Five Bad Arguments Against Humanitarian Intervention

The question of humanitarian intervention is complicated even if we pretend it is not.

NATO bombs a Serbian ammunition depot in Bosnia, 1995

A U.S.-led humanitarian intervention in Syria remains unlikely, even as sanctions intensify and the Free Syrian Army’s struggle against the al-Assad regime increasingly resembles a civil war.  China and Russia recently vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution against the regime, true to Russia’s word.  The veto, along with ongoing carnage in Homs, has refocused the world’s attention on the savagery in Syria.

America’s military will likely remain on the sidelines this time.  Despite what its March intervention in Libya might suggest, America remains averse to armed conflict.  Many favorable circumstances surrounded the Libya foray; these are absent in Syria. So emerges the difficult question: do we intervene?

Robert Pape’s nuanced New York Times op-ed establishes a potentially useful rule, or at least a significant independent variable, for determining the viability of humanitarian intervention: control by opposition forces of a large region of the country.  This condition was met in Libya, he writes; in Syria, the extent of the Free Syrian Army’s foothold remains unclear for now.

That Pape opposes humanitarian intervention in Syria (for now) does not make him unusual: see my earlier post on this matter.  What makes him unusual is that he does so intelligently.

Below are five much less intelligent but much more common ways to oppose humanitarian intervention.

1.      Recalling That the United States Has Done Bad Things Before

“What about the Native Americans?  What about Vietnam and Cambodia?  What about slavery?  What about Abu Ghraib?”

Good questions.  What about them?  Would you have opposed moving to stop those atrocities or not?  If so, then you’re categorically opposed to humanitarian intervention.  If not, then you support it sometimes and need to explain why you oppose it in this case, as Pape does.  If you’re just bringing these episodes up in order to question America’s right to impose humanitarian intervention elsewhere, then remember that many of America’s past crimes are crimes of passivity.  What about Rwanda?  What about Darfur?  If you believe these outrages should have been prevented (and know of a country without sin that can cast the first Tomahawk in America’s stead), speak up now.

2.      Pointing Out That the United States Does Not Intervene Every Time Bad Things Happen

“What about North Korea?  What about Zimbabwe?  What about Saudi Arabia?”

Pointing out that we do not consistently invade or not invade every unhappy place on earth does not, on its own, constitute an argument against humanitarian intervention.  The question, then, is why these other cases are being raised.  If they are being raised to argue that the United States should never intervene abroad, period, then so be it: Rwanda and Cambodia are our success stories.  If the point is that the United States always should, then more interventions are being argued for, not less.  If neither of the above points is being made, as is usually the case, then no point is being made at all.

3.      Grumbling That the United States Has Ulterior Motives

OK, I take that back.  Someone might also bring up other unsavory regimes to make a different point: that the United States is hypocritical for seeking to bring down one evil regime while it protects, arms, and funds others.  This is a sound argument for some purposes, but not for opposing a given instance of humanitarian intervention.  No country needs impeccable moral credentials in order to do the right thing today, and no country will ever have them.

Alternatively, it might be argued that while the intervention is the right thing to do, we are doing it for the wrong reasons (often “oil” or “imperialism”).  This also does not delegitimize the intervention itself.

4.      Warning That Things Will Go Wrong

As Pape shows, this argument can be made well.  Having researched the role of air power in the past, he writes that it “alone would probably not be sufficient to blunt the Assad loyalists entrenched in cities, and a heavy ground campaign would probably face stiff and bloody resistance.”  It is true that, unlike Qaddafi’s vulnerable and isolated attack force, al-Assad’s forces are difficult to bomb.

To be credible, though, this argument must come with an acknowledgement that nothing about the future is certain, and that inaction has its own consequences.  Syria is no exception to this rule: civilians will die with or without an intervention, and the international community is responsible both for what it does and for what it does not do.

5.      Eye-rolling

This is an easy one, and you don’t need to know anything to do it.  Most opposition to humanitarian intervention takes this form.

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10 thoughts on “Five Bad Arguments Against Humanitarian Intervention

  1. Sumukh Atreya says:

    I agree to a certain extent with your point that when people say “that the United States is hypocritical for seeking to bring down one evil regime while it protects, arms, and funds others” as an argument against humanitarian intervention, it is flawed because it doesn’t matter what the motive for intervention is. However, it can affect the type of intervention the US provides. For example, if two regimes X and Y are fighting for power and that it is in the best interest of the US to support regime X (for whatever ulterior motive, say oil or imperialism as you mentioned earlier), the US will respond with intervention that is most effective to overthrow regime Y, even if it is excessively harsh or violent, since it would be in the best interest of both regime X and the US to do so. Using such drastic measures, may cause severe collateral damage (excessive civilian deaths etc.) thus making the intervention not so ‘humanitarian’. Of course there are cases where excessive civilian death is unavoidable. Each possible intervention strategy, in my opinion, should be carefully weighed out and the least harmful one implemented. It all depends on the situation, though.

    • boazmunro says:

      Hi Sumukh,

      Thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting.

      My post doesn’t really deal with how interventions go once they start, it just deals with the decision to intervene or not. Of course the United States has engaged in inhumane interventions (Cambodia during the Vietnam war, Iran 1953, and others), but none of the inhumane ones that come to mind for me were ever touted as humanitarian. Also, by writing about “humanitarian interventions” specifically I’m talking exclusively about interventions that come in response (at least ostensibly) to massive civilian death, either ongoing or imminent. In other words, their motives are humanitarian, even if their implementation is not. Having said that, though, I can’t think of many of our past “humanitarian interventions” that ended up inflicting massive civilian damage. Our interference in the Iran-Iraq War, for example, or either of the Gulf Wars, or Vietnam, or Ronald Reagan’s poorly-conceived invasion of Lebanon, would not fall into this category. They existed to serve our strategic interests, not to protect civilians.

      One way to think of humanitarian interventions would be as those interventions that would not have taken place without a dire humanitarian crisis. It’s hard for me to imagine that the Obama administration would have sent forces to help NATO bomb Libya had Qaddafi’s rhetoric been a little less genocidal.

      I’m also trying to argue–near the end of the post–that not intervening is not always equal to doing the least harm. One of the most interesting and controversial dilemmas of being a superpower when to exercise the power you have.

      Thanks again for reading!

      • Sumukh Atreya says:

        I agree with you when you say that the US has engaged in plenty of inhumane interventions whose motives have not been humanitarian but for self interest. and yes, it does seem unlikely that Obama would have interevened in Libya were it not for the genocide. But what I suspect is, given the possibility that it is in the best interest of the US to end Qaddafi’s regime (for whatever non humanitarian reason), the US might have used the most efficient form of intervention, not the most effective form of intervention.

        Also, have there really been any prolonged wars in which there hasn’t been a humanitarian crisis? What I mean is intervention in Libya might have been inevitable considering Qaddafi’s rhetoric and the US and allies just capitalised on the rebellion.

    • boazmunro says:

      I’m not sure what you mean when you distinguish between efficient and effective interventions. Do you mean most geared toward regime change and not toward protecting the residents of Benghazi?

      And of course nearly every war involves some kind of human/civilian toll (some more than others), but I consider “humanitarian intervention” as a reference to those interventions which, at least officially, are directly precipitated by the theat or knowledge of deliberate mass murder of civilians. So the distinction I made in the last comment is not between wars with civilian losses and wars without them, but between conflicts whose civilian costs compel the involvement of third-party states and conflicts whose civilian costs do not.

      • Sumukh Atreya says:

        Yes, that is what I mean by efficient vs. effective.

        For the second point, yes, I agree with you. If we’re just talking about reasons to implement humanitarian intervention and not the method of implementation, then motive doesn’t matter.

  2. Sumukh Atreya says:

    *Or rather, ulterior motive as you pointed out in your oiginal argument.

  3. […] I criticized Marwa Daoudy’s argument against military intervention in Syria, and on February 6 I rebuked common arguments against humanitarian intervention generally.  While this choice of topics may suggest a certain […]

  4. Kael says:

    FYI Rwanda was not a success story for the US, it was a disaster that led the the UN apologising for not acting earlier in 1999. More people died per day in Rwanda than they did in the same time frame at the height of the Holocaust. By the time the mandate passed to increased troop numbers by the security council the additional troops were deployed a month after the mandate passed (as countries like the US was reluctant to supply troops) by then the Rwanda genocide had stopped on its own.

    To claim the reasons for intervention do not matter is so wrong. It does matter that a country can pick and choose who it will help based on national interests especially when it is a country whose foundations was built on freedom, equality and the right to choose. Its called hypocrisy and can create distrust from other nations, especially allies who you do not want to put off.

    • boazmunro says:

      Hi Kael,

      Maybe my writing in this post wasn’t clear–when I write that “Rwanda and Cambodia are our success stories” I mean IF our definition of success is refusing to intervene. I don’t agree with that position. I agree with you in this case–the Rwandan genocide was allowed to happen by United States and the international community. If that’s not a failure, I don’t know what is.

      Thanks for reading!

  5. […] I try to temper that impulse. I sift through the uninformed grumbling that saturates my corner of the Internet in search of nuggets of well-reasoned caution.  They […]

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