Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Taco Theory of International Intervention

Will McCants, who defeated me in our round of twitterfightclub months ago, reminded me today that I owed him an explanation:

So, how is intervention like a taco?  If I remember what I was thinking a month ago, I think the answer is: messy.  But that is too easy.  Let's think of the ingredients that go into a taco and the obvious or less than obvious parallels in an intervention:

  1. Let's start with the main filling: it can be beef (ground or not), pork (carnitas are a personal favorite), chicken, fish (very popular in some areas but never to me), shrimp, turkey, fake-meat, whatever.  In an intervention, the key question is who joins?  Is it mostly a US effort, which makes for a more robust, filling taco but one that could cause bloating (too much intervention can be a problem)?  Is it a bunch of European countries?  This would make for a blander taco (chicken--skipping the obvious joke and focusing more on the meh quality) that would perhaps be less likely to upset a delicate digestive system.  It could be a mixture of lesser militaries from countries that prefer to export their armies rather than have them hang out at home, which would be the tofu filling.  Not quite the real thing, not likely to upset a stomach, but not really what people have in mind when they think intervention.
  2. The next decision is about what kind of beans to include: black or refried.  Often it is the case that an intervention builds on a previous one.  IFOR supplanted UNPROFOR, for instance.  That would be a case of refried beans.  The choice here is mostly determined by path dependence--what have you got at the point you are making the taco/intervention?  Building on a previous one?  That is often the case.
  3. What vegetables to include? For a good taco, you need a good balance of meat and veggies.  For a good intervention, you need a good balance of military and civilian efforts.  The only problem with this analogy is that a good intervention might have a civilian dominate the effort, such as the High Rep in Bosnia, but, in personal opinion, the veggies should never dominate the meat in a taco.  Oh well, there are limits to any analogy.  A good mix of lettuce, onions and peppers works for me.  The UN would be the lettuce here, providing some structure and glue.  The EU would be the peppers (not hot peppers, just red/yellow/green ones) to provide critical fiber and flavor (reconstruction).  The non-government organizations would be the onions, as they are all over the place--often too much in one spot, too little in others, not really coordinated with anything.
  4. Next: you have the guac and sour cream.  In moderation, these can provide some flavor and bind the ingredients together.  Too much, and not only do they overwhelm the rest of the ingredients, but they cause the taco to fall apart quickly and most messily.  So, what is the appropriate analogy here?  Hmm, how about the media?  You need to have them involved to spotlight the situation, to drive up awareness and foster oversight and accountability.  But too much or too misdirected can mean that secrets that need to be secret get blown, like negotiations or attack plans.  
  5. Penultimately, you have the salsa.  It can be mild, medium, hot or muy caliente.  These refer, obviously, to the rules of engagement and the resolve behind them.  An intervention with heaps of caveats and limited rules means that it will not make much of an impact.  A taco with mild salsa is not likely to create much of a reaction.  
  6. What wraps all this up?*  A soft tortilla or a hard shell?  The reality is that either will break upon eating.   This is really a trick question: the hard shell is akin to a UN effort.  If eaten forcefully, the shell will crumble quickly, making an utter mess.  However, if eating slowly, carefully, it can last a while.  On the other hand, NATO interventions are soft tortillas: surprisingly strong in containing a mixture of ingredients, but must be consumed quickly before the liquid-y materials soak through.  Kosovo and Libya were the NATO tacos par excellence: despite all of the ingredients almost bursting out, the tacos could be consumed without making too much of a mess.  Afghanistan, on the other hand, was simply too long, so that the various pieces of the NATO effort began to spill out.  The Dutch ingredients, followed by the Canadian, and then French.  Soon, the consumer just had bits and pieces of American and British meat dangling from the soaked tortilla.
*Yes, at any burrito shop, the tortilla is the first choice but it made sense to conclude with it here.
You can tell that I am somewhat biased in what I like in my taco and what I like in an intervention.  I prefer a mixture of meats for more flavor and a mixture of countries for a portfolio of capabilities and backgrounds.  I prefer black beans--that an intervention is the first one rather than refried--a repeated effort with heaps of failed international efforts to proceed the latest taco/round.  I prefer a few strong vegetables rather than too many kinds and fewer but stronger civilian efforts so that they can be coordianted.  I prefer a modicum of guac and sour cream to hold things together.  The media is a vital part, but should not be the show.  Restraint is required so that people are not endangered, that risks can be taken--such as bargaining.  I prefer hot salsa rather than muy caliente--too much discretion to the troops on the ground can be a dangerous thing.  Caveats are a blunt way to influence behavior on the ground.  Again, moderation is the key.  Finally, I prefer soft shells to hard--they are less likely to break.

So, there you have it, the Taco Theory of Intervention.

No comments: