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Can Humanitarian Intervention Be Saved From Its Friends?

BULENT KILIC / Getty Images

President Barack Obama has now used force or supported others’ use of force for humanitarian purposes more times than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton did. Yet a host of GOP presidential candidates, and commentators from both the liberal interventionist and neoconservative schools, argue that humanitarian intervention is dead—and that Obama killed it. Senator Marco Rubio says of Obama: “He demonstrated a disregard for our moral purpose that at times flirted with disdain.” Most recently, the New Yorker’s George Packer—a strong advocate for the 2003 invasion of Iraq—wrote of current thinking around humanitarian intervention: “What seemed like clear morality two decades ago has gone completely dark.” Both men—one from the center-left and one from the mainstream right—conflate humanitarian intervention with the “war on terror.” Packer drops into existential despair about the last eight years: “Much as we want it to be over, the era won’t end.” Rubio and most of his fellow contenders for the GOP presidential nomination have a different explanation—from intervening to save lives to “enhanced interrogation techniques” to how many troops we station in Iraq and Afghanistan, they want more of everything. Humanitarian intervention, and the values behind it, become just another tactic. 

If this view sounds familiar, it’s because of how strongly it accords with the post-9/11 critique made by realists of the libertarian right (CATO); the paleo-conservative right (Andrew Bacevich) and the left (Steve Walt). Military interventions by great powers, particularly the U.S., cannot coexist with humanitarian aims or values. While liberal and neoconservative interventionists accuse Obama of killing humanitarian intervention by failing to undertake one in Syria, the realists of the left and libertarian right indict him for unleashing regime change, and the subsequent civil conflict, in Libya.

As David Rieff wrote in the New York Times as the Libyan intervention drew to a close in late 2011: 

A straight line runs between such unreconstructed liberal interventionists as Samantha Power and Bernard-Henri Lévy, both vocal backers of the Libya campaign, and the Tony Blair who claimed at the time of the war in Kosovo, when he was Britain’s prime minister, that in the 21st century the West should commit itself to fighting wars to support its values rather than its interests. Self-interest is more like it. 

Packer’s cry of despair feels muddled—the prison at Guantanamo Bay represents American exceptionalism, and a war that won’t end. But pressure to close it also represents American exceptionalism, because “other regimes torture prisoners and call it obtaining a confession.” This mishmash of angst disguised as critique highlights an irony of the current moment. Theorists of humanitarian intervention and its United Nations norm, the Responsibility to Protect, find themselves in crisis, having spent a decade attempting to build a legal and academic edifice behind it. As the norms come under intense pressure from Russia, China, Brazil, and others, governments in the U.S., Britain, and France seem to be paying those norms less attention in making policy choices. 

As the 2016 political debates begin, both parties’ activists are having fierce internal debates about whether intervention is right and wise. Even as unapologetic supporters of humanitarian intervention seem to have the upper hand in both parties, political consultants urge them to downplay U.S. military engagement—to say that the Obama administration should have done “more” in Syria, Iraq, Libya but never say that the “more” should have involved U.S. troops—or large-scale financial commitments.

What to do about the emptiness of this political debate, and the erosion of attention to legal and policy doctrines, while Syrians continue to be slaughtered? Packer’s answer is to attack both the “well-known American hubris of adventurism,” and what he sees as the equal hubris that “sees our wrongs as dangers to the foundations of civilization.” 

This will not do. The job of intellectual leaders, the essence of liberalism, is not to throw up our hands, but to learn from past hubris and then demand that political leaders implement those lessons.

There remains one deep pool of unaltered support for the notion that outsiders’ use of force can be a net positive: people who perceive that their lives and communities were saved by the great power interventions of the post-Cold War years.

Bosnia is no one’s idea of a European success story. It struggles with corruption and economic decline 20 years after the height of its civil war, before NATO intervention. But only  two percent of the public thinks the country’s biggest problems are ethnic in nature, and only six percent favor dividing the country into three independent entities. (One wonders what the results of such a survey in the U.S. would be.) 

One year after post-election violence in Cote d’Ivoire was put down by a U.N.-blessed French military intervention, two-thirds of Ivoriens believed sustainable peace had returned to their country. Four years after, significant majorities said their country is making progress on local and national reconciliation.

Kosovo continues to face enormous economic and political challenges and division. Some 4,500 Western troops are still stationed there. Public views of the country and its future divide along ethnic lines. Yet the country has now seen eleven years without mass violence, a prospect that seemed impossible to foes of the 1999 intervention and a hard slog to its supporters. 

On the other hand, less than three years after the NATO intervention in Libya, two-thirds of Libyans surveyed said their country was worse off than before its revolution—and things have not improved since. Iraqis likewise never ceased to regard American troops as occupiers, though some still welcome the ousting of Saddam Hussein. 

Even this brief, informal survey evokes a ground truth that seems a painfully obvious cliché, but that neither humanitarian’s supporters nor its detractors in the U.S. have seemed able to attain: Where human beings believe they faced death or extended conflict, and now see those risks averted, they are deeply grateful—neo-imperialism be damned. Where they do not believe they faced imminent death, or see the threat of conflict still close, they are hostile to the presence of foreign militaries. 

The American public has always been skeptical of liberal interventionism, and there's no question that rising voices with a libertarian bent in the GOP and realist skeptics among a new generation of Democrats have pushed the language of liberal interventionism underground. But who is doing the most damage to the idea that force can sometimes be used for good, long a staple of both U.S. power and the hoped-for undergirding of international governance? Its advocates. 


We overpromise. Readers may recall the Bush administration’s “cakewalk” into Iraq, but the Clinton administration—of which I was a member—promised to turn Bosnia and Kosovo into multi-ethnic European democracies. In 1999, Clinton said we would withdraw troops from Kosovo in a year. U.S. troops are still there. 

We overreach. Not only have advocates of humanitarian intervention promised results we couldn’t deliver; we’ve committed to outcomes that required expenditures of time, blood, and treasure that we had little reason to believe our fellow-citizens would pay. Give Senator Lindsey Graham credit for honesty in describing his plan to use 10,000 or more U.S. ground troops to defeat the Islamic State, and then rebuild Syria: “The amount of money it takes to reconstruct Syria makes Iraq look like a walk in the park.” And Graham, who makes his national security experience the core argument for his presidential campaign, might be willing to spend enough political capital to do that. Other presidents from both parties have found that task impossible or just undesirable—so the post-conflict civilian side was unplanned in Iraq, under-funded in Afghanistan, left aside in Libya. Very few of the voices calling on the Obama administration to do something in Syria have included a plan for what to do after the military “something”; how to maintain order and rebuild stable—never mind liberal, inclusive, or democratic—institutions in a country whose leadership has deliberately used its institutions to divide and terrorize ethnic communities for more than four years now. 

Faced with our own over-promising and over-reaching, we often have fallen back on faux-naïveté—a set of myths about the perfect innocence of the people we help, and the perfect democracy they will achieve afterward, that barely withstood scrutiny in Bill Clinton's day and now crumbles under the glare of 24/7 online global scrutiny. 

The media presents an oppressed group as blameless, entrepreneurial, Western-oriented in norms and values. Americans are told that “we” are going to “save” them and set them up as the “Switzerland of [fill in continent here]." Then the oppressed group turns out to be not blameless; vindictive and violent against their former oppressors; and uninterested or unprepared for the Western romance of liberal, secular, multi-ethnic democracy. In other words, they turn out to be like the French, Russians, Chinese, and Americans after our respective revolutions. Decidedly imperfect. (Those Kosovars, in case you have forgotten, dressed dead fighters in civilian clothes to convince us that Serbs were already killing them, then took their revenge on Serb churches, businesses, and communities on their return home from Slobodan Milosevic’s forced exile.) 

The last piece of this puzzle is the insistence that our motives are pure. “Oil has nothing to do with it.” “Race wasn’t a factor.” This profoundly American pretense is matched by the fury of the anti-interventionists’ insistence that any U.S. action will be self-interested and therefore impure and unworthy. 

The realists are wrong about one crucial thing. The need for humanitarian intervention will never go away, as long as human beings subject each other to unspeakable violence, and those human beings have voices—and now, cell phone cameras and Twitter accounts—to call attention to their plight. But liberal interventionists are wrong about many things, too. They refuse to learn past failures and recognize America’s limits, both practical and moral.

American presidents, even a President Rand Paul or Bernie Sanders, will go on using military power to serve U.S. interests, however defined. Oppressed peoples will go on appealing to the U.S. for help as long as we persist, periodically and improbably, in making gestures and pulling off stunts that ignite the hopes of millions around the world. 

Packer is not alone in using despair to avoid making an honest account of the past two decades, but others have looked hard at the successes and failures of that era—like Thomas Weiss, an expert on humanitarian interventionism who has studied the United Nations from within and without. He is not interested in avoiding responsibility for what went wrong, or the ambiguity that comes from accepting the heroic, the tragic, and the criminally incompetent all together. As he wrote last year in the Washington Quarterly, “A middle ground has been broken for coming to the rescue of civilians—at least in some cases, there is the doublestandard of inconsistency whereas formerly there had been only a single standard: do nothing.”

No campaign—for president, or U.N. secretary general—is going to take that up as a slogan. But faced with the spectacle of liberals giving in to existential despair, while a campaign of genocide is waged against Syrians and Rohingya before our very eyes, it seems a good place to start.