Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The case against American interventionism for humanitarian reasons

It is often hard to explain to people why I don't support US military intervention to stop genocide in Darfur.

Doug Bandow, at Anti-war.com, makes the case more eloquently than I have seen it made in some time.

First, he assesses the number of places we'd have to go, if humanitarian motives drove foreign policy:

War seems so simple. Take the tragic case of Zimbabwe, suffering under the odious Robert Mugabe. The economy is collapsing; people are starving; disease is spreading. When the people tried to vote him out of office, his thugs brutalized everyone in his way. All that matters to him is retaining power. What to do? "Has anyone in that part of the world thought of the ‘f' word – force," asks the Washington Times?

It's easy to think about. Indeed, if the people thinking about the "f" word had their way, the US, and some of its allies, would be very, very busy.

There would be intervention to remove Mugabe from power (it would have to be the West, since no one "in that part of the world" has the capacity to easily occupy Harare). There would have been an invasion of Burma, to forcibly provide assistance after the recent typhoon and probably enforce regime change as well. There would be intervention in Sudan to stop the killing around Darfur, and perhaps to march on Khartoum. There would be a "peace-keeping" force for Congo to end what is in fact a regional war. There would have been intervention to save Lebanon from Syria's grasp, perhaps even seizing Damascus along the way. And there would be another effort in Somalia, tossing out the Islamists, suppressing the warlords, killing the pirates, and recreating the Somali state.

In short, if one thinks seriously about the "f" word, a very full agenda awaits America.

The desire to intervene hither and yon currently resides primarily in the imaginations of editorial and think tank warrior-wanna-bees, but the incoming administration may soon give the impulse life. President-elect Barack Obama has indicated his sympathy for so-called humanitarian intervention, his UN Ambassador-designate, Susan Rice, has avidly supported the concept, and Samantha Power, a campaign and transition aide likely to end up with an important administration post, also backs the idea. As always, Washington is overrun with people willing to risk other people's lives for supposedly good causes.

Then he makes the point that the interventions we have executed did not go so well:

Exhibit number one is Iraq, of course. The recent drop in violence is significant precisely because it reflects a reduction in extraordinary levels of murder and mayhem. The unnecessary US invasion and botched occupation turned much of the country into a charnel house. Estimates of the number of dead Iraqis starts in the tens of thousands and runs up to a million or more. Even more have been injured, and several million Iraqis have been forced from their homes, many into foreign exile. Iraqi society has been brutally torn asunder....

Few of the other cases of intervention for humanitarian purposes, broadly conceived, worked very well. Ronald Reagan's 1983 insertion of US military forces into the violent maelstrom known as Lebanon, where an estimated 25 different factions had been battling for years, was the worst decision of his presidency. Using the U.S.S. New Jersey to bombard Lebanese hillsides merely highlighted America's impotence: Washington was incapable of suppressing military conflict or effecting a political settlement.

In 1994 the US threatened to invade Haiti to restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a violent but admittedly popular demagogue, to power. Haiti continued to languish in poverty and brutality. Ten years later Washington orchestrated Aristide's ouster, followed by a new military occupation.

Bombing ethnic Serbs helped stop the conflict ravaging Bosnia – which, however, would have ended almost before it started had Washington not pushed the Bosnian Muslims to reject the Lisbon accord in 1992. The result was years of horrific war costing tens of thousands of lives. Now Paddy Ashdown, who served as the EU-appointed High Representative for Bosnia, and Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the Dayton Accord ending the war, warn that the artificial Bosnian state, preserved with so much blood, is in danger of breaking up.

The allied victory in Kosovo led to two waves of ethnic cleansing by the ethnic Albanians, America's supposed allies, against Serbs, Roma, non-Albanian Muslims, and Jews. The nominally independent government in Pristina, dependent upon Western largesse for its survival and run by former guerrillas once termed "terrorists" by US officials, is widely seen as a black hole of regional crime and possibly Islamic radicalism. NATO's aggressive war against Serbia offered Russia a perfect precedent and pretext for Moscow's attack on Georgia in August.

President Bill Clinton famously turned a feeding mission into a warlord-hunting campaign in Somalia, with disastrous results. A foolish raid into the heart of Mogadishu cost 18 Americans and an estimated thousand Somalis their lives. The American people exclaimed "what the f***!", and the intervention was effectively over. Ethiopia's more recent intervention, backed by Washington, has cost thousands more Somalis their lives and generated as many as a million refugees – while leaving the country in chaos.

[Note to the quote above: I would agree with the criticism that Bandow is really stretching a point when he includes Iraq in wars started by the US for humanitarian reasons. I think his intent here, however, is simply to stress that the political aftermath even to successful military operations is never as neat as the planners conceived.]

There are only a few conceptual foundations upon which to run the military elements of foreign policy. The idea of humanitarian interventionism is one; the so-called war on terror is another; and the "protection of vital American interests" is the very elastic third.

We've dealt with the first; what about the others?

The simple fact is that in the war on terror, like the war on poverty, war on illiteracy, or war on drugs started their existence as bad metaphors, and usually ended up as ... something else. Government programs tend to do that, and--yes--war is a government program.

I can make an excellent case that the war on terror has far more to do with safeguarding American and international corporate interests throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia than it has anything to do with safeguarding our country from another 9/11.

[And before any idiot kicks in that to make this observation is to somehow disrespect the troops conducting those missions, get a grip. It remains the purview--hell, the responsibility--of the citizens of our nation to question the wisdom of each and every major strategic decision that sends our men and women to die for us.]

As for that protection of our vital interests, what are they, exactly?

Duffy would point out that policing the sea lanes is a vital interest, but--and this is a point being reinforced by the current anti-piracy operations off Somalia--it's a vital international interest, insofar as commerce is concerned.

Insofar as direct military threats to the United States are concerned, and given the absence of any military power on earth with the ability to project and maintain meaningful conventional forces against the continental US, our particular vital oceanic interests are the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Caribbean, and the Artic.

Is Middle Eastern oil a vital interest?

Better check again if you think so. Only three (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait) of our top fifteen sources of either crude oil or petroleum products are in the Middle East. Of the 11,276,000 barrels per day that we imported during October 2008, the three Middle Eastern sources accounted for only 20.3%, and only 11% of our daily consumption.

Which raises a really, really interesting question about vital interests: exactly why (aside from the Israel lobby and the multinational corporations who want the US to protect their ability to sell oil from Iran, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE to Europe, China, and Japan) is the Middle East a vital interest to the US?

Carl Hodges wrote a brief essay for CoEvolution Quarterly [the people who used to bring you the Whole Earth Catalog] entitled Moon Rock in Abu Dhabi back in 1983, which I cannot link to (and have misplaced my copy of) but remember quite well. In it, the US had sent the first moon rocks around the world as trinkets for different rulers. The Sultan of Abu Dhabi was showing it to his young princes, who thought that the US was a hopeless decadent place if we were spending zillions of dollars to go to the moon and pick up rocks. You don't get it, the Sultan told they young men, holding up the rock. A century ago we were riding camels around the desert, trying to avoid starvation, when the Americans came and developed our oil. This rock proves that if they ever decide to do so, they can go out and find something to replace our oil, and we'll be riding camels again.

Think long and hard before you go declaring certain regions of the world vital to our national interests.

Point being (before I toddle off for the night): I have said this before and it needs to be said again and again. In the American tradition prior to the Cold War, war was not considered a policy tool, it was considered a failure of policy.

And that's equally true whether you're fighting a war against genocide in a far-off land, or fighting a war for oil in the Middle East.

The problem: George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Don Rumsfeld didn't understand that, and I have yet to be convinced that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Robert Gates understand it now.


Anonymous said...

Or as H. L. Mencken put it:

I think the United States should mind its own business. If it is actually commissioned by God to put down totalitarianism, let it start in Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, Santo Domingo and Mississippi.

Hube said...

Excellent post yet again, Steve. DL (not be confused with that "other" DL) is by far the best blog in the First State!