Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 11:03 | SYDNEY
Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 11:03 | SYDNEY

The bayonet conundrum


Graeme Dobell

19 December 2011 15:44

This column is a taste of a review of three books on humanitarian intervention, which is here at Inside Story.

You can do a lot of things with bayonets, but you can't sit on them. This rumination on the limits of military force has been attributed variously to Talleyrand, Napoleon, Cavour and even Thomas Hardy. Over the last decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has been learning anew what it means.

Just as importantly, though, the international community — especially via the UN — has been grappling with a completely new version of the quandary. Beyond waging war with bayonets, can you also use them to carve out new governments and create peaceful societies?

Call it the bayonet conundrum: what is the point at which to intervene? What is the point of intervention? How sharp should be the point of the bayonet? The conundrum has become as important to the US experience in Afghanistan and Iraq as it has for the UN's understanding of itself and what it can attempt.

Lots of labels are applied to the attempt to force peace at the point of a bayonet: humanitarian intervention, liberal imperialism, armed social work, military humanitarianism, nation-building under fire, saving failed states, enlightened militarism. The descriptions can be antagonistic, ambivalent or ambitious.

In UN-speak, the newest label is the Responsibility to Protect (RtP or r2p): an attempt to systematise the use of military power to protect people from their own governments. For such an innocuous phrase, the Responsibility to Protect seeks to sidestep a lot of history, not least the sovereign right of governments to do whatever they want inside their own borders.

The NATO war in the skies over Libya was a display of RtP military muscle. In helping to protect the Libyan people from their own government, NATO took a UN resolution and interpreted RtP as the Responsibility to do Precision-bombing. The intervention was messy and deadly, but the aims of the UN resolution were met. Libya will go on the UN honour roll of bayonet moments that worked, alongside names like Cambodia, East Timor, Bosnia and Kosovo. 

That list illustrates the shift in UN language from the complex passivity of 'peacekeeping' to the armed ambitions of 'humanitarian intervention'. The UN peacekeeping tradition is about observing and monitoring ceasefires and peace deals; the new norm being born is about the use and utility of force.

And that brings us to Iraq and Afghanistan, where successful conquests mutated into the messiest of interventions, bloody illustrations that any answer to the bayonet conundrum is always mixed and conditional: when the military and morality merge at the point of intervention, muddle and morass can mingle in with the proper use of might. Much can go wrong even as a few good things can go right.

Photo by Flickr user Carlos Smith