In his classic “Twenty-Seven Articles,” published in the Arab Bulletin in August 1917, the renowned British Army officer T.E. Lawrence advised beginners to use prudence when working with Arab armies. “Do not try to do too much with your own hands,” he warned. “Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.”

It was sage advice from a seasoned warrior who traipsed around the Middle East wearing local garb, speaking several Arab dialects and living with Arab irregulars during their struggle against the Ottoman Empire. Since that time, the United States and Europe have engaged in dozens of interventions across the globe, from occupied Germany after World War II to the soft, limestone cave complexes of Afghanistan after 9/11. In some cases, as in Germany and Bosnia, these interventions have achieved impressive results. But in others, as in Somalia in the early 1990s, they have gone gravely awry.

In “Can Intervention Work?” Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus provide a fresh and critically important perspective on foreign interventions. Stewart, a member of the British Parliament, is the author of the spellbinding “The Places in Between” and “The Prince of the Marshes,” and Knaus has taught with him at Harvard University. The book is divided into two sections. The first, in which Stewart walks us through the painful international experience in Afghanistan since 9/11, is in many ways the more lucid, raw and penetrating of the two. In the second section, Knaus examines the international approach in Bosnia.

Both authors are mercilessly critical of foreign interveners. Most foreign powers, they contend, are much weaker than they imagine, more isolated from local society than they realize, hopelessly ignorant of local cultures, and frequently subservient to misleading and airy academic theories.

Stewart’s essay paints a grim picture of Afghanistan, one that I have experienced many times over the past decade. Far too many well-intentioned Westerners remain isolated from Afghan life by short tour lengths, contemptible security restrictions and feckless career incentives. I vividly recall the uncomfortable churning in my stomach the first time I was stuck in a traffic jam in — of all places — the international military base at Bagram Airfield; the mess rivaled even the most stultifying gridlock I had experienced in downtown Kabul. It was a reminder of the tens of thousands of foreigners hunkered down on their bases who rarely, if ever, interact with locals. After 10 years of war in Afghanistan, international efforts have clearly been undermined by an extreme detachment from the lives of ordinary Afghans.

‘Can Intervention Work?’ by Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus (Norton)

Stewart and Knaus direct their ire at two theories of foreign intervention. The first, which they call the “planning school,” attempts to prescribe a comprehensive strategy, structure and metrics for interventions. The second, which they dub the “liberal imperialist school,” emphasizes the importance of decisive leadership by interveners who seek nearly unlimited scope for foreign powers and who are prepared to stay the course for an indefinite period of time. The authors accuse both schools of overstating the ability of foreigners to improve local societies. In a few cases, they admit that outside governments can be helpful, for example, in creating a central bank, stabilizing a currency and providing health care. But in many cases, they point out, local institutions are far more resilient than international theories of nation-building may recognize.

Stewart and Knaus insist that outsiders can — indeed should — provide generous resources, manpower, equipment, encouragement and support. But they are not enough on their own. The best way of minimizing the danger of an intervention, they conclude, is to proceed carefully, invest heavily in understanding the local context and define concrete goals. It is a strategy they label “principled incrementalism.”

For all its strengths, the book struggles a bit when it comes to remedies, which are in some cases no more than bromides. The authors insist that the causes of crises do not result from universal structural flaws but rather are specific to a particular place and time. The successes in Bosnia, they maintain, have few practical lessons for the struggles in Afghanistan. While true to some degree, this conclusion is ultimately unsatisfying because it fails to explain why some interventions work and others fail. In sum, Stewart and Knaus do a better job of explaining what they are against than what they are for.

Still, the book’s insistence on caution and humility in foreign interventions is an important contribution, which bucks conventional wisdom. In his conclusion to “Twenty-Seven Articles,” Lawrence wrote that the secret to working with foreigners is “unremitting study of them,” up close, gritty and personal. It is an axiom often exclaimed but seldom practiced.

Seth G. Jones , a former plans officer and senior advisor to U.S. Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan, is author of “In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan” and a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.


By Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus

Norton. 236 pp. $23.95