Foreign Interventions

Recent events in Kazakhstan have stimulated discussion about whether or how liberal democracies should deal with foreign tyrants.

Controlling Dictators

Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has described the recent deadly violence in his country as an attempted coup d’état. Vladimir Putin said Kazakhstan had been targeted by international terrorism but provided no evidence. In Belarus, another tyrant, Aleksandr Lukashenko, brutally suppressed widespread protests against his disputed victory in the country’s 2020 presidential election. There are credible allegations of the torture and sexual abuse of opponents. Lukashenko has made several controversial statements during his presidency which have been regarded as antisemitic, homophobic and misogynistic. On 23 May 2021, Lukashenko personally ordered Ryanair Flight 4978, en route from Athens to Vilnius, carrying the opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, to land in Belarus. Lukashenko is not a nice man – better if he were not there. How to get rid of him?

Well-meaning liberals in western democracies are naturally horrified at such brutalities and feel that something ought to be done. Exactly what to do and by whom is hard to decide. Armed intervention should be a last resort and has not gone well in Afghanistan and Iraq. Economic sanctions rarely cause dictators much discomfort as they have their riches safely stowed abroad. Economic sanctions usually cause more suffering to ordinary citizens, although previously accepted claims about child mortality in Iraq have been challenged. Surveys undertaken since 2003 find no evidence of unusually high levels of child mortality during the period of sanctions in 1991-2003.

US Interventions

There are still people who hope the US might do something about human rights abuses in other countries as the optimists still, in spite of all the evidence, have more trust in the US than they do in Russia or in China. Americans are more like our kind of people – remember that special relationship?

The US has gone through periods of isolationism but has done a lot of interfering over the years, starting with the Barbary Wars in the 19th Century, and later sticking its nose into Chile in 1811 as well as 1973. Also, in the 19th century, there were interventions in Mexico, Japan, China, Korea, Cuba. Spain ceded control over its colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States. From 1898 to 1935, the US intervened in and had a military presence in Cuba, Honduras, Panama, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua.

Throughout the Cold War, the US frequently used the CIA against governments and groups considered hostile to US interests, in the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa. In Egypt, the US helped overthrow King Farouk in a military coup in 1952. In 1953, the CIA helped the Shah of Iran remove the democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. In 1954, the US deposed the democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz and ended the Guatemalan Revolution. The coup installed the military dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas, the first in a series of US-backed dictators who ruled Guatemala. Guatemala subsequently plunged into a civil war that cost thousands of lives and ended all democratic expression for decades.

In 1961, the CIA attempted to depose Cuban president Fidel Castro through the Bay of Pigs Invasion and made many attempts to assassinate Castro. The CIA also considered assassinating Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba with poisoned toothpaste (although this plan was aborted). The Belgians got him instead. In 1961, the CIA sponsored the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, former dictator of the Dominican Republic. US troops intervened in the Dominican Civil War in April 1965 to prevent a takeover by supporters of deposed left wing president Juan Bosch. At the end of the Eisenhower administration, a campaign was initiated to deny Cheddi Jagan power in an independent Guyana. This campaign was intensified and became something of an obsession with John F Kennedy.

The Ugly American

The Ugly American is a 1958 political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer that depicts the failures of the US diplomatic corps in Southeast Asia. The title of the novel is a play on Graham Greene’s 1955 novel (set in Saigon) The Quiet American, and was sometimes confused with it. Pico Iyer describes Greene’s novel thus: “An American comes into a foreign place full of ideas of democracy and how he will teach an ancient culture a better — in fact, an American — way of doing things.” It does not end well. The Ugly American describes the United States losing its struggle against Communism because of the ineptitude and the bungling of the US diplomatic corps stemming from innate arrogance and their failure to understand the local culture. The novel depicted a stereotype of the American abroad who was universally disliked. The novel also made clear that the few Americans who were knowledgeable about and interested in foreign countries were systematically weeded out of the foreign service.

Violent Pursuit of Happiness

I have been reading an interesting book by Elizabeth D Samet called Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness. Samet teaches English at the military academy at West Point. Long stretches of the book are devoted to film and book summaries. Some might find this bombardment of cultural references a drawback but it does demonstrate that Samet has no difficulty in finding validation for her argument everywhere.

I still have some battered old paperbacks from the early sixties of the novels of John Horne Burns (October 7, 1916 – August 11, 1953). Burns was the author of three novels. His first novel, The Gallery (1947), his best known work, sold well, was critically acclaimed on publication, and has been reissued several times. It is currently in print from New York Review of Books Classics. In 2011, William Zinsser described it as “the proto-Vietnam novel, anticipating by a generation the hubris that ‘the ugly American’ would bring to another foreign land” by asking “who was more degraded: the Italians hustling to feed their families, or the GIs selling their cheaply bought PX goods at a huge profit?”

Samet quotes from The Gallery: “The gentle die in battle. Your crude extrovert comes out of his ordeal more brutal and crass and cocky than he went in. That’s the way civilizations die, gradually. A premium is put on physical courage in wartime which kills off the gentle, because they are too noble to admit of cowardice…Death to them is terrible.”

Institutional Illness

Samet quotes retired rear admiral Gene La Roque on the poisonous legacy of Vietnam. “…the twisted memory of it encourages the men of my generation to be willing, almost eager, to use military force anywhere in the world.” In his 1988 book, A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan referred to this mindset as “the disease of victory.” Sheehan expanded on this: “the dominant characteristics of the senior leadership of the American armed forces had become professional arrogance, lack of imagination, and moral and intellectual insensitivity.” Sheehan argued that this “institutional illness” had spread to civilian bureaucracies and to “the greater part of the political academic, and business leadership of the United States.” This meant that “American society had become a victim of its own achievement.”

Poisoned Polity

Elaine Scarry wrote in The Body in Pain: “It has often been observed that war is exceptional in human experience for sanctioning the act of killing, the act that all nations regard in peacetime as ‘criminal’. This accurate observation acknowledges that the act of killing, motivated by care ‘for the nation’, is a deconstruction of the state as it ordinarily manifests itself in the body. That is, he consents to perform (for the country) the act that would in peacetime expose his unpoliticalness and place him outside the moral space of the nation.”

Today we can see the poisonous effects on American society itself of the interventions in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The horrors vets endured in those hell holes caused an epidemic of PTSD; communities and families have to deal with the effects of mental illness, gun crime, alcoholism and drug addiction. Samet noted about war service records when looking at post WW2 culture, particularly film noir: “Routinely investigated by law-enforcement officials and others, these records are invoked as evidence of good character, competence, or trustworthiness, even as they raise concerns that the erstwhile serviceman has developed a dependence on violence to solve problems. By proving a veteran’s ability to kill, a service record makes him a likely suspect in violent crimes at home.” Samet continues:” War records provoke discomfort among civilians in these films not only because they might be fake but also because they show up the less heroic or imply that veterans are bringing war’s violence back home.”

Americans Abroad

David Vine is associate professor of sociology at American University. He is the author of Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World. The US maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries. Vine estimated that maintaining bases and troops overseas cost $85 to $100 billion in fiscal year 2014; the total with bases and troops in war zones is $160 to $200 billion. The data comes from the Pentagon’s annual Base Structure Report and additional government, news or academic sources. Hundreds of bases in Europe have closed since the 1990s, but the base and troop (11,500) presence in Italy has been relatively constant. Recently, the military has built new bases and expanded Africa-focused operations in Sicily. A “cooperative security location” in Ouagadougou reflects a new generation of small, clandestine “lily pad” bases appearing in countries with little previous US military presence. At least 11 such bases in Africa host special operations forces, drones and surveillance flights.

Since 1995, anti-base protests have escalated in Okinawa. There are 38 US military facilities on Okinawa. They account for up 30% of the land mass of the island. The US military bases on Okinawa also cover over 40% of the arable soil, once some of the best agricultural land in Japan. Figures up to 1998, show that since 1972, 4,905 crimes were committed against Japanese people by US military personnel, their dependents and US civilian contractors and employees. More than 10% of these were serious crimes – murder, robbery or rape. In most cases, the Japanese authorities were not allowed to arrest or question the alleged perpetrators.

Behind the SOFA

The Status of Forces Agreement which the US has been keen to force on Sri Lanka seems to many Sri Lankans to be a step too far in bending over and being submissive to the US. The main points of SOFA are:

  • All American personnel based in Sri Lanka will have the equivalent of diplomatic immunity. US troops and contractors will be able to enter and leave Sri Lanka without Passports or Visas.
  • US personnel can wear uniforms and carry arms while on duty in Sri Lanka.
  • Sri Lankan laws will not apply to them. The US Government will exercise criminal jurisdiction over US personnel in Sri Lanka.
  • The GOSL will protect US assets in Sri Lanka but the US government will not pay anything.
  • US vessels and vehicles may enter and leave Sri Lanka freely without payment of tolls or taxes, navigation, overflight, terminal or similar charges. Aircraft and vessels of the US Government will not be boarded or inspected.
  • US contractors will not be liable to pay any tax or similar charges and will be exempt from any license, or other restrictions, customs duties, taxes or any other charges.
  • The US will be allowed to operate its own telecommunication systems.
  • Claims relating to damage or loss shall be resolved by the US Government in accordance with US laws and regulations.

Intervention in Sri Lanka

As someone who has lived in Sri Lanka for twenty years. I am sensitive to the threat of foreign intervention. The Sri Lankan government was fighting the separatist forces of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) for nearly thirty with much economic disruption and great loss of life, both civilian and military. I will not here go into the reasons for the conflict or examine the rights and wrongs of both sides. Foreign intervention helped to start, sustain and prolong the conflict.

From August 1983 to May 1987, India, through its intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), provided arms, training and monetary support to six Sri Lankan Tamil separatist insurgent groups including the LTTE.

In spite of this, there was a possibility that the GOSL (Government of Sri Lanka) might have been on the verge of defeating the Tigers in 1987 when India ruined that by sending its army into Sri Lanka. They called it the IPKF (the Indian Peace Keeping Force). On 5 June 1987, the Indian Air Force air dropped food parcels on Jaffna while it was under siege by Sri Lankan forces. At a time when the Sri Lankan government stated they were close to defeating the LTTE, India dropped 25 tons of food and medicine by parachute into areas held by the LTTE in a direct move of support toward the rebels. GOSL alleged that weapons were also supplied to the LTTE by India.

The original intention was that the IPKF would not be involved in large scale military operations. However, after a few months, Indian troops engaged the Tigers in a series of battles which they continued to do during the two years in which the IPKF was deployed. There were allegations that Indian troops committed atrocities. The IPKF began withdrawing in 1989 and completed the withdrawal in 1990. Support for the LTTE in India dropped considerably in 1991, after the assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a female suicide bomber named Thenmozhi Rajaratnam. India regretted its intervention in Sri Lanka.

Save that Tiger

In 2009, when the LTTE were once again close to defeat, foreign nations sought to intervene. David Miliband, who was then UK foreign secretary, put pressure on GOSL to agree a cease-fire. The foreign secretary visited Sri Lanka with his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner on 29 April. In the past, the LTTE had used ceasefires to regroup and rearm without actually ceasing fire themselves. GOSL were not prepared to make that mistake again, preferring definitively to defeat the Tigers while they had the chance. A leaked May 2009 cable Tim Waite, a UK Foreign Office team leader on Sri Lanka, explaining Miliband’s intense focus on the plight of the country’s Tamils in terms of UK electoral geography. “He said that with UK elections on the horizon and many Tamils living in Labour constituencies with slim majorities, the government is paying particular attention to Sri Lanka, with Miliband recently remarking to Waite that he was spending 60% of his time at the moment on Sri Lanka.”

The Disease of Victory

Thirteen years after the GOSL comprehensively defeated the LTTE, the winners are still not allowed to enjoy the fruits of victory. There is no demand from Tamils in Sri Lanka for a separate state and there have been no terrorist incidents in those 13 years. The Tamil diaspora still has the influence to ensure  the annual ritual of hauling Sri Lanka before the UNHRC, which currently includes such doughty champions of human rights as Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Angola, Kazakhstan, El Salvador, Venezuela.


I will leave the last word with Elizabeth D Samet.

“The countries the United States sought to liberate and subsequently occupied inevitably tired of it before we did. In this case, our ‘garrulous populism’ expressed itself, as the pocket guides warned, as a belief that the world should be grateful for American military might, which was exceptional because it was always applied in the name of freedom.”