In Praise of Warlords

By Hulsman, John C.; Debat, Alexis Y. | The National Interest, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

In Praise of Warlords


Hulsman, John C., Debat, Alexis Y., The National Interest


LEGITIMACY COMES in many faces. Westerners like to see it in the glow of freedom fighters ascending to high office in a sweeping democratic process, preferably after mass rallies in the squares of capital cities with the attendant flags and banners and rock concerts. But we are loath to grace with "legitimacy" the evil, greedy chieftain of Western imagination--the warlord--conjured in no small part by the portrayals in Indiana Jones movies. Of course, the West might work with such unsavory characters in alliances of convenience, but they are to be despised (not least in their immoral challenge to Western democratic superiority) and then quickly done away with at the first possible opportunity--to be replaced by "proper" political figures.

Our cinematic reaction to warlords has carried over into the policies of American state-builders to an uncomfortable degree. When looked at in the glare of reality, America's state-building record in the post-Cold War era is dreadful because of our reflexive antipathy for warlords and our unwillingness to co-opt them. America's failure to identify and engage warlords has contributed again and again to the most conspicuous of U.S. nation-building failures.

In Haiti we intervened to put a Robespierreist president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, back in power following a military coup. After he pathetically failed even to begin addressing Haiti's massive problems, cultivated authoritarian tendencies, and failed to draw in the country's factional power brokers, Aristide was again chased into exile, this time in Africa. Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

In Bosnia America's failure to grasp the durability of clan and ethnic allegiances undermined peacekeeping efforts. If free and fair elections were held tomorrow, two of the three primary ethnic groups (the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian Croats) would vote to secede from the country, a decade after the Dayton Accords.

In Afghanistan things are a little better. President Hamid Karzai, following successes in both the presidential and parliamentary elections, is finally more than just the mayor of Kabul. But anyone assuming that in the foreseeable future he will be able to supervise, bypass or pacify the country's powerful warlords--especially now that they are represented in Parliament--needs an Internet connection. And, of course, there is Iraq.

This dismal record is matched by an unwillingness to seriously assess the flaws in the standard Western model of state-building from afar. Debates continue to focus on the potential roles of the United States, United Nations, World Bank, European Union or International Monetary Fund in state-building, with indigenous leadership--chiefs, elders and yes, even warlords--playing either a secondary or adversarial role in the process.

As long as international admiration trumps local legitimacy in selecting who we are willing to work with in state-building, our efforts will fail. This means, in many parts of the world, we have to come to terms with so-called warlords.

But just what do we mean by "warlord"? A "warlord" is a leader whose power has been attained by non-democratic means but who exercises authority usually on the basis of an appeal to ethnic or religious identity, and who usually controls a definable territory where he has a near monopoly on the use of force. A warlord, as opposed to a gang leader or petty crook, operates within a clear and defined political framework.

To bolster our state-building efforts in the future, we should instead look towards a British subaltern who in the early 20th century hastily scribbled some notes about the importance of warlords in the wastes of the Arabian Desert.

Lessons from Lawrence

THOMAS EDWARD Lawrence, in the flower of his youth, was one of the most famous men in the world. The conqueror of Aqaba at 29 and Damascus at thirty, he was a major leader of the wildly romantic and improbably successful Arab Revolt of Emir Feisal--a warlord--against his Turkish overlords during World War I. …

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