Sunday, November 12, 2006

Lessons from Humanitarian Interventions

We have reviewed three humanitarian interventions not involving the United States, in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Uganda. All three took place in the 1970's, before the doctrine of humanitarian intervention was generally accepted, and therefore generated considerable international opposition.

What lessons do these three examples teach us about humanitarian intervention?

Intervention can be justified even if the intervenor's motives are not entirely pure. One of the main reasons many people oppose U.S. humanitarian interventions is the fear that they will be mere excuses for power grabs. Certainly there was an element of power grab in all three cases here. Vietnam was deposing a hostile government and attempting to install a puppet regime. Tanzania's motives were similar, tough less overt. India was splitting a hostile country in two and seeking to install a more friendly regime in one half. Yet surely these power grabs were lesser evils than the ongoing slaughter. In international politics, motives of self-interest are probably impossible to eliminate. The best way to keep humanitarianism from being a mere excuse for power grabs is to establish clear standards as to what is and is not a serious enough crisis to justify military action.

As a matter of pure self-interest, most countries have legitimate reasons not to want humanitarian crises next door. Deranged, irrational regimes do not necessarily confine their atrocities within their own borders. Both Vietnam and Tanzania invaded only in response to unprovoked attacks. India was burdened with millions of refugees, another predictable result of a humanitarian crises. And, although not an issue in any of these cases, civil wars have a tendancy to spread and destablize neighboring countries. Thailand, though also a victim of Khmer Rouge attacks, nonetheless harbored and supported the Khmer Rouge out of fear of further Vietnamese aggression. Humanitarian interventions should include security guaranties for neighboring countries, and neighboring countries may be persuaded to support them.

Humanitarian interventions can fail, and have their costs even when successful. War is never cost-free. India's intervention was by far the most successul, sweeping up the Pakistani army in twelve days and putting a decisive end to the war. Even in so short a time, however, the Pakistanis were able to go on one last killing spree. And the Indian army was not able to keep Bengalis from engaging in savage reprisals against the Bihiris. Vietnam initially scattered, rather than routed, the Khmer Rouge. At first, the countryside remained insecure and the Khmer Rouge was able to return and terrorize the population. Even once most of the countryside was secured, a long war continued against stubborn remnants based in Thailand. However, a war in which 60,000 people are killed over 10 years dwarfs a regime which slaughters 1 to 3 million people in less than four years. Vietnam's intervention must be considered a humanitarian success, though less so than India's. Tanzanian forces were able to route Idi Amin's army, but not to prevent Uganda from disintigrating into civil war. Although the civil war came to an end after five years, it cost as many lives as the Amin regime. Tanzania's intervention must be considered a humanitarian failure.

Seizing the country is easy; securing it is the hard part. Army's whose main role is to abuse and terrorize civilians can rarely stand up to serious military challange. The Indian army routed the Pakistani forces in twelve days. The Vietnamese army seized Phnom Pehn within two weeks. The far less professional Tanzanian army took slightly longer, but encountered little resistance. It took longer, however, for the Vietnamese forces to establish real control, and they never did in border areas. The Tanzanians were unable to establish security, and Uganda dissolved into civil war. India, on the other hand, was dislodging what amounted to a foreign invader, accepted the unconditional surrender of the Pakistani forces, and encountered no further resistance. Removing a foreign invader is much easier than removing a domestic killer.

It is easier to secure ethnically uniform countries than ethnically varied ones. Bangladesh was overwhelmingly Bengali. Savage reprisals occurred against the Bihari minority, but the Biharis were not numerous enough to fight a civil war. The Bengalis had a significant religious divide between Muslims and Hindus, but ultimately considered themselves Bengalis first. Cambodia had some ethnic minorities, but was overwhelmingly Khmer (Cambodian), and it was never in doubt that the Khmers would be dominant. It is entirely plausible that the Vietnamese prolonged the war by attempting to dominate the country and settling in large numbers, thus raising fears of Vietnamese dominance and encouraging even resistance, even by enemies of the Khmer Rouge. Uganda was hopelessly ethnically fragmented and, like many African countries, suffered from tribal rivalries. Much of the civil war that followed Amin's overthrow had a strong ethnic component, as the Langi and Acholi tribes sought to dominate the army and, through it, the country and other Ugandans resisted. The current Lord's Resistance Army is active mostly among the Acholi.

Being bigger and stronger helps. India had a population substantially larger than Pakistan, a fairly well-trained army, and was fighting a West Pakistani force in an area geographically non-contiguous to West Pakistan, which caused the Pakistanis obvious logistical problems. Vietnam had ten times the population of Cambodia, and its army was seasoned. Tanzania is one of the stronger states in Africa, but did not have anything like the well-trained armies of India or Vietnam.

Finally, even sucessful humanitarian interventions do not achieve miracles. India's intervention was by far the most successful in that it brought a full and final end to the war. But Bangladesh remains troubled at best and turbulent at worst. Vietnam ended Khmer Rouge atrocities, only to usher in a low level war. Cambodia, too, remains troubled. And the Tanzanian intervention led to civil war. Humanitarian intervenors should not expect to create the perfect government or a social paradise. Ending the immediate humanitarian crisis and not provoking a new one is the best one can expect.

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