...if the United Nations were to have its way, the Iraqi debacle would be just the first in a series of such wars -- the effect of a well-meaning but ill-considered effort to make humanitarian intervention obligatory as a matter of international law. Today Iraq, tomorrow Darfur.Posner's argument here is an interesting and important one, if not a new one. The general logic of modern political realism argues that international stability and order should be the primary concern of states and that ideological crusades will likely cause more problems than they solve. Edward Luttwak has written an article entitled "Give War a Chance," arguing that involvement in intrastate conflict can ultimately lead to increased violence over the long run. And, as Posner points out, the lessons of Somalia, Darfur, Bosnia, and perhaps even Kosovo (especially in light of, for example, this article about the increasing problems there) clearly indicate the dangers of becoming involved in military-based humanitarian interventions.
The idea that war can have a humanitarian as well as a national security justification has a long pedigree and surface plausibility. Some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century occurred in weak states whose governments could not have resisted a foreign military invasion. The genocide in Rwanda, which killed more than 800,000 people in a few months, was eventually halted by a force of Tutsi rebels; surely a Western army could have stopped it sooner. If nations can intervene at little cost to themselves because the target nations are weak and by doing so they prevent massive human suffering, then surely they should do so. The logic seems compelling.
But logic is no substitute for experience, and experience shows that humanitarian war is an oxymoron. The first blow to the idea was the failed intervention in Somalia in 1993. U.S. forces sent to maintain the peace while aid was distributed to millions of starving civilians were withdrawn after just 18 U.S. soldiers died. Policymakers drew the lesson that the American public will not tolerate casualties in a humanitarian war that has no clear national security justification. This lesson guided President Bill Clinton's refusal to authorize military intervention during the Rwandan genocide and his decision to limit U.S. military intervention in Kosovo in 1999 to high-altitude bombing, which ensured that no American pilots were killed -- at the expense of civilians on whose heads errant bombs fell. The Kosovo intervention, although regarded as a success in some quarters, has cost billions of dollars, required a seven-year occupation and could turn out to be a slow-motion version of Iraq.
The Iraq war itself has dealt the second blow. The problem with humanitarian intervention is not only that the costs are usually too high, but it turns out that the benefits usually are low. There are just too many risks and imponderables when war is used to prevent atrocities rather than to defeat an enemy. Military weapons inevitably kill civilians, and smart tyrants foil smart bombs by using their own civilians as shields. Dictators understand that a war premised on humanitarianism fails if they can make the invader kill their citizens. Removing the dictator risks civil war, which is almost always worse than the original abuses. Replacing him with another dictator only puts off the atrocities until another day. Long-term occupation breeds hostility, then insurgency and violence. In comparison with this, the original ruler might not seem so bad after all....
Many people blame the humanitarian costs of the war in Iraq on the Bush administration's execution of it. This view is a psychological crutch that allows defenders of humanitarian intervention to keep the ideal alive for the next, presumably competent, administration of a President Hillary Clinton or John McCain. But complaints about this war are not noticeably different from complaints about earlier wars, where small mistakes (identifiable as such with the benefit of hindsight) resulted in enormous harm.
The Iraq war, consistent with experience, suggests that humanitarian wars will rarely yield humanitarian results. Why, then, is there a so-called "responsibility to protect" movement to make humanitarian intervention obligatory as a matter of international law? And why was this idea endorsed by the United Nations during its millennium summit?
The best humanitarians of our day recognize that we face a painful dilemma: to tolerate atrocities in foreign states or to risk committing worse atrocities in the course of ending them. From Rwanda, many people drew the lesson that failure to intervene is the worse option. The Iraq war may be the first step in unlearning this lesson. If not, an intervention in Darfur surely will be.
And yet, Posner's argument is too simplistic. As has been demonstrated fairly convincingly by Peter Feaver and Chris Gelpi, political scientists at Duke University [full disclosure: both Feaver and Gelpi were on my dissertation committee, and I TAed a course for Feaver as well], the problem that Posner identifies is less grounded in the US public as he intimates ("Policymakers drew the lesson that the American public will not tolerate casualties in a humanitarian war that has no clear national security justification. This lesson guided President Bill Clinton's refusal to authorize military intervention during the Rwandan genocide and his decision to limit U.S. military intervention in Kosovo in 1999 to high-altitude bombing...") and more in the political decisionmakers themselves. This argument can be seen in many places: Their book (here's the first chapter), or a Washington Post op-ed from November 7, 1999 (rr).
The reason that so many military interventions for humanitarian purposes devolve into disaster is an unwillingness of the political elites to convince their domestic audiences of the worthiness of the cause. In Somalia, Clinton was unwilling to spend any political capital to do so, just as he was in Rwanda and Kosovo. Bush, on the contrary, was willing to do so, even if he may not have chosen the "right" intervention: Few external analysts, even the most optimistic, believed that Iraq would be a simple and short affair, while Posner's other worst case, Kosovo, is hardly a drop in the bucket compared to Iraq nor would any potential operation in Darfur involve anything approaching the costs of Iraq.
Ideas are important, even in foreign policy, despite the desire of neo-realists to wish them away. Americans will not bear sacrifices for conflicts that they do not perceive to be in the country's interest. But leaders have a lot to say in how the American public perceives its interest. The mantra of humanitarianism and democracy has gone a long way to maintaining public support for a war in Iraq that seems to be going badly with few prospects for success. Posner is certainly right that any such interventions will be fraught with danger and risk. But that, in and of itself, does not mean that the danger and risk are not worth bearing.