regions. The attacks on September 11, 2001, however, showed that dire conditions in seemingly isolated regions could become incubators for violence that hits America directly. This book, based on Barnett R. Rubin¡'s years of experience as director of the Center for Preventive Action (CPA) at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that initiatives aimed at preventing regional crises must form a key part of the U.S. global security strategy.

Drawing on his experience leading CPA projects in the Balkans, Central Asia, Central Africa, and West Africa, as well has his extensive work on Afghanistan, Rubin illustrates concretely how seemingly exotic and distant conflicts are deeply integrated into our global system through the effects of global strategies and markets. These conflicts, the author argues, are harder to contain once they flare up into violence and yet are potentially more subject to prevention by global actors than common wisdom claims.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780815776086
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publication date: 05/13/2004
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 920 KB

About the Author

Barnett R. Rubin is director of studies and senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation of New York University and was the founding director of the Center for Preventive Action. He is one of the world's leading experts on Afghanista

Read an Excerpt

Blood on the Doorstep, The Politics of Preventive Action

By Barnett R. Rubin

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2002 The Century Foundation and the Council on Foreign Relations
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0870784749

Chapter One

What Is at Stake?

I said, with tricks and spells I will hide my inmost secret. It will not stay hidden, for blood overflows my doorstep.

-Abu Abdullah Musharraf Ibn Muslihuddin Shirazi, known as Sa'adi, Ghazaliyat

On July 1, 1994, when the Council on Foreign Relations established a Center for Preventive Diplomacy, the Rwandan genocide was drawing to a close, and refugees (and fugitives from justice) were inundating the region around Goma in neighboring Zaire (as the Democratic Republic of the Congo was then called). Over the next several years, the Center for Preventive Action (CPA), as it came to be called, issued numerous reports and documents arguing that such seemingly obscure and distant conflicts, dismissed by many "realist" thinkers as remote from the United States, had the potential to damage our country's interests in unforeseeable ways. The world has become so linked, we argued, that no threat to human security is unconnected to our own.

The events of September 11, 2001, provided more shocking evidence for this proposition than we ever imagined was possible. A global underground network, al-Qaida, had exploited the destruction of Afghanistan to turn that country into a base for unprecedented attacks against the United States itself. The loss by the people of Afghanistan of any ability to control their own destiny, the descent of their country into the condition of a "failed state" in which no authority had any stake in the international system, enabled a small extremist group to stage the most devastating attack ever on U.S. soil. Further revelations indicated that al-Qaida was seeking to establish itself in another failed state, Somalia; that it had partly financed itself through illicit traffic in diamonds promoted by wars in western and central Africa; and that it was attempting to spread its influence in areas unsettled by civil wars in the Philippines, Indonesia, the Balkans, and the Caucasus. All these holes in the fabric of international society turned out to be not just unfortunate tragedies to be met with charity but threats to the integrity of global society as a whole.

The CPA never aspired to address issues at the center of U.S. foreign policy concerns. Our goal was more modest, as our founding document noted: "to study and test conflict prevention-to learn whether and how preventive action can work by doing it." We went on to argue that "many of today's most serious international problems-ethnic conflicts, failing states, and humanitarian disasters-could potentially be averted or ameliorated with effective early attention. Yet few have attempted to put this idea into practice, and even fewer have evaluated such attempts."

We promised to "use the unique resources of the membership of the Council on Foreign Relations to fill these voids of action and understanding." To do so, the CPA carried out a number of case studies, assembling diverse working groups to explore ways to prevent violent conflict and to promote implementation of at least some of our recommendations, partly through partnerships we developed with other organizations. The CPA held meetings and conferences to discuss both its case studies and general issues in the field and tried to develop institutions to promote coordination and information sharing. I also integrated the work I continued to do on Afghanistan, on my own and for several United Nations agencies, into the framework of the CPA-hardly anticipating that this case might ultimately provide the strongest argument for what we were doing. This book, along with the CPA's previous publications and other activities, is an attempt to keep the promise to fill the "voids of action and understanding."

The engagement in this task of the Council on Foreign Relations, the most venerable and establishment oriented of U.S. foreign policy organizations, which had been so identified with the core issues of the cold war, signaled a shift in the terrain of international affairs-if one smaller than that which occurred after September 11. For most of those professionally concerned with foreign policy in the United States, these "teacup wars" seemed marginal diversions from the big business at hand-managing the breakup of the Soviet Union and the decline of Russia, integrating or deterring China as it becomes an economic and military power, creating a new North Atlantic relationship between the United States and a uniting Europe, reaffirming and strengthening the security relationship with Japan, creating a financial and trading architecture to safeguard prosperity, and defending the nation's land and people from the terrorism or ballistic missiles of outlaw regimes and movements.

Yet even before September 11, more often than many would like, the foreign policy and security establishment found itself dragged reluctantly into the muck of dirty wars. The military continued to train and equip its troops to fight and win the nation's wars against powerful, threatening states, even as actual military deployments increasingly involved special forces deployments in places like Afghanistan, coercive diplomacy in civil wars, peacekeeping among hostile ethnic groups, and protection of humanitarian operations in the institutional vacuum of failed states.

By one careful estimate, excluding the cost to the victims themselves, these deadly conflicts cost major powers $199 billion in the 1990s-even before the additional confrontations in Kosovo and East Timor, not to mention the war in Afghanistan and whatever further stages the "war on terrorism" may include. Even removing the estimate for the Persian Gulf war ($114 billion), a classic interstate conflict, leaves a total of $85 billion, plus nearly $5 billion for the Kosovo war, more for East Timor, and billions for postconflict reconstruction in both cases. Careful estimates of the cost of preventive efforts in those same conflicts show that their cost to outsiders invariably exceeded the cost of even the most robust preventive efforts. The case of Afghanistan can only strengthen these arguments.

The spectacles of atrocity that appeared intermittently on the television screen puzzled the general public. Apparently innocent victims evoked sympathy, and the checks that poured in to relief organizations bore out the willingness of some to make private contributions, even if the government's public role remained confused. Who these suffering or violent people were, however, and why some of them engaged in orgies of killing remained opaque. In some common images, with the end of U.S. and Soviet dominance, "global chaos" was spreading, "ancient hatreds" were becoming unfrozen, and irrational people in the most foreign of foreign places-the Balkans, Africa's heart of darkness, Central Asia-were reviving their traditions of slaughtering their neighbors. When U.S. policy turned toward intervention in the Balkans, the former view, which had provided a rationale for inaction, gave ground to an opposing, and equally simplistic, narrative: that violence derives from the manipulation of evil leaders-a view that is consistent with the tendency to personalize and demonize enemies in a media-driven foreign policy. The focus on Osama bin Laden as the source of terrorism manifests the same tendency. The source of this evil and hatred, however, remains equally unexplained.

As we were setting up the CPA at the Council on Foreign Relations, nightly news broadcasts showed masses of Rwandans streaming across border crossing points into the barren lava soils of eastern Zaire, dying by the thousands of cholera. These images prodded the Clinton administration into sending the military on its first African mission since Somalia. Alarmed by the domestic political backlash against the killing of eighteen Army Rangers in the streets of Mogadishu-an event for which the White House had made the United Nations a scapegoat-the administration had blocked international action to stop the Rwandan genocide. After the military victory of the Rwandan Patriotic Front effectively halted the genocide, however, the administration, confronted with TV images of dying children, flung troops into the breach to help the United Nations high commissioner for refugees and scores of private organizations stem a cholera epidemic and set up tents, water supplies, and health care facilities to sustain the "refugees."

These dying Africans on the screen seemed to qualify as refugees by their very appearance. Far from being the genocide's victims or survivors, however, these were the perpetrators and their hostage constituency. The establishment of the humanitarian infrastructure that saved their lives also empowered fugitives guilty of genocide, who used the resources of the humanitarian operation to rearm and launch a new round of war. A purely humanitarian response, one that was not integrated into a strategy to prevent further wars, ultimately fueled more killing. The unanalyzed images of suffering guided action as poorly as the unanalyzed images of violence that had inspired the decision to oppose earlier intervention. And we-the distant spectators and decisionmakers-were actors and participants in this conflict, whether we willed it or not. The protagonists manipulated the reactions of the wider world. At the center of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, after all, was not an African "savage" but a corrupted, horrified, and uncomprehending agent of European civilization.

Understanding and approaching the prospect of such conflicts matters, not only because of sentiment, morality, or human solidarity but because, in a globalized world, foreign policy is an obsolete concept. The term conjures up the image of a domestic society-literally, one within the walls of a house-sending forth envoys to deal with other such societies, with their foreign ways and foreign interests. Even the somewhat broader term, international affairs, evokes a world of cooperation and commerce among a professional elite representing nations. When communication and money cross all borders at the speed of light, however, all the things that communication and money can provoke or purchase will not be far behind- weapons, consumer goods, symbols of struggle, images of agony, information and disinformation, organized crime, and organized beneficence.

This is a world not only of foreign policy or international affairs but also of globalized or transnational relations. Scholars call cross-border links in which at least one actor is not a state "transnational," as opposed to international, relations. Globalization, especially of communication and transportation, has led to an explosion of transnational relations. This is perhaps best known in the economic field, in which the term transnational corporation captures the nature of that institution better than the older term, multinational, and investment surges around the world in what Thomas Friedman calls the "electronic herd." Transnational relations now also involve all sorts of people and interests, however, from those promoting principled issues like human rights, religion, the environment, or the prevention of violent conflict, to organized crime, arms dealers, smugglers, and terrorists. These networks modify the environment in which the still-sovereign state acts and change the process through which it can define and act on interests. States remain the most powerful institutions in this transnational field of relationships, but the problems they confront and the strategies available for confronting them have changed.

A balance of power, military hegemony, or interstate agreements are far from sufficient to produce stability in such an environment. The interstate concept of stability assumes what is today most in question in much of the world: the integrity of states, the components of the international system and the parties to international agreements or strategies. Insecurity spreads more quickly and is harder to manage when these components disintegrate than when conflicts arise among well-organized states. One of the firmest results of research in the field of international conflict is that armed conflicts among states are far more likely to be settled peacefully than those involving nonstate actors. Seemingly domestic conflicts in today's world spread quickly: Civil wars become transnational wars. Fighters network across borders, creating regional alliances, war economies, and even global terrorist networks that outpace the networks of nongovernmental organizations or other peacemakers. As violence propagates so does disease: war and social disintegration have done much to spread HIV/AIDS in Africa and may do as much in Asia.

In those regions of the globe where peace prevails, its pillars are strong states engaged in accountable governance that regulates transnational actors as well as purely domestic ones. The absence of an accountable state in Afghanistan enabled al-Qaida to root itself there. The Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict has rightly argued that the ultimate goal of prevention must be the creation of "capable states." A strong or capable state is not the same as a despotic state. Rulers often resort to terror precisely when they have few means by which to govern their population and so instead seek to terrorize or prey upon it. International conflict prevention substitutes transnational governance processes for weak or defective national ones while trying to strengthen states and societies for more effective national governance within the globalized context. At the same time, globalization has to some extent deprived states, even strong ones, of capacities for domestic governance they once enjoyed, so that global governance through transnational networks becomes a permanent complement to national structures.

No state, of course, has an undifferentiated interest in monitoring humanitarian concerns and security threats around the globe. Even if the United States is an "indispensable nation," as the former secretary of state Madeleine Albright has observed, it has made itself less indispensable in some regions of the world than in others. At least before the events of September 11, which demonstrated the obsolescence of such a concept, the United States showed greater concern for crises in Europe, where it has fought two world wars, than in Asia or Africa. Even in Europe, when such crises did attract its attention, the United States reacted with concern for state interests such as upholding the prestige of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and maintaining U.S. preeminence rather than with a so-called humanitarian agenda, addressing the collapse of states.


Excerpted from Blood on the Doorstep, The Politics of Preventive Action by Barnett R. Rubin Copyright © 2002 by The Century Foundation and the Council on Foreign Relations
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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