Thursday, October 20, 2011

Humanitarian Intervention After Iraq: Legal Ideals vs. Military Realities

The theory of humanitarian intervention has received new attention since the
humanitarian crises of the 1990s and the United States’ becoming the world’s
sole superpower. The actual practice of humanitarian intervention, however,
has declined. It is difficult to forge the political will for it when the countries
composing the global organizations that could provide the political legitimacy
disagree on an intervention, and with so few countries—mainly the United
States and Great Britain—capable of providing the required expeditionary
forces. Moreover, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have diminished the United
States’ political will, military capability, and diplomatic credibility to conduct
future humanitarian interventions. In particular, those wars precluded its
intervention in the current genocide in Darfur. Regional bodies such as the
African Union may be the only entities that can, with aid and training,
undertake effective interventions.
The United States’ ascension to the role of the world’s sole superpower
in 1991 generated a great debate among American foreign policy
professionals and unleashed the imagination of many commentators
on foreign affairs. For a while, all things seemed possible. Some commentators,
especially neoconservatives but also many neoliberals, began to call
for the establishment of an American empire and for unilateral U.S. military
intervention to promote globalization and spread liberal democracy, free
markets, and open societies around the world. Other commentators, especially
human rights activists, began to call for the establishment of ‘‘global
governance’’ based upon robust international institutions empowered to
enforce universal human rights upon rogue nation-states that abuse their
citizens. In particular, these commentators advocated multilateral humanitarian
intervention by international organizations. Although these two
groups—the protagonists of American empire and the protagonists of
global governance—normally disliked each other, their policy positions
on many military interventions actually had much in common, and both
# 2005 Published by Elsevier Limited on behalf of Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Winter 2005 | 87
supported the humanitarian interventions that became frequent in the
The Rise and Fall of Humanitarian Intervention
The 1990s were a decade of humanitarian intervention. The decade
began with high hopes of ending massive human rights abuses, particularly
large-scale massacres or genocides, through UN intervention. These hopes
vanished after the UN’s failures in Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda, but they
were succeeded by new hopes for U.S. intervention, which hopes seemed to
be validated by U.S. successes in Bosnia and Kosovo and even, to a degree,
in Haiti. There were also the successful interventions carried out by Australia,
with U.S. support, in East Timor in 1999 and by Britain in Sierra Leone in
By the beginning of 2001, the hopes for a future in which humanitarian
intervention would bring an end to the long and baleful history of
genocides reached a sort of apotheosis in a major international document,
The Responsibility to Protect.2 Since then, a large contingent of international
lawyers has continued to develop new doctrines of limited sovereignty that
would give the ‘‘international community’’ or particular international organizations
the right, indeed the obligation, to undertake military intervention
against a national government that is engaging in massive human rights
abuses of its citizens.3
Unfortunately, even as the theory and law of humanitarian intervention
have ascended to unprecedented heights, the actual practice of humanitarian
intervention has been in decline. So far, the 2000s have not seen
effective humanitarian intervention by anyone, be it the international community
and international organizations, the United States, or others. Instead of
pursuing humanitarian interventions, the United States has engaged in two
wars, one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, that the Bush administration justified
in human rights terms. This is especially true in the case of Iraq, but the real
impact of that war has been to make humanitarian intervention by the United
States elsewhere impossible. This radically reduces the prospects for successful
humanitarian interventions in the future, while improving the prospects for
undeterred and uninhibited ethnic massacres or genocides, such as has been
occurring in the western Sudan.
1 See the Fall 2001 special issue of Orbis focusing on humanitarian intervention. A recent
compilation of articles on humanitarian intervention forms the Winter/Spring 2005 issue of
Global Dialogue, published by the Centre for World Dialogue, Nicosia, Cyprus. An earlier
version of the present article was published in that volume.
2 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to
Protect (Ottawa, Ontario: International Development Research Centre, Dec. 2001).
3 See Amitai Etzioni, ‘‘Sovereignty as Responsibility,’’ in this issue of Orbis.
88 | Orbis
Organized Massacres
Ethnic massacres or genocides are commonly thought to be the
product of longstanding and widespread hatreds between opposing ethnic
groups within a society. Certainly, these hatreds have been present to some
extent in the most infamous ethnic massacres or genocides of recent years, and
the ethnic-hatreds explanation for these conflicts has important policy implications
for humanitarian interventions. If the ethnic hatreds are really longstanding
and widespread, no outside intervention can get at the roots of the
conflict. With the inevitable eventual departure of the intervention forces, the
conflict is likely to erupt again, perhaps even attaining the scale of massacres or
genocide again.
Ethnic hatreds among a population may be a necessary condition of
massacres or genocide, but they are not a sufficient condition. There has
always been a large organization, indeed usually a modern bureaucratic state,
behind them.4 In the prominent examples from the 1990s, this organization
was the Milosevic regime and the Serbian state and para-state organizations
(e.g., army and militias) that it controlled and deployed in Bosnia and Kosovo;
the Hutu regime and its state and para-state organizations (again, army and
militias) in Rwanda; and the Indonesian military and its auxiliary militias in East
Timor. (In Sierra Leone, the organizations that directed the massacres were not
part of the state, which had largely collapsed, but consisted of a number of
warlords and their militias.)
When one adds to ethnic hatreds a state organization that can direct
them, and indeed plan, order, and execute actions based on them, then one
has the sufficient condition for genocide or massacre. This two-part explanation
of ethnic conflict has important policy implications for intervention, and
they are quite different from those of the ethnic-hatreds explanation. If
massacres or genocides are really the product of a specific state or para-state
military, then it will take another military from the outside to defeat them and
to stop the killing. Once the murdering organizations are destroyed by the
intervention forces, a peace of sorts can be established. The central question
obviously then becomes, who can and will provide the outside military force?
Both the can (military capability) and the will (political will) are essential.
A humanitarian intervention therefore requires both a political authority,
to decide upon and authorize it, and a military force, to carry it out. The
possible political authorities have varied from the government of a particular
nation-state, such as the United States or Britain; through regional organiza-
Humanitarian Intervention
4 Samuel Totten, William S. Parsons, and Israel W. Charny, eds., Century of Genocide:
Eyewitness Accounts and Critical Views (New York: Garland, 1997); Robert Melson, Revolution
and Genocide: On the Origins of the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1996); Samantha Power, ‘A Problem from Hell’: America and
The Age of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 2002).
Winter 2005 | 89
tions, such as NATO or the European Union; to the most universal organization
of all, the UN. The possible military forces have varied from standing expeditionary
forces (e.g., the military forces of, again, the United States or Britain),
through temporary coalitions of similar military forces under the leadership of
one of them (e.g., the NATO forces in Bosnia and Kosovo), to ad hoc multinational
forces composed of disparate military units drawn from several
different states (e.g., the UN peacekeeping forces in the initial phase of the
interventions in Somalia, Bosnia, and Sierra Leone). In practice, therefore,
there seems to be a correlation between the kind of political authority and the
kind of military force.
The Trade-off between Legitimacy and Efficacy
Judging by recent history, there may be something of a trade-off
between the legitimacy and the efficacy of an intervention. The political
authority with the greatest legitimacy among the widest number of states is
the UN. However, almost any proposed humanitarian intervention is likely to
be viewed by one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council as
a threat to its particular interests (as has recently been the case with China in
regard to Sudan, where the Chinese have substantial oil concessions), and the
proposed intervention will likely be vetoed. Thus, the most legitimate political
authority is also likely to be the least efficacious one.
Conversely, the political authoritywith the greatest efficacy, in the sense
of being able to decide upon and authorize an intervention quickly and
coherently, is the government of a particular nation-state withmodern, standing,
expeditionary (overseas) military forces, probably the United States, Britain,
France, Australia, or Canada. Interventions undertaken by either Britain or
France have some legitimacy problems because of their colonial pasts (and
because of France’s recent interventions in Africa, which were clearly in pursuit
of its particular interests). But interventions undertaken by the United States
have their own legitimacy problems, because of the controversial record of past
U.S. interventions and because of fears of a U.S. imperial future. Thus, the most
efficacious political authority is also likely to be the least legitimate one.
Perhaps this trade-off between legitimacy and efficacy can be transcended
by turning to the middle kind of political authority, that is, a regional
organization composed of somewhat similar states. For example, the NATO
interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo had a respectable degree of legitimacy and
also a reasonable degree of efficacy. Unfortunately, most regional organizations
are not yet organized to the point that they can decide upon and
authorize something as difficult and demanding as a humanitarian intervention.
This is the problem with such loose organizations as the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and all the other regional groups in Asia and
with the African Union (AU) and all the other regional groups in Africa.
90 | Orbis
The Dismal Record of UN Interventions
In the early 1990s, the answer to the question, ‘‘Who can and will
intervene?’’ was the UN as the universal political authority, combined with ad
hoc multinational forces assembled for each operation and composed of
military units from several different nations. The UN had accumulated a
relatively successful record of peacekeeping operations over the 1970s and
1980s this way. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had sometimes
vetoed UN peacekeeping missions, it seemed that the UN could build upon its
peacekeeping record and even expand its scope to peace-enforcing. Thus,
when Somalia and Bosnia posed humanitarian problems in 1992, the major
powers, including the United States, proposed this UN formula. It was also the
answer initially applied to Sierra Leone when its state failed and the country fell
into anarchy, murder, and mayhem.
As it turned out, each of these UN interventions in failed states became
notorious failures themselves. In Somalia, the UN forces first had to be rescued
by U.S. forces, and then both withdrew and left the Somalis in chaos, where the
country remains even now. In Bosnia, the UN forces did not stop the ethnic
massacres, which culminated in the murder of 7,000 men and boys in
Srebrenica in 1995. In Sierra Leone, the UN forces had to be rescued by British
forces, who then carried out an effective intervention. And in Rwanda, the UN
forces were prevented by the UN leadership in New York from stopping the
genocide of 800,000 Tutsi.5
There has been some slight improvement in UN interventions more
recently. UN forces have been engaged in a continuing, though largely ineffective,
intervention in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
(formerly Zaire),where the anarchy and violence continue also. And since 2003,
UN forces have maintained a tenuous and unstable peace in Liberia, a country
that had been torn apart by a dozen years of warlord violence.
The Ambiguous Record of Other Interventions
The several cases in the 1990s where military intervention was clearly
successful in stopping massacres were undertaken by U.S. and NATO forces (in
Bosnia, in 1995, and Kosovo, in 1999); Australian forces, in East Timor in 1999;
and the British, in Sierra Leone in 2000. U.S. military forces were also able to
stop the human rights abuses by the military regime in Haiti in 1994.6 However,
Humanitarian Intervention
5 Power, A Problem from Hell, chs. 9–11.
6 Even the U.S. interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Haiti are seen as failures in the critical
account by Gary T. Dempsey and Roger W. Fontaine, Fool’s Errands: America’s Recent
Encounters with Nation Building (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2001). See also David
Rieff, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002),
especially chs. 4 and 6.
Winter 2005 | 91
the U.S.-installed successor government, the Aristide regime, perpetrated its
own abuses in later years, until the United States intervened again in 2004 in
order to depose it. This time, however, the U.S. military intervention was
modest in scale and brief in duration. Upon the departure of American forces, a
pervasive anarchy ensued.
These five cases largely complete the list of successful humanitarian
interventions since 1991. They are balanced by some unsuccessful ones, such
as that by U.S. and UN forces in Somalia (1992–93) and by West African forces in
Liberia and in Sierra Leone (the mid-1990s). Moreover, the successful cases
should be compared with, and perhaps are outweighed by, the many cases of
non-intervention, when massacres or genocide persisted with no intervention
by the UN, a regional organization, or a major power. The most notorious case
was, of course, Rwanda, but the list also includes Sudan (in particular, the
southern region until 2003 and the western region of Darfur since then),
Burundi, and Angola. Overall, then, the historical record of humanitarian
interventions is more one of failure than success.
The Successful Cases of Humanitarian Intervention
The above record might suggest ways humanitarian intervention could
work in the future. In each of the five successful cases, the intervention was
decided upon by the political authorities of a particular state—the United
States (even if it operated within the framework of NATO), Britain, or Australia—
and carried out by that state’s professional military forces. These forces
had expeditionary capabilities, and there was unity of command with respect
to decision-making and decision-execution—that is, at both the political and
the military levels. The interventions could therefore be undertaken decisively
and quickly, and executed with focus, persistence, and effectiveness. This
contrasts, for example, with the feckless UN intervention in Bosnia, where there
was no unified political authority for its modern military forces, and the
ineffective West African interventions in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where there
was some unity of decision-making around the Nigerian government, but
the intervening nations lacked modern military forces. Of course, even when
the decision-making is unified and the military forces highly professional, the
intervention will fail if political decision-makers are feckless, as was the case
with the Clinton administration in Somalia.
The Necessary Role of a Modern State
Under today’s conditions, it would appear that a successful humanitarian
intervention can only be undertaken when a modern state with modern
military forces is willing to do so. Not only must the forces be highly
professional, they must also be capable of expeditionary operations. The
92 | Orbis
number of modern states is rather large, but of them, only the United States,
Britain, France, Canada, and Australia possess modern, professional, and
expeditionary military forces. It is no coincidence that the five successful
humanitarian interventions were carried out by three of these countries (the
United States, Britain, and Australia), that another (France) has a long history of
(non-humanitarian) military interventions in Africa, and that Canada has a long
history of participating in peacekeeping operations.
Among these five states, the United States obviously looms large.
Indeed, in most cases, it is the only nation from which humanitarian intervention
might come. The other four states capable of it can generally take the
lead in deciding upon and carrying-out an intervention only in limited
circumstances. Britain may take the lead in an intervention in one of the
smaller of its former colonies, as in Sierra Leone; France on occasion may also
take the lead in an intervention in one of its smaller former colonies, if the
intervention directly serves its particular interests, as in the Ivory Coast in 2004.
Australia may take the lead in an intervention in its immediate region, as in East
Timor. As for Canada, which no longer has a substantial expeditionary
capability, the only places where it might take the lead in an intervention
are certain former British colonies in the Caribbean.
If one adds up all of the potential afflicted countries that might be
rescued by Britain, France, Australia, or Canada, it is obvious that large
numbers of countries (and especially large countries) are outside these
countries’ combined sphere of intervention. Excluded countries include such
present and potential arenas of massacres or genocide as Sudan, Congo,
Burundi, and, not too far in the future, other parts of Africa as well. Can we
expect the United States to step into this African void?
The United States and African Interventions
Even during the 1990s, when American willingness to undertake
humanitarian intervention was at its peak, the United States evinced very
little interest in intervening in Africa. The failed intervention in Somalia was the
exception that proves the rule. While Somalia is an African country, its location
at the southern end of the Red Sea and just across from the Arabian Peninsula
also puts it, for many geopolitical and economic purposes, in the Middle East.
But even U.S. geopolitical and economic considerations were not enough to
persuade the United States to remain in Somalia after its famous setback in
Mogadishu. Somalia’s humanitarian disaster has continued for more than a
decade, right up until today.
Of course, the United States was at the center of the most notorious
case of non-intervention in the last generation, Rwanda. As is well-known, the
Clinton administration not only declined to have U.S. military forces intervene
in Rwanda, but it actively prevented the UN from obtaining military forces from
Humanitarian Intervention
Winter 2005 | 93
other countries. (This April 1994 decision for non-intervention was largely a
reaction to the Mogadishu debacle six months earlier, in October 1993.)7
The United States did almost nothing even in the case of Liberia, the
one African country where it had had a very long-standing and direct political
and economic involvement, when that country collapsed into anarchy and
massacres after 1989. It occasionally sent units of the Marines to protect or
evacuate American citizens, but the murder and mayhem of Liberians continued
for a dozen years.
Finally, in terms of sheer numbers of deaths caused by war, genocide,
or anarchy, the two most massive human rights disasters of the past generation
have been the Congo (more than 2 million deaths from war or from consequent
famine and disease in the 1990s–2000s) and Sudan (more than
2 million deaths in southern Sudan in the 1980s–90s and now more than
200,000 deaths in Darfur since 2003). Washington has done nothing in the
Congo, and the disaster continues. In regard to Sudan, the Bush administration
did use extensive and focused diplomatic and political pressure to bring about
a peace of sorts in southern Sudan in 2003–05. But this seems to be having the
effect of displacing the human rights violations—indeed, the genocidal
operations—of the Sudanese government into western Sudan. Washington
has officially criticized these human rights violations as genocide, but has done
nothing else, and the disaster continues.
7 Power, ‘‘A Problem from Hell,’’ pp. 340–4, 374–5, 510–11.
94 | Orbis
Africa, therefore, presents a particularly tragic and paradoxical problem
in regard to the prospects for humanitarian intervention. The continent
presents the largest number of countries (and the largest countries) where
massacres and genocides are now occurring and are likely to occur in the
future. It is where the need for humanitarian intervention is greatest. For a
small number of African countries (especially if they are small ones), either
Britain or France might be able to undertake a successful intervention, not
unlike their interventions in Sierra Leone or the Ivory Coast. However, for most
African countries, only the United States will have the military capability to
intervene successfully. But because of its lack of either deep historical
connections or contemporary vital interests in Africa, it is not likely to have
the political will to do so.
Washington’s reluctance to undertake humanitarian interventions in
Africa, or indeed any place else, in the near future is deepened by two other
U.S. realities, one relating to the U.S. military and the other to the consequences
of the Iraq War, that have recently come into being.
The U.S. Military’s Perspective
Only a military force that can conduct land operations can carry out a
true humanitarian intervention undertaken to defeat and destroy a local
military or militia that is executing large-scale massacres or genocide. The
U.S. Army and the U.S. Marines are both capable of this, but have very different
specific capabilities.
The U.S. Army participated in successful interventions, or, more
accurately, peacekeeping occupations, such as those in Haiti, Bosnia, and
Kosovo in the 1990s. However, in each case the Army was initially reluctant to
do so, and President Clinton had to exert considerable pressure on the Army
leadership before they took up the task.8 That is because the Army sees itself as
the military service that fights other large armies in conventional groundcombat
operations. Its classic historical opponents were the German and
Soviet armies, and for decades the U.S. Army was designed to fight this kind of
enemy. In the 1990s, the closest remaining equivalents were the Iraqi army and
the North Korean army, and the Army was still organized to fight this kind of
enemy. Although it would have been perfectly capable of fighting the regular
army of the Milosevic regime, it was unprepared to fight irregular militias or to
maintain a military occupation. The Army’s reluctance to undertake this kind of
military operation was powerfully reinforced by its experiences in Vietnam
and Somalia. Thus it was reluctant to deploy to Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. As it
happened, the Army was able to withdraw quickly from Haiti, and even
Humanitarian Intervention
8 David Halberstam, War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals (New York:
Scribner, 2001).
Winter 2005 | 95
though it remained in Bosnia and Kosovo for a long period, it did not have to
engage in significant combat there. This did not, however, make the Army any
more eager to engage in these kinds of unconventional operations.
Indeed, the Iraq War has largely demonstrated the good sense of the
Army’s self-definition. The Army was extremely successful in defeating the
regular Iraqi army in spring 2003. However, it has been very unsuccessful since
then in dealing with the irregular Iraqi insurgents and in maintaining the
military occupation. Its current ordeal in Iraq will make the Army extremely
reluctant, even resistant, to undertake any such unconventional operations,
including humanitarian interventions, in the future.
In contrast, the U.S. Marine Corps at one time emphasized its long role
as an expeditionary force that could engage in unconventional or counterinsurgency
operations against irregular forces.9 But this tradition was eclipsed
during World War II by a new one that focused on amphibious operations
against another conventional force (e.g., the Japanese army on the islands of
the Pacific), and during the Cold War, the Marines were even trained to fight
the Soviet army in such places as northern Norway. However, in the 1990s, the
Marines began to recover and reemphasize their earlier, expeditionary tradition.
Although the experience of Iraq has been an ordeal for the Marines, as it
has been for the Army, the Marines are more likely to view the experience as
one to build upon, rather than one to avoid in the future. It is possible,
therefore, that the U.S. Marine Corps will remain open to undertaking
humanitarian interventions in the future.
For the most part, however, the Iraq War has had very damaging
consequences for humanitarian intervention. The war has developed in a way
that will make it almost impossible for the United States to undertake such an
intervention over the next several years, and it has greatly impaired both the
political will and the military capability necessary for such interventions.
The Consequences of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan
Had the Iraq War in 2003 followed the pattern of the Bosnian intervention
of 1995, the Kosovo War of 1999, or the Afghan War of 2001, the
prospects for more U.S. humanitarian interventions would have been greatly
enhanced. In each of these cases, prior to the beginning of U.S. military
operations, critics and skeptics—often with great professional expertise and
reputation—had warned that U.S. forces would get bogged down in a long and
difficult war. They pointed to Somalia, Lebanon, and especially Vietnam. As it
happened, however, in Bosnia and Kosovo, U.S. air power, along with the
ground forces of local allies, such as the Croatian Army and the Kosovo
9 Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (New
York: Basic Books, 2002).
96 | Orbis
Liberation Army, was sufficient to win the war. In Afghanistan, the combination
of U.S. air power and a small number of U.S. special forces—again, along
with the more numerous ground forces of local allies, such as the Northern
Alliance—was sufficient to win the war. These United States seemed to have
perfected a new, American way of war, one that involved very little commitment
of ground forces, that could achieve its objectives very quickly, and that
would result in minimal American deaths. The critics and skeptics, it seemed,
had been proven wrong. Most importantly, the United States could now look
forward to similar quick and inexpensive successes in future military operations,
including humanitarian interventions.
The human rights advocates in the Clinton administration drew this
conclusion after Kosovo, and if Vice President Albert Gore had become
president in 2001, the United States might have been ready to undertake
another humanitarian intervention when an appropriate case arose. (In
summer 2001, Macedonia seemed to be on the brink of an ethnic war.) In
contrast, the Bush administration in its first months publicly and clearly
expressed its view that humanitarian intervention was remote from U.S. vital
interests. Human rights advocates, however, were still enthusiastic that humanitarian
interventions with U.S. military forces could and should be a major
pillar of the emerging order of universal human rights. They became even
more enthusiastic after the apparent success of the Afghan War. Some, most
notably Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy
at Harvard University, even became advocates of an ‘‘American empire,’’
which would impose and enforce human rights around the world.10
The Course of the Iraq War
When the Bush administration decided, after the 9/11 attacks but even
before the conclusion of the Afghan War, that itwould go to warwith Iraq, it did
so because of its own definition of U.S. vital interests. These included both
security interests (the presumed threat ofweapons ofmass destruction under the
control of Iraq or even Al Qaeda) and economic ones (the anticipated U.S.
control of Iraqi oil production). But some prominent members of the administration—
most obviously thenDeputy Secretary ofDefense PaulWolfowitz, but
also probably President Bush himself—sawa U.S. vital interest in bringing about
the democratization of Iraq, and then using Iraq as a model to spread liberal
democracy and free markets to other countries in the Middle East, most notably
Syria and Iran.11 And because the Saddam Hussein regime had engaged in
Humanitarian Intervention
10 Michael Ignatieff, ‘‘The Burden,’’ New York Times Magazine, Jan. 5, 2003 (the title given on
the magazine’s cover was ‘‘The American Empire (Get Used to It)’’; see also his ‘‘The Challenges
of American Imperial Power,’’ Naval War College Review, Spring 2003.
11 James Kurth, ‘‘Ignoring History: U.S. Democratization in the Muslim World,’’ Orbis, Spring
Winter 2005 | 97
massive human rights violations in the past (against the Kurds in 1988 and
against bothKurds and Shiites in 1991), itwas easy for theBush administration to
claim that its war against Iraq was actually a sort of humanitarian intervention.
The fact that the massacres had occurred more than a decade before was
unimportant. Michael Ignatieff and other prominent advocates of humanitarian
intervention joined the Bush administration and its supporters, neoconservative
and other, in promoting and justifying the war against Saddam’s regime.12
The first phase of the Iraq War (March–April 2003) followed the
trajectory of the Bosnian, Kosovo, and Afghan wars and seemed to validate
the new American way of war. Saddam’s regime and the Iraqi army quickly
collapsed, and the operation promised to go down as a great leap forward in
the progress of democratization and humanitarian intervention. But then, in
summer 2003, there began a persistent insurgency against the U.S.-led occupation
forces. The continuing ordeal of U.S. military forces in Iraq may have
totally demolished the confident predictions about the new American way of
war and the grand speculations about a new American empire.
The Consequences of the Iraq War
Among the casualties of the Iraq War has been the U.S. political will to
undertake any new humanitarian interventions, let alone those that are remote
from U.S. vital interests. Even with the reelection of President Bush in
November 2004, the administration has no mandate to undertake a new
intervention, in part because there is no credibility left in its justifications
for undertaking its intervention in Iraq. Those political writers who only three
years ago enthusiastically advocated the war, as well as interventions to
impose democratization and human rights more generally, now devote
themselves to criticizing the administration for its inept way of conducting
the war and the occupation. Insofar as they contemplate any new military
operations, it is only in regard to the growing nuclear capability of Iran. About
humanitarian intervention, even with respect to the human rights disaster in
Darfur, they have had nothing to say.
Even if by some oddity the American political will to undertake military
interventions had survived the ordeal in Iraq and was ready to order a new
intervention, the U.S. military capability to carry it out no longer exists. With the
U.S. ground forces stretched to their limit in Iraq, there is no reserve of ground
forces left to engage in sizable and extended operations anywhere else. It is
telling to note that the U.S. Marine operation in Haiti in 2004 was much smaller
and much briefer than the earlier, joint Army-Marine operation there in 1994; it
was truly a case of too little, too late. The Haitian population has been left in
anarchy and misery. In a sense, they too have become casualties of the IraqWar.
12 Michael Ignatieff, ‘‘I Am Iraq,’’ New York Times Magazine, Mar. 23, 2003.
98 | Orbis
The Iraq War also diminished the United States’ credibility in arguing
for intervention before the UN, as with the Darfur genocide in Sudan. The way
the United States treated the UN prior to the Iraq War—presenting evidence
and arguments that were later discredited, then going to war despite UN
opposition—gave it a bad reputation when the administration came to the UN
again, in regard to Darfur, in fall 2004. Of course, the United States would have
faced substantial opposition from, for example, China in the Security Council
and the Arab and many African states in the General Assembly, because of their
calculations of state interests. But the legacy of the Iraq War made it seem
legitimate, and therefore made it easy, for these states to oppose the United
States on Darfur.
By destroying the United States’ political will, military capability, and
diplomatic credibility, the Iraq War has made it almost impossible for the
United States to undertake any humanitarian intervention in the foreseeable
future. In particular, it has made it impossible for the United States to undertake
any intervention against the greatest recent case of genocide, that by the
Sudanese government and its auxiliaries against the African population in
Darfur. And so, they too in a sense have become casualties of the Iraq War.
The human rights advocates who supported going to war in Iraq have
much to answer for. They did not themselves cause the war; the Bush
administration had its own reasons and would have gone to war for these
alone. However, the human rights advocates helped to legitimate the war; the
administration used these advocates to confuse and divide liberals who were
otherwise inclined to oppose the war. In a sense, these human rights advocates
were accessories to the war and to its attendant deceptions. They contributed
to the war and to the afflictions that it has brought to its victims, directly in Iraq
and indirectly elsewhere, as in Darfur. They are guilty, in short, of a morally
unconscionable recklessness.13
The Specter of an Iraq Syndrome
The ghost of the Iraq War is likely to haunt America and to deter U.S.
interventions for years, even after the war is over. For this is what happened in
the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The U.S. debacle in Vietnam produced ‘‘the
Vietnam syndrome.’’ Its practical effect was a period of more than a decade in
which both policymakers and the public were extremely reluctant to undertake
any intervention with substantial numbers of ground forces. There were a
couple of small and fitful uses of military force during this period (the Iranian
rescue mission of 1980 and the Lebanese intervention of 1982–84), which
failed in part because of insufficient forces. There was also the successful
Humanitarian Intervention
13 David Rieff, At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention (New
York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), especially pp. 157–72, ‘‘The Specter of Imperialism: The
Marriage of the Human Rights Left and the New Imperialist Right.’’
Winter 2005 | 99
intervention in Grenada in 1983, a case of overwhelming force against a small
and fitful opponent. That intervention was the first step in overcoming the
Vietnam syndrome. But it was not until the United States employed military
force to overthrow the Manuel Noriega regime in Panama in 1989 that it could
be said that the United States was again willing to undertake military interventions
on a substantial scale. The success in Panama laid the groundwork for
the long series of U.S. wars and military interventions in the 1990s, beginning
with the Gulf War.
It is worth observing that the Grenadian, Panamanian, and Haitian
interventions were in America’s traditional sphere of influence in the
Caribbean basin. The United States has been intervening in this region for
more than a century; it has extensive strategic and political interests there; and
therefore it was a natural place to begin overcoming the Vietnam syndrome. As
for the Bosnian and Kosovo interventions, the Clinton administration saw
them as logical extensions of America’s traditional interest in European
stability, with the sphere of responsibility of the NATO alliance now being
expanded from Western Europe into Eastern Europe.
Although it is to be hoped that the Iraq War will not reach the depths of
the Vietnam debacle, it is very likely that it will produce its own ‘‘Iraq
syndrome,’’ an extreme reluctance in American policymakers and the public
to undertake new military interventions, and this reluctance is likely to persist
through the term of at least one presidential administration elected in the wake
of the war. And if and when the United States again begins to undertake
military interventions, it is likely to do so in defense of concrete and vital
security, political, or economic interests, rather than in defense of human rights
in countries that are remote from those interests. These interventions probably
won’t be in the Middle East or more broadly in the Muslim world. And given
the lack of vital U.S. interests in Africa, they almost certainly won’t be there,
either. In short, the United States is unlikely to undertake military interventions
in the very regions where, from a humanitarian view, they are most likely to be
The Twilight of Humanitarian Intervention?
With the only candidate states—United States, Britain, France, and
perhaps Australia and Canada—unlikely to intervene or likely to intervene at
most only in small countries that are former colonies or in their immediate
region, there is not much hope for humanitarian intervention in the modernstate
formula. And the other formula, that of ad hoc multinational military
forces directed by the UN, has a dismal record and prospects. It will almost
always be the case that one of the five permanent members of the Security
Council will see the proposed intervention to be against its state interests and
exercise its veto. It will also often be the case that a large number of countries
100 | Orbis
in the General Assembly will oppose the intervention as a threat to their
interests or as an outside intrusion into their particular region. Even if these
political obstacles could be overcome for a particular humanitarian crisis, the
ad hoc multinational military force will be assembled only after frustrating
delays and only with poorly-organized forces, a classic case of too little, too
Between these two formulas there may lie a third: a regional organization
directing a standing, modern military force whose units are drawn from
the region. As an example, the EU, the organization with the greatest potential
capability in this regard, could direct a standing force drawn from its member
states that would be available to intervene in future ethnic conflicts in say, the
Balkans. However, in this case, since NATO already possesses this capability, an
EU force might be redundant.
The organization that could address the greater potential need would
be the 53-member African Union, if it developed a standing force equipped
and trained up to modern standards, which would require substantial financial
and logistical support from the EU and the United States.14 In the summer and
fall of 2005, the EU and NATO undertook a tiny prototype of this kind of
assistance, when they provided airlift and training support to several thousand
AU soldiers charged with monitoring the situation (not with peacekeeping or
peace-enforcing) in Darfur.
Of course, the AU’s political will could be weak. Its decision-making
process might recapitulate that of the UN, in that there may always be some
members who would find it in their interest to veto an intervention. The
military force could also be weak: before it would be able to undertake an
effective humanitarian intervention, it would have to acquire many standards
and skills, and the development of this force would take several years at least.
The twin problems of weak political will and weak military force largely
explain why the AU has not been very effective in Darfur.
Still, given the seeming inevitability of more ethnic conflicts and
humanitarian crises in Africa for the foreseeable future, and given the seeming
paucity of other options for effective humanitarian intervention, a standing AU
intervention force may be the only plausible way to go. The EU and the
United States can each provide material support to enable African
states to move in that direction. And the time to move, already too late
for Darfur and not too soon for the next humanitarian disaster, is now.
Humanitarian Intervention
14On recent efforts at intervention by African international organizations, see Jeremy Levitt,
‘‘The Law on Intervention: Africa’s Pathbreaking Model,’’ Global Dialogue, Winter/Spring 2005.
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