Why humanitarian wars can go so wrong

All wars are terrifying gambles, but the wars justified with moral claims of humanitarianism carry a distinctively harrowing set of risks and problems — above all, the challenge of preventing massive human catastrophes with limited means. In Libya, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Obama are already beginning to confront many of the classic dilemmas that bedeviled their predecessors facing massacres and genocide in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda.

The big democracies usually stand idly by during the worst atrocities, including the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda. Simply to defend core national security interests, the Western allies might have been better off this time concentrating on threats in North Korea, Pakistan or Yemen. (After the United States invaded Iraq, Condoleezza Rice reportedly warned George W. Bush about Darfur: “I don’t think you can invade another Muslim country during this administration, even for the best of reasons.”) If Western strategists saw a more complex interest in furthering the democratic impulses of the Arab revolutions, Libya still may not have seemed of paramount importance compared with, say, Egypt or Tunisia.

But what seemingly counted most in Libya was that civilians in Benghazi might, as Obama said last month, “suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”

This raises the first inevitable problem: Since the goal is the defense of humanity, and there are humans facing violence in many places, how do you intervene in one spot and not another without drawing accusations of hypocrisy? After all, horrific mass atrocities happen all over the world; there are other countries that have endured worse slaughter than Libya without eliciting Western interventions. As the writer David Rieff has noted, during debates about rescue in the Balkans in the 1990s, skeptics would say, “I’ll see your Bosnia, and raise you one East Timor.”

Obama has rightly said that the duty to rescue endures, even though “America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs.” Yet this offers only the beginning of an answer. Why strike in Libya but not do more for Congo, or Ivory Coast (where up to 1 million people have fled post-election violence), or Bahrain, for that matter, where the United States has largely stood behind the monarchy as it crushes peaceful protesters? Moreover, other critics will inevitably ask, if the threat to innocent human life in Libya was so great that it justified emergency violations of national sovereignty, then why settle for half-measures such as a no-fly zone?

A major reason for limiting the number of interventions — and for giving each intervention a limited mission — stems from a second classic problem: Western democratic leaders have powerful political incentives to do humanitarianism on the cheap. Sarkozy, spectacularly unpopular at home and facing a presidential election next year, may score political gains for his leadership, but there is more for politicians to lose if the intervention goes badly than there is to gain if it goes well. Whatever credit President Bill Clinton might have gotten from the American public for saving untold thousands of Somalis, he retreated fast after 18 U.S. troops were killed in Mogadishu in October 1993. And particularly after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is scant French, British or American public appetite for more military adventures in Muslim lands.

Indeed, the very success of a humanitarian intervention can undermine its rationale and public support. If Clinton had swiftly sent troops to Rwanda in 1994 and stemmed the genocide, critics might have accused him of overreacting. White House official Dennis Ross reportedly said that the allies acted in Libya to prevent a “Srebrenica on steroids,” claiming that 100,000 people might have been slaughtered in Benghazi. But since those kinds of gruesome headlines have been forestalled, all anyone can see are the problems of an ongoing war. And once a one-sided slaughter becomes a two-sided war, it is easier for butchers to try to imply a moral equivalence — as when Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic complained that NATO leaders were the real war criminals for bombing Belgrade in 1999.

The result is a third recurring quandary: Humanitarian interventions tend to use limited means, while flirting with maximalist goals.

In Bosnia before 1995, Britain, France, Canada and the Netherlandssent U.N. troops, but these governments were more worried about the safety of their own soldiers than about protecting Bosnian civilians. The United Nations declared Sarajevo, Srebrenica and four other Bosnian towns to be “safe areas” but did not provide forces that could defend them — paving the way for the extermination of 7,000 Bosnians at Srebrenica in July 1995.

In Rwanda in 1994, the genocidal government killed 10Belgian U.N. peacekeepers, driving the United Nations to pull out most of its troops — even while Rwandans sought shelter at U.N. posts. In Kosovo in 1999, Clinton refused to commit ground troops, relying only on air power even as Milosevic’s forces unleashed fresh assaults on the Kosovars on the ground. And in Darfur in 2004, the African Union sent a small peacekeeping force, which was overwhelmed by the scale of the problem and later had to be reinforced by the United Nations.

This leads to a fourth perennial problem: Humanitarian wars, like all wars, tend to escalate. In Libya, the shared original objective might have been to protect civilians, not to overthrow the regime, but what if Moammar Gaddafi retaliates against outside intervention with terrorism or by killing more civilians, after the U.N. Security Council has approved action precisely because he was killing civilians? What if the civil war drags on for years, as such conflicts usually do? Reluctant Western allies and the Arab League could be pulled even deeper into Libya.

Such a wider war points to a final dilemma: Because outsiders are wary of sending in ground forces, they find themselves relying on locals willing to fight.

In Rwanda, the genocide of the Tutsi minority was stopped not by the international community but by the Tutsi rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. The Bosnian government army, although hobbled by a U.N. arms embargo, fought hard against the Serb nationalist onslaught. As John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859, “The only test . . . of a people’s having become fit for popular institutions, is, that they . . . are willing to brave labor and danger for their liberation.”

There is no such thing as a neutral intervention, one that solely protects civilians without taking sides. In Libya, Sarkozy’s government has recognized the rebels as the “legitimate representatives” of the people, while Obama has said that Gaddafi should go. Western and Arab leaders will probably find themselves facing calls to train and arm the rebels or oust Gaddafi, and Obama has already stated that he has neither ruled in nor ruled out providing military assistance to the rebels.

But a local army or rebel group will not always be a champion of human rights. In 1971, to resist Pakistani atrocities against Pakistan’s Bengali population, India trained and armed Bengali guerrillas, who used child soldiers as young as 10. Soon before NATO bombed Serb forces in 1995, Croatia launched a ground war to recapture the Krajina region from Milosevic, ruthlessly expelling at least 120,000 Serb refugees. And today, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said that “we’re still getting to know” the Libyan opposition leaders.

Sarkozy, Cameron and Obama have acted on principle in Libya. If Benghazi had gone down in history as another Srebrenica, they would surely have regretted it, much as President Clinton now regrets not acting in Rwanda. Their problem now is that virtue is not its own political reward, even if the war goes well — and especially if the war goes badly.

By Gary J. Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and the author of Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention and Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals.

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