Maldives crisis: India must pay heed to history that shows foreign interventions largely end in tears

Iran, Guatemala, Congo, Dominican Republic, South Vietnam, Brazil and Chile aren't just a handful of countries — one of which is erstwhile — that could feasibly put on a football tournament that would rank somewhere between 'mildly interesting' and 'rivetting'. They're also countries against (or for, depending on where you stand) whom the US carried out interventions to trigger regime change between 1953 and 1973.

Then there's Iraq, where the US covertly helped overthrow then prime minister Abd al-Karim Qasim and instal in his stead a popular young leader by the name of Saddam Hussein. He soon began to outlive his usefulness and utility, because in 2003, the US embarked on an invasion to overthrow the Saddam regime. In the intervening years, the US backed him in the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s and then opposed him in the Gulf War (1990 to 1991).

And let's not forget Syria, where the US has been trying — in vain, so far — to overthrow Bashar al-Assad for nearly 12 years. A cable from December 2006 — authored by then chargé d'affaires at the US Embassy in Damascus William Roebuck — titled 'Influencing the SARG in the end of 2006' laid out Assad's weaknesses and suggested a few courses of action. Among these were sanctions, negative publicity campaigns and playing on the fears of Sunnis of Iranian influence. Washington's arming of Syrian rebels is a much later development.

The less said about Afghanistan the better, where repeated interventions by the US (and the then USSR's attempted invasion over the 1980s) have left the country ravaged and in a permanent state of war.

File image of Abdulla Yameen. AFP

File image of Abdulla Yameen. AFP

Libya was the target of a US intervention in 2011, where the Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown, but little else of note happened. In fact, the country has spiralled into an even worse crisis in the years since. Former US president Barack Obama has gone on the record in stating that "failing to plan for the day after, what I think was the right thing to do, in intervening in Libya" was the worst mistake of his two terms in office.

More recently, the US played its part in the overthrow of Ukraine's democratically-elected president Viktor Yanukovych — a notion confirmed by the then assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland's infamous 'F**k the EU' phone conversation with then US envoy to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt.

Further, according to The Washington Post, "(b)etween 1947 and 1989, the United States tried to change other nations' governments 72 times", of which 66 attempts were covert and six overt.

You may well be tempted — if not already doing so — at this point to politely enquire as to the point of this rather lengthy rundown of American adventurism.

In the face of calls, both internal and external, to intervene — perhaps even militarily — in the affairs of the Maldives, India would do well to draw some learnings from the American experience in this regard. An op-ed by former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed in The Indian Express suggests, "It is essential that India leads the international community in forcing (Yameen) to comply with last week's Supreme Court order."

Nasheed goes on to state that doing so "will pave the way for genuinely inclusive, free and fair elections with full international monitoring. If the Maldivian people so wish, they will then be afforded the chance to throw out this corrupt and criminal regime that is selling the country out from under their feet". It's the last sentence that is most instructive, with the former president calling on India to lead the charge in ultimately facilitating regime change.

Since Independence, India has undertaken three acts of intervention: The 1971 effort to secure the liberation of Bangladesh, the series of operations between 1987 and 1990 to end the civil war in Sri Lanka and Operation Cactus in 1988 to prevent a coup d'état in the Maldives. It is the third of these that is being feverishly discussed as the clamour for India to play a role in the archipelago nation's affairs once more, grows louder and louder. But the comparison between 1988 and 2018 is flawed, and worse, dangerous.

With the exception of 1971, India has only ever intervened in order to prevent the overthrow of the existing government in power or to protect the status quo. In 1988, it was the Maumoon Abdul Gayoom government that India sought to protect from being illegally removed. In 2018, it is a democratically-elected government that a former Head of State is calling upon India to aid in the process of removing, which falls under what is known as Foreign-Imposed Regime Change (FIRC). Also worth noting is India's regularly-reiterated stand (whether in the context of Crimea, Syria or others) that the stakeholders must arrive at a solution through peaceful means and dialogue. After all, New Delhi is well aware of the perils of endorsing the sort of foreign policy that, for sake of example, may someday be used by a third country to justify intervening in the Kashmir conflict.

Viewed through that lens, an Indian intervention in the Maldives appears to neither be on the cards nor be desirable for India.

Further, history shows us that while in the short run, interventions may serve their immediate goal — for instance, throwing Saddam or Gaddafi out of office, in the long run, they usually end up heaping misery on the country. The US' pockmarked history in this regard is well-known and has been alluded to at the start of the piece, but it's worth getting into why FIRC tends to end in tears. And in this regard, it's helpful to refer to an article in International Security by Alexander B Downes and Lindsey A O'Rourke titled 'You Can’t Always Get What You Want'.

"State interests," the authors point out, "have deeper roots than the beliefs or policies of any one leader." This is important to remember because the act of replacing the Head of a State does not automatically mean its interests will suddenly change too. "FIRC (also) entails a principal-agent problem: Foreign-imposed leaders rule over States with interests different from those of the intervener. Whereas the intervening State (the principal) wants the new leader (the agent) to pursue policies that respect its interests, once in power, the new leader is focused on ensuring his or her own political survival, a task that is often undermined by implementing the intervener's agenda," the article continues.

At first, the grateful agent will go the extra mile to please the principal and build on foreign policy alignments. In time, the agent finds him/herself caught between the need to appease the principal and that of keeping his/her own citizens happy. In time, geopolitical and geoeconomic constraints will weigh heavy on the agent, whose opponents will already be tapping into the sentiment of disgruntled citizens.

Eventually, what you are frequently left with are one of two scenarios:

1) More turmoil ensues as domestic opponents gather enough momentum to force out the agent and bring in a new regime — that could bring with it a whole new set of problems for both countries.

2) In order to appease citizens and stay in power, the agent may embark on a spree of major course-correction and turn hostile towards the principal, setting in motion a whole new set of foreign policy headaches. A hostile Malé is something India can do without.

Historically, few intervening countries have shown the political will or staying power to do more than replace the regime and provide support in terms of security. There is little record of institution-building or staying around long enough to help the new leader gain the trust and support of his/her citizens. And as this article points out, "Despite what interveners hope, regime change implemented by outsiders is not a force for stability. More than 40 percent of states that experience foreign-imposed regime change have a civil war within the next 10 years."

But what about humanitarian principles? According to the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty's Responsibility to Protect report, "Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or State failure, and the State in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect."

As of now, we're yet to see the Maldivian population 'suffering serious harm', however, if it does come to pass, the Indian government will have a very tough decision on its hands and it must make sure it doesn't ignore the lessons of FIRC campaigns over the years.

Updated Date: Feb 07, 2018 16:35 PM

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