Jacqueline Hazelton, author of the new book Ballots not Bullets, argues that elites facing insurgents often prefer to live with the insurgency than to implement reforms, like democratization, having the rule of law apply to them, or income distribution. After all, such reforms are a loser deal for them: they reduce prerogatives and their ability to profit from corruption.
If pressed to carry out reforms (as the United States often does when propping up elites with counterinsurgency aid), the elites will go through the motions. They’ll agree to the reforms, but they’ll fail to implement them. That means stringing everyone along, often for years.
The insistence that good-governance reforms is the path to keeping a partner regime in power—let alone that democratization, modernization, and liberalization are crucial to its long-term stability—sets an unachievable political objective. It also makes interventions last longer, as elites find ways to affirm (and reaffirm and reaffirm) their commitment to reforms they never intend to fully implement. And because the counterinsurgency doctrine expects victory when—and perhaps only when—those reforms are implemented, the intervening power winds up in a particularly bloody version of Waiting for Godot.
This sounds a lot like Colombia, where elites promise reforms—land restitution, peace accord commitments, territorial stabilization, protecting social leaders, innumerable pacts signed with protesting communities—then invariably drag their feet.
If Hazelton is right, then, what are the options? I haven’t read her book, so I can’t tell whether the conclusion is “prop up authoritarian elites for stability, Cold War-style” or “abandon the whole notion of counterinsurgency aid even if it means regime failure.”
For a country like Colombia or Honduras, both of those choices, at least in the short term, would weaken governance even further, and that would increase migrants and illicit drug supplies in the United States. The U.S. political system has proved unable to deal sanely with either migration or drugs—in fact, a rise in either brings political freakouts and pressure for crackdowns at home. So most U.S. leaders would rather not have their domestic agendas derailed by that.
The result is a feedback loop between bad domestic policy and bad counterinsurgency policy. Local elites are willing to tolerate some insurgency in order to keep their prerogatives. And U.S. political leaders are willing to tolerate some counterinsurgent governance half-measures if they keep issues like drugs and migration at “manageable” levels.
Of course, messy counterinsurgency doesn’t do that—not in the long term at least. Perhaps a lot of the solution is about domestic politics: what we choose to freak out about. If we sought to manage migration and drug use—recognizing, with policies ranging from temporary work visas to harm reduction, realities that have been with us for more than half a century—the feedback loop could finally break.