12/20/2013 03:29 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

What You Need to Know About U.S. Intervention in Central African Republic

The Obama administration announced yesterday that the U.S. will be providing up to $101 million in support of French and African Union troops moving into the Central African Republic (CAR) in the name of humanitarian intervention.

Violence has increased dramatically in CAR over the last year, driven mainly by armed gangs and militias engaging in increasingly sectarian bloodletting. In December of last year, Seleka rebels toppled then President Francois Bozize. There is now a half-baked interim government, but the violence against civilians has increased and led to newly-formed armed groups

An Amnesty International report said that the Christian anti-balaka militia recently went door to door, killing about 60 Muslims. In two days of revenge attacks, former Seleka rebels killed almost 1,000 people.

No U.S. troops will be directly involved on the ground in CAR. For now, it's basically just money. And this comes after months of pressure from the UN to either intervene more heavily, or cover 27 percent of the cost of training, equipping, transporting and supplying a UN intervention force -- pressure that the Obama administration resisted.

But Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was sent to CAR this week. Her reputation as a hawk on humanitarian intervention has many speculating about an expanded role for the U.S. in a conflict that nobody seems to know how to solve.

Many have noted the lack of clear strategic interests in CAR. So why did the White House choose to intervene? And why this particular way? What is the likelihood of successfully improving the humanitarian situation? Is there a risk of mission creep?

For insight on this I turned to Chris Coyne, professor of economics at George Mason University and author of the recent book Doing Bad By Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a brief interview with him.

Q: What was your reaction to the Obama administration's decision to increase support to French and African troops in CAR?

Chris Coyne: Given what I know, it is very predictable. For the past several months the U.S. has been pushing back on UN intervention because of the cost of UN peacekeeping missions. I believe the U.S. would have to pay somewhere in the range of 27 percent of the costs of the peacekeeping mission based on the formula the UN uses. This push back occurred despite the fact that violence was already in full effect and well known. So one way to read the U.S. commitment of resources is as a relatively cheap way to placate the growing push for the UN to intervene. Making a lump sum payment to "support" French and African troops is cheaper than paying a percentage of a very costly peacekeeping mission. People keep pointing out how the U.S. has no strategic or economic interests so that this is purely a morally-based assistance. But in my review the push back by the Obama administration over the past several months shows that it is not about some higher moral principle, but responding to political incentives (cost of UN peacekeeping mission vs. lump-sum payment).

Q: This is an extremely limited intervention compared to other recent actions (Balkans, Libya, etc.). What difference might this make?

CC: Well, the U.S. has limited exposure right now. The worst case scenario is that $100 million is lost or wasted. In the scheme of things this is not much money and U.S. citizens won't even know about it. Best case some kind of peace is established and then the U.S. government can take partial credit for supporting the effort. More broadly, beyond the U.S., right now the goal of the intervention seems to be to achieve some semblance of peace. But from everything I have read it isn't that easy. Like most conflicts similar to this this there are no clear "good" or "bad" sides. Further, both sides have weaponry. So there are no clear victims and criminals. In my view, the worst case would be if mission creep sets in and peacekeeping becomes nation building.

Q: Have humanitarian interventions of this sort worked in the past? What does the record say?

CC: The record is mixed. A big problem with the attempts to "measure" success is that different people have different definitions of success.  There is an existing academic literature that looks at peacekeeping missions and judges success based on whether there is a reoccurrence of conflict.  In the literature these are referred to as "traditional peacekeeping" missions since they are relatively narrow and not focused on things like nation building, elections, etc.

The empirical literature finds that traditional peacekeeping missions are effective in preventing conflict if they take place after a ceasefire has already been negotiated by the parties involved. "After" is the key word because there is evidence that peacekeeping missions that take place before a ceasefire is negotiated has no effect (or a negative effect).  Since there is no preexisting ceasefire in CAR, the existing empirical literature would seem to indicate that achieving sustainable peace will be difficult.

Q: What do you expect to come out of the increasingly interventionist approach from the U.S., France, neighboring African countries, and the international community?

CC: I can only speculate, but I predict continued violence and continued "outrage" by the international community. I believe the UN is calling for a peacekeeping force in the range of 7,000-9,000 troops.  Right now there are about 1,600 French troops there. Some humanitarian aid will be delivered but this isn't surprising -- if you spend $100 million, some aid is bound to get there, right? More broadly, I expect lots of "discussion" by the "international community" about the need for "political will" to respond not just to the CAR situation, but future situations as well.