Monday, March 14, 2011

Intervention in Someone Else's Civil War: Lessons from the Russian Revolution

I’ve been providing links to what I think are the more sensible articles on intervention in Libya’s uprising in “Bits and Pieces” for the past week or two. The pressure to set up a no-fly zone has been increasing from Senator John Kerry, Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague, and the Anne-Marie Slaughter at the New York Times. It’s terrible to see a government using military firepower on its own people, but we need, as Stephen Walt said, to think with our heads as well as our hearts.

It seems to me that those advocating intervention, military or otherwise, assume that intervention will assuredly result in a good outcome. They are not considering what happens if things go badly. If the US intervenes and things do not go well, the US will look weak or even venal, and any other intervention in the area becomes much more problematic. Pretty much the same for NATO and others. There are many ways for things to go badly: Gaddafi overcomes the rebels anyway; the rebel force that intervention backs are overcome by their rivals; or that force turns out to be a lot less wholesome than the advocates of intervention are assuming. All are possible and have happened in other attempts at revolution.

Consider the Russian Revolution, once again.

Members of the Fourth Duma persuaded the Tsar to abdicate in March 1917 and formed the Provisional Government. Alexander Kerensky, whose memoirs I just finished reading, was a member of the Duma and then the Provisional Government, winding up as Prime Minister in mid-summer. Kerensky was a member of the left wing of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, quite hostile to the Tsar. There were a number of parties, Trudoviks, Mensheviks, Cadets (bourgeois, center-right), and monarchists, among others, and the military. The Provisional Government underwent several rearrangements during those months and couldn’t pull together the continuing war effort and governance across Russia’s wide expanse.

Kerensky mentions no trusted allies or close associates, nothing that he did to build alliances and teams. Rather, he presents himself as a lone actor, frequently at odds with others who might have been his allies. He shows pique at what he seems to consider slights by the wartime Allies, particularly Britain and France, toward his government and himself. That section (Chapter 22) reads almost as though he expected to assume the Tsar’s unquestioned autocracy.
Up to the moment that the Tsar was deposed, all the foreign diplomatic representatives in Russia behaved with the greatest decorum and in strict conformity with protocol. None of them ventured, certainly, to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs. But no sooner had the upheaval begun than the situation took a drastic turn. Diplomatic practice was thrown to the winds. For the first time the Corps Diplomatique felt it was free to associate with anyone at all. Officially, of course, there was no reason why this should not have been possible before, but in practice foreign diplomats had mixed only in court circles and high society. Now, in Free Russia, every one of them was able to go anywhere, attend any council, and sit in on any meeting. Some diplomats kept to their former custom and continued to visit their favorite salons, but others promptly sought the friendship of newly returned political exiles, the convicts of the day before.
He presents no plans for his government, no strategy for movement to the democratic rule he seems to have wanted, no description of his preferred future for Russia.

It’s not surprising that, during such an upheaval, the government’s attention would focus on the immediate, and that is probably the case now in Egypt and Tunisia. But without longer-range plans, poor decisions are likely to be made.

The Allies were happy to recognize a new, ostensibly democratic government in Russia. At the time, the Provisional Government seeemed reasonably stable, unlike the earlier situation of a variety of squabbling Duma factions united only in favor of deposing the Tsar, which are more analogous to the groups currently fighting Gaddafi. President Nicholas Sarkozy of France seems to have recognized one of the factions in Libya, and other EU members seem to have de-recognized Gaddafi.

But recognition didn’t strengthen the Provisional Government, which suffered from internal weaknesses and its inability to deal with other Russian factions. The Bolsheviks mounted large demonstrations in July, which the government survived, and the military mounted a coup attempt in September, which seriously weakened the Provisional Government.

In September, General Kornilov, the military’s Supreme Commander, asked Kerensky to step down in favor of a military dictatorship. According to Kerensky, Kornilov had the backing of bankers and rich industrialists. But Kerensky refused, and Kornilov didn’t back up his request with action by the military, yet another faction that didn’t manage to put its plans together effectively. Kornilov’s action was Lenin’s luck, though; his demand put additional stress on Kerensky and the Provisional Government, making it less able to respond to another wave of Bolshevik demonstrations in October. The Bolshevik takeover was relatively bloodless.

Lenin had allies and comrades, long-term plans, a story for the masses, a great sense of timing, and a willingness to be totally ruthless. That’s not to say that the Bolsheviks didn’t have their divisions. But even from Kerensky’s account, it appears that Lenin had the solider strategy. Part of his strategy was to withdraw from the war as soon as possible, even if that meant a separate peace with Germany. That was not so acceptable to the Allies in the war. Keeping Germany occupied on two fronts was essential to avoiding the total destruction of France.

The Soviets (councils) in the various cities across Russia, including the Petrograd Soviet, were not yet Bolshevik, and some were quite resistant to this latest faction taking charge in a faraway capital, along with various monarchist factions and parts of the military. The further from Petrograd and Moscow (to which the Bolsheviks moved their government), the more resistance. Further, there was a military force of 45,000 Czechs and Slovaks in Siberia who were unsympathetic to the Reds, as they would be called, the opposition being the Whites.

Britain, Japan, and the United States intervened through the northern port of Murmansk and through Siberia. During the summer of 1918, nineteen anti-Bolshevik governments were formed in Siberia. Civil war raged. Ultimately, the Reds won.*

That intervention was quite ineffective. In fact, intervention by outside parties may well have contributed to a nationalistic inclination to support the Bolshevik government in Moscow.

It seems to me that there are many parallels in Libya: we don’t know the rebel groups or their programs well; power seems to be shifting rapidly; our interests in the outcome are not clear; and intervention may well stir nationalistic feelings against outsiders. Establishing a no-fly zone will require bombing airfields, an act of war, and it’s not clear that Gaddafi’s airpower is the biggest factor in his holding off the rebels.

There are no guarantees that whatever happens after Gaddafi will be any better. I’m sympathetic to the people who want to remove him. But we’ve got to consider what intervention is likely to be able to do, which requires knowing a lot more about what’s going on in Libya than we seem to.

Ross Douthat on parallels with the war-drum-beating for Iraq.

Nicholas Burns: intervention not a good idea.

Rami Khouri: non-military intervention.

Added later:
Steve Clemons: It's not about us.

Fred Kaplan: No-Rush Zone.

A Pew poll just in - 60% say the US doesn't have a responsibility to act in Libya. But evenly split over a no-fly zone. More interpretation here.

* A good reference on the civil war in Siberia and foreign intervention is W. Bruce Lincoln’s The Conquest of a Continent: Siberia and the Russians.

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