The Problem of Humanitarian Intervention: A Tough Challenge With No Good Answer

Today, April 7, is the official anniversary of the start of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Probably a half million or so people – estimates range wildly – were murdered in just 100 days.

Most of the victims were Tutsis, though a number of moderate Hutus also were killed. Hundreds of thousands of women were raped.

The brutality was up close and personal, usually via guns, machetes, and even clubs. The murderers often were neighbors. Victims were hunted down like human prey. Those who sought shelter in churches, schools, hospitals, and elsewhere found no refuge. The bloodshed went on until there seemed to be no one else to kill.

Yet this was not the worst episode of mass murder in history, nor even in the blood-drenched 20th Century. The Holocaust stands out for the attempt to eliminate an entire people. The numbers of dead in Cambodia, China, and the Soviet Union also were prodigious, much greater in number. One seemingly endless war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo killed ten times as many people.

Yet the Rwanda genocide was still shocking, mocking the supposed liberal sensitivities of the age. So many killed so suddenly and swiftly. Longtime communities and neighborhoods turned not just hostile, but deadly. An entire nation seemingly gone mad.

A world shocked, stunned, and stationary. Inert. Fixed. Immobile. Frozen. Motionless. Fixed. Still. Rigid. Unmoved as thousands of people a day were gunned, cut, and beaten down.

Four years later President Bill Clinton visited Rwanda and apologized. He told Rwandans: "The international community, together with nations in Africa, must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy, as well. We did not act quickly enough after the killing began." He called for cooperation to "strengthen our ability to prevent and, if necessary, to stop genocide."

Of course, it was impossible to disagree with such sentiments. Who could not want to prevent or halt a similar episode in the future? And it appeared that Clinton had much to apologize for, having done nothing at the time. Or, more accurately, for not having ordered other people to do something. Clinton – who had avoided doing anything in Vietnam – would not have personally saved anyone. Rather, he would have sent someone else to do so.

Which is the eternal challenge posed by intervention and war. They occur because some people, usually older, more powerful, better compensated, well-protected, and self-inflated, send others, almost always the opposite, off to do the difficult and deadly work. Ivory tower warriors typically exude sanctimony when launching moral crusades with other people’s lives. However, there is nothing virtuous in sending others off to fight and possibly die.

Nevertheless, the appeal of what is called "responsibility to protect," or R2P – which is intended to reach violence well beyond genocide – is obvious. Lives could be saved. They should be saved. Like in Rwanda in 1994.

Yet mass killing are tragically common, not thankfully rare. So any serious R2P practitioner would be very busy. Candidates for action would have included the Ottoman Empire versus its Armenian population. Nazi Germany versus Europe’s Jews (and many others). Japanese Empire versus the Chinese people. The Soviet Union versus its Ukrainian population and many others. China versus its own citizens more than once, with special brutality (though not mass killing) today against residents of Tibet and Xinjiang. There was Kampuchea (Cambodia) versus its people. Indonesia against its population and residents of East Timor. Pakistan at war with those living in its eastern section, now Bangladesh. Sri Lanka versus its Tamil minority. Burundi suffering similar tribal violence as Rwanda, only with both groups simultaneously killers and victims.

Also warranting action would be or have been many brutal and bitter civil wars, in which the culprits sometimes were many: Lebanon, Nigeria, Algeria, Angola, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Burma/Myanmar, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Balkans, Syria, Chad, Central America, Colombia, Zaire/Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, and Libya. Also deserving to be on the list are four conflicts in which the U.S. was deeply involved – Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, and Korea. And there are numerous violent episodes which, though falling short of genocide or war, resulted in thousands or even tens of thousands of dead, leavened with other abundant casualties, including victims of sexual violence. Such as Argentina, India, Chile, Northern Ireland, Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, and the Philippines, for instance.

Would a serious policy of humanitarian intervention seek to halt the violence in every instance? Or only some? If only some, then which ones?

The most obvious standard would be lots of casualties. However, what would be the definition of "lots"? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Or millions?

Or should the focus be on the death rate? For instance, the Khmer Rouge killed from between 1.5 million to two million people out of a population of about 7.8 million, or something approaching an astonishing quarter of the population. China killed far more people, tens of millions – one estimate is 36 million in the Great Leap Forward alone. However, the population was much greater, so as a percentage the killing was less.

Some advocates of R2P figure they "know it when they see it," rather like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s standard for pornography. But that’s not a very good rationale for the government to go to war and send military personnel into danger. And there are enormous differences among the many cases of murderous, almost uncontrolled violence. Some instances focus inward, on a nation’s own citizens. There is mass killing by government, as well as by nongovernmental actors, when the authorities either approve and abet the violence, or are unable to stop it. Sometimes the attacks are directed at specific ethnic or religious groups. In others it is undifferentiated, often targeting political/ideological opponents. Many of the worst killings grow out of wars. Mass killing can emerge from aggression against other states. However, civil wars often are even bloodier.

So, when to act?

It is hard to develop a sensible standard. Consider the intriguing, but ultimately nonsensical, proposal from the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon and the late Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-NY): "military intervention should be considered whenever the rate of killing in a country or region greatly exceeds the US murder rate, whether the killing is genocidal in nature or not. Our moral premises are twofold: first, since all human lives have equal value, the United States and other countries should use their military and political resources where they can save the greatest number of individuals. Second, the United States cannot be politically or morally expected to try to make other countries safer than its own domestic society."

To quote tennis great John McEnroe, "you cannot be serious!" US foreign policy would bizarrely be held hostage by domestic policing practices. Assume a tough law and order conservative was elected mayor of New York City (and that result was replicated elsewhere). If typical stereotypes held, murder rates would drop across America, requiring Washington to then occupy another half dozen warring countries. In contrast, if a wimpy progressive was elected in the Big Apple and other major cities, murder rates would rocket upward. The US then would be expected to withdraw troops from around the world. Really?

Foreign policy should be based on something more substantial than arcane statistical analyses disconnected from the nation’s basic security interests. Americans’ lives should not be risked and wealth spent absent a threat to their own national community’s security, even survival. Although all lives are of equal value, as O’Hanlon and Solarz argued, the US government has greater responsibility to its own citizens – who fund and serve it, and rely on its protection.

This point is fundamental. As attractive as a supposedly humanitarian interventionist strategy might seem in theory, as a matter of principle resources should not be spent and lives should not be risked unless doing so serves the basic interests of the American polity, including those serving in the military. The latter should not be treated as gambit pawns in a global chess game. Good intentions are not enough. Going to war is expensive, deadly, and risky – usually far more so than originally expected.

For instance, much of Europe marched off to combat in July 1914 assuming the conflict would be short. Many Americans North and South figured one short battle would settle the issue of secession. Iraq was supposed to be a cakewalk for the US Saudi Arabia expected its war with Yemen, now in its sixth year, to run about six weeks. Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941, planning on victory before winter arrived. American military officers constantly told the nation that battles against insurgents in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam were going well, kill ratios were great, and light could be sighted at the proverbial end of the tunnel.

Although these and other wars were supposed to have humanitarian objects, rarely did they have humanitarian results. There may be no better example than Iraq: thousands of dead Americans and allied personnel, tens of thousands of wounded Americans and allies, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians, millions of displaced Iraqis, a thoroughly ravaged nation, and an utterly destabilized region. All to oust the murderous Saddam Hussein and drain the swamp, the substitute justifications for war once Baghdad’s claimed possession of WMDs was exposed as an embarrassing lie.

But also look at Vietnam – who would hold that up as a humanitarian enterprise? Or Afghanistan, where Washington has prolonged a civil war now in its fifth decade. Or America’s anti-insurgent campaign when Washington seized the Philippines from Spain: some 200,000 Filipinos perished as US soldiers used tactics against independence fighters characteristic of the Spanish from whom Washington seized the archipelago. Not every intervention goes so badly, but the more expansive and intrusive the objective – compare the first and second Iraq wars – typically the worse the results. And Washington’s results of late have not been good anywhere.

Moreover, US national interests will inevitably dominate. Given another chance, would the US have gone to war with Cambodia/Kampuchea, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, or Communist China in order to save lives? No.

All were/would have been massive, destructive, terrible wars. They were just too big. Having just quit Vietnam, Washington was not going to return to Cambodia, no matter how great the internal toll. Adolf Hitler’s declaration of war, not his continent-wide depredations, brought America into World War II.

Attacking the U.S.S.R. and China would have been unimaginable. Both conflicts, dedicated to overthrowing Communist Party control, would almost certainly have gone nuclear. The countries’ sheer size would have ensured endless conflicts and insurgencies. Even smaller fights would have been formidable. For example, imagine full immersion in the multi-sided Lebanese and Syrian civil wars, which are thought to have consumed perhaps 120,000 and a half million or more lives, respectively. There is no reason to believe America would have done better than in Iraq.

Moreover, the US always treats friendly regimes differently. Rather than intervene against the corrupt, brutal, authoritarian Saudi monarchy as it was committing murder and mayhem in Yemen, Washington provided Riyadh aircraft, munitions, intelligence, refueling, and maintenance to help with the killing. During the Cold War countries such as Argentina, Chile, and Indonesia directed their murderous attentions against communists and leftists of various stripes. Such killings apparently bothered American officials little if at all. Voices were raised much more loudly for Bosnia, located in Europe, than for most of the African nations which suffered terrible genocides and wars. And while ethnic cleansing by Serbs was uniformly denounced, ethnic cleansing against Serbs was equally ignored. Murder in the Middle East, with oil beneath and Israel close by, seemed to always attract sympathetic and disproportionate attention, no matter how many black Africans were being slaughtered at the same time.

Nor could "the international community" simply show up, stop the killing, and return home triumphant. To start, there is no such thing as "the international community." There are only individual nations, most of which have neither the interest nor the ability to send anything more than token military units for temporary duty. In many cases foreign military units likely would do harm – consider United Nations "peacekeepers" who spread disease and committed sexual violence. When it comes to real fighting, especially the larger the number of cases, bigger the conflicts, and lengthier the duties, everyone looks to America.

Recognizing imminent genocide, as Clinton suggested, would be no mean feat. In the USSR and China there was extended mass murder in societies largely closed to outsiders. The governments denied anything was amiss and many Western "useful idiots" backed up the lies. News of slaughter in Cambodia only seeped out of another uniquely closed society. Cities were largely emptied and Western journalists were among the prisoners tortured and murdered at Phnom Penh’s notorious Toul Sleng prison. Bosnia always was more accessible than Liberia. In Rwanda genocide was prepared ahead of time, triggered by the president’s assassination, and proceeded at breakneck speed. Every instance is different, with unique barriers to recognition, assessment, and response.

Moreover, there is no single template for halting violence and healing society. In almost every case a quick exit would be a fantasy. Nation-building would be an inevitable ancillary duty of humanitarian war-making. Imagine tens of thousands of US (and some European) troops landed in Rwanda and pointed their guns at Hutu mobs, who retreated – along with their guns, machetes, and clubs. Then what for the allied soldiers? Fly home? Occupy the country? Set up a provisional government? Arm the Tutsis? Create safe havens? Partition the territory? Call on the UN? Settle in for a long stay?

One small nation would be complicated enough. Toss in a couple larger, more complex, and better armed states. Do several conflicts at once. Then imagine what would be required to implement whatever Washington’s humanitarian standards turned out to be.

Ultimately, the US government must first consider its responsibility to its own citizens. Promiscuous war-making inevitably conflicts with America as a constitutional republic with limited government power tasked with protecting individual liberties. To carry out a serious and consistent humanitarian war policy would require Washington to pursue an unabashedly imperialist policy abroad – in the name of liberal objectives, of course. At risk would be much that Americans value: human life and dignity, liberties and rights, economic prosperity, constrained government, constitutional probity, and republican politics. As social commentator Randolph Bourne pointed out, and Robert Higgs documented so well in Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, war is the health of the state. War is the most important excuse used by politicians to conscript the young, restrict civil liberties, expand government secrecy, limit public disclosure, punish free speech, loot the public, raise taxes, expand government control, regulate economic activity, undercut democratic debate, and curtail the Constitution.

Indeed, America’s foreign and supposedly humanitarian misadventures also have severely undermined US security. Over the last two decades Middle East meddling has expanded Iran’s influence, spawned al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State, proliferated ISIS from Iraq to Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and even further, drawn American forces back to Iraq and Syria, and spread U.S.-Iran tensions to both Iraq and Syria. Intervening more heavily and widely, even if supposedly on a humanitarian mission, magnified and lengthened ongoing conflicts, such as Afghanistan and Syria.

The tragedy of Rwanda reminds us that there are no easy answers when crisis strikes. Clinton wanted "to act when genocide threatens." However, that presumed prescient officials peering into the future, recognizing dangers, fixing problems, forestalling crises, and preventing violence. And the same time farsighted and measured people ready when the crisis arrived to authorize just the right amount of force. By their side would be competent and judicious commanders prepared to deal with the myriad challenges in a multitude of different circumstances.

It should surprise no one that Clinton’s call has gone unheeded. The world is no better prepared to halt civil wars, genocides, aggressions, and all manner of other horrors today than then. Americans certainly are no better prepared to march off to humanitarian war.

War always should be a last resort rather than a first choice. Military intervention sometimes becomes an ugly necessity, but not nearly as often as is claimed. However, war cannot be justified on humanitarian grounds, despite the powerful emotional appeal of that argument. For both principled and prudential reasons, Americans should oppose promiscuous war-making. It is the proverbial cure worse than the disease.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.