Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Humanitarian Interventions

The publication of a Johns Hopkins study alleging that approximately 600,000 Iraqis have been killed in the war following the U.S. invasion has touched off an intense controversy over whether the study is accurate.

It has also generated controversy (at least among some people)about the justification of the Iraq war as a humanitarian intervention. The whole topic of humanitarian intervention is controversial to begin with. Some people believe that anyone who does not endorse their favorite war against one tyrant or another is thereby endorsing the tyrant's behavior. Others so hate and fear Great Satan's power that they consider any atrocity to be preferable to U.S. action. I have long intended to post my own views on humanitarian intervention; this seems a good time to proceed.

I share the generally accepted view among serious advocates of humanitarian intervention, that such interventions are justified, but only in case of an immediate humanitarian crisis or the iminent danger of such a crisis. This in turn raises two questions from opposite sides of the divide: (1) why is humanitarian intervention justified at all and (2) why should it be limited to immediate humanitarian crises.

So far as I understand it, the case against humanitarian intervention can take one of two forms. Some people are pacifists and oppose all war regardless of circumstances. Others are opposed to American power and are certain that no atrocity by anyone else can be as bad as action by Great Satan. The pacifist view strikes me as naive. Is it truly better to allow genocide than to use military force to stop it? The other argument is that even humanitarian interventions kill innocents. This is indeed true. And when we drove the Nazis from France, we did cause the French some collateral damage. Would it, then, have been better to let the Nazis remain in order to ensure that we did not kill a single Frenchman. As Allied forces advanced on Nazi concentration camps, their usual response was to step up the killing, and/or to force march the inmates away. But surely it would be absurd to conclude that it would therefore have been better to allow the concentration camps to operate unimpeded because our intervention would only make them worse.

The anyone-but-Great-Satan crowd care nothing for humanitarianism, but only want to condemn whatever the U.S. does, no matter what that is. Many are willing to defend any atrocity so long as committed by enemies of the U.S. They do also have a valid criticism that U.S. actions are unlikely to be motivated by pure humanitarianism, but to have elements of self-interest. But it is hardly realistic to expect any country to dispense with self-interest altogether. Another criticism of humanitarian interventions is the "realist" criticism, that the U.S. should intervene only when vital interests are at stake. But surely the lesson of the past decade and a half is that humanitarian crises do effect our interests, at least potentially. Failed states pose a threat to us because they are the places that harbor terrorists. Humanitarian crises pose a potential threat because the greater the crisis, the greater the threat of radicalization.

So, if one supports the concept of humanitarian intervention, why should it be limited to immediate crises? Why is neither past slaughter nor the potential for future slaughter grounds for intervention? Or, as some put it, why should there be a statute of limitations on genocide?

Well, one answer is that surely the primary object of a humanitarian intervention is to be effective. Intervening when a humanitarian crisis is ongoing or in immediate danger of happening can save people from slaughter. Intervention several years later will not bring the dead back to life.

Another answer is that humanitarian interventions tend to be labor-intensive, and soldiers are a limited resource. The object is not simply to defeat the army that is committing atrocities, but to protect the population from it. Routing a group of thugs that prey on innocents civilians is easy. Stopping them from simply scattering and spreading devastation in their wake is a good deal harder. A successful humanitarian intervention requires securing the entire country, everwhere and everyone. This calls for a lot of troops. And when troops are in limited supply, this necessarily requires rationing of them, which means reserving them for the very worst crises. And if there is not a crisis severe enough to justify humanitarian intervention, it does not logically follow that we should intervene in the next-worst spot. Much better to hold our troops in reserve until a need for them really does arise.

And the other argument against taking humanitarian interventions lightly is that they can go wrong, sometimes disasterously wrong. A humanitarian intervention that fails to secure the country is apt to lead simply to chaos and civil war. Even if successful, securing the country takes time, and war and violence often escalate in the short run. (I intend to pursue this matter further in future posts. Whoever advocates humanitarian intervention needs to take the possibility of failure into account. Only when conditions are so bad that failure is worth the risk is humanitarian intervention justified.

Coming up next: Discussion of real-world humanitarian interventions and possible lessons to learn from them.

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