Humanitarian Interventionism by the Numbers

If there was any doubt about why the United States is involved in an increasingly messy military engagement in Libya, President Barack Obama cleared the air in his speech on March 29th.  The US has no vital interest at stake but is involved in a humanitarian mission, to save innocent lives, akin to the Balkan enterprise of the 1990s.  Other evidence provided by top administration officials suggests that the ultimate intention is to replace Muammar Gadhafi, in other words regime change, similar to the military action that removed Saddam Hussein from Iraq. 

Obama could have made a plausible case for removing Gadhafi based on imminent threat.  Gadhafi has been a major state supporter of terrorism, no doubt about it, and he did down both American and French commercial airliners in 1988 and 1989, resulting in major loss of life.  He also ordered his agents to bomb a club frequented by American soldiers in Berlin in 1986, killing three, and resulting in a punitive attack by US military aircraft on Tripoli.  Though the United States has come to terms with Libya and its regime it is indisputable that Gadhafi is a murderous thug and he is eminently capable of resorting to the terrorism card if he feels his interests demand it.  Now that he has been condemned by the UN and attacked by NATO, he almost certainly will again exploit his considerable financial resources to fund terrorism.  But President Barack Obama did not cite the danger posed by Gadhafi and instead chose to emphasize the humanitarian aspect of a US military intervention.

Recall for a moment that when Iraq occupied Kuwait in 1991 there were tales of Iraqi soldiers hurling infants out of incubators.  Additional atrocities were described tearfully by a young woman who turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States.  Almost everything being reported about the bloodthirsty Iraqis turned out to be false, deliberately so, to make the case for war.  In light of the deliberate deception that has been part and parcel of every American intervention anywhere since the end of the Second World War, how can anyone believe the official narrative?  Why should anyone assume that Muammar Gadhafi will decide to slaughter his own people, particularly since he has a major interest in making the rebellion to his rule go away, an unlikely outcome if he engages in wholesale massacres. 

Most Americans would accept that there will be times when our country must use its armed forces as an instrument of foreign policy, but this is not one of those moments.  Gadhafi posed no imminent threat to anyone but his own people and it is far from clear whether he was in fact poised to kill large numbers of them in some kind of paroxysm of revenge for the rebellion against his authority.  And the problem with humanitarian intervention as a concept is that it opens the door to more of the same wherever there are violations of fundamental rights.  It is perhaps necessary to step back and establish some sort of metric for intervention, but attempting to do so produces some odd results.  When should one intervene on humanitarian grounds and what are the numbers of deaths required to trigger some kind of United States response?

Many countries are not shy about massacring civilians.  The United States has itself killed tens of thousands of them in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Even accepting that Gadhafi might have killed some hundreds of Libyans, he is not exactly unique.  Protesters have recently been met by force in a number of countries in the Arab world, to include Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria and there have been large numbers of fatalities.  How does the United States make a decision whether or not to intervene in those places to save lives?  Is the decision based on the number of deaths, the types of deaths, or, one suspects, the relationship of Washington with whoever is in charge in the respective countries?  Gadhafi was a convenient fall guy and it now appears that President Bashar Assad of Syria is possibly also being set up, but is there any chance that Washington will pull the plug on its support of the Kings of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia?

And then there are other non-Arab friends of the United States like Israel.  By any metric Israel should be attacked first to prevent massacres of civilians as it has killed thousands of Arabs in internationally recognized war crimes carried out in Lebanon and Gaza. That Israel is untouchable on humanitarian grounds raises the inevitable question about Washington’s hypocrisy.  A friendly Saudi Arabia too has demonstrated that it is more than willing to use force to maintain its autarchic rule.  It sent troops to aid neighboring Bahrain, which exacerbated the problem in that nation rather than mitigating the unrest, and has indicated that it is prepared to use force to continue its dominance in the oil producing eastern parts of the country, which are predominantly Shi’ite.  And then there are countries like Burma, where repression is so regular that it is hardly remarked upon, and the Ivory Coast, which is currently going through its own brand of bloodletting with more than 1,000 bodies discovered over the weekend.

In short, there are a whole lot of countries that are ripe for a little humanitarian intervention and even regime change in the more obdurate cases, but there are a couple of good reasons not to do so. First is the ethical consideration that interventions might be grounded in good intentions but they are generally based on inaccurate or even false information about the situation on the ground, which renders suspect the humanitarian aspect itself.  Second, whenever a humanitarian intervention takes place it often produces a bad result.  America’s assistance to the mujahedin in Afghanistan certainly did remove an occupying Russian army but it also led to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.  The often cited massacres in the Balkans in the 1990s turned out to be mostly fictional and the result of the intervention has been a Kosovar state that has become a center for drug trafficking, organ sales, and Islamic radicalism in Europe. 

And then there is Iraq.  Iraq is a poster child for the collateral damage that goes hand in hand with interventions.  It is called mission creep, which happens every time a humanitarian mission is launched.  The neocon fantasy of a short, surgical invasion of Iraq to topple a tyrant and free the people, all paid for by oil revenue, and a quick exit turned out to be anything but.  To be sure, Saddam fell on schedule but he was succeeded by an eight year occupation and still counting, a multiple trillion dollar accounts due, hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions displaced, and a corrupt government in Baghdad that is closer to Tehran than it is to Washington.  Somalia likewise started as a UN program to feed Mogadishu and wound up as Blackhawk Down.  Libya is already beginning to look a lot like Uncle Remus’ tar baby.  Easy to take hold of but hard to release.

The Democratic Party’s undying affection for humanitarian gestures is more than regrettable.  Watching President Obama’s half smirk as he explains in the most honest and truthful terms how he is doing something wonderful for the Libyan people is reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s similar unctuously sincere performances as he ordered the bombing of Serbia.  Neither should be any more acceptable than the truly awful Bush Doctrine that gave the United States carte blanche to invade any country in the world for reasons of security.  Both Republican and Democratic doctrines should be rejected because experience suggests that they do not save lives anywhere, quite the contrary, and each unfortunate overseas adventure only represents a new burden that has to be borne with no discernible gain for the American people.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.