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Michael Gerson: Vacuums of sovereignty

BY MICHAEL GERSON Published: February 2, 2013
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Yet the policy options to encourage even a modicum of order in lawless places — creating substitutes for sovereignty — are limited and flawed. Direct military interventions are not uncommon — between 1960 and 2005, the French alone undertook 46 of them in former African colonies — but their outcome has varied. Britain's Operation Palliser restored democracy to Sierra Leone in 2000. America's Operation Restore Hope ended hopelessly at Mogadishu in 1993. France's Operation Turquoise in 1994 provided cover for Hutu genocidaires, who had been French allies, to escape into eastern Congo.

United Nations peacekeepers are another substitute for sovereignty. Blue helmets have immediate legitimacy and credibility. But U.N. forces are far better at keeping an existing peace than creating order out of chaos. Their mandate and capabilities are limited. Regional security organizations such as the African Union and ECOWAS have potential but almost no logistical capacity. So the U.S. conducts interventions by supporting African proxies: Kenyan, Ethiopian and Ugandan forces in Somalia, Ugandan troops in pursuit of the LRA.

And Americans — being Americans — are drawn toward technological solutions to political problems. Drones strike targets in Somalia and Yemen. This imposes one narrow form of order — the removal of specific threats — but it does not encourage political stability or improve local conditions.

All of these policy options can be appropriate, and are being applied, in various forms, by the Obama administration. The most important goal, however, is not to provide temporary substitutes for sovereignty but to strengthen that attribute itself. This is the opposite of colonialism — the building of local military and civil capacity and improving public health and economic growth. These are the most difficult tasks in development, and the easiest to cut in a budget retrenchment. They are also cheaper, in the long run, than constantly fighting to contain the chaos.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP