The Painful Death of Humanitarian Intervention

by , November 04, 2006

Iraq was about many things, supporters of the war intone. The fact that no WMD were discovered is irrelevant. President George W. Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, and a host of Republican (and many Democratic) legislators solemnly proclaim that knowing what they know now they would go to war all over again.

Why? It was important to “drain the swamp,” even if there were no alligators. After all, plenty of other unsavory creatures haunted the muck. Saddam Hussein had violated all sorts of UN resolutions, threatening the international organization’s credibility.

And democracy had to be spread. Hussein was a murderer, the Iraqi people deserved to be liberated. Never mind America’s national interest: there was a humanitarian imperative to intervene.

It sounds very attractive. In fact, the most appealing argument for invading and conquering another nation is precisely this one: war is awful, but is the lesser of moral evils when it is the only means to save lives.

That the Republican Party has become the party of humanitarian intervention is ironic. After all, Woodrow Wilson, the great proponent of war to end war and spread democracy, long was a liberal icon criticized by conservatives for his disregard of U.S. interests and international realities. His misguided decision to enter World War I and his incompetent negotiation at the Versailles peace conference led to World War II.

The GOP was skeptical of humanitarian warmaking less than a decade ago, when President Bill Clinton took America into war with Serbia, a small state that had threatened neither the U.S. nor any of its allies. Thuggish Slobodan Milosevic was, but dangerous to anyone but those who were in – or were attempting to secede from – his own nation he was not. Then-House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas) famously called the conflict “Bill Clinton’s war.”

In 2003, however, the Bush administration, with the congressional Republican Party in tow, dressed in full warrior garb. If you didn’t believe that Saddam Hussein was more dangerous than Hitler, armed with nuclear weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles capable of hitting America, and massive stocks of biological weapons, no matter: it was America’s duty to take him out because he was a killer.

Whether the president and his supporters were sincere is hard to know. After all, there are many ugly regimes around the world. Republicans hadn’t seemed terribly concerned about mass slaughter in Rwanda, bloody civil war in Liberia, a bitter Kurdish insurgency in Turkey, years of conflict in Sudan, a horrific civil war that killed millions in the Congo, decades of brutal repression in Burma, or a host of other conflicts, including the Kosovo insurgency. In these cases, the GOP’s passion for the helpless and dying was strangely absent.

Any commitment to safeguarding Iraqis was well-concealed before 9/11. Had the administration been focused on saving Iraqi lives, the president should have asked the Pentagon to begin drafting war plans on the afternoon of Jan. 20, 2001, or the morning of Jan. 21, at the latest. After all, lives were at stake: if the administration believed the U.S. had to go to war to save Iraqis, why did it wait more than two years to liberate them?

The only logical conclusion is that administration officials weren’t particularly interested in suffering Iraqis, and that humanitarianism was primarily a politically popular gloss for a war that the president was determined to undertake for other reasons. Finding an alternative justification was particularly important when it became evident that Hussein had no WMD. So much for the smoking mushroom cloud with which then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice attempted to scare the public.

Still, the argument is not necessarily illegitimate because of the administration’s rank hypocrisy. Hussein was a tyrant; Human Rights Watch figures between 250,000 and 290,000 people died under his regime. He also started two wars – though, frankly, few Americans shed many tears for Iran, and the Ronald Reagan administration, represented by special envoy Donald Rumsfeld, cheerfully aided Hussein in that conflict.

Yet humanitarian intervention traditionally has been envisioned as stopping ongoing genocide, or at least mass slaughter. In March 2003, Hussein was oppressing his people, but not killing THAT many of them. One can argue that the West should have previously stopped him from cracking down on the Kurds, crushing the Shi’ite insurgency, and embarking upon other murderous expeditions. But those campaigns were long over and the resulting mass graves were long overgrown. However attractive the prospect of bringing him to justice, doing so did not warrant going to war.

Again, humanitarianism looks to be an administration afterthought, a PR tactic to win support for the invasion rather than a serious rationale for action. At the time Washington embarked upon the Iraq war, its ally Saudi Arabia was probably killing as many people as was Iraq. But the ruling Saudis were routinely feted in Washington and offered the hospitality of George W. Bush’s Texas ranch.

Nevertheless, assume a moral justification for loosing the dogs of war. Has the Iraq war turned out to be a humanitarian venture? Alas, this case grows weaker by the day.

The justification for humanitarian intervention is fundamentally utilitarian. More people will live than die as a result. Given the uncertainties of war, one can never be sure about a war’s result. This is the reason why few people believe America should have attacked either the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China during the Cold War. There were many lives to be saved, many more than were at stake in Iraq. However, the catastrophic consequences of global war were too great to risk.

Humanitarian intervention is more commonly advocated for governmental basket cases with little or no serious military capability. Even Yugoslavia in 1999 could offer only minimal resistance when it faced the world’s greatest military alliance. Other targets are usually despotic Third World dictatorships or failed states with a disorganized or absent state.

Even then, humanitarian intervention results in an uncomfortably utilitarian calculus. Some people who otherwise would live – American soldiers, coalition forces, enemy combatants, foreign civilians – will die. Are their deaths okay because many others will live?

The challenge is particularly important in terms of U.S. government policy. The lives of Americans are of no greater moral value than those of other people. However, Washington is responsible to its own citizens: they fund its operations, man its military, are accountable for its actions, and expect its protection. The nation-state’s responsibility to guard their interests includes the lives of its fighting men and women. They are not pawns to be sacrificed in a global chess game, and their lives should not be forfeit when policymakers, especially those happily insulated from the rigors and risks of combat, seek to promote objectives largely irrelevant to the interests of the Americans whose protection is the fundamental objective of government.

If it seems extreme to say that one life is too many to sacrifice no matter how many would be saved, surely it is not unreasonable to say that the risk of even one death requires that decisions be made seriously, not frivolously, and that the costs and risks to Americans be weighed very heavily. It is not right, morally or practically, to attempt to turn 18-year-old U.S. soldiers into guardians of distant outposts in a new global empire, even if such an enterprise is advanced in glowing moral terms.

But for a moment assume that humanitarian intervention is justified so long as more are saved than die, or substantially more, anyway. Then does Iraq qualify? Never mind the supposed good intentions and the manifold might-have-beens. The death of 100 or more Iraqis every day means the death of 100 Iraqis who would have lived had the allies not invaded. What moral calculus can justify this ongoing human tradeoff?

Indeed, the more one looks at Iraq, the more one doubts the invasion’s moral justification. For an argument that is largely utilitarian, the place to start is American casualties. The 2,800 deaths and 21,000 wounded are sobering indeed. (A third of those wounded died in the Vietnam War; thankfully, medical and technological advances have lowered mortality rates in Iraq.) Nor is there any reason to believe that the toll will fall dramatically anytime soon. Reported MSNBC in mid-October: “U.S. military casualties have surged in Iraq in recent weeks, with U.S. troops engaging in perilous urban sweeps to curb sectarian violence in Baghdad while facing unrelenting violence elsewhere.” Ending these sweeps will lower U.S. casualties, but leave Iraqi violence free to rise even further.

And the number of dead Iraqis raises particularly profound doubts as to the humanitarian justification of the conflict. No one knows for sure how many Iraqis have died, but the toll is high and growing.

President Bush recently acknowledged 30,000, a significant admission for someone who has steadfastly avoided mentioning the slightest hint of bad news in Iraq. The British group Iraq Body Count, which attempts to keep track of reported deaths, comes in at 44,000 to 49,000 deaths. Gen. George Casey, the U.S. commander in Iraq, points to a high-end estimate of 50,000. A Pentagon report expected out in November reportedly says 60,000. With its Iraqi Index, the Brookings Institution estimates 61,000 deaths.

Any of these numbers should give pause even to an avid interventionist. However, they all probably are low. The Iraqi Health Ministry figures 150,000. The Washington Times, which has consistently editorialized in favor of the war, cites the estimate of 128,000 dead between the war’s start and July 2005 from the Iraqi group Iraqiyun. Notes the Times, “extrapolated to the present, the figure would be in the high 100,000s or low 200,000s.”

Finally, a new study out of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health (and a doctor from the School of Medicine at Baghdad’s al-Mustansiriya University) figures 655,000 deaths since March 2003 (with a range from 393,000 to 943,000). The number of violent deaths is pegged at 601,000, ranging between 426,000 and 794,000. These numbers are shocking, even horrifying, and were understandably seized upon by war opponents. If this report is accurate, who could deny that the war has been a moral as well as strategic disaster?

The study’s methodology is time-tested, and the researchers argue that many deaths occur outside of Baghdad, where most reporters, NGOs, and U.S. officials are based. Still, the sample size, wartime conditions, and estimated prewar death rate all have been challenged. Indeed, the results are hard to believe – not hard to believe that so many people could die in a conflict, but hard to believe that so many people have died in this war. Absent the use of nuclear weapons, it takes a lot of effort to kill hundreds of thousands of people, and murderous kidnappings, revenge killings, incidental wounding from military actions and errant bombings, and similar deaths wouldn’t seem to add up so. Moreover, it is difficult to believe that so many additional deaths would not have been noticed. But the sobering nature of the conclusion warrants closer study.

Whatever the exact toll so far, it is steadily growing. As sectarian strife has worsened, the daily tally has come to average about 100, with fears that it is more likely to increase than decrease. For instance, murder by death squads has trebled since February. The U.S. military acknowledges that its much-ballyhooed strategy of reinforced patrolling in Baghdad has done little to slow the killing. Stated Gen. Casey in mid-October, “The levels of violence over the last few weeks are as high as they have been.”

The Pentagon is talking about maintaining current troop levels until 2010. If sectarian strife remains high for that long, tens of thousands more Iraqis will die. And all these deaths are occurring in a population that is less than one-tenth the size of America. The equivalent toll in America would be hundreds of thousands or even millions.

But the U.S.-led coalition has done more than loose the forces of death. It has ripped away the thin veneer of order that gave Iraqis a sense of security if not liberty in Hussein’s Iraq. Iraqis now face not just the risk of death, but pervasive fear. Normal family, community, civic, and political life has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible.

For instance, it is not just notable politicians who risk death. Journalists, barbers, and even garbagemen are regularly killed. The latter are targeted by insurgents seeking to prevent the discovery of explosives hidden in the trash. Businessmen and bureaucrats alike are kidnapped and held for ransom; Shia and Sunni are kidnapped to be killed because they are Shia and Sunni. Nor is it enough to murder: many if not most bodies these days are found with evidence of torture, including the use of drills.

The destruction of the economic and social infrastructure that remained after a decade of sanctions is causing more hardship. The lack of stable services can kill. The Johns Hopkins study observes, “Aside from violence, insufficient water supplies, nonfunctional sewerage, and restricted electricity supply also create health hazards. A deteriorating health service with insecure access and the flight of health professionals adds further risks.”

Many Iraqis have simply fled the bloody chaos. In early October, Iraqi Immigration Minister Abdul-Samad Sultan announced that about 890,000 Iraqis had gone to Iran, Jordan, and Syria, and another 300,000 Iraqis had moved within Iraq, since March 2003. Many of those leaving are Christians, victims of virulent religious persecution that was almost entirely absent under Saddam Hussein.

The administration and its supporters spent most of the last three years attempting to downplay the increasing cost being paid by Iraqis. Members of the war lobby have chattered about all of the good news that isn’t being reported, including – seriously – harbors dredged, grants provided, city trash collected, and “exploding” cell phone use. But at last even President Bush seems to realize that denying the obvious makes him look ludicrous.

His administration’s fallback is simply to deny that the bloodshed is America’s fault. “The coalition takes enormous precautions to prevent civilian deaths and injuries,” says military spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros. Similarly, argues Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, “We take great precautions in our military operations. That’s in stark contrast to what the enemy in Iraq is doing. They take no such precautions. In fact, they deliberately target innocent civilians in their attacks.”

It is true that the U.S. does attempt to minimize civilian casualties. That is not the case with the Iraqi jihadists. Still, civilian deaths are inevitable, and Washington cannot escape responsibility for them. Cars filled with civilians speeding toward military checkpoints are riddled with bullets; aerial bombing raids fail to distinguish between insurgent and civilian. Early occupation policy routinely mistreated and humiliated those caught in military sweeps. Abu Ghraib demonstrated that Americans, too, were capable of abuse.

Moreover, the administration is ultimately responsible for the Iraqi government it has created. The problem is not that the former is imperfect. The problem is that factions within it are using state power to commit murder and mayhem. Last fall, Iyad Allawi, the secularist chosen by the U.S. to be the first post-Hussein prime minister, claimed that “People are doing the same as [in] Saddam’s time and worse.” That’s surely an exaggeration, but Allawi had a point: “We are hearing about secret police, secret bunkers where people are being interrogated. A lot of Iraqis are being tortured or killed in the course of interrogations. We are even witnessing Sharia courts based on Islamic law that are trying people and executing them.”

The Iraqi government is permeated by sectarian combatants. The police, in particular, are widely suspect in the calculated murder of Sunnis. The Interior Ministry recently purged some officials in an attempt to restore balance, but few believe the policy will be effective. Even hospitals have become a killing ground: the health ministry is controlled by Moqtada al-Sadr’s forces, and Sunni patients have been routinely kidnapped and killed.

There has been much frustration expressed toward the inadequacies of the Iraqi government. President Bush says he is “vexed” by the ongoing conflict. Yet, as Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute asks, “if the best military in world history cannot disarm militias and pacify Iraq, how does the U.S. government expect the inexperienced Iraqi security forces to do so?”

Moreover, there is a certain chutzpah in such expectations. After all, it was the U.S. invasion that spawned an insurgency, attracted jihadist terrorists, and unleashed sectarian war. And it was a series of mistakes after Hussein’s overthrow – failing to provide security, imposing a heavy-handed occupation, creating mass unemployment among the army and bureaucracy – that accelerated the rise of violent opposition.

That the Bush administration wanted none of this matters not. It was entirely predictable, and, indeed, was predicted by many analysts. But for the decision for war, none of the ongoing violence would be occurring. But for the blundering afterwards, the ongoing violence would not be as great. The administration’s war of choice has pushed Iraq off a cliff into an abyss of unknown depth, and today we can only watch in horror, wondering how far it will fall.

Perhaps most fundamental to the question of humanitarian intervention is: who decides? After spending three years making sunny predictions, President Bush acknowledges, “I know that a lot of innocent people have died and it troubles me and grieves me.” But he ignores his role in bringing about the deaths. When confronted with the Johns Hopkins study, President Bush dismissed its findings and added, “I applaud the Iraqis for their courage in the face of violence. I am, you know, amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they’re willing to … you know, that there’s a level of violence that they tolerate.”

Yet no Iraqi – except, perhaps, Ahmed Chalabi and other exiles hoping to take over once Hussein was disposed of – had any role in shaping American policy. With some asperity, Ximena Ortiz of The National Interest observes,

"The president, in referring to a war he launched, is marveling at the Iraqi society’s willingness to tolerate the violence he has in effect brought to their country – willingness and tolerate of course being the operative words. Perhaps he should next wonder why they don’t ask for cake. The breadth of his misunderstanding and naivety is simply astounding.

"In some swerve of logic, Bush has decided for the Iraqis that they see the death of, say, their child or children, husband, wife, the descent of their entire country into chaos and hell – all worth it for the sake of what Bush deems to be freedom. It should go without saying that the president’s conclusion begs a question: what choice do the Iraqis have? Does the president really believe that, given such a choice, the Iraqis would choose ruinous war in exchange for his own vision of freedom?"

In retrospect, few Iraqis who are killed or maimed, or who lose loved ones or friends, would likely view their liberation as “worth it.” Some extraordinary people might consider freedom to be a prize for which no sacrifice is too high, but they are likely to be few indeed.

Some larger number of Iraqis might have been prospectively willing to take the risk, at least if they thought the odds of success to be reasonable. Alas, as the last three years have demonstrated, despite the fantasizing that passed for planning in the Pentagon, the odds of creating a liberal, democratic state in Iraq always were long.

More important, though, no one ever asked the Iraqis what they desired. A handful of officials in Washington had a vision and forcibly imposed it on 26 million people half a world away. The goodness of the president’s intentions don’t matter.

No one can, or should, feel comfortable standing by in the face of oppression and murder in other lands. But so-called humanitarian intervention inevitably fails the tests of both morality and practicality. The difficulties of humanitarian intervention have long been evident, but the Iraq imbroglio should put a stake through the doctrine’s heart. Sadly, in the end, humanitarian intervention just isn’t humanitarian.

Read more by Doug Bandow