Patterson examines how post-war is a trickier battle

In his new book, Eric D Patterson examines the prosecution of "just wars" and how the principles on which they are based are often abandoned after interventionist forces achieve victory on the battlefield.

A British tank commander waves to townspeople in the centre of Podujevo, Albania in 1999 as Nato peacekeeping troops move in. Tim Ockenden / AFP
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Ending Wars Well
Eric D Patterson
Yale University Press

There's no magic formula for ending wars well, writes the Georgetown University professor Eric D Patterson. But in light of the very bad job that Americans, among others, have done in this particular field recently, he's tried to design one. Actually, he argues it's neither magic nor a formula, and underscores that every war and its post-conflict geography is different. If all this sounds a bit too formulaic, Patterson's new book on the topic contains ideas well worth pondering in our age of humanitarian intervention.

The author's starting point and object of investigation is valid: How is it that "just wars" can be waged with sound principles culled and refined over the centuries by thinkers as far back as St Augustine, and then abandoned as soon as the wars are won? Is there also a "just peace" to follow just wars?

Recent history is replete with cases of good intentions (giving the warriors the benefit of the doubt) gone sour the moment the white flag is waved. But whether the examples be in the Balkans or the Middle East, or further afield like East Timor, Sudan or Haiti, getting the post-conflict theatre right has proven much trickier than triumphing on the battlefield. Patterson believes that there may lie an answer in the principles of just war.

Just-war theory, in a nutshell, holds that military force may be employed "by legitimate authority acting on a just cause with right intent". These three core criteria have been fleshed out with additional moral and strategic factors, such as likelihood of success, proportionality of ends, last resort and comparative justice. The purpose of just-war thinking is to call for responsible action while imposing limits, recognising the moral obligation of leaders to defend and promote order, security, and justice in a fallen world. The classic example is military intervention abroad in the event of a genocide.

Just-war notions underpin much of international law and the war conventions. Its logic was invoked at length by US President Barack Obama in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice." Indeed, US presidents proffer some version of it every time the US intervenes abroad, as it did just recently in Libya.

As lofty as the ideals of a just war can sound, Patterson is anything but a starry-eyed idealist in his application of those criteria to postwar settings. In balancing the imperatives of security and justice in just postwar occupations, he errs unapologetically on the side of law and order, arguing that nothing can happen in terms of justice and conciliation unless there is political order on the ground. "In the real world of bloody wars and dirty hands," he argues, "a settlement that manages to provide for a postwar situation of security is a moral good". And this, he concludes, is all that some unhappy countries may get.

This is a slap in the face to the small armies of human rights lawyers, peace activists, conflict mediators and the like who rush into post-war zones trying to set up functional courts, democratic media, or grassroots women's groups before the shooting has stopped - or even once the guns go quiet. None of these things can happen until there is the rule of law, basic governance and the absence of an external threat, argues Patterson. Of course Iraq comes immediately to mind. The Americans' decision to fire all Baath Party members from their jobs and to watch as looting and chaos enveloped the country was a fatal error. But there's also Sudan, Haiti, Afghanistan, Somalia and Bosnia, where civilian work had begun before the ground was secure. Hard lessons there were learnt.

In Kosovo in the late 1990s, on the other hand, the interveners got it right. The Nato-led troops defeated the Serbs and disarmed the Albanians, setting up a heavily fortified protectorate that is still there today, 13 years down the road. Nato troops are also still in Bosnia, 17 years after the war's end.

This long-term security commitment in the Balkans, however, has been extremely costly: following the 1999 ceasefire in Kosovo there were as many as 50,000 troops on the ground; at the end of last year there were still 5,800 there to ensure stability for a population of 1.9 million. These numbers (and the sky-high cost of the missions) dwarf those everywhere else. At the end of the Bush presidency, for example, there were only 52,700 Nato troops fighting a hot war and simultaneously protecting a civilian mission in Afghanistan, a country of 31 million people.

Once the battlefields are cleared and sovereignty established, only then can justice and conciliation - the second and third elements of just peace - start to hunker down. At a war's end, justice, a key principle of a just war, consists of restitution to the victims and the punishment of aggressors. But for Patterson, it's not just about doing the right thing: paying off the victims and jailing the perpetrators will contribute to security and stability. If justice, like firing all Baathists in Iraq, creates instability, then it should be foregone. In Rwanda, on the other hand, the tracking down and prosecution of war criminals enhanced security.

Conciliation, or a coming to terms with the past, is the last and most elusive element in post-conflict scenarios. It implies a self-critical processing of a contested history in order to purge the deep-seated sources of the bygone conflict. Reconciliation often overlaps with justice and may take years, even decades, as indeed it did in Germany. It made a shared, prosperous future between France and Germany possible, laying the basis of the European Union.

Patterson's just peace constitutes a substantial break with the way things are done today, a pronounced minimalist interpretation of what is possible. His overwhelming emphasis on order (and then justice and conciliation to underpin order) is a broadside at schools that promote democratisation, transnational justice and nation-building, among other heady post-conflict stratagems. "The just war tradition of restraint and its attendant concern for the hubris that inspires ever-inflating war aims should give one pause, lest the pursuit of noble causes become a crusade," he writes.

Meddling in domestic politics or grassroots engagement is a fool's errand, he argues, as are human rights-driven agendas. Political transformation is a bridge too far.

Yet Patterson's vision begs the important question of political culture. He assumes that security plus justice plus rapprochement will create the conditions for long-lasting peace regardless of the political system that takes root. Yet there's no such guarantee. Authoritarian states that circumvent democratic norms are more likely to fall back into war again.

But after the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan, it's not a surprise to see observers scaling back their expectations. Maybe the best we can hope for are situations such as the ones in the Balkans, where international armies and foreign-run protectorates sit on top of restive populations - for decades.

It's a sobering perspective that makes one think twice before backing another just war.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based writer who served on the civilian missions in Bosnia and Kosovo.