Special Report

Against Humanitarian Intervention

The U.S. cannot plausibly claim it can act unilaterally in defense of humanity.

By 9.18.13

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The Obama Administration justified its proposed attack on Syria as a humanitarian intervention, an old but newly influential doctrine that urges the use of military force abroad to defend subject peoples against rulers who engage in genocide, use chemical weapons in civil wars, or commit "crimes against humanity" within their borders. Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is an advocate of humanitarian intervention, as is Susan Rice, the President's chief national security advisor. Both played influential roles in devising the President's (failed) strategy to deal with the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons in the civil war in that country. The doctrine is controversial on many sides, and especially among conservatives and foreign policy realists who reject the deployment of U.S. military forces for reasons not connected to the nation's security interests. The failure of the policy, along with the near certainty that Congress would have rejected it, reveals the limits and contradictions of humanitarian intervention as a foreign policy strategy for the United States.

The concept of humanitarian intervention goes back at least to the 17th century when the foundations were laid for the modern international system of sovereign states with control over affairs within their borders. The state system grew out of the Reformation when monarchs at length acknowledged that, in order to maintain the peace, the "prince" should be able to prescribe the official religion of his country. That arrangement left religious minorities (and sometimes majorities) at the mercy of governments that saw their convictions as heretical, treasonous, or contrary to the policy of the state. Statesmen, religious leaders, and theorists of international law debated the concept of armed interventions to protect the rights of religious minorities, and in the process identified the major problems with it -- the principal one being that powerful states might exercise humanitarian intervention as a pretext for wars waged for conquest, gold, or other purposes. That remains an important stumbling block for humanitarian intervention today: the fear that some nations might use it as a pretext for armed conquest.

The ideal of humanitarian intervention has been dressed up in new clothes in recent years following NATO's armed intervention in Kosovo in 1999, and the failure of the great powers or the United Nations to stop recent genocides in Rwanda and Sudan. In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, an informal body created by the Canadian government, issued a report that contained the following injunction: "Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect." Thus arose the vague concept of the "responsibility to protect" as a guiding principle for the international community. Such an approach was plainly in conflict with the UN Charter, which declares that "Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state." It was necessary to soften this injunction before the new concept of humanitarian intervention could assume a place in the international system.

In 2005, the UN General Assembly approved new language to ratify the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention into the internal affairs of states based upon "the responsibility to protect." That language, now a part of the UN's mission, states that "The International community, through the United Nations, has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity." Chapters VI and VII of the Charter authorize the use of force on a case by case basis when authorized by the Security Council. The UN Charter explicitly rejects the idea of unilateral humanitarian intervention on the part of any member nation, for reasons (cited above) that have been around since the 17th century.

This was the problem that President Obama confronted on Syria, for he wanted to use "the responsibility to protect" as a rationale for humanitarian intervention but wanted to proceed unilaterally without the approval of the United Nations. He and his allies argued that, since Russian and China would exercise their vetoes in the Security Council to block UN action, the United States was thus authorized to act on its own. This was a strange idea for Mr. Obama to embrace, since he had said years ago that U.S. action in Iraq was illegal because it lacked authorization from the United Nations. In juxtaposing his approaches to Syria and Iraq, it appeared that President Obama was saying that the United States must have UN authorization to use force to defend its own security interests, but may act unilaterally with military force to defend humanitarian causes unrelated to those interests. This is undoubtedly the direct opposite of what most Americans believe about the use of military force abroad. It is also in direct contradiction to the UN Charter which (under article 51) allows nations latitude in defending themselves from international threats but insists upon Security Council approval to embark upon humanitarian interventions.

But what are the grounds by which the United States can bypass the United Nations in carrying out humanitarian interventions? President Obama, in his speech on September 10, invoked the concept of American exceptionalism to justify unilateral action against Syria, even though his rhetoric in the past has been contemptuous of this particular concept. Michael Ignatieff, a member of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty that introduced the "responsibility to protect," wrote just recently in the New York Times that democracies have a special duty to enforce international norms against mass killing and war crimes, even in the absence of UN authorization. The rationale for this is not obvious but one infers that it is based upon the claim that democracies, based as they are upon principles of universal rights, have a special duty to intervene to defend those rights wherever they may be trampled upon. Mr. Ignatieff went to great pains and through many contortions to distinguish the Syrian situation from the intervention in Iraq, which was also defended partially on humanitarian and democratic grounds and which he and most other liberals generally opposed.

To some extent, President Obama's Syrian gambit is suffering from the effects of "blowback," or the use of his past rhetoric against his current aims. If, for example, UN approval was needed for the intervention into Iraq, why is it not needed prior to an attack on Syria?

It is also difficult to dust off the ideal of American exceptionalism to defend an attack on Syria when President Obama and his allies have spent decades attacking that very concept in the name of diversity and multiculturalism. His eagerness to attack Syria stands in contrast to his reluctance to take any direct action against Iran and its nuclear weapons program, which is a far greater threat to the United States.

It is not merely that his opponents are ready to use his own rhetoric against his current policy but also that his supporters have come to believe the things he has said about the United Nations and U.S. intervention abroad, and are unwilling to change their views on short notice and on his say so.

Yet the concept of humanitarian intervention suffers from other defects as an international strategy for the United States. The idea itself arises from "pacific" impulses which suggest that violence, oppression, and war are conditions that must be eliminated so that some agency or nation must be delegated with the responsibility to "bell the cat" and get rid of them once and for all. Ms. Power titled her book on genocide A Problem from Hell, suggesting thereby that the contemporary challenge is to consign it to the nether world from which it arose. The anti-war impulse behind it thus requires that military action on behalf of humanitarian causes must be limited, well defined, and proportional to the ends desired. It should never escalate into a real war, with "boots on the ground," for that would conflict with the humanitarian impulses animating the policy. This is why Secretary of State Kerry said that the attack on Syria would be "unbelievably small," and others in the administration likened it to "pin pricks." Humanitarian interventions (not wars) should be as painless as possible, except perhaps for the malefactors responsible for causing them. As many in Congress pointed out, such limits may render the intervention ineffective in relation to any plausible national objective (e.g., the elimination of the Assad regime).

The ambivalence about the use of force is also one important reason why many Americans doubt that the proponents of humanitarian intervention are actually capable of carrying it out.

The advocates for humanitarian intervention also seem to believe that targeted regimes will not retaliate against the United States for attacks against them. Why they believe this is something of a mystery, since by definition those responsible for mass killings and war crimes should be expected to do anything to maintain their power. They may believe that, since their intentions are pure and their purposes largely punitive in nature, retaliatory strikes against them would be illegitimate. Of course, that does not mean that they would not happen anyway. President Obama said in his recent speech that Syria lacks the resources to threaten the United States. That must certainly rank among the more laughable statements he has ever made. Syria and her allies have many resources at their command to make life difficult for Americans following any attack. One can easily see how a "pin prick" attack on Syria could lead to retaliation that would call for further U.S. responses, and in turn a widening and escalation of the conflict.

There is also the problem that, if the United States can take unilateral action in such crises, other countries may legitimately do so as well. If the United States can attack Syria without UN authorization, can Russia or China attack Israel or some other country because of alleged human rights abuses in those places? Of course not. Everyone agrees that those kinds of discussions must take place within the framework of the United Nations and international law. President Obama suggests that the United States can act unilaterally because it is "exceptional," but this is a claim that other countries are unlikely to accept, at least when it comes to interventions abroad. The founding fathers of the United States agreed that their country was exceptional for its commitment to universal human rights, but none ever claimed that the United States could act as it wished on the international stage.

The doctrine of humanitarian intervention thus appears surprisingly naive in all of the above respects -- in the belief that political objectives can be achieved by strictly limited means spelled out in advance, that interventions consist of initial steps only without complicating implications arising from them, that other powers will not adopt it as a rationale to attack foes, and that targets of strikes will not or cannot retaliate against the United States. All of these are problems that critics have advanced in opposition to an attack on Syria, and are the principal reasons why the U.S. Congress was poised to reject it before President Putin intervened with a diplomatic alternative. They are also reasons why the doctrine of humanitarian intervention is an unreliable guide to national military action.

This does not mean that the United States should not involve itself in humanitarian crises abroad, only that it should not do so by unilateral military action. The United States cannot plausibly claim that it can act unilaterally in defense of humanity; any such claims, if justified, should be able to win broad support among the nations of the world. As many have pointed out, including Ms. Power, the United States has many diplomatic levers to pull in connection with such crises that fall short of using military force. At the same time, the United States remains free to act on its own where its security interests are threatened; and it should reserve the use of its military forces for only those occasions. 

Photo: UPI

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About the Author

James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is the author of Camelot and the Cultural Rev­olution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism (Encounter Books).