3 Tragedies of Humanitarian Intervention

FEATURES | October 19, 2011     

Humanitarian InterventionTen years after the formal launch of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine, we are coming to terms with the idea that, in striving for the good, we will always fall short, and that perfection is always the enemy of this good

Humanitarian interventions are always tragic. This does not mean that they are always a bad idea. Advocates of intervention are now heralding the Libyan rebels’ success against Muammar Gaddafi as a model for future wars against other dictators. Gaddafi’s fate has dealt a blow to the opponents of intervention, who warned before NATO began bombing Libya that the alliance would kill thousands of civilians and – at best – bring about a stalemate. The argument over the wisdom and ethics of intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan followed a similar pattern, and made for strange bedfellows – for instance, by uniting those on the far left and the far right in their opposition to these campaigns.

Some critics have recently dismissed the whole notion of humanitarian intervention as, in their tart phrase, “a solution from hell.” It is too simple to say that those who take this position are wrong. But it is also too simple to embrace (or reject) those who offer unalloyed support for intervention. Both sides of the debate misunderstand the problem because they misunderstand the nature of humanitarian intervention. It is not a straightforward matter of weighing the greater good against the lesser evil, but rather a necessarily tragic undertaking that requires us to strive for the good with the full knowledge that, in the process, we will always fall short. The tragedies of intervention are unavoidable.

The late American theologian and commentator Reinhold Niebuhr wrote insightfully about tragedy in international affairs. “For Niebuhr tragedy is always linked to a recognition of our own finitude,” philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain told an interviewer shortly after the start of the last Iraq war, which revived interest in Niebuhr’s work. On this view, tragedy springs from the tension between what we know that we must do, on the one hand, and what, on the other hand, we are actually capable of doing – because of our limited resources, our imperfect understanding of the world, or even our own mortality. “If men or nations do evil in a good cause; if they cover themselves with guilt in order to fulfill some high responsibility; or if they sacrifice some high value for a higher or equal one they make a tragic choice,” Niebuhr wrote in 1952. In statecraft, pursuing the good is often unavoidably bound up with doing wrong.

One might contemplate abandoning statecraft altogether in order to avoid causing any harm whatever, but the cost of this perfectionist approach is even higher. “We cannot purge ourselves of the sin and guilt in which we are involved by the moral ambiguities of politics without also disavowing responsibility for the creative possibilities of justice,” Niebuhr argued. One does not have to share Niebuhr’s religious views to appreciate the wisdom of this insight. In his reflections on Machiavelli, for instance, Isaiah Berlin observed that, in politics, upholding one virtue can mean not just foregoing, but actually sacrificing, another. The implications for global affairs are stark and uncomfortable – especially when it comes to questions that we like to think of as ethically unambiguous, such as the defence of human rights.

Of course, human rights have always been an intensely political idea. They are not above or outside of politics. Because of the ambiguity of the precise meaning of ‘human rights,’ politicians can easily mould the concept to serve their own ends. During the Cold War, the most abusive governments did not hesitate to proclaim themselves the champions of human rights – regardless of whether reality bore any resemblance to their rhetoric. Today, it is futile to hope that international institutions will offer reliable assessments of governments’ track records in this area – not least because some of the most egregious offenders sit on the UN Human Rights Council. So one must not be naïve when a government (or any other actor) uses the rhetoric of human rights to make its case.

In the early stages of the ongoing war in Afghanistan, both the war’s supporters and its opponents offered humanitarian arguments to justify their positions. In addition to the obvious national security rationale for the war, the Bush administration and its Western European allies (including Germany’s Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder) insisted that overthrowing the Taliban was morally necessary in order to defend the human rights of ordinary Afghans, especially women. Their opponents, including thousands of anti-war protestors, maintained that the use of force would do more to harm human rights than to protect them. Even the Taliban got in on the act. A month into the war, it issued a statement declaring that the invasion was causing a “human catastrophe” and, citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, called on the “citizens of the world” to oppose the American-led campaign. Even though human rights have emerged over the last 40 years as the global language of the ‘good,’ it would be foolish to think that one side’s invocation of human rights in a dispute is necessarily as valid as the other’s. Moreover, it is almost impossible to imagine a case in which worldwide opinion would unanimously agree that human rights were being violated. Waiting for an international consensus to emerge before taking action would mean waiting forever.

This is not to reject the idea of human rights as illegitimate, but rather to highlight that it is subject to political manipulation and the vagaries of public opinion. In the West, domestic public opinion weighs heavily in leaders’ decisions about whether to intervene in a particular crisis. Voters tend to agree that, when a country’s government threatens to massacre its citizens, it is legitimate to step in in order to save lives. A public outcry can doubtless spur leaders into action. But public opinion is as mercurial as it is powerful, which highlights the first tragedy of intervention: Citizens’ empathy for the suffering can embolden a leader to act, but their impatience can just as quickly become a burden. If an intervention – once underway – fails to make quick progress toward its goal, voters may start to doubt its wisdom and demand that it be brought to an end.

In Libya, as days of NATO bombing turned into weeks, and weeks into months, previously strong public support for the campaign softened into indifference. Had Gaddafi’s government not collapsed so suddenly, one could well imagine that same indifference turning into opposition. Western leaders would have felt pressure either to scale back their goals – perhaps to seek a negotiated peace with Gaddafi, instead of his overthrow – or to abandon the campaign entirely. This dynamic has been at work in Afghanistan. In recent months, the US government has backed away from its original ambition of forging a strong democratic government in Kabul that respected human rights. The new goal is simple stability, including perhaps a deal with the Taliban. Given the war’s costs and prognosis, it could hardly be otherwise. There is little hope of preventing democratic public opinion from fluctuating in response to events, especially when it comes to the use of force. This dynamic clearly has its benefits, since it can keep political leaders accountable for the consequences of their decisions. However, in cases where it is necessary to take the long view and be patient – as with every humanitarian intervention – this fickleness can just as easily transform public opinion from an asset that makes action possible into a liability that makes it unsustainable.

So when should one act? The ground-breaking 2001 report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) offers a few criteria, which bear a close resemblance to the traditional principles of just war theory. The crisis must be dire enough to justify the use of force; the intervention must be undertaken with the right intent and under the right authority (ideally, but not necessarily, the endorsement of the UN Security Council); all other possible solutions must be exhausted first; the force used must be proportional to the situation; and there must be a good chance that intervention will do more good than harm.

These guidelines are useful, but insufficient. They offer no solutions to some problems of vital practical importance. How, for instance, should one respond to simultaneous crises, or deal with the ways in which public opinion limits the freedom of action of democratic leaders? By what principles should one decide to intervene in Libya, but not Syria? Or in Kosovo, but not Darfur? And, above all, when one decides to intervene, what goals should one pursue, and how should one go about achieving them? It would be too much to expect this level of detail from the ICISS, since its purpose was to lay down general principles. But this does not diminish the urgency of such questions, or indeed the need for leaders to address them in a way that simultaneously honours the humanitarian imperative for action and recognizes the inevitable constraints on action.

These problems point to the second tragedy of humanitarian intervention: the incompatibility between the humanitarian imperative for action and the strategic necessity of choice. The logic of intervention is universalist. It demands action to stop egregious human rights violations in every case – no matter when or where they happen. But good strategy requires distinguishing between competing demands – opting to do one thing, and rejecting another. It entails not just the pursuit of admirable ends, but also serious calculations about how to use available resources to pursue a country’s top priorities. And it requires thinking not just about the immediate effects of a particular policy, but also about longer-term consequences. It is impossible to anticipate every second- and third-order effect that an intervention might have on the stability of a country or a region, but it is likewise unacceptable to pretend that one can confine the consequences of an intervention within a particular country’s frontiers. No matter how well-intentioned, its effects will ripple outward across borders – perhaps with undesirable results.

So while the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ is admirable – even necessary – it is not a strategy. In fact, it stands in tension with the rudiments of sound strategic thinking. Honest leaders will recognize that they cannot square idealist intentions with strategic constraints. It is dangerous to pretend that they can. Take, for example, the cases of Libya and Syria, in which undemocratic governments used force to kill civilians who voiced their opposition to the regime. In the first case, NATO intervened to help the rebels. In the second case, it has done nothing. If the allies were to claim that humanitarian principles were their utmost concern in both cases, voters could well interpret NATO’s divergent approaches to the two crises as inconsistent at best, and hypocritical at worst. They might conclude that the principles of the Responsibility to Protect are just fig leaves to cover cynical raisons d’état. But if Western leaders were frank about the crucial differences between the two cases – not least that it would be much harder to overthrow Assad than Gaddafi, and that toppling the Syrian government might well cause a humanitarian crisis in its own right, or even a regional war – they could make clear their commitment to humanitarian principles without denying the profound difficulty of turning them into reality. Voters need to understand that trying to do everything means doing nothing. Such candour is not the stuff of inspirational speeches, but it is essential in the ongoing struggle to maintain public support for the concept of intervention.

Candour is also essential in explaining exactly what the use of force is meant to achieve. Intervention may be able to prevent hell, but it cannot create heaven. This is the third tragedy, and it requires finding the right balance between trying to do too little and hoping to do too much. A minimalist would aim only to prevent a threatened massacre by pushing back the aggressors, and giving their targets a chance to escape. But this would provide only a short-term fix, since the aggressors could easily regroup and begin the genocide anew. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a maximalist would try not just to stop the violence, but to transform (or upend) the conditions that made the violence possible in the first place. In the most extreme cases, the goal would be to overthrow the government and build a new liberal, democratic regime from scratch. In the early years of the last decade, this was precisely the vision of the most optimistic advocates of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, those wars have demonstrated exactly how expensive such ambitions can be, and how hard it is to turn them into reality.

Between these minimalist and maximalist extremes lies an unenticing middle ground. Over the last 12 years, this has been the fate of Kosovo, where genocide no longer threatens, but stability remains a long way off. Such a model will never set idealist hearts aflutter, and may well elicit pointed questions about the viability of intervention in the first place. If Kosovo is the best-case scenario, can intervention ever be worth the financial and military costs – to say nothing of the ethical risks, particularly relating to the threat to civilian lives? But in practice, if it is insufficient to be minimalist about intervention, it is also impossible to be maximalist. The task of the strategist is to strike a delicate balance between lofty aspirations and what it is actually possible to achieve on the ground in a given country – recognizing all the while that idealist hopes are certain to be disappointed.

Leaders never get to choose between the terrible and the perfect. The number of desirable – even urgent – goals always outstrips the capacities of even the richest country. And the last decade of American fiscal and military turmoil reminds us that unmatched power is not the same thing as unlimited power. Well-meaning leaders may confront terrible dilemmas – when public opinion and basic ethical principles demand action to stop a humanitarian crisis – but insufficient resources and strategic concerns mean that action will make the crisis worse instead of better.

War is not the realm of certainty, but of probability. It offers no sure outcomes – either in a military or a moral sense. As Clausewitz put it, “no other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with chance.” But in cases where action is ethically imperative, a leader cannot simply sit on the sidelines for fear of what chance might bring. Niebuhr saw the heart of the matter: “We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization.” He had the Cold War in mind, but his insight is just as true today, where human rights are at stake.

There is no scientific, foolproof way to ensure a good outcome in cases of extreme human suffering, whether in Syria or the Congo. There is no way to guarantee that military force – no matter how noble its goals, or how judiciously it is used – will not kill innocent civilians. Much depends on a leader’s good judgement – a virtue for which battalions of analysts and pundits offer no substitute. Because the point of war is always to create a better peace, it is essential to be honest – with one’s citizens and one’s allies – about exactly what one’s goals are, and how one proposes to achieve them. This means thinking not just in humanitarian or ethical terms, but in explicitly political and strategic ones. As circumstances on the ground change, those goals may well change too. Still, governments must always recognize the gulf between what they want to do and what they actually can do, and how they will use the resources that they have to create the post-war settlement that they wish to see. Idealism is not diminished by recognizing its limits, nor does clear-eyed strategic thinking corrupt the humanitarian impulse that it aims to serve.

The three tragedies of humanitarian intervention mean that we have to reach for lofty goals even while knowing that we can never achieve them, and that we have to strive to do good even while knowing that we will do harm along the way. These tensions cannot be resolved, and leaders should not try to resolve them. Instead, they should understand that, in statecraft, the perfect is always the enemy of the good. They should look for ways to marry national interests and humanitarian demands. And they should think strategically and pragmatically about the highest ethical imperatives. The point is not to overcome the tragedies, but to learn to live with them.


Michael Cotey Morgan holds the Raymond Pryke Chair at Trinity College at the University of Toronto, where he teaches international relations and history.

(Illustration: Gary Taxali)

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