Home / Articles / The Question of Humanitarian Intervention: A Conference Report
On 12-13 February 2001, the Foreign Policy Research Institute hosted a major conference on the question of humanitarian intervention and its implications for American foreign policy. The conference brought together prominent scholars, journalists, and retired military professionals to examine the recent history of humanitarian intervention and to look ahead to its prospects in the new century. Harvey Sicherman, president of FPRI, served as moderator. The keynote address was delivered by Alexander M. Haig, Jr., the former secretary of state and current FPRI trustee (the address was published as FPRI Wire, Volume 9, Number 2, February 2001).
The conference was structured around five panels that addressed the domestic political, diplomatic, military, and legal/moral aspects of the issue, and evaluated models of intervention based on recent precedents. For each panel, a single presentation served as the starting point of a discussion among the presenter and the other three panelists. In attendance were over one hundred individuals drawn from academia, non-governmental organizations, the media, the uniformed military, and the interested public. The following is a brief summary of the conference proceedings. The complete collection of conference papers will be published in Orbis, Fall 2001.
Michael C. Desch, the associate director of the Patterson School for Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky, delivered a paper on the domestic political aspects of humanitarian intervention. He argued that the Clinton administration’s record was best characterized by fighting between liberal civilian policymakers and conservative realists within the military. He predicted that tensions within the Bush administration would occur between conservative realists and neoconservatives. Dividing these two groups, he said, are their opposing definitions of the national interest. For realist conservatives, the foreign policy of the United States ought to be focused on defending vital, tangible interests, whereas neoconservatives typically argue that ideals are equally important.
Desch argued that this rift arises because public support for humanitarian intervention “tends to be fairly shallow and transient,” suggesting that the so-called “CNN effect” (i.e., the idea that televised images of suffering lead to pressure for intervention) has been oversold. The quadrennial Chicago Council on Foreign Relations poll on American foreign policy, for example, shows that the salience of international issues is lower today than at any time in the poll’s history. In general, public support for the use of military force— and for an activist foreign policy— tends to match the importance of the interest at stake. Desch said that the public’s preference for multilateral humanitarian intervention proves the lack of strong support: “Any time anybody tells me they want an international institution to do something, I think that what’s going on is buck-passing … [and the public] would be happy for our good friends in Canada or Norway or Argentina, or anywhere else, to do this— anybody else except for the American military.” In addition, Desch said that surveys of serving officers in the military reveal their widespread reluctance to perform military operations other than war (MOOTW), including humanitarian intervention. In light of the lack of public and military support, he concluded that the heyday of humanitarian intervention in U.S. foreign policy has passed.
Steven Kull, of the Center for International Policy Attitudes, took issue with Desch’s contention that public support for U.S. involvement in humanitarian interventions is shallow. He cited evidence showing that between two- thirds and three-quarters of the public supported an American contribution to these kinds of operations. While he agreed that the public does prefer multilateral operations, he argued that this was not “buck passing” because the public believes that the U.S. should contribute about 25 percent of the troops for these operations. Finally, he disputed the contention that the public is wary of U.S. military casualties in such operations. Even after the deaths of 18 American service members in October 1993, for example, only 40 percent of the public wanted the United States to pull out of Somalia. Furthermore, 60 percent of the American public believe (incorrectly) that the United States has suffered combat losses in the Balkans over the last several years, but that belief has not diminished public support. If anything, he said that polls show the public’s reaction to American casualties is to support more forceful intervention.
Rick Newman of U.S. News & World Report agreed with Desch that the CNN effect is largely overstated with regard to its effect on policymakers, but argued that it has a strong effect on the public because “what they see on TV and read in the news” is often “everything people know about a place.” As for the military’s viewpoints on MOOTW, Newman said that recent research and his own anecdotal experience have led him to conclude that the military is becoming more comfortable with, and less resistant to, missions such as humanitarian intervention.
Alvin Rubinstein, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow of the FPRI, took exception to much of Desch’s argument. In his estimation, Desch overstated the importance of the rift among conservatives, since the president has the final say on questions of military intervention abroad. Furthermore, he stated that “to assume that the public has some sense of foreign policy objectives, particularly when they’re not explained, as certainly was never done during the Clinton period, is really expecting from the public what you don’t even expect and demand of the leaders.” He pointed out that with all the attention afforded to the Balkans this past decade, scant attention has been paid to the civil war in the south of Sudan, where “more have been killed in Sudan in the last 10 years than have been killed in all the Arab-Israeli wars of the last 55 years.”
The Diplomatic Aspect
Adam Garfinkle, editor of the National Interest, gave the main presentation concerning the diplomatic aspects of humanitarian intervention. He asserted that the crucial elements are strategy, coalitions, and prevention.
Strategy is critical because it allows an administration to conceptualize how the world works, what the nation’s interests are, and how to match ends with means. Without a strategy, national policy will drift when the United States encounters humanitarian crises. Under these circumstances, policy “will be swayed by the CNN effect or the personal religious proclivities of the president, or somebody around him, or the last person he heard talking about this who made sense to him.”
Garfinkle stated that when the United States decides to become involved in humanitarian crises, it should do so multilaterally in a coalition of like-minded states. Acting unilaterally would be counterproductive and most likely unworkable because it would generate anti-American resentment. He went on to say that any intervention must take into account the broader strategic context so that the United States does not damage important relationships with other nations. Furthermore, he doubted the efficacy of the United Nations in carrying out humanitarian interventions because the UN has no accountability except perhaps to the Security Council, where achieving anything like consensus is very difficult.
Preventive diplomacy refers to the use of diplomatic means to resolve problems before they flare into full-blown crises. Unfortunately, Garfinkle pointed out, the American institutions for performing this role — the State Department and intelligence community — do not do a particularly good job. He stated that the State Department was “essentially dysfunctional” and that the intelligence community is “more demand-driven, short-term, and military-oriented than it was 20 years ago.” Unless they are better funded, reorganized, and operate in concert with other states, the prospects of successful prevention will remain dim.
Charles Hill, a retired foreign service officer now teaching at Yale University, drew on his experiences as a special assistant to Secretary of State George Shultz, and later as a consultant to UN Secretary-General Bhoutros Bhoutros-Ghali to support the argument in favor of multilateral action— the sooner the better. Bosnia, he said, proved the importance of early, decisive involvement. Hill forcefully agreed with Garfinkle’s assessment of U.S. institutions, and spoke of poor morale, inadequate funding, and restrictive security concerns within the foreign service. He also made the point that the UN had an opportunity in the early 1990s to become the main instrument of humanitarian intervention, but then bore most of the Clinton administration’s blame for the Somalia episode. One advantage of UN forces over regional ones, Hill said, is that the former are usually drawn from disinterested, distant states that are not suspected of seeking their own gain from the intervention. In Africa, for example, humanitarian rescues have occasionally been frustrated by such suspicions.
Alan Kuperman, an associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, raised the question of moral hazard and warned that intervening on behalf of rebel groups may have unintended negative consequences. If it is American policy to intervene when killing begins, this may encourage rebellions elsewhere that in turn may result in even more fatalities. “You may be trying to do good, and in the end you may end up doing bad, or causing more death.” Kuperman also disputed the notion of supporting regional powers to police and manage humanitarian crises and urged caution in selecting the states that it entrusts for such roles. As an example he noted that, “Nixon picked Iran, armed it to the teeth, and unfortunately we had a change of government there.”
Anatol Lieven, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also pointed out a variety of dangers that could arise from intervention. High on his list was the effect of the overblown rhetoric surrounding humanitarian operations. Demonizing a target state, he said, sparked suspicions among other weak states and antagonized other states— such as Russia and China— which have domestic political problems of their own. Finally, since intervening in failed states with no centralized political authority requires a long-term commitment of time and resources to inherently messy situations, humanitarian operations place enormous strains on alliances.
The Military Aspect
Michael P. Noonan of the FPRI presented a paper written by Sam C. Sarkesian, professor emeritus of Loyola University Chicago, who was unable to attend the conference. Sarkesian’s central thesis was that “the commitment of the U.S. military in humanitarian crises not only diminishes military readiness, but requires a mindset in operational doctrine contrary to the military’s raison d’etre and organizational system.” A crucial concern is that such missions erodes the military’s core competencies and hinders its ability to achieve dominance across all operational roles. In the end this could turn important parts of the American military into a constabulary rather than a fully qualified fighting force.
Sarkesian also questioned the effect of American involvement in MOOTW. In his opinion the introduction of American ground combat troops would take away the notions of fairness and neutrality. “If you intervene, either the reality or the perception on the ground is going to show that you’re aiding one side.” Hence, the idea that the U.S. could intervene strictly for humanitarian reasons is unrealistic, in light of the inevitable political consequences.
Sarkesian suggested five alternative ways of dealing with humanitarian interventions. First, create units specially trained and equipped for humanitarian missions. Second, limit American participation to logistical, administrative, and intelligence support of U.N. or multinational organizations. Third, rely upon regional organizations such as the African Crisis Response Initiative. Fourth, use private organizations such as Military Professional Resources Incorporated (which helped train the Croatian army in the 1990s). Finally, the U.S. should focus on intelligence capabilities, covert operations, and other non- military instruments within the crisis area.
Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor, USMC (ret.), had a different understanding of the difficulty of the military’s role, which boiled down to the cultural differentiation of the services. He argued that the Marine Corps was the service most culturally predisposed to undertake such missions, but that it was not set up logistically or organizationally to sustain such involvement. The army, on the other hand, was inherently cautious, having drawn the lesson from the opening days of the Korean War that it must emphasize warfighting and combat skills above all else. Nevertheless, Trainor suggested that experience in the 1990s had made the army much better prepared to perform humanitarian interventions. Finally, Trainor thought that, from a military standpoint, the question of whether or not to intervene was all but irrelevant because “if the president says you’re going to do it, you’re going to go do it, and you’re not to argue about it.”
Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, USA (ret.), also noted that the United States will continue to be involved in these operations simply “because of the nature of the world today and tomorrow.” The problem of the past decade, he said, was that the U.S. has been unwilling to undertake the necessary steps during an intervention. “We are politically feckless, and that made us militarily feckless, extremely timid.” The key, in his view, was for the military to use the initial window of fear in order to establish the rule of law, which was essential to long-term peace and stability. Finally, he noted that the military must be candid in advising policymakers about such interventions. “Come honest about the costs,” he said, “so you have credibility when the intervention comes up” and create no illusions about “unreasonable losses.”
Rounding out the panel, the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon also had some fundamental reservations about Sarkesian’s analysis. While he acknowledged that involvement in MOOTW has placed some strain on the military services, it has too often been exaggerated. Traditional training for warfighting, for instance, could be undertaken while involved in MOOTW environments, so that combat readiness would not suffer. O’Hanlon also noted that only two out of 30 active duty brigades were engaged in the Balkans, numbers that were easily sustainable.
The Legal/Moral Aspect
Jacques deLisle, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law and a senior fellow of the FPRI, delivered the presentation on the legal/moral aspect of humanitarian intervention. He acknowledged that humanitarian intervention was a highly contentious matter in international law, largely because it entails the use or threat of force to affect “the structure, policies, and practices that would otherwise be within the domestic jurisdiction … of the target state.” The battle lines here are drawn between those who favor states’ rights (whom deLisle called Westphalians) and those who favor protecting individual rights (consequentialists). From the perspective of American constitutional law, he pointed out that the president has considerable flexibility in his role as commander in chief to use troops abroad, and that the Constitution offers few constraints to intervention. That said, “each engagement has its own rules.”
DeLisle proposed what he termed the Good Samaritan model of humanitarian intervention, whereby interveners act to save or rescue a victim at peril. The intervening party is neither legally nor morally required to come to the aid of the victim, and is free to pick and choose the cases of intervention. He made the analogy of rescuing someone from drowning in a pool. This is not without problems though, deLisle admitted, since “usually, if you pull somebody out of the pool, you don’t have to see that he goes through psychotherapy to make sure he doesn’t throw himself back in.”
James Turner Johnson, of Rutgers University, commented on the obligations of intervening parties and the state of the Westphalian system. According to him, interveners have obligations to three things: the stability and norms of the international order, one’s own political community, and the target society (which may have to bear the brunt of the costs of the intervention). As for the Westphalian conception of international politics, Johnson said that it is not meant to prevent war, but rather to regularize conflict between states and to ensure that an international system remains after the resolution of conflict. In addition, the cracks in the Westphalian system have resulted from the breakup of European empires after the two world wars.
Michael Radu, a senior fellow of the FPRI, dwelt on the delegitimation of international law. He contended that human rights organizations have been primarily at fault for pushing the consequentialist perspective. The watering down of the term genocide, he said, was a prime example of this phenomenon. He pointed out that if the embargoes against Iraq and Cuba can be termed genocide, then the term has lost its legitimacy and serious connotations. “If everything is genocide, then nothing is.” He also questioned the ability of military interventions to restore order in failed states, given the difficulties of inventing systems of governance from scratch or repairing systems that had broken down in the first place.
Jack Tomarchio, of Hill Solutions, LLC and a reserve Army officer with experience drafting rules of engagement, commented on the legal questions of humanitarian intervention that arise for the American military. He noted that achieving the desired political goals of any given intervention required disciplined operations that would entail the judicious and restrained use of force. This in turn necessitated effective rules of engagement (ROE), which are not legal documents, but rather operational documents devised with legal advice. In the end, what matters most is the proper training of soldiers prior to deployment so that they have an understanding of the legal issues involved and an appreciation of the moral and ethical issues that might be encountered. Without sound training, he said, the purposes of the original intervention, no matter how noble, would not be achieved.
Models of Intervention
James Kurth, a professor of political science at Swarthmore College and a senior fellow of the FPRI, presented four models of intervention, based on recent U.S. experience: (1) complete abstention, as in Rwanda; (2) relief of disaster without addressing political causes, such as the first Bush administration’s actions in Somalia; (3) relief of disaster, plus imposing a semblance of political order, as in the U.S. intervention in Haiti; and (4) reconstruction of the entire political system of the country, as has been attempted in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Despite the numerous examples of intervention, Kurth suggested that if one looked at the humanitarian disasters of the past decade, “one might literally conclude that it was actually the decade of humanitarian isolation, or abstention.” The data simply did not support the idea that the U.S. and the West were intervening in most humanitarian crises. There had been few cries for intervention in places such as Sudan, Burundi, Congo, Angola, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Tibet, and Colombia— although each involved at least 100,000 deaths or over 100,000 refugees.
The limited relief model, Kurth said, promised only an unstable equilibrium because it generally required the intervening party or parties to withdraw after the relief action is undertaken or else become more firmly engaged. As for the relief-plus model, such operations may be effective in ending the humanitarian disaster, but they do not resolve endemic problems such as poverty and disease. Nevertheless, the U.S. will most likely continue to undertake operations on this model in the Caribbean and Central America. Lastly, the reconstruction model, the most ambitious, is largely ineffective unless applied to states that have a homogenous ethnic group or a tradition of liberal governance.
Kurth noted that abstention from humanitarian intervention is the most common policy because it is safe for policymakers. Human rights advocates, the media, and academics have short attention spans, which reduces the political cost of not intervening. He closed by warning that the “sheer ignorance” of advocates of intervention should not be underestimated, particularly from advocates who have never been to the country in question or have not experienced the realities of military service.
Robert Art, of Brandeis University, emphasized that humanitarian interventions must fit within a president’s strategic vision, since humanitarian interventions are basically acts of charity, which presuppose that one’s own needs are met. These operations are costly for the U.S. because they generally require significant commitments of troops and time, and few other states even have the capabilities to intervene in remote locales. Therefore, preventive deployments and preventive diplomacy backed by credible threats of force are the best ways to avert full-scale humanitarian crises.
Daniel Byman, of the RAND Corporation, defined the criteria for success and the operational methods best suited to these types of operations. Success, he said, must always be relative rather than absolute, since by some criteria even the great victory of the Second World War would not be judged a success. Regarding methods, he contended that air power was not suited for humanitarian intervention because it easily endangers large numbers of civilians. For that reason, large numbers of light infantry troops are needed, as is intelligence that can be acquired quickly, even if that entails questionable means of collection.
Joshua Muravchik, of the American Enterprise Institute, disagreed strongly with Kurth’s comments. Kurth’s typology, he said, was unworkable, and doing the right thing in alleviating egregious violations of human rights was sometimes more important than an ends-means calculus that would prohibit any intervention if the costs were too high. He did not, however, describe himself as a willing interventionist, because the military tool of national power, in his view, was not always the best way to intervene, or even necessary.
While not all participants share these views, a few points of broad agreement did emerge from the conference:
The main purpose of U.S. military forces is to deter war that might threaten American security and to win such conflicts if deterrence fails. Humanitarian intervention is an honorable but secondary mission that should not detract from the primary function.
The American people are generally supportive of humanitarian interventions, but this does not hold in a specific situation in which objectives are vague or unrealistic and casualties high.
Multilateral intervention and regional coalitions are preferable, although they are not always the most effective way to intervene.
Emphasis should be placed on early intervention, even if preventing catastrophe (paradoxically) requires the threat of military force.
Geopolitics will continue to condition the potential for intervention: the more distant and obscure the event, the less likely the U.S. will intervene.
It is essential to have clear rules of intervention and attainable objectives lest an unprepared and poorly guided force makes matters worse.
Finally, U.S. leaders must avoid using the military to address social and political issues for which it is ill suited. Exaggerating the objectives or underestimating the costs and duration of a mission are also sure ways to get into trouble. Regardless of their benevolent intentions, U.S. leaders should state precise and acheivable goals of intervention and be realistic about prospects for success.
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