Misconceptions: If the West Doesn’t Intervene in Country X, it’s “Being Complicit”

by Benjamin Studebaker

Iraq. Boko Haram. Israel/Palestine. Syria. Ukraine. Libya. Kony 2012. In every one of these cases, interventionists make the argument that if we do not offer material support to their faction of choice, we are “being complicit” in whatever violent awfulness happens in these places. This is claimed as if it were self-evident. It’s not.It is true that there are cases in which inaction can be considered complicity. If a police officer is patrolling the streets, sees someone being raped, and chooses to ignore it, his inaction amounts to complicity. What makes the police officer complicit? There are two key criteria:

  1. Capacity–there is some action the police officer can take that is likely to stop the crime that does more good than harm.
  2. Domain–it is part of the police officer’s domain to stop crime within the territory over which he has jurisdiction.

Let’s discuss each of these in turn.


An officer is only complicit in a crime when he has the capacity to stop it in a way that does more good than harm and when stopping this crime is within his domain. If the only way a police officer can stop someone from speeding is to shoot at the tires of the offending vehicle, the police officer might not have the capacity to stop the offender without causing more harm than the initial offense itself–the bullets could hit someone else, or the car could spin out and become an even greater danger to other motorists.

In international politics, there is a terrible danger of this. Indeed, most of the west’s recent interventions have had unforeseen violent consequences, in part because western interventions are Band-Aids–they do not resolve the underlying problems in these societies but instead treat symptoms. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, the west threw out corrupt, sectarian, autocratic governments only to have them be replaced with new regimes of the same kind but for some alternative faction or sect. In many cases, this is because we fundamentally misunderstand the causes of the problems in these societies. We think that the violence ultimately stems from some identifiable “bad” actor or group of actors, that if we eliminate the “bad guys” the society will reorganize itself in a way that is better. We neglect the possibility that the “bad guys” are a symptom of a deeper problem (often sectarianism), a problem that will manifest again and produce new “bad guys” in the wake of those we killed. Interventionists implore us to “do something”, but they have proven time and time again that they are not able to accurately anticipate what the consequences of our interventions will be. Often times, we leave the situation no better than we found it, and sometimes we leave it in a worse state. In every case, we expend lots of money, national attention, and political will. We cannot be complicit in an act if we have no available positive solutions.

To make matters worse, once we have intervened and things have gone poorly, the interventionists tell us that we have a duty to continue intervening by arguing that we should abide by Colin Powell’s “pottery barn rule“:

…once you break it, you are going to own it, and we’re going to be responsible for 26 million people standing there looking at us.

This is a textbook case of the “sunk costs fallacy“. Rather than reconsider interventionism in light of policy failure, interventionists argue that having already intervened commits us to continuing to intervene until the problem is resolved. This assumes that the problem can be resolved through western intervention, and consequently begs the question. It assumes the very conclusion being contested–that the west has the capacity to solve the problem. If the west does not have the capacity, further intervention just accumulates additional waste.



An officer is only complicit in a crime when the crime takes place within the territory over which the officer has jurisdiction. if the police officer works for the state of Texas and the crime is taking place in Mexico, we would not expect the police officer to leave his designated jurisdiction to stop the crime. There are a lot of crimes being committed in Mexico, but local American cops in border towns are not “complicit” in these crimes. A police officer is different from a regular person because a police officer has agreed to be employed by a district and to defend that district from the behaviors that district considers criminal in exchange for compensation. The relationship a police officer has with the district that employs him is unique–he does not have the same relationship with any other district. Indeed, if an El Paso police officer acted as though he had the same duty to Mexico that he does to the city of El Paso, El Paso could rightfully feel that the officer was not upholding his end of their agreement. He has contracted to work for the people of El Paso and has special duties to them that he does not have to the people of Mexico because the people of El Paso reciprocate with him–they pay him wages and benefits–while the people of Mexico do not. If the police officer uses resources El Paso gave him for the purpose of fighting crime in El Paso to fight crime in Mexico, he is exploiting the people of El Paso to serve the people of Mexico.

When we apply the same reasoning to international politics, we see that this analogy holds. The American government is to the American people what the El Paso police force is to the people of El Paso. Americans pay taxes to the American government with the expectation that the American government will use these funds to make Americans better off. If the American government were to indiscriminately give money to people all over the world, regardless of whether or not they are American citizens or pay taxes, the American people would rightly feel cheated and exploited. These non-taxpayers would be free-riding on American taxpayers. They would be receiving the benefits of citizenship without making a fair contribution. Americans could complain that because they are citizens of the state, the state has special duties to them that it does not have to other people. The American people and the American state are in a special relationship of reciprocity, in which each contributes to the welfare of the other. When a third party receives the benefit without reciprocating, the third party exploits the American people for gain.

Indeed, in most of the cases around the world where interventionists object to what is happening, they often object because the regime or organization in question (be it Assad, Saddam, ISIS, Boko Haram, LRA, etc.) is not upholding its duties to some segment of the population for which it is ostensibly responsible. The Assad regime enriches Shiites and ignores the needs of Sunnis, Saddam and ISIS did and do the reverse, Boko Haram targets Christians, the LRA exploits children, etc. This is the essence of corruption–states using their resources not to benefit their populations as a whole, but to privilege some subset over the rest. Yet interventionists would have the west resolve these problems by doing what is in principle the same kind of thing–use citizen resources for purposes aside from advancing the interests of citizens. To add insult to injury, interventionists ask western citizens to yield their resources when, at the very same time, political parties are telling the people of western countries that they must downsize their welfare states and cut benefits to poor and working people. This amounts to taking from poor Americans and Europeans to give to people in distant lands who have no intention of reciprocating the benefits rendered.

The situation might be different if these foreign peoples were willing to take up the duties of citizenship. If these peoples asked to join the United States, Britain, France, Germany, or some other such state, and committed to paying the taxes and following the laws of western countries in exchange for the benefits of citizenship, they would show that they were willing to reciprocate benefited rendered. Alas, the last time the western powers admitted these peoples (the imperial period), they did not treat them as equals to the citizens living in the imperial cores. The colonial peoples responded to this exploitation not by demanding that these relationships be reorganized so as to put colonists on an equal political footing with core citizens, but by demanding independence. Independence means that the people in the Middle East, Africa, and other such places do not pay taxes to western governments. It means that they have decided they would prefer to look after themselves.

We should allow people living in these unhappy places to immigrate to the west, if they are capable of contributing. We should even allow foreign states to rejoin western countries on far more favorable terms than they enjoyed during the imperial period, if they are willing to cooperate with us on equal terms. But foreign peoples cannot have things both ways. They cannot receive the benefits of American or European citizenship without taking up the duties Americans and Europeans perform everyday–paying western taxes and following western laws. Intervention and independence are mutually exclusive.