Humanitarian military intervention

2007 11 25
Recently watched: The Devil Came on Horseback

In 2004, ex-Marine Brian Steidle signed up for a stint as an African Union observer in the Darfur region of Sudan, where he ended up a first hand witness to the genocide there. When he left, he took with him a large number of photographs of victims of atrocities and a sense of enormous frustration at his inability to do anything more than document the devastation. A Nicholas Kristoff column about his work and his pictures catapulted him into national prominence, getting him into meetings with Condi Rice, Congressional hearings, and onto a host of television programs. Later, he returned to Chad to work on further documenting the plight of villagers displaced by the brutal campaign against them in Darfur. Back in the United States again, he toured the country trying to raise awareness of the issue.

The Devil Came on Horseback follows Steidle through all this, and it does a superb, if extremely upsetting, job of documenting the genocide. But in spite of Steidle’s relentless emphasis on what to do about Darfur, the documentary seems to me much weaker on larger questions about how outsiders can play a constructive role in Sudan. Steidle appears to have little doubt that a military intervention there to prevent further attacks is a moral imperative, at one point remarking that if his camera lens had been a scope he might have destroyed a jeep of fleeing soldiers and allowed terrorized villagers to return to their village. This is, I think, a very human and understandable response to the sort of brutality Steidle witnessed. But I am not convinced it is the wisest. I have no idea what to do about Darfur, just hard questions for anyone pushing military intervention as a solution there.

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2007 01 04

Matthew Yglesias catches Jacob Weisberg throwing the example of Kosovo around without, apparently, having read anything about it recently. I had the same reaction when I read Weisberg’s piece the other day, but apathy overwhelmed me before I could blog about it.

Anyway, I confess that I haven’t read much about Kosovo recently either, but then again it’s not my job to write columns citing Kosovo as an example of Liberal Hawkery’s Greatest Triumph. My impression, for the very little it’s worth, is that Kosovo is still quite a mess in a lot of ways that ought to interest the hell out of liberal interventionists, since the case just might contain clues about the limits of military humanitarian intervention. Alas, another impression of mine, again for what it’s worth, is that very few liberal interventionists bother to do this sort of work.

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2006 08 18
Kosovo and Iraq

John Quiggin is mulling over his past support of the Kosovo Intervention in the light of the Iraq War.  I think he makes several good points, which overlap with thoughts I’ve had on the subject for a while now. 

I think Kosovo presented a difficult case.  But it seems pretty clear in retrospect that Kosovo established precedents that later became an important part of the story of the Iraq War, which is, I think, an unambiguous failure.   

That is really one of the hidden – or at least, less noticed – costs of the Kosovo Intervention.   Of course, this point doesn’t establish anything by itself.  Perhaps it was worth it all the same.  Nevertheless, I think that anyone who supports the Kosovo Intervention in retrospect needs to meet this concern directly.

This is all connected to a more general complaint I have about a some of the more gung-ho flavours of military humanitarian intervention out there.  There is, I think, a real reluctance to acknowledge the full costs of any sort of military exercise.  Even an apparently successful intervention such as the one in Kosovo, for example, may pave the way for future disasters.  Even an apparently successful intervention will lead to environmental destruction.  War militarizes a society; dulls it to certain sorts of violence; normalizes that violence.  War costs enormous amounts of money, money which is not only diverted from worthy projects, but – and I think this is extremely important – is diverted into the creation and maintenance of economies that need more war to survive.  Every missile fired into Kosovo needed to be replaced.  The replacement was surely a great boon to whatever community did the replacing, but that community became thereby that much more dependent on war, that much more addicted to its role in meeting the demands of war. 

Against all this, we need to weigh the humanitarian objectives of a war, along with many other things, such as probability of success, and so on.  So – again – this is only the opening move in what would need to be a long argument about any war.  But for now if the gung-ho types can think a bit harder about the vast range of costs associated with war I’ll be very happy.

Howls of outrage (2)

2006 05 10
The Euston Manifesto on humanitarian intervention

I wanted to write something long and thoughtful here about the Euston Manifesto, but I keep running out of time, so perhaps it’s best just to go at it piecemeal when the mood strikes.

Today, Norm responds to the criticism that the Manifesto is crypto-imperialist and crypto-colonialist:

The support for the aforementioned interventions [i.e., in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq] by the people Wheatcroft is talking about was based on human rights and just war considerations, not on empire-building ones. Indeed, the very principles informing that support rule out support for imperialism, even a putatively ‘progressive’ imperialism. Self-determination and political independence for all peoples is one of the basic rights we Eustonians defend.

[. . .]

There’s a difference between an imperial project that seeks to build an empire ruled by a superpower, and an internationalist politics that regards human rights as universal and inviolable – and, beyond a certain threshold of human suffering, as rendering the claim to national sovereignty forfeit and justifying outside intervention.

I think a lot of the criticism (and defence) of the Euston Manifesto has been heated in an unproductive way, so I’ll try to stick to being heated in productive ways.

Whatever the merits of Wheatcroft’s argument, I think there is something to the worry that the Euston Manifesto, and the larger political movement it’s a part of (the so-called Decent left), plays unwittingly into an imperialist project. The movement would be stronger, and its defence of its core principles far more convincing, if it took more care to avoid that, or at least its appearance.

For now, just let me illustrate that with the Euston Manifesto’s position on humanitarian intervention:

Humanitarian intervention, when necessary, is not a matter of disregarding sovereignty, but of lodging this properly within the “common life” of all peoples. If in some minimal sense a state protects the common life of its people (if it does not torture, murder and slaughter its own civilians, and meets their most basic needs of life), then its sovereignty is to be respected. But if the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue. Once a threshold of inhumanity has been crossed, there is a “responsibility to protect”.

I think this is easily read as a very strong, or even absolute, claim about the necessity to intervene in such circumstances, but Norm later clarified the point that, on his understanding at least, this paragraph identifies only a prima facie duty to intervene.

Either way, two things seem to be missing here. First, it seems to me that the main theoretical challenge facing a proponent of military humanitarian intervention today is to specify restrictions on the parties who may legitimately intervene in such circumstances. The document vaguely gestures at the international community as the relevant actors, but in practice, of course, it’s rarely that simple. It’s typically powerful, and highly imperfect, actors with agendas of their own – agendas which may well conflict with the very goals set by the humanitarian intervention. This was the point of my repeatedly asking, back in the day, whether Iran would be justified in invading Iraq on a humanitarian pretext (the obvious answer being “no”). Failing to address this problem in any serious way really helps provide ideological window dressing to an imperialist project in retrospect (Iraq), and to God only knows what imperialist projects in prospect (Syria? Iran?).

The second (related) thing missing is some recognition that the view of humanitarian intervention set down here was very recently cynically misused by the U.S. to defend it’s imperialist project in Iraq. This does not mean that there is necessarily anything wrong with the principles articulated in the EM. But it seems to me that the practical problem currently facing any defender of these principles is to try to detach in some way what is valuable in the principles from their recent and very cynical abuse in the defence of an imperialist project. Failing to address this problem in any serious way really does contribute to the appearance that what is going on here is a sly defence of an imperialist project.

Now look. I accept that this is just a manifesto, that it doesn’t have time to spell out every little point, and that it was formulated very broadly at some points in an attempt to find common ground among very different views. But still. The bloody thing has room for a paragraph on open source software (which is great!!!), so it should damn well have made room for these points. At least, if I were interested in trying to reach out to the rest of the left in defence of this view of humanitarian intervention, I would be very anxious to a) demonstrate some recognition that the issue of intervention requires serious thought about interveners as well as intervenees, and b) distinguish myself very clearly from people who have given some of my views a very bad name. Cause there are lots of decent, well-intentioned people here on the left who get awfully jumpy now when we hear this stuff.

Now you could deny that the U.S. project in Iraq was an imperialist project. But you’d be wrong, and that would be another way you could be accused of supporting an imperialist project. At any rate, there’s more to be said on this point, particularly the way that the EM frames the occupation of Iraq. But I’m really tired now, and this post is sloppy enough as it is.

Howls of outrage (10)

2005 05 04
Justifications, ad hoc and otherwise

If you can believe it, people are still arguing about how prominent the humanitarian justification for the Iraq War was prior to the war. There’s a lot to be said here, but I’m not going to say it. Rather, let my modest contribution to this debate be simply to point out that there is a big difference between offering a humanitarian justification for a war and actually fighting a humanitarian war. The former has been an important part of selling wars for an awfully long time, including, e.g., the Spanish conquest of the New World (souls were apparently saved on that occasion, you know). The latter – a rare, rare beast indeed – has a very special character. That’s because if it’s genuine, the goals shape the conduct of the war in all kinds of ways.

My modest suggestion, then, is that even if Bush and Blair had sold their respective publics on the war entirely on humanitarian grounds, the war itself would still not have received a proper public defence. Because whatever the justifications offered for this war publicly, the war itself had goals that were not primarily humanitarian, and those goals have shaped the character of the war and the occupation. They have meant that whatever was argued for, what was delivered was far from a humanitarian war. Rather, we got a war with some decent humanitarian results, mixed in with an awful lot of suffering. Please see my take on the occupation to see what difference I think this makes.

So although trying to nail down precisely how much pre-war weight Bush publicly gave to the humanitarian justification for war is a worthwhile project for some purposes, and I wish the people doing this the best of luck, even the best case for Bush on this count still has him offering a dishonest argument for the war he waged.

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2004 07 19
Mass graves

The latest fuss is about Tony Blair’s claim that 400,000 mass graves have already been uncovered in Iraq, when in fact “only” about 5000 have been so far uncovered. Kevin Drum has this to say:

I suppose the politically correct stance is that murder is murder, and quibbling over numbers doesn’t change the fact that Saddam was a monster. Which is true enough.

But the fact is that, yes, it does matter, in at least two ways. First, it matters because part of the humanitarian case against Saddam was that he was not merely a garden variety nasty dictator, he was arguably the #1 nastiest dictator on the planet. If he wasn’t, it does weaken the emotional case for intervention, just as very high numbers strengthen the case for intervention in the proto-genocide currently taking place in Darfur.

Second, and perhaps more important, is the question of whether Tony Blair (and apparently the U.S. government as well) flatly lied about this. This was not a case of intelligence estimates, after all, it was a categorical statement that 400,000 bodies had actually been found by actual troops digging up actual graves. How could he have been off by a factor of 80x?

Needless to say, this wouldn’t matter if it were the only exaggeration surrounding the war. But it’s not. There was no WMD, no collaboration with al-Qaeda, no 45-minute missiles, no mobile bioweapons labs, no regional military threat, and now it turns out that even the humanitarian case wasn’t as clear cut as they suggested.

Is there anything left that these guys told the truth about?

It’s important to be fussy in demanding that politicians stick to the truth when they make claims of this sort and of this importance. Failure to complain makes it that much easier to stray from the truth the next time around. But I really wish that Drum had meditated a bit more on this post before he hit “publish”. Indeed, it’s almost surreal to watch Drum go from this point to raising the possibility that “even the humanitarian case wasn’t as clear cut as they suggested.”

There is abundant evidence that tens of thousands, and perhaps even hundreds of thousands died during (or as a result of) the uprisings in the South at the end of the Gulf War. U.S. fighter pilots watched overhead as Iraqi helicopters poured napalm over large groups of people. The carnage was documented well enough that we don’t need the confirmation of bodies dug up from mass graves to know that many people died. See, for example, the documents on human rights watch’s website, the testimony of survivors, or simply observe the condition of the South by the time the U.S. military invaded. The South had been brutalized, and Saddam Hussein had almost achieved his goal of draining the Southern marshes in order to forever deny his enemies in the South a sanctuary if the fighting resumed.

All this has been established, and moreover established by human rights groups which are extremely critical of the Bush and Blair administrations, and so don’t have the ideological axe to grind which might lead them to inflate their estimates.

Also, there’s an easy explanation for how Blair might have been so wrong. It’s entirely possible that 400,000 people were killed by the regime since the Gulf War. The mass graves that have been so far discovered provide some further evidence for those killings. Blair might simply have mixed these up. I don’t have a high opinion of Blair’s personal integrity, but that doesn’t mean that everything that comes out of his mouth is a nasty lie.

The humanitarian argument for the Iraq War fails – or so I have argued repeatedly. But it doesn’t fail because Saddam Hussein has turned out to be a sadly misunderstood guy. That judgment isn’t up for revision simply because Blair misdescribed one piece of evidence, or even if he lied.


Howls of outrage (2)

2004 04 14
Kristof on Sudan

He’s exactly right:

I’m not suggesting an invasion of Sudan. But it’s a fallacy to think that just because we can’t do everything to stop genocide, we shouldn’t do anything. One of the lessons of the last week is how little it took � from Washington, the U.N. and the African Union � to nudge Sudan into accepting a cease-fire and pledging access for humanitarian workers.

What’s striking here is how wildly different the costs-to-lives-saved/improved ratio is compared to the costs-to-lives-saved/improved ratio in Iraq. I’m not saying that the lives of Iraqis are any less valuable. Just that if you really care about improving the world, one of the things you’ll keep an eye on is how best to allocate your resources when you’re doing it.

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2004 04 06
The practical effect of hypocrisy

Before the war, many people said that it was admittedly bad that the U.S. had been complicit in some of Saddam Hussein’s misdeeds during the 80s, but that that wasn’t an argument against invasion. It would be perverse, they argued, to insist that the main actor in the circumstances have clean hands when such a great opportunity to do good was at hand. To think this way was to resign ourselves to perpetual inaction, since the world is, alas, a desperately imperfect place. We can’t be so choosy. We have to take our interventions against great evil where we can get them.

As I’ve pointed out, I’m not sure that the same commentators would have been so sanguine if the intervener had been Iran, but set that aside. I do think that there is some real merit in this general line of thought. But one of its many flaws when applied to Iraq started irritating me again the other day. It is this: An important part of reconstructing Iraq was always going to be a full and honest airing of grievances about the crimes of the past. One of the problems with American interveners is that they simply will not allow this. If Americans, and especially their political leadership, haven’t the stomach to really examine American complicity with Saddam Hussein’s regime, then it’s pretty obvious they won’t be able to get behind the far harder effort to help Iraqis confront their own demons in a way that won’t tear the country apart.

The point is sort of a moot one lately, since the idea that things will soon be quiet enough to start dealing with the past is pretty absurd. Still, this is something that I wish proponents of the war for humanitarian reasons had given a bit more thought to.

Howls of outrage (2)

2004 04 03
A very quick note on the humanitarian rationale for the Iraq war

If you care about humanitarian intervention in general – that is, if you want to establish norms of humanitarian intervention that are useful and respected, so that we can fall back on them when terrible circumstances warrant intervention – then you might take note of what the Iraq war has done to the very notion of humanitarian intervention.

As a believer in humanitarian intervention in some circumstances myself, I have a serious interest in seeing credible and widely adopted international norms coalesce around the notion. Alas, the war has done a great deal to set back this struggle.

This matters. The next time there is a debate over whether or not to intervene to stop an ongoing and serious humanitarian crisis, defenders of humanitarian intervention will be stuck with fighting through yet another layer of cynicism about both the rationale and the people most likely to be citing it.

Those into moral accounting ought to chalk that up as yet another cost of this war, and one that goes directly to the heart of the humanitarian case for it. And while not all the discrediting here was foreseeable, much of it was.

Howls of outrage (4)

2003 01 28
[Roth on the Iraq War]

Human Rights Watch, an organization I admire very much (though occasionally dissent from), has released an interesting paper by Kenneth Roth (their head honcho guy) on the Humanitarian argument in favour of the war in Iraq.

Despite a touch of lawyerprose, it’s a good, solid piece, and it deserves to be widely read.

The piece is all the more striking because HRW usually declines to take a position on jus ad bellum (the justice of the case for war) issues, preferring to focus on jus in bello (the justice of the actual fighting) stuff. They stuck to that during the Iraq war, declining to take a position on the justice or legality of the U.S. cause and instead focusing on violations of the laws of war during the fighting. But HRW has decided to weigh in publicly on the humanitarian justification for war, partly out of fear that the Bush administration is badly discrediting an argument which sometimes desperately needs to be made.

I agree with almost the entire piece. But agreement is boring. So here’s a passage I thought was a bit silly:

In noting that prosecution was not tried before war, we recognize that the U.N. Security Council had never availed itself of this option in more than a decade of attention to Iraq. The council’s April 1991 resolution on Iraq (resolution 688), in condemning “the repression of the Iraqi civilian population in many parts of Iraq,” broke new ground at the time as the first council resolution to treat such repression as a threat to international peace and security. But the council never followed up by deploying the obvious tool of prosecution to curtail that repression. Yet if the U.S. government had devoted anywhere near the attention to justice as it did to pressing for war, the chances are at least reasonable that the council would have been responsive.

Whatever. The corruption and cynicism of the French and the Russians and the Chinese appears to have escaped Roth. (Earlier in the piece, he praises French motives (!) in their 2002 humanitarian interventions in Africa. Ugh.)

Roth also has interesting things to say about the role of intentions in judging the humanitarian justification for war. Roth does not insist that intervening countries have pure motives. Still, he thinks that motive counts. I find this interesting because I spent many hours discussing questions about motives and the issue of hypocrisy in general with my students last year when I was teaching a class on the war. Roth’s argument for insisting that motive counts doesn’t depend on claims about their intrinsic value. Rather, he thinks that bad motives tend to have lousy consequences. In principle, I’m open to this line of attack. But I think Roth is wrong here:

To begin with, if invading forces had been determined to maximize the humanitarian impact of an intervention, they would have been better prepared to fill the security vacuum that predictably was created by the toppling of the Iraqi government. It was entirely foreseeable that Saddam Hussein’s downfall would lead to civil disorder. The 1991 uprisings in Iraq were marked by large-scale summary executions. The government’s Arabization policy raised the prospect of clashes between displaced Kurds seeking to reclaim their old homes and Arabs who had moved into them. Other sudden changes of regime, such as the Bosnian Serb withdrawal from the Sarajevo suburbs in 1996, have been marked by widespread violence, looting, and arson.

That just doesn’t seem right to me. The best explanation for what happened was sheer incompetence, since there’s no satisfactory hypothesis connecting motives plausibly ascribed to the admin with what actually happened.

Roth speaks with rare sanity about the significance of international approval for the war:

There is considerable value in receiving the endorsement of the U.N. Security Council or another major multilateral body before launching a humanitarian intervention. The need to convince others of the appropriateness of a proposed intervention is a good way to guard against pretextual or unjustified action. An international commitment to an intervention also increases the likelihood that adequate personnel and resources will be devoted to the intervention and its aftermath. And approval by the Security Council, in particular, ends the debate about the legality of an intervention.
However, in extreme situations, Human Rights Watch does not insist on Security Council approval. The council in its current state is simply too imperfect to make it the sole mechanism for legitimizing humanitarian intervention. Its permanent membership is a relic of the post-World War II era, and its veto system allows those members to block the rescue of people facing slaughter for the most parochial of reasons. In light of these faults, one’s patience with the council’s approval process would understandably diminish if large-scale slaughter were underway. However, because there was no such urgency in early 2003 for Iraq, the failure to win council approval, let alone the endorsement of any other multilateral body, weighs heavily in assessing the intervenors’ claim to humanitarianism.

I think that’s exactly right. The anti-war crowd got awfully worked up about the failure to get a SC resolution prior to the war, though that would likely not have satisfied many of them. It sometimes got so that the backing of the SC seemed to be the sole criterion on which many people would judge the justice of the war. Nuts, I say. There are unjust international laws, just as there are unjust domestic laws. In addition to what Roth points out, the real significance of the failure to get SC backing was this: That on top of everything else that was wrong with the war, it violated international law. Unfortunately, it was difficult to make that point without sounding as if international law were all important.

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