Sunday, May 20, 2007

Iraq: Not a Legitimate Humanitarian Intervention

Rich Lowry of the National Review has written a column defending Tony Blair as an honest and consistent liberal interventionist and condemning his critics as hypocrites. Why, Lowry asks, did so many liberal interventionists favor humanitarian intervention during the Clinton Administration and then change their minds as soon as a conservative Republican endorsed it. Why did they dismiss Tony Blair as a "poodle" for sticking to his old principles? Why would an advocate of liberal intervention oppose the invasion of Iraq, other than sheer partisanship?

As a supporter of humanitarian intervention myself, how do I defend opposing the invasion of Iraq? As an answer, let me run down the five guidelines recommended by the International Crisis Group and see how well they fit in the case of Iraq.

1) Just Cause: Is there serious and irreparable harm occurring to human beings, or imminently likely to occur [such as mass killing or ethnic cleansing]? The answer here was no. That Saddam Hussein was an extremely brutal and oppressive ruler no one disputes. At other times during his reign, particularly when he bloodily suppressed Kurdish and Shiite revolts, humanitarian intervention would have been justified. But the last such crisis had been in the wake of the Gulf War in 1991. After the revolt was defeated, there was a brutal and oppressive regime in power, but no crisis so grave as to justify military intervention. Atrocities committed twelve years ago do not justify an invasion here and now. Absent an immediate humanitarian crisis, the other criteria are moot, but I will address them nonetheless.

(2) Right Intention: is the primary purpose of the proposed military action to halt or avert human suffering, whatever other motives may be in play? I would qualify this requirement and permit interventions in which the primary motive is legitimate self-interest, so long as humanitarian motives are present and imperialist motives are absent. By these standards, the invasion of Iraq triply fails. The Bush administration did not claim that they were launching a humanitarian intervention; they said they were invading to get rid of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Like most people at the time, I did not question that Saddam had such an arsenal. But I did not see his arsenal as any threat to us, so the intervention could not be justified as legitimate self-interest. Saddam's arsenal might be a threat to his neighbors so acting in conjunction with them to remove Saddam might be seen as defending someone else's legitimate self-interest. But the neighbors did not seem concerned. As for humanitarian motives, some people in the Bush Administration probably had them, but in the absence of an immediate humanitarian crisis, they were not sufficient to justify the war. And as for imperialist motives, the invasion of Iraq was touted as part of Bush's general strategy of preemption; the doctrine that we were allowed to invade any country we wanted at will. That is the very definition of imperialism.

(3) Last Resort: has every non-military option for the prevention or peaceful resolution of the crisis been explored, with reasonable grounds for believing lesser measures will not succeed? It seems reasonable to assume that nothing short a direct invasion would have gotten rid of Saddam. But, absent an actual crisis, this does not justify intervention on humanitarian grounds.

(4) Proportional Means: is the scale, duration and intensity of the planned military action the minimum necessary to secure the defined human protection objective? Our problem was the opposite, that we did not have enough forces to secure the country. This problem is endemic to humanitarian interventions.

(5) Reasonable Prospects: Will intervention just make things worse? This one scarcely merits an answer. The question that will long be debated is whether a more competent occupation would have been more successful.

So, there were good reasons other than simple partisanship to oppose George Bush's invasion of Iraq. In this case, however, even purely partisan opposition would have been justified. Liberal/ humanitarian intervention belongs on the (growing) list of things conservatives do not do well. A distrust of this sort of mission ran throughout the Administration from the hawkish Cheney, who ran for office saying he opposed "nation building" and that the proper role of the army was waging war, to the dovish Powell, who said that military operations should include overwhelming force, defined objectives, and a clear exit strategy. People who at their core oppose humanitarian intervention and nation building are unlikely to do a good job of it. And when they claim to be undertaking such a mission, their statements should be regarded with skepticism.

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