An Immense Charge: Realist Lessons about the Consequences of Intervention

In his March 17, 2003 speech delivering a final ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, President George W.

In his March 17, 2003 speech delivering a final ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, President George W. Bush, after citing the Iraqi dictator's violations of various disarmament requirements and invoking the right of the United States and its allies to preemptive self-defense, also addressed the Iraqi people: "If we must begin a military campaign, it will be directed against the lawless men who rule your country and not against you. As our coalition takes away their power, we will deliver the food and medicine you need. We will tear down the apparatus of terror and we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free. In a free Iraq, there will be no more wars of aggression against your neighbors, no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, no more torture chambers and rape rooms. The tyrant will soon be gone. The day of your liberation is near."

Whether or not one agrees with the case made for the American-led invasion of Iraq-in retrospect, the reference to "torture chambers and rape rooms" must be extraordinarily uncomfortable of late after the revelations about the goings-on at Abu Ghraib prison-the president's remarks appealed explicitly to an international consensus that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, an achievement partially obscured amid the heated exchanges between representatives of the U.S. administration, its supporters and opponents in other governments, and the United Nations over the course of the last two years. The object of that consensus was the idea of "humanitarian intervention." In the report it presented to the UN in 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty contended that where a determined population "is suffering 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." The Commission even suggested that the failure to intervene might, in some cases, be itself a breach of international law. Consequently, in the name of the humanitarian principle, actions-especially the military variety-that would have seemed to the signatories of the original UN Charter clear cases of interference have been justified by citing everything from gross human rights abuses to the threat of terrorism. While critics of the American policy may argue about whether or not the situation in Iraq called for a "humanitarian intervention," few in the international community question the underlying principle of such a use of military force.

In fact, the dust has barely settled from the diplomatic querelle over Iraq when some of most vociferous critics of American actions in the Middle East were demanding interventions elsewhere that would inevitably be either led or supported by the U.S. military (the exclusive possession by the U.S. of the world's only long-haul military cargo airlift capability of any magnitude makes any such operation without American backing almost impossible). Last summer, a 2,300-strong unit of U.S. Marines en route home from the war in Iraq detoured to the coast of Liberia where a small task force led by the amphibious assault ship U.S.S. Iwo Jima had been dispatched to put pressure on the West African country's dictator, Charles Ghankay Taylor, to give up power. Earlier this year, the American government teamed up with that previously "principled" critic of interventions not authorized by the UN, France, to send a military force into Haiti that eased out the island's besieged ruler, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, before obtaining a Security Council resolution. This past week, finally noticing that an estimated one million people in Sudan's western Darfur region had fled their homes after being attacked by the government-backed janjaweed militia (this in addition to the four million already displaced by the long simmering civil war in the country's south), human rights groups and leading editorialists-including the editors of the usually hardnosed Economist newspaper-have called upon the UN Security Council to authorize some kind of intervention.

While armed intervention may sometimes be needed to halt abuses of the vulnerable, each such intervention presents a unique series of complex challenges (as does its aftermath). As the idea of "humanitarian intervention" is here to stay, even with America's military juggernaut preoccupied with the Greater Middle East, it would do well to review the history of recent interventions and ponder some of their lessons about the consequences of such commitments. Among these are the following:

Since most violence is perpetrated more quickly than commonly realized, an intervention will almost inevitably come too late. Even if a consensus about intervention were achieved as soon as news of the humanitarian crisis reaches the international community-an almost impossible task-history teaches us that, sadly, the killers will still be faster than the would-be interveners. In Rwanda, an estimated 500,000 of the 800,000 victims were killed in the first three weeks of the hundred days of the 1995 genocide. In East Timor, Indonesian-backed militias displaced most of the population in one week following the vote for independence in 1999. While this does not mean that the international community should shirk from intervening in the face of grievous abuse, it should be realistic about what it can accomplish even if it mobilized immediately.