Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Humanitarian Military Intervention - Peace Through Superior Firepower?

Liberal Interventionism.  I know.  The very words produce an abject rejection, leave us recoiling in horror at the thought of another wasteful and ultimately pointless slaughter in the name of some loosely defined and incompletely supported set of 'values'.  But here's a thought.  Perhaps, just perhaps, the outcomes of international military humanitarian intervention have failed not on concept, but on execution.  You know, like the Zune™.

Perhaps it really is, ultimately, simple and obvious.  Perhaps confronting violence with more violence cannot lead to peace, just as common sense tells us it doesn't reduce violence.  Perhaps there is no place for the force of arms in modern international diplomacy, and if the community of nations cannot prevent a thuggish despot from killing and oppressing his neighbors or his own people by persuasion and negotiation, they should not attempt to do so by coercion.  Perhaps.

But I remain, frankly, unconvinced.  Just because we've seen major powers and the international organizations they form to implement extra-national diplomacy misuse their military power, using international laws and treaties, along with explanations of humanitarian intentions to justify the imposition of a specific agenda by force, or even to provide political and diplomatic cover for aggressive warfare.  And certainly there have been other cases, where the intent was good but the execution got caught up in political and military struggles to assert power that led to disasters like Somalia.  But the idealist in me continues to insist that with reasonably pure motives and a limited set of goals, the international community can come together to protect a helpless population from dictators, warlords and criminals for whom their lives are worth, at most, the cost of a bullet.

First, let's be clear.  Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq were in no way humanitarian interventions.  They were essentially unilateral aggressive wars fought out of choice for entirely political reasons.  Korea and Gulf War I were arguably fought for good reasons, but Korea was mismanaged into a years long bloodbath where millions lost their lives and livelihoods, and while Gulf War I was perhaps the best example of how to fight a twenty-first century war, the aftermath descended into political acrimony, economic manipulation, murderous sanctions and thus became a festering regional open sore, driving political factions to increasingly brutal and radical positions for reasons that literally had nothing to do with Iraq itself.

Somalia was a poor choice for humanitarian intervention, because there was no political or even tribal or religious infrastructure to facilitate the delivery of food and medicine.  Remember, the intervention in Somalia was not originally intended to be a fight, but rather a mechanism to bring about a temporary end to the bloodshed and the delivery of desperately needed aid.  But it was the armed forces that were tapped to provide the relief services, and militaries tend to be uncomfortable with missions that do not primarily involve breaking things and hurting people, so the mission slowly and inevitably evolved into a combat role, and all hope of a good outcome was gone in a 24 hour paroxysm of bloodletting.  

Bosnia was a good example of what humanitarian intervention could have been.  But confusion, uncertainty, incompetence and outright cowardice left the good people promised a safe haven in Srebrenica occupying mass graves, and everything after that, despite a surprisingly good marketing campaign, turned forever to ashes.

So far, I think it is completely fair to see Libya as a success.  A strictly interpreted no-fly zone would have been the worst combination of intervention and ineffectiveness, but working as both the strategic and tactical air force for the Rebels has leveled the playing field and allowed the Rebels time to organize while the Gaddhafi loyalists could read the writing on the wall and decide to change sides.  There is no doubt that had the world not intervened, Gaddhafi's air, armor, heavy weapons and superior firepower would have quickly doomed the rebellion, and the fall of Misrata and later Benghazi would have been horrific, brutal massacres of the first order.  So the intervention in Libya has met the key criterion for humanitarian military intervention - the minimal force required to change the combat dynamic so the bad guy loses, while being prepared to kill members of either side in sufficient numbers if they threaten non combatants.  It certainly remains to be seen what the outcome and disengagement will look like, but so far it's pretty easy to see Libya as a successful operation.

I would have been prepared to support intervention in Rwanda and Sudan, but it seems that industrial scale murder and rape of civilians is necessary, but not sufficient to cause the international community, particularly the US and Europe, to act.  In a cynical moment, one might observe that in order to qualify for humanitarian intervention, a nation either needs to be populated by white Europeans, or have significant natural resources, particularly oil reserves.  This may or may not be exclusively true, as the sample size is necessarily small, but it obviously must be considered at least a contributing factor.  But one Ranger Battalion with sufficient air mobility could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives in Rwanda, and al-Bashir could have been coerced to moderate his behavior and control the paramilitaries by holding some of his more treasured assets at risk.



  1. My canned response is that 'war never improves anything'.

    I concede that some wars become necessary, vis. WWI, WWII, others may be arguable. But the aftermath is always, always a net loss.

    The only way to turn it around is through Marshall Plan type rebuilding, and in that case, wouldn't it be better to spend that money on aid and infrastructure BEFORE killing all those people?

  2. Yeah. I didn't expect everyone to agree with me. Hell, I'm not certain I agree with me. But I'm sure of one thing. If nobody does anything, a lot of innocent and helpless people are gonna die hard. And, at least up to this point, the Libyan intervention has saved FAR more lives than it's taken. And for that matter, some deftly applied modern combat power might have saved a million lives in Rwanda and Sudan - I just can't see how anybody's better off for the not trying.

    And those 8000 victims of Mladic's brutality in Srebrenica? They CAME there because the fucking UN promised them they'd be protected there. They had troops, armor and air. Yeah, the Serbian army was scary, and they would have taken some casualties. But the craven cowardice to walk away and leave those people to the tender mercies of Mladic and his thugs, who then marched away without a fight, just makes me want to hit somebody. Sometimes you just have to fight them...

  3. yea. I am with you, that I am willing to kill the motherfuckers who want to kill me.

    But that's where the squicky stuff comes in. We can't save everybody. So who do we jump in to save, and how do we save them?

    But in my weird ass PV, I really don't think that bombing the shit out of everything is a good approach.

  4. So far, I think it is completely fair to see Libya as a success.

    Iraq was also considered a success at one point (and still is, for those who sell arms and petrochemicals).

    The problem isn't saying that a place could be found where military intervention might be a net humanitarian plus, it's all those real-world examples wherein "War is Hell".

    You know what they say about doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result...

  5. Your point is valid, and important, although the thing that goes unmentioned is that Iraq was objectively a failure - the only people who claimed it was a success were some with an ideological dog in that fight and the media that supports them on every issue. In order to define a success, you have to have a criterion FOR success, and as an unnecessary, unprovoked and completely optional aggressive war, there just aren't a lot of standards by which it could be judged a 'success'.

    The stated goal of the Libyan intervention was to prevent loyalist forces from slaughtering non combatants, and I think you can reach the conclusion pretty easily that to this point that has been accomplished, with a relatively limited use of violence...

  6. The stated goal may not be the real goal.

    Worth reading, imho.

    (1) The reason -- the only reason -- we know about any of this is because WikiLeaks (and, allegedly, Bradley Manning) disclosed to the world the diplomatic cables which detail these conflicts.

    (2) Is there anyone -- anywhere -- who actually believes that these aren't the driving considerations in why we're waging this war in Libya? After almost three months of fighting and bombing -- when we're so far from the original justifications and commitments that they're barely a distant memory -- is there anyone who still believes that humanitarian concerns are what brought us and other Western powers to the war in Libya?

    Is Glenn Greenwald right? He isn't always. But I know I can't trust our government to tell the truth about anything they do.

    They're going after Bradley Manning and Wikileaks a lot harder than they are people who have done massively greater crimes...and all with applause from the New York Times and Washington Post.

  7. All questions very much worth asking, although I think there's no question that energy resources DO factor into the decisions as to whether to use military force. But I'd say two things.

    One, your cynicism is excessive. If EVERYBODY is corrupt but you, then maybe you need to reexamine the evidence. I know for a fact that there are good people in the Military, the State Dept. and in NonGovs. There absolutely ARE people for whom the driving consideration is exclusively humanitarian. There are corrupt people in leadership positions, sure, but to speak as if there are none who are NOT corrupt is just as silly as denying there are any.

    And no matter what the motivations, I'll go back once again to the undeniable fact that thousands of lives HAVE been saved. Benghazi still holds, and the battle is primarily between combatants, albeit in urban environments. There is brutality and atrocity, but massively below the level there would have been without the intervention.

    That's a very good outcome...

  8. One, your cynicism is excessive. If EVERYBODY is corrupt but you, then maybe you need to reexamine the evidence.

    Did I say that? Heck, I didn't even earn a paycheck in the last few months. What could be more corrupt than that in today's America?

    You are saying, "Some lives have been saved, here."

    I am adding "for now...and we've seen this movie before, and the so-called heroes have a bad record overall when it comes to saving lives, not to mention being honest about why they are doing what they're doing."

    The facts support my statement, don't they?

    P.S. Please don't put me in the 'holier than thou' brigade.

    If you like, I can direct you to threads where that brigade finds me apostate for stating that as bad as I find Obama and today's Democratic party to be, the Republican party is still the bad cop.

  9. Actually, I was putting you in the "cynicaller than thou" group. And you gotta admit, you're quite a long way down that road. But you're right. As I acknowledged, we haven't seen how they'll manage the end-game and disengagement process. Lots of room for error.

    For me, though, your argument SOUNDS like "we've failed so often, we should just do nothing". If that's not what you're saying, I apologize, but I think that's the WORST possible decision...