When to Intervene

Protecting innocent lives is a valid argument for humanitarian intervention. Promoting regime change is not.

Does the responsibility to protect doctrine allow for the toppling of regimes? A recent Clinton Global Initiative panel discussion refocused the debate about the conditions under which one nation is justified in intervening in the internal affairs of another nation.

Michael Gerson, a George W. Bush speechwriter and Washington Post columnist, made a strong case for intervening only when our national interests are involved. I agreed but argued for an exception, what might be called a moral minimum. I suggested that indeed if our interests are not significantly affected, we should stay out, both because otherwise we undermine the most elementary foundation of the international order—the Westphalian norm—and because once we march in, we tend to leave behind a sociological mess when we finally find an exit. Consider the more than one hundred thousand Iraqis who were killed, and many more wounded, since we liberated Iraq. Add to this the situation in Afghanistan if more convincing is needed.

There are, though, exceptions to any rule. If news of another Holocaust reached us, this time we surely would bomb the gas chambers and railroads leading to the camps. And most observers agree that if we could rerun the tape of history, we would have stopped the death of eight hundred thousand Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda. Syria may soon qualify as such an event.

The exceptions to a posture of nonintervention are cases in which large numbers of human beings are being killed, maimed and tortured. The underlying moral justification is, as I see it, that the right to life outranks all others. True, we often talk about human rights as if they come in one package, and indeed, a sound liberal democracy requires the right to free speech, assembly and petition, among the others. But the special standing of the right to life is revealed in the elementary but crucial observation that all the other rights are contingent on the right to life, but it is not contingent on them. A person whose right to free speech and assembly is denied may live to fight another day and gain a free life. Those six feet under are denied all tomorrows and all chance to have their rights respected. Indeed, the criminal code of all free nations and many others reflects that high regard for the right to life: when it is violated, much more severe penalties are meted out than when other rights are not honored.

Some have given the responsibility to protect a very expansive interpretation. But in the formulation of a UN-appointed commission, and the way it was endorsed by the General Assembly, it refers mainly to protecting life—not providing for the full plethora of human rights. It follows that when we do engage in armed humanitarian interventions, they should not encompass regime change.

The developments in Libya highlight this point. The United States stepped in fairly early, after Qaddafi made a speech threatening massive bloodshed in Benghazi but before it took place. As the rebels were making progress with our help, Qaddafi suggested a ceasefire and promised to negotiate a settlement with the opposition. That meant a possible end to the humanitarian crisis. (We could have made it clear that if Qaddafi did not live up to his word, our military intervention would resume.) However, we rejected this offer and insisted that the existing regime be toppled. This choice passed the threshold that separates a humanitarian intervention justified under responsibility to protect from forced regime changes, which are much more difficult to justify because they lead to more casualties and greater sociopolitical upheaval.

The moral minimum of right to life limits the conditions under which we may interfere; however, it should be noted that it refers only to the use of force. The promotion of democracy and human rights by educational and cultural means and through trade—that is, by nonlethal means—is not limited. I merely hold that we should not bomb people to help them democratize or bring them human rights at the points of bayonets.

During the question-and-answer part of the panel discussion, members of the audience raised concerns about the slow pace of responses to humanitarian crises. We tend to wait until they drag on (a year in Syria). Then we ask for a UN resolution and, if achieved, raise funds and find the troops to act. However, as Samantha Power showed in her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, we often have early warning signs that a humanitarian crisis is brewing. If we react to those, the crises themselves may often be avoided.

We must assemble funds and commitments to provide troops ahead of time—so that those who consider going down this path will realize that the response of the international community will be effective and timely. And As Tod Lindberg wrote recently, if the UN and NATO will not initiate action when it is clearly called for, then “we’ll have to lead from the front.”

If the United States does not move when a government bombards its own civilians with planes, artillery and tanks, when its elite troops go door-to-door killing peaceful civilians and children, we shall lose all moral claim to interfere in other cases. If we cannot respond when the right to life is threatened, we will be unable to answer our children’s question: “where were you when…?” and—I hope—be unable to face ourselves in the mirror.

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