Intervention Usually Does More Harm Than Good

by Patrick Appel

Yglesias flags research finding that, in general, “intervening on behalf of rebels increases the number of civilians who are killed by increasing the desperation of government forces”:

Now of course just because intervention typically fails to reduce civilian deaths doesn’t mean that intervention fails in all cases. But proponents of helping-by-killing seem to me to be mighty blithe in their estimates of the upsides of these endeavors. And you can see why that is. A mission is undertaken to help the good guys and stop the bad guys. If the bad guys kill even more good guys once your mission starts, the tendency is to put that in the “evidence that the bad guys are really bad” file rather than the “evidence that this intervention didn’t work very well” file. By the same token, proponents of helping-by-killing are generally very eager to assert that killing bad guys (and their subordinates) will set valuable precedents for the future and tend to discount the risk that interventions create perverse incentives for rebel groups. For example, did this fierce civil war in Syria break out in part because the intervention in Libya led opposition figures to believe that even a low-probability-of-success military uprising stood a good chance of receiving a NATO bailout?