Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos.
Book review by Mr. Jaideep A. Prabhu
Hardeep Puri’s Perilous Interventions is an excellent exposition of Great Power hypocrisy and the weakness of the United Nations in both, curbing the predatory instincts of some of its members and the oppressive nature of other members.
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” Marcellus tells Horatio in the opening act of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Former diplomat Hardeep Singh Puri probably could not have put it better about the United Nations Security Council and the existing global order. Through his book, Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos, a devastating indictment of Western hypocrisy in international governance, India’s former permanent representative to the United Nations gives readers a ringside seat to some of the discussions that went on in the Security Council during some of the major crises of the past decade. Puri lambasts the existing system and warns that without reforms, faith in multilateralism will soon fade.
Disregarding the advice of German chancellor Otto von Bismarck about the making of sausages and laws, Puri details the discussions within the Security Council on the question of whether the international community should intervene in Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction in 2003. Yet long before then, Iraq had attracted the attention of certain American strategists such as Paul Wolfowitz. They had argued as early as the early 1970s, Puri reminds us, that the removal of Saddam Hussein from power could potentially result in a domino effect of democratisation in the region, and with it, better partners for the United States. Two other candidates for regime change to accelerate this region-wide democratic revolution were Iran and Libya. Revolution in the former in 1979 and the subsequent Iran-Iraq war extinguished all such thoughts from the White House.
However, they were not forgotten. In Binyamin Netanyahu’s address to a joint session of the US Congress in 2002, the former and future Israeli prime minister reiterated this same idea. American fears about Iraqi ABCs – atomic, biological, and chemical weapons – rang his message sweeter to Washington. Looking to their own careers, CIA officials funnelled intelligence reports they knew would be prefered by the High Command rather than those undermining the public narrative of state sponsorship of terrorism and WMDs. The United States went to war in Iraq soon afterwards and the Middle East began to unravel – not in a manner either Wolfowitz, Netanyahu, or anyone else had envisioned.
Narrow national interests coloured the deliberations of the Security Council over Libya as well. Puri recounts how Britain, Germany, and especially France, more than the United States, were interested in deposing strongman Muammar Gaddafi from the beginning. Libya’s relations with Western governments had been slowly improving since 2003 when Tripoli reached out through the United Nations to make amends for its role in several acts of terrorism in the late 1980s. That, however, was not the public face of relations between Libya and the Western bloc. The Arab Spring protests gave the West, probably hoping for a quick success, the opportunity required to oust Gaddafi.
Under the guise of humanitarian intervention and R2P – the Right to Protect – Western nations placed onerous conditions upon Tripoli. Puri narrates the arguments over the language of Resolution 1970 and how, through wording that was loose at best and deceptive at worst, the Western powers tried to gain international sanction to bring Gaddafi to heel using “all necessary means to protect civilians and make available humanitarian assistance.” As Libyan government forces started to turn the tide against the rebels in the civil war that had devolved out of earlier protests, France, buoyed by an Arab League resolution calling upon the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, pushed through Resolution 1973 that was sufficiently lax in its formulation to allow military action. NATO, led by France and supported by the United States went to war in Libya. Puri strenuously makes the point that this was in complete violation of the spirit of the discussions in the Security Council but the West did not wait until even the ink was dry before invading Libya.
Everything has consequences, and the Western sleight of hand over Libya had got Russia’s back up over Syria. As a result, when the Security Council started deliberating on Bashar al-Assad’s civil war, Moscow was implacable in their opposition to any sort of intervention. It is also possible, Puri admits, that this was due to greater Russian interest in Syria – a naval and air force base – or because there had been a change in power in Moscow from Dmitry Medvedev to Vladimir Putin. It is also possible that there was no appetite for yet another war in the Middle East in Washington during an election year. Yet the pattern of Western behaviour was similar: hollow humanitarian claims supported by regional powers with vested interests against the incumbent authority. Predictably, the results were also similar: chaos, instability, wanton destruction of life and infrastructure, the rise of private militias, and terrorism – all at the cost of the region. Any chance for an early peace was stymied by unrealistic preconditions such as the abdication of Assad. Furthermore, Washington’s too clever by half notion of ‘good terrorist’ and ‘bad terrorist’ helped spawn its own nemesis – something American politicians, despite several repetitions, are yet to learn from.
Perilous Interventions also describes the paralysis of the Security Council owing to its veto provisions over the crisis in Ukraine caused by the secession of Crimea and its return to Russia. The author stops short of excusing Russian behaviour as he lambasts European and American ambition in seeking to pry Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of influence. From the beginning, military force was out of the question in Ukraine for two reasons: Russia maintained a veto in the Security Council, and it was a major nuclear power that could not be trifled with as the likes of Iraq or Libya. The Western strategy, then, was to try and isolate Russia through economic sanctions. These may have worked partially but were doomed to fail eventually without the support of Moscow’s BRICS partners.
Yemen saw similar inaction from the Security Council. The country, already a regular on the UN body’s agenda even before civil war broke out, has experienced more death and destruction in five months than even Syria after four long years of fighting. Impoverished Yemen has for long been Saudi Arabia’s bete noire: fearful of foreign intervention – Egypt in the 1960s and Iran since the 1980s – in a country bordering its own restive Shia population, Riyadh has been quick and ruthless in its involvement in Yemen. The Saudi campaign, Puri reminds us, has received complete support from the United States and other Western powers despite the horrendous loss of civilian life due to the callousness of Riyadh’s military tactics that ranged from the use of missiles to indiscriminate bombing, which in one case even destroyed a Medecins sans Frontieres hospital.
Puri is not unfair in targetting only Western nations. He has a few choice words for the Indian debacle in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s too. However, the reader may surmise from the tone that the author is more understanding of Delhi’s compulsions than he is with Washington, London, or Paris. Furthermore, India’s reasons for getting involved in its southern neighbour’s affairs are a far more convoluted cocktail of domestic political considerations rather than the relatively straight-forward rapacious realpolitik of the West. The narrative also feels more restrained about the human cost of the tragedy in Sri Lanka compared to Iraq, Libya, Syria, or Yemen – but that may also be because the South Asian island has suffered far less despite a longer lasting conflict.
In each of the chapters is detailed a series of operational blunders that fed on each other and led to the present quagmire. From the insane notion of good and bad terrorism to the arming of certain rebel factions, from an utter disregard of historical follies to an almost stubborn refusal to accept intelligence from the ground, from giving ground to less informed commentators over professionals to cherry-picking intelligence, Puri’s rap sheet of Western political myopia and ideological blindness makes for a discomforting read – each of these mistakes, as we dispassionately read them, cost tens of thousands of lives.
Although Perilous Interventions is an excellent exposition of Great Power hypocrisy and the weakness of the United Nations in both, curbing the predatory instincts of some of its members and the oppressive nature of other members, it does not offer more insight on the crises of the past decade and half than a discerning reader could have gleaned from the regular perusal of the daily newspaper over the years. Why would a seasoned and distinguished diplomat be surprised by an unremarkable display of matsya nyaya?
The real punch of Perilous Interventions comes from its author’s assertion that this behaviour of the Western powers was given intellectual cover by their think tanks and media. In fact, Puri explicitly states that the push towards intervention in Libya came from the Western media over the inclination of a hesitant diplomatic corps. Gaddafi was portrayed negatively, incompletely, and even falsely – he had not, for example, threatened civilians with retaliation – in the tabloids to the extent that it was difficult for him to even get hotel rooms in New York during a 2012 visit. These observations by Puri only cement the cautious view of Western organisations in the rest of the world. They can no longer be seen as sources of intellectually rigorous, methodologically sound, and unbiased information. In fact, reading Puri between the lines, think tanks and media have become a new front for the West to propagate their hegemony through ‘mindfare’ – the war for opinions and minds throughout the world – true hegemony as described by Antonio Gramsci.
Perhaps the only criticism of Perilous Interventions is the author’s discordantly Pollyanna-ish view that India played a positive role during the deliberations over these crises. The Indian stance has always been distant, unhelpful, and predictable – urge a cessation of hostilities, encourage negotiations, and plead for an arms embargo on the region. Although these are perfectly rational recommendations, it is similarly irrational to expect that the agitated actors in a conflict that has already spilled over to violence wish to listen to sense. Consider, for example, the Indian response to international calls for restraint during its wars with Pakistan.
Furthermore, Puri’s suggestion that the permanent members of the Security Council voluntarily give up their veto powers – de facto if not de jure – is laughable. Such largesse may be expected only from foreign policy neophytes of the kind India has been blessed with but not anywhere else. Yet even if the Permanent Five were to surrender their veto powers, the question then arises as to who will bell the cat. Is the international community truly willing or capable of conducting a military intervention in China, for example, for any reason?
Perilous Interventions will certainly feed those who are already deeply sceptical of the West and subliminally hostile to it. However, rather than adding ghee to the fire of conspiracy theories, Puri records in detail, with evidence, genuine cases of opportunism and hypocrisy. His call for reforms in the United Nations is likely to go unheeded for the same reasons he gives for the crises of the past decade and half – machtpolitik and opportunism. As a result, Puri’s admonition that the Security Council and multilateralism will lose credibility may indeed come true.