The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Against Humanitarian Intervention
Published on March 23, 2011

The argument one’s been hearing most of all from critics of the intervention in Libya has been over consistency. If we’re so keen on invading Libya for ostensibly humanitarian reasons, why aren’t we fighting a war in Bahrain, Yemen or Côte d’Ivoire? The implication here is two-fold: that the Obama Administration has embarked on this questionable endeavor for reasons that are more nefarious than they’re admitting to in public (“it’s about power,” gravely intones Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post to Glenn Greenwald’s applause); and that the defenders of the war are arguing in bad faith.

It’s impossible to tell at this early juncture exactly what rationale the White House settled on behind closed doors. We only have sketchy reports from the New York Times and Foreign Policy that the debate was heated, and that the “winners” were human rights advocates Samantha Power, Ambassador Susan Rice, and Ben Rhodes, with the otherwise-cautious Secretary Clinton providing the final push in convincing President Obama to act. Secretary Gates’s grudging and circumspect statements on the war before and after the decision certainly suggest that the realists around the table were not fully heeded.

But let’s not read the tea leaves too much. The Administration said that it seeks to avert the slaughter that would inevitably follow a Qaddafi victory, and, more tendentiously, that it wants to prevent the events in Libya from putting an end to the evolving Arab Spring. Why search for motive further than that? I fail to see how it can be about “power” however you choose to conceive of the term: Libya is too small an oil producer to warrant this kind of intervention; Qaddafi is at best an insignificant player in the region—indeed, one who had been cooperating with us for the last seven years—so it’s not like we had anything to prove. Perhaps President Obama wanted to protect his foreign policy bona fides for the upcoming elections, but those are far enough away, and the two wars we’re already engaged in are unpopular enough, that it’s a less-than-even bet that this is the case. Apart from humanitarian concerns, therefore, I just don’t see an explanation that makes any sense.

This is not to say that the intervention is a good idea on the merits—far from it. There are many questions and precious few answers about the thinking (or lack thereof) that went into the decision, as Adam Garfinkle points out elsewhere in our pages. It’s just that there’s probably nothing more sinister afoot than a military intervention wholly in service to humanitarian goals. (And that’s plenty bad enough!)

The other problem with the criticism epitomized by Greenwald and Robinson is that it perversely allows liberal interventionists to sound reasonable without grappling with the shakiness of their core principles. “Of course we’d love to do something about Bahrain and Yemen,” they say, “but geopolitical constraints being what they are, we can only do so much. If we could we would! But tackling a bad guy Qaddafi, let’s not forget, is a good in itself.” Until these kinds of arguments are met head-on, we can expect to hear them voiced every time the opportunity presents itself. What follows, therefore, is a rough attempt to lay out an honest challenge to the liberal interventionist:

1) State-sponsored mass killing is a great evil, but more often than not, it is a product of politics. The failure to adequately account for this ugly fact is the single biggest flaw in interventionist thinking. Samantha Power’s well-researched and grippingly written account of genocide in the 20th century, A Problem from Hell, is notable for how assiduously it manages to brush off these kinds of concerns. To take two examples: Saddam’s genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds was criminally bestial and inexcusable, but lurking behind Saddam’s actions was the Kurds’ long-stated desire to secede from Iraq; and Milosevic’s and Karadzic’s aggressive expansionist campaigns mercilessly wiped out entire communities, but it’s far from clear that Bosnia had any kind of peaceful future outside the framework of Yugoslavia.

Genocides are like horrible little snowflakes, each one unique in its own way. Their qualities must inform how we deal with them. The interventionist’s dogged adherence to the post-Holocaust “never again” screed is therefore quite dangerous. Though not all genocides are Hitlerian in their devotion to pure ideology, the interventionist puts the moral obligation above other political considerations: “genocide is an absolute evil that must be stopped if at all possible.” The no-fly zone over northern Iraq stopped the slaughter of the Kurds, but it punted on their national question. Our subsequent involvement in deposing Saddam and the costly rebuilding of Iraq are still a mere band-aid over that long-suffering nation (one that incidentally cost tens of thousands of additional Iraqi lives). The Dayton Accords for Bosnia were comparatively cheap to come by, costing us a couple billion dollars in reconstruction aid, and the flight of a couple hundred thousand Serbian civilians from Croatian territory (the majority of which never returned). But even after 15 years of peace and mediation, Bosnia is far from at peace with itself, and threatens to unleash demons on the region once again as it continues to fray.

Counterfactual tallies of victims who would have perished had we not acted as we did are both impossible to arrive at and in poor taste. What is clear, however, is that most advocates of humanitarian intervention still do not clearly reckon with the likely costs of the wars they advocate, largely because they refuse to take into account uncomfortable political realities and the ways those realities play out afterwards. It makes sense, therefore, that Qaddafi’s truculent threats to terminate the rebellion in Benghazi with extreme prejudice caught the ear of Samantha Power’s contingent at the NSC with an irresistibly shrill pitch. And it’s no surprise that you have people like Jonathan Chait glibly claiming that getting rid of Qaddafi will be done “at a reasonable cost,” and people like Max Boot only belatedly realizing that even our preferred outcome in Libya carries outsized risks.

2) We should always do what we can to deter genocide, but we must never think it wise to pre-empt it. Speaking of counterfactuals, pre-emptive intervention carries all sorts of problems centering around intentionality, most of which are unresolvable. We will never be able to prove the true intentions of an actor if he in fact is not allowed to act. This does not mean, of course, that we should sit idly by as a regime shows signs of menacing its population. Power’s book is an exhaustive catalogue of opportunities throughout the decades that American statesmen and legislators missed to threaten and cajole bloody-minded governments. Her argument, that this kind of humanitarian bullying has not been adequately tried, is quite convincing. Nevertheless, even a stated intent to massacre an opposition in defeat shouldn’t be cause enough for military intervention. In the case of Libya, intervening as we have before Qaddafi did his worst leaves us justifying our policy with all sort of weak, second-order arguments about Qaddafi’s threat to his neighbors and to the Arab Spring.

3) Client states usually get the better of their patrons. This one’s as old as history itself, but it tends to get lost on people as their moral certitude increases. Afghanistan is the canonical example here—a borderland that has successfully milked its wealthy and powerful protector empires for money and resources by playing on their fears and insecurities. The fabled Great Game can be understood as an entire procession of Afghan rulers playing the British off against the Russians, and there’s more than a hint of that same dynamic in place today. More recently, Russia and the United States nearly came to blows in the Caucasus, as the Ossetian separatist movement compelled Russia to intervene in Georgia, a country with irrationally exuberant supporters in the United States. Though in the case of Afghanistan the illusion is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain, the overriding sentiment in the patron state is that we’re fighting on behalf of “the good guys” against an oppressor, whereas the calculus for the client state is that it is trying to maximally improve its standing. The lessons for our Libyan incursion are manifest.

4) “Responsibility to Protect” is a nebulous norm which is easy to exploit. Speaking of Georgia and South Ossetia, the Russians have taken great pleasure in defending their incursion into Georgia by saying that the Ossetian minority was in danger of being overrun by an oppressive central government. You don’t have to buy the Russian argument to find the norm troubling, however. We shy away from providing a discrete number of casualties which would upgrade an atrocity to a genocide (lest a violator keep his killing just below that number); however, by not specifying an explicit threshold we set up a system in which powerful states can intervene pretty much at will (especially when the premise of pre-emption is accepted). One can argue that this is not much of a concern either way, as powerful states will do as they please, arriving at retroactive explanations for their actions. But a strong believer in norms needs to figure how to square this circle, because Responsibility to Protect only legitimately “works” if you have near-omniscient knowledge of all the actors’ motivations and intentions.

These are but four jabs at the problems inherent in liberal interventionism. Neoconservatives, being as they’re surer of the infallibility and inherent goodness of the United States no matter how it acts, are less likely to be troubled by some of these points than others. No matter. It’s most important that the argument against the current war does not hinge merely on the inconsistency of the interventionist argument (if Libya, then why not Yemen?). Unless the rationales for interventionism are debated on their own terms, the next time, with even less prudent leadership, we may find ourselves in Yemen, Bahrain, Côte d’Ivoire, and several other places beyond my current imagination.