Starting from Basic Principles

Writing that piece about Libya put me in mind of a piece I flagged months ago but never did anything with.

“First, Do No Harm” is the title of the second piece I thought of on Friday, a 2010 essay from analyst David Reiff in The New Republic. Reiff also went from being a liberal/humanitarian interventionist to a skeptic of intervention altogether, and he addresses the question of whether the US has an obligation to aid people who are suffering in places like Darfur, Iraq, Syria, etc. head on:

How can anti-interventionists pay so little heed to the views of the victims? It is a fair question. I would respond first as an American: I do not want my country to be the world’s policeman, even in the most humane sense of that word. It seems to me that assuming this role has been a disaster for the United States. As W. H. Seward said in his eulogy to John Quincy Adams, “democracies are prone to war, and war consumes them.” For make no mistake, these military interventions on humanitarian or human rights grounds are wars, not armed philanthropy. Sorry, the military-industrial complex is no myth. Our power to intervene in Darfur is inextricably linked to other elements of our hegemony, and to the militarization of our society and our economy. Like it or not, support for the former, no matter how high-minded, idealistic, and compassionate (unlike some, I have never doubted the moral sincerity of the liberal interventionists), entails the perpetuation of the latter.

Not intervening at all feels impotent and callous. The desire to Do Something is powerful both for people who see war as the only answer when confronted with perceived threats to American interests and for the “Responsibility to Protect” crowd, people who want America to alleviate humanitarian suffering by force, if necessary. Obviously real threats need to be countered, but the definition of a “threat” and of “American interests” always seems pretty broad. On the other hand, I sympathize with the humanitarian interventionists and kind of used to be one of them myself back before I’d really started thinking about these issues. But now I believe that, as in bioethics, there’s a powerful case to be made that “first, do no harm” should be the guiding principle behind all foreign interventions.

No matter how noble a particular intervention may seem on paper, the act of intervening itself taps into the worst elements of militarism, expansionism, and colonialism. It’s never “neutral” and never benign; it’s always meant to influence a particular outcome. It also sets the US up as the global arbiter of right and wrong, and this inevitably has consequences that we never even see coming. Foreign intervention on behalf of one group today sets up some other group to be victimized tomorrow, once people have stopped caring. Intervening in Kosovo to stop Serbians from ethnically cleansing Kosovar Albanians allowed the Kosovar Albanians to turn around and ethnically cleanse the Serbs. Nobody seems to have seen that coming, and when it did come, Kosovo’s 15 minutes of fame had long passed and nobody was paying attention anymore.

Reiff, for all his skepticism, does believe that the US should have intervened to stop the Rwandan genocide in 1994, yet he also has to acknowledge that the victims of that genocide, the Tutsi, later took control of Rwanda and then launched an equally destructive (despite the fact that they got rid of Mobutu) series of wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, next door. Those wars in turn were probably made more destructive, and less decisive, because of further Western intervention. And the little Western intervention that did take place during the Rwanda genocide wound up actually protecting the Hutu génocidaires. Would more, earlier Western intervention have led to a better, more stable Rwanda and DRC today? Maybe, but I’d feel more confident about saying that if anybody could point me to the example of a truly successful humanitarian military intervention.

The first Google result in a search for “successful humanitarian intervention” is another TNR piece, by Isaac Chotiner in 2013, titled “N+1 Is Wrong. There Have Been Successful Humanitarian Interventions.” I like Isaac Chotiner’s writing, but he fails to stick the landing here. After scoffing at the notion that World War II wasn’t a humanitarian war (which seems strange to me–the war certainly had a huge moral dimension to it, but the US jumped into it because of Pearl Harbor, not the Holocaust). The closest Chotiner comes to highlighting a successful humanitarian intervention is India’s intervention in the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. This may well be the one case in point, since it stopped the Pakistani army’s genocide in then-East Pakistan. But India intervened no so much for humanitarian reasons as because of its ongoing conflict with Pakistan and its need to stem the flow of Bangladeshi refugees streaming across the border. Can that be analogized to the case of a global power intervening in a local conflict? I’m skeptical that it can

Before we even really get to the question of whether it’s possible for a great power to carry out a successful humanitarian intervention, we have to decide whether or not great powers, or any other nations, can be trusted to determine what the “humanitarian” course of action ought to be. As I noted above, the US watched the Holocaust happen and only involved itself in the war in response to a direct attack. Which isn’t a terribly humanitarian-minded approach. Like India, the US also intervened in the Bangladesh Liberation War–on the side of the Pakistanis who were doing the genociding. Cold War considerations outweighed humanitarian ones in that case. If you’re going to entrust states with the power to decide when it’s morally right to intervene militarily, don’t you first have to demonstrate that states are capable of making moral choices?

I’m not saying that humanitarian intervention is necessarily bad in every single case (I’m also not not saying that). And certainly with the benefit of hindsight you can go back and pick apart just about anything. I’m also not saying that we should ignore or downplay the very real suffering that’s happening in Syria or elsewhere. But I think we have enough of a historical record now to say that even if the principle of humanitarian intervention shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, our bias should be toward staying out of other nations’ events, and there should be a heavy burden on those who support a particular intervention to demonstrate why it will work this time.

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