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Commentary

The Myth of “Humanitarian” Intervention


     
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Refusing to learn his lesson from the nascent quagmire in Iraq, President Bush is likely to risk the lives of U.S. armed forces again in Liberia in a Clintonesque “humanitarian” intervention, which he heaped scorn upon in the 2000 election campaign. Such idealistic justifications for war have been used over the centuries and have been particularly successful in the United States. In modern history, remember Woodrow Wilson, with the “war to end all wars,” and Clinton, who used the “humanitarian” façade to become the most interventionist president in the last twenty years (of course, the jury’s still out on whether George W. Bush will surpass him). But what is so wrong with deposing petty despots and bringing democracy and free markets to the world at the point of the bayonet?

First, we may liberate others, but enslave ourselves. The founders of the United States, reacting to European monarchs who took their countries to war at the expense—in blood and taxes—of their people, created a constitutional restraints designed to curb this practice. That system is now in shambles. Congress, the arm of the people, no longer declares wars. The imperial executive can now take us to war without any congressional approval—and often does. Also, with each U.S. military intervention overseas, America’s unique civil liberties at home erode, especially if a war’s blowback—read terrorism—happens on our own soil. Savage ethnic or tribal civil wars are a particular breeding for terrorists.

Second, the humanitarian veneer can be used to justify wars that are really undertaken for reasons of realpolitik. For example, President Clinton threatened to invade Haiti, not for the humanitarian reasons stated, but to stem the flow of poor refugees from there to U.S. shores. That example and many others show interventions are rarely undertaken for purely humanitarian reasons. President Bush appears to be willing to undertake a potentially risky quagmire in Liberia to score points with regional leaders before his trip to Africa.

Third, the U.S. record in “peace keeping” and “nation-building” in the developing world is abysmal. Lebanon, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq all have been or are becoming disasters. Either the countries are no better off (and sometimes worse off) than before the U.S. intervention, or violence and instability will likely resume when the United States tries to withdraw from the morass. The often-cited post-WWII models of Japan and Germany have little relevance to conflict-ridden places in the developing world. Japan and Germany were first world nations (with tremendous reservoirs of human capital) who were ready to quit fighting after being pummeled into the dust. They had a strong sense of national identity and were not fighting amongst themselves. They even had some prior experience with democracy. Most of those Japanese and German advantages are not shared by fractious developing nations.

As for Liberia, the American public should ask why the conflict there is different from the roughly 20 other civil wars in the world. And all of the parties to the Liberian war—including the opposition groups that the United States implicitly would be helping by ousting strongman Charles Taylor—are tainted. The administration threatens to bog down the already overstretched U.S. military in a conflict that does not threaten U.S. vital interests. Although the administration insists that U.S. forces will remain in Liberia only a few months until stability has returned, then-President Clinton—eight years ago and counting—promised that U.S. troops would remain in Bosnia only a year. In such brush fire wars, when stability is not restored or is maintained only if the U.S. military remains, it becomes politically difficult to bring American forces home unless Somalia-like casualties occur.

President Bush should learn from his father and resist intervening in Liberia. Although African nations have been calling for U.S. interventions in Congo, Sierra Leone and now Liberia, they have, in the past, been able to depose brutal dictators on their own—for example, the removal of the brutal Idi Amin in 1978. If the United States intervenes in Liberia, African nations will become dependent on American power for what they could do themselves.

But perhaps the biggest reason for avoiding wars unnecessary for self-defense is the unintended consequences. The best example of the severe unplanned effects of a war: to needle the Soviet Union, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan thought they would aid a rebellion in an unimportant backwater called Afghanistan. They ended up creating one of the few genuine threats to the U.S. homeland in the history of the republic—al Qaeda. Who knows what unintended consequences will arise from the U.S. intervention in Liberia or in other future civil wars.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.


  New from Ivan Eland!
RECARVING RUSHMORE (UPDATED EDITION): Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty
Taking a distinctly new approach, Ivan Eland profiles each U.S. president from Washington to Obama on the merits of his policies and whether those strategies contributed to peace, prosperity, and liberty. This ranking system is based on how effective each president was in fulfilling his oath to uphold the Constitution.






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