Cowardly Lions: Missed Opportunities to Prevent Deadly Conflict and State Collapse

REVIEWS, 3 Nov 2014

René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

In light of the continuing crisis and disintegration of State structures in the Central African Republic, in Libya and elsewhere, this analysis of State collapse remains of value.

I. William Zartman, Cowardly Lions : Missed Opportunities to Prevent Deadly Conflict and State Collapse, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2005, 281pp.

The image of the cowardly lion comes from L. Frank Baum’s story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in which, through the characters of the lion, the scarecrow and the tinman, is represented what is already within us but that must be made manifest: courage, intelligence and heart. We need all three so that we can have a holistic vision and a soul in order to be able to leave the shadowy existence of Oz and return to the world.

The world as William Zartman points out is scarred by State collapse and deadly conflict. However “external actors can no longer sit by and watch mesmerized by the blood on their television screens. Nor can they hide behind the fear of their own casualties or of long-term involvement as an excuse for inaction. External engagement is required when it is necessary to protect populations from their rulers and from each other. Such protective engagement is justified for its own sake, for humanitarian reasons, and for preventive security purposes, because these conflicts will continue to destabilize their regions and impose costlier involvement later on.” However, as we have seen in the case of Libya, armed intervention may not be the best way to protect.

There are always warning signs — dark rain clouds — before the outbreak of a crisis. But one must be able to read the signs — thus the need for courage, intelligence and heart. There is a difficulty in estimating the time between seeing the first dark clouds and the start of the rain. As Zartman notes “The corridors of policymakers reverberate with crises of ‘Wolf!’. Predictions of a coming event can never be made with assurance.”

Since I had been working in the early 1960s in Equatorial Africa I always predicted that the former Belgium Congo was going to crash and at some point split into a number of states. I did not think that the Zairean president Mobutu would hold the country together for as long as he did — 25 years. As Zartman analyses, Mobutu “had drained the economic riches of the country into his bank accounts, to be used for his personal investments and for cooptation of the political class, creating a political vacuum around himself and those whom he corrupted.” When Mobutu left the scene, the vacuum was filled with neighboring armies and regional militias until a new “strong man” came to power. However, State institutions have not been created everywhere, and regional conflicts, especially in the eastern provinces, continue.

Zartman also deals with Somalia and Liberia where there had never been adequate State structures which went beyond tribal units in Liberia and clanic units in Somalia. The military in Somalia had been the only non-clan–based institution for a short time, until, it too was reorganized on clanic lines, leading the country to be divided among “war lords” on clanic lines. Liberia under Charles Taylor replaced administration with corruption. In fact, there was never a State to “collapse.”

Zartman also deals with Haiti which also lacked a State structure. Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier held things together by terror, corruption but basically by leaving vast areas of the country with no administration. He was careful to prevent from developing any local power which might provide an alternative to his rule. A policy which his son continued. What was difficult to evaluate was the length of time between Duvalier’s departure and anarchy, but the ‘way the wind was blowing’ was obvious.

Yugoslavia is the only case Zartman analyses where the outcome was not predictable from the weakness of the State structure. There was a Yugoslav federal State. Under the long rule of Marshal Tito (1945-1980) tensions were real but kept under control by a mixture of repression and rewards. After Tito’s death there was a slow but real economic decline. There was little popular understanding of the need for economic reform. When Slobodan Milosevic, whose background was in banking, came to power in Serbia, his first proposals were of economic and monetary reform. No other Yugoslav republic leaders were particularly interested and his suggestions raised no popular enthusiasm. Then Milosevic stumbled, nearly by chance, on Serbian nationalism and the ill treatment of the Serb minority in Kosovo. The rest is history. Aggressive nationalism prevented economic reforms, and the country divided and then redivided.

As Zartman concludes his analysis of these case studies, there is a need to “search for ripe moments and entry points, for early awareness and enlightened responsibility, for goal-oriented policy and contingency planning, and for decisive action and sustained mediation.” However, the creation of State structures and competent administrators cannot be created only by outside actors. Afghanistan and Iraq are current examples that soldiers and money create neither an administration trusted by the people nor an administration which can provide adequate goods and services. “State-building” takes time, and there are often more wizards than courageous lions.


René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 3 Nov 2014.

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