Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Munich 2011: Libya and Bahrain

The agreement by which the governments of France and Britain permitted Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland is often said to prove the case for an interventionist foreign policy: If only Hitler had been stopped then, it might not have been necessary to stop him, at much greater cost, a few years later. In my view, this reading gets the logic exactly backwards. France and the U.K. had interventionist foreign policies; that was why Hitler needed their permission before invading Czechoslovakia. The lesson of Munich is that countries with interventionist foreign policies cannot be trusted to intervene when they should.

Or not to intervene when they shouldn’t, as illustrated by a bit of history that I learned from Churchill’s account of WWII. Hitler's first attempt to annex Austria was abandoned when Mussolini announced that Italy would not tolerate it and made his point by moving Italian divisions into the Brenner pass. What eventually made Mussolini switch sides was the response of the U.K. and its allies to his invasion of Abyssinia. They sharply criticized the Italian action, took ineffectual steps against it, but stopped short of the actual use of military force. Mussolini concluded, reasonably enough, first that the British and French were not his friends and second that they would not be very dangerous enemies.

The next time Hitler moved against Austria it was with Italian permission. Incompetently executed interventionist policy not only did not prevent the second World War, it helped to cause it.

All of which brings me to the depressing present, with Barack Obama playing Neville Chamberlain to Qaddafi’s Hitler. The consequences of Munich were not limited to the loss of the Sudetenland. Similarly here. It was only after it became clear that the U.S. and its allies were unwilling to oppose Qaddafi with anything more than words that the Bahraini rulers concluded that it was safe to bring in Saudi troops to violently suppress their opponents.


At 9:10 PM, March 16, 2011, Blogger lowly said...

Whoa! Put down the pipe. Gadoofy isn't threatening, he's being threatened. And, let's not forget, Lybia is no Germany, and DaDoofy is no Schnitzelpatzer.

At 10:24 PM, March 16, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Similarly here. It was only after it became clear that the U.S. and its allies were unwilling to oppose Qaddafi with anything more than words that the Bahraini rulers concluded that it was safe to bring in Saudi troops to violently suppress their opponents.

Sorry, but this is... naive, at best.

Bahrain and Libya are very different enterprises, we're very close to unable to engage more war, national interest ijs shifting, wow. Just, wow, yur view would be very, very bad.

In an infinitely iteratively game, perhaps. When you're spending real troops and money, well, the least I can recommend is reading some IR theorists - I thing it might help you get pat some of the limits you're playing with.

At 11:41 PM, March 16, 2011, Blogger Jonathan said...

Perhaps I'm being dense, but it's not clear to me whether you're arguing for or against military interventions in other countries' affairs.

Such military interventions in the fairly recent past have not turned out very happily and have got a mixed reception, at best, from voters. Politicians may reasonably be wondering by now whether any further entanglements would do them more harm than good.

I have mixed feelings myself. On the one hand, it would be good to see Gaddafi thrown out and the civil war in Libya ended. On the other hand, I'm not inclined to risk my own life for the rebel cause, so I'm doubtful about urging others to do so. We know what they're fighting against, but what are they fighting for?

At 11:52 PM, March 16, 2011, Blogger David Friedman said...

I'm arguing against a policy of intervening in other countries' affairs and in favor of this particular intervention. Just as in other contexts, there are things a government could do that would improve things, but a government with the power to do such is likely to not do good ones and do bad ones. Often enough so that we are better off without.

In this case, given a situation where intervention might well have produced large benefits, they didn't intervene.

At 1:36 AM, March 17, 2011, Blogger TheVidra said...

Mr. Friedman (or David, if I may use the informal American address), by "this case" are you referring to Libya or to Bahrain?

Intervening in Libya will send the wrong message. After what happened to Saddam, Gadafi seems to have softened his threat to the West, out of fear of reprisal. If the US still goes after him now, perhaps in the future another dictator will no longer have the incentive to tone down the aggressive stance (thinking, if I am defiant, they will go after me; if I tone it down, they will still go after me; so why tone it down?)

If you were referring to Bahrain, there is no way the US would have a hand in the replacement of a friendly ruler in a very strategic location with a possible Shiite regime sympathetic to (and probably influenced by) Iran. It would go completely against the self interest of the US.

In both cases, I say non-intervention serves the best interest of the US.

At 1:57 AM, March 17, 2011, Blogger TheVidra said...

To get back to your article, I agree with you that an inconsistent foreign policy and not honoring treaties can help someone like Hitler or Stalin rise to power and conquest. For example, France and the UK (arguably the most powerful empire at the time) did not honor their treaty to protect Poland when it was attacked by both Germany and the Soviet Union - signaling that previous treaties wouldn't be enforced, which in turn led to Hitler and Stalin taking more expansionary actions. On the other hand, I am not sure how the treaties signed by one government can bind the following governments (especially when they are political opposites). I am also wondering whether NATO would really jump to defend one of its members if it were attacked by an important power.

At 8:49 AM, March 17, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cannot understand this reasoning. Isn't a no fly zone an act of war? And whether it is or isn't, what do we do next if a no fly zone is ineffective? Then air strikes? Then ground troops? What vital interest of the U.S. is involved that makes it worth the death or grave injury to American military personnel, who signed up to protect and defend the United States, not to get of evil dictators. Do you believe we should be the world's policemen, or just in this instance, or the next one that strikes you as worthy?

At 11:07 AM, March 17, 2011, Blogger David Friedman said...

1. The action I was thinking of was in Libya. I don't think imposing a no-fly zone in Libya would imply willingness to use military force against Bahrain, which after all is an ally, but it would suggest a stronger reaction to violent suppression of opposition than failure to impose a no-fly zone did.

2. So are as what it would have taken to prevent the suppression of the Libyan revolt, I was thinking of the initial, successful, intervention in Afghanistan, which reversed the result of an ongoing civil war. The losing side of that war provided the ground forces, and U.S. air support was enough to change losing into winning. It's possible that in the Libyan case merely imposing a no fly zone would have been sufficient, it's possible that it would have required more, but I don't think it would have required U.S. troops, at least as of a few days ago.

At 11:18 AM, March 17, 2011, Anonymous RKN said...

I think this issue can be interpreted as an example of unintended consequences. As a result of having over-extended the country's military resources in Iraq and Afghanistan, and having exhausted citizen's patience for interventions that are arguably ill-conceived and ineffective to the goal, we are now out of juice so to speak. Leaving us practically unable to act in what some now argue would be a legitimate intervention in Libya.

Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld could not have foreseen Libya today, but that's why these are called unintended consequences.

At 2:37 PM, March 18, 2011, Anonymous Andrew said...

Um...Prof. Friedman, are you still a libertarian?

At 4:04 PM, March 18, 2011, Blogger Gordon said...


David is a libertarian with a thick rule-consequentialist shell surrounding a small, but solid, deontologic core.

At 1:57 AM, March 20, 2011, Blogger TheVidra said...

Guess who said things like: "We wish not to meddle with the internal affairs of any country, nor with the general affairs of Europe." or "Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none."

At 7:58 PM, March 20, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So I read in the news that "UK Missiles bombard Libya again"

At 9:30 AM, March 22, 2011, Anonymous onecalicocat said...

Czechoslovakia was not "invaded" by Hitler.
It was taken over without a shot being fired.

Now the interesting thing is that Poland was all for the Munich agreement because it got a little sliver of land back where some Poles lived.

Of course, being in favor of Munich basically sealed the doom of Poland a year later.

But I like the comparison of Libya to Munich -- because if we didn't do something it would have been a Munich-type event and Hillary Clinton couldn't live with that on her resume.

Obama need to bring back the bust of Winston Churchill to the White House. He could use some inspiration.

At 11:20 PM, March 22, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

since when do invasions have to involve shots being fired? the threat of force is enough in many cases


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