Once again, the United States is agonizing over whether to conduct another humanitarian intervention, one with strong strategic considerations—how to get rid of Assad and hopefully end Syria’s civil war.
For the past year, the United States and its friends have tried denunciations, threats and knowingly futile diplomacy. A few countries have taken to covertly supplying some arms to his opposition. Some Americans, notably in Congress, find all that grossly inadequate. They strongly object to a policy they believe is based on the assumption that it’s only a matter of time before Assad falls. There is a small intellectual war over what might generate more robust NATO/Arab/Turkish military action to resolve the unending humanitarian disaster. Some look to past precedent: Srebrenica, with its eight thousand murdered during the Bosnian conflict, finally produced a serious military intervention. But after sixteen months with thirteen thousand dead, one hundred thousand refugees, a half million displaced and all the numbers steadily rising, Syria still waits.
Since its use in Somalia, humanitarian intervention has generated a continuing, ever-fiercer debate in Washington. Indeed, this century the international community came up with a supposed answer to prevent or cope with these man-made disasters: “the responsibility to protect.” This doctrine holds that when a government destroys or allows masses of its people to be destroyed, the international community can and must intervene—not initially militarily, but if nothing else works and a military solution is feasible, then with force. The problem, not surprisingly, is that governments have rarely implemented it.
The sad fact is there is simply no agreed basis for military intervention in terrible situations. It is hard to mobilize the “international community” for military action. The first international resort is (usually ineffective) diplomacy, while providing important humanitarian assistance to the internally displaced and refugees. Frequently, the lack of Security Council agreement is cited as a principal reason for delaying military action, except of course when the United States feels the need to act. The number killed is certainly a factor, but it’s hardly the only one—the impact of recent wars, diplomacy, domestic politics, presidential prestige, costs, strategic considerations, likely international support and sustained public advocacy also play a role. With Syria, there is also the opposition of Russia and China in the Security Council, as well as greater concern for the uncertainties of war and the law of unintended consequences.
A Mixed Record
The Cold War period had its share of humanitarian disasters: China’s Great Leap Forward cost perhaps thirty million lives, the Cultural Revolution affected large but unknown numbers, and a million people were killed in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge victory in Indochina (for which the United States bore great responsibility). Those incredible disasters never had a chance of prompting foreign intervention, and they have been left largely to the historians (except for the continuing tribunal set up to try senior Khmer Rouge leaders). It is more instructive to briefly examine the history of post–Cold War humanitarian interventions.