Friday, October 21, 2011

The problem of humanitarian interventions

Something I've been wrestling with since I posted my opposition to the Uganda intervention is whether I could ever support an American military intervention on purely humanitarian grounds. I came of political age around the time of the Rwandan genocide, and I can say that it truly troubled my conscience at the time—and angered me greatly that the West stood by and watched while an entire region descended into hell. If my framework for supporting a military intervention wouldn't allow the United States to get involved, then two possibilities exist: The United States should never intervene on humanitarian grounds, or the framework doesn't work.

Spencer Ackerman today gets at the trouble inherent with humanitarian interventions conducted under a doctrine known as "Responsibility To Protect" on his blog today:
The uncomfortable truth is that a belief in human rights is a disruptive force in global affairs. It scrambles ideological boundaries and takes people down intellectual roads they did not anticipate travelling. It's why the Responsibility To Protect is a force for -- let's strip it of euphemism -- war. Not because, say, Ken Roth or Samantha Power are warmongers; that's absurd. But because the world, and America, has yet to come to terms with the obligations that human rights place on nations, particularly hegemonic ones.

To support the R2P seems like a recipe for endless war; to oppose it, a recipe for endless injustice and impunity. The responsible work of intellectuals and policymakers is to bridle it, to make it commensurate with American capabilities and American interests; to shape a world in which America is not the only nation burdened with enforcing it; and not to avoid the circumstances in which it conflicts with American capabilities and American interests.
Which is to say, once again, that there's no perfect framework for deciding to support or oppose an American military intervention. My framework is very much biased against military adventures of most sorts, which makes it also biased against humanitarian interventions. My problem: I still think the United States and the world should've done something a generation ago in Rwanda. Picking and choosing which holocausts to send troops to halt is tricky business. But it's also necessary.* The difference between Rwanda and Uganda may be mostly that the Rwandan genocide burned hotter, faster, and with much greater immediate loss of life. Is that enough of a distinction? It feels like it to me, but your mileage may vary.

* Necessary, presuming the United States retains its ability to project power virtually anywhere in the world. That's not a given, and if America retreats closer to home, then a lot of this calculation makes no difference. You can't go where you can't go.

1 comment:

Chris Rywalt said...

Have you ever read _Shake Hands with the Devil_? Truly difficult book.