Police and peacekeepers

by John Q on November 2, 2004

Chris’ post made a point that’s central to a post I’ve been planning for some time, so I may as well jump in and complete it. Talking about US airstrikes in Iraq, he writes

The risk of the operation is transferred by deliberate and systematic policy from soldiers to bystanders. Such a policy runs contrary to traditional views about who should bear the risk of operations: we can’t insulate civilians completely but where there’s a choice soldiers both in virtue of the role they occupy and the fact (here) that they are volunteers should take on more exposure in order to protect civilians. It is hard to escape the thought that were co-nationals of the people dropping the bombs the ones in the bystander position, different methods would be used.

An obvious comparison is with the police force. If any of us were involved in a confrontation between police officers and armed criminals, we would expect the police to risk their lives to save us[1]. A police force that viewed protecting the safety of its own members as the primary priority would not be very effective. A police force that was prepared to pursue criminals with deadly force, and treat deaths among the general public as “collateral damage” would be worse than useless. But that is, in essence, what has been given to the Iraqi people.

This raises, I think, a fairly general point in relation to the kind of liberal/humanitarian interventionism exemplified by Bosnia and Kosovo, and (from the viewpoint of some of its backers, particularly on the left) in Iraq. Unless the intervening powers have the willingness and capacity to provide peacekeepers who will operate as a police force, with the associated attitude that protection of the civilian population is the top priority, then intervention is bound to produce bad outcomes.

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