The Future of Humanitarian Intervention

>> Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Reading the NYT online i came across an article by Princeton's Gary J. Bass on the probability of future humanitarian intervention. This is something i have thought about as well. Professor Bass' article is not so concerned with providing a definite answer or speculation about the future as it is with highlighting the history of humanitarian interventions by the West. Professor Bass appears to suggest that future humanitarian intervention is likely despite the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The thesis of the argument seems to be that others in the West are interested in humanitarian interventions and that the US is more than willing to help. There are two key blocks of text that reveal Bass' opinion about the future.

...But do the humanitarian interventions typified by America’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo have a future? Even as Darfur bleeds, Iraq has become a grim object lesson in the dangers of foreign adventures. The former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright recently wrote that “many of the world’s necessary interventions in the decade before the invasion [of Iraq] — in places like Haiti and the Balkans — would seem impossible in today’s climate.”

And yet somehow the idea of humanitarian intervention remains intact. In the 2000 presidential race, both George W. Bush and Al Gore said they would not have intervened to halt the genocide in Rwanda. But today, John McCain says the United States has an obligation to stop genocide when it can do so effectively, and Barack Obama has made genocide prevention a signature issue. He has surrounded himself with advisers haunted by America’s failure to stop the Rwandan genocide and regularly calls for saving Darfur.

...Humanitarian intervention, in other words, is not the property of the United States or the generation of liberal hawks who championed Balkan interventions in the 1990s. For better or worse, it is best understood as an idea that’s common to the big democracies on both sides of the Atlantic. Canada has promoted the principle of an international “responsibility to protect” endangered civilians. Europe has a fresh crop of foreign ministers who — following their 19th-century predecessors — support humanitarian intervention: Bernard Kouchner of France argued for delivering aid to cyclone victims in Myanmar by force if necessary, and David Miliband of Britain championed the faltering United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur on a February trip to Beijing. And in Berlin, Barack Obama won German cheers and applause by saying, “The genocide in Darfur shames the conscience of us all.”

Back on July 29 I wrote an entry entitled, Will the US Nation Build Again After Iraq? The focus of which was considering the history of US nation building and our propensity to do it after Iraq. Humanitarian intervention and nation building may not be precisely the same thing. Nation building requires a decades long commitment to build capital and infrastructure in a country. Humanitarian intervention is a short term commitment to end genocide. Here is what i wrote about the prospect of future nation building.

The current dark mood of the American people regarding our foreign entanglements seems almost like the precursor for a return to isolationism. It would not be that surprising to see the American people demand that we pull back from the current worldwide spread of our military to lick our wounds and rebuild our treasury. I doubt we will see a return to the isolationism of the 20’s and 30’s since the post war culture and economy make it hard for a country to retreat inside its borders. Our policy of world wide assertiveness has been so ingrained that it is hard to imagine the US functioning any other way but if there is an event that could trigger a pull back Iraq is it.

It is true that Barack Obama has made a big point of talking about Darfur and doing something about it. However, I find it difficult to believe that there will be the public will to commit troops to Darfur as we are extracting them from Iraq. Obama has also promised troop and material increases for Afghanistan and committing men to Darfur may undercut that. Despite his best intentions, President Obama would be severely limited in his ability to use military forces in Darfur.

In contrast, I doubt Sen. McCain would commit troops to Darfur. It might seem counterintuitive as McCain has been very bellicose in his foriegn policy rhetoric, but McCain has so many other targets for our military including Iran and Iraq and Afghanistan that there are not enough troops to send to Darfur. McCain says

the United States has an obligation to stop genocide when it can do so effectively

Darfur, under McCain's current commitment, would simply not fit that model.

Another reason i see America limiting our humanitarian interventions in the future is that there are a number of other high profile challenges in the world. The conflict in Georgia has highlighted Russia's resurgence in that part of the world presenting the possibility of a more threatening challenge. The US has too much on its plate right now to consider engaging in Darfur. When the US embarked on the interventions during the 90's it was under the post cold war idea that we could do whatever we wanted as the lone superpower. Those days are over.

The interventions of the 90's were almost side projects. They were something for the US to do. Even under these circumstances we were not willing to take casualties as the events in Somalia demonstrated. Is it likely that we have a higher tolerance after Iraq? No. Clinton was totally unwilling to enter the conflict in Rwanda despite the obviousness of the Genocide. We were reluctant to even name it "genocide" because then we would look bad for not intervening.

I do not foresee a slew of humanitarian interventions in the US future. We may not have learned any lessons from Iraq about not engaging in them but i feel at this point we are just not in a position to execute them. The truth is that they are just not as high a priority as going after terrorists in Afghanistan/Pakistan or rebuilding the military and treasury.


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