Thursday, June 28, 2007

ashdown book review

Intervention and peacekeeping

Paddy's passions

Jun 28th 2007
From The Economist print edition

Swords and Ploughshares: Bringing Peace to the 21st Century
By Paddy Ashdown

Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 352 pages; £20

Buy it at

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FEW people are better qualified to write about muscular international intervention than muscular Paddy Ashdown. A former soldier, diplomat and party leader (who last week turned down Gordon Brown's offer of a cabinet seat), Lord Ashdown ruled Bosnia and its 3.9m people from 2002 to 2006 on behalf of the world.

He took over a mess. Western military intervention had forced all parties to the negotiating table. Arm-twisting at Dayton had produced a deal that stopped the fighting. But Bosnia itself was barely functioning. It had post-communism's typical ills (corruption, incompetence, organised crime and over-mighty spooks) plus the vicious ethnic distrust and physical ruin caused by the war and the baroque bureaucracy imposed by the peace deal.

Lord Ashdown did a good job. He shored up his shaky position by corralling all the international outfits into a council that met weekly to work out a joint position. He used his powers as proconsul to overrule local tyrants, nitwits and crooks. The economy grew, corruption fell, freedoms flourished and some national institutions took shape. Bosnia is still a mess, but a less bad one. With luck, it may join the European Union eventually.

So his book on the ethics and practice of war-ending, peacekeeping, nation-building and international do-goodery has plenty to recommend it. Amid a continuing bloody disaster in Iraq and a looming one in Afghanistan, it is easy to forget that Western intervention elsewhere has been less disastrous. In some bits of ex-Yugoslavia it was not only right (if belated) but, broadly, successful.

Warmongers and peacemakers should read at least the pithy summaries at the end of each of Lord Ashdown's chapters before they start on their next adventure. Don't separate military strategy from plans for the aftermath. Conflicts don't end when the fighting finishes. The “golden hours” after a military victory are crucial. Keep order—by martial law if necessary—otherwise nothing will work. Then get the economy going. Accept that bad people will hold powerful positions for some time. Elections should come once everything is working. Held too early, they spell disaster.

Many readers, however, may find the book frustrating. Lord Ashdown doles out his first-hand experiences in Bosnia grudgingly; presumably he is saving the best stories for another book. His practical advice is mixed with doses of preachiness. The brisk tones of the former special-forces captain sit oddly with woolly clichés, perhaps picked up during his two decades in Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats. Tiresome spelling errors undermine his authoritative tone: the ex-Nazi who became president of Germany was Kurt Kiesinger, not Keisinger; Iran's president's name is not Ahemdinijad.

But the main lesson is a valuable one, well delivered. Outside intervention is morally justifiable; it can end conflicts and rebuild countries. So far it has been done pretty poorly, sometimes outrageously badly as in Iraq. That disappoints Lord Ashdown. But it does not dismay him.

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