During the 1990s, a previously little-known concept rapidly became the hottest term in international relations. “Humanitarian intervention”—at its simplest, the use of military force to protect human rights—established itself in the political lexicon following a series of brutal conflicts in Africa and the Balkans.
As with most political concepts, humanitarian intervention became voguish thanks to circumstances. The Soviet Union had collapsed. We hadn’t fully grasped the threat posed by Islamist terrorism. With the expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and the relative success of the Israel-Palestinian peace process, even the Middle East seemed uncommonly stable.
Most important, there was an acute awareness in Western countries that our impressive military strength hadn’t deterred some of the worst slaughters of the 20th century. For around 14 weeks in 1994, Rwanda was the site of the most rapacious extermination since the Holocaust, with more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus murdered by machete-wielding Hutu extremists. Between 1992 and 1995, the war in Bosnia spawned countless atrocities, such as the massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Serb forces in the town of Srebrenica. To many—especially American Jews—it seemed that these failures showed the hollowness of oft-repeated promises of “never again.”
Humanitarian intervention was the response to these failures. When the United States and the United Kingdom led a “coalition of the willing” to stop the Serb onslaught in Kosovo in 1999—supported by an ideologically broad coalition of liberal internationalists and neoconservatives—it wasn’t to pursue a strategic interest but to arrest yet another episode of ethnic cleansing on European soil. Similarly, when the British intervened in Sierra Leone’s civil war in 2000, the sole purpose was to prevent drug-addled paramilitaries controlled by a psychopath named Foday Sankoh from hacking off the limbs of young children.
The images of those wars—the long columns of refugees, the mass graves, the flowers and candy and cheers that greeted the liberating foreign armies—all seem very distant now. The combined experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan have persuaded many Westerners that any kind of military action, even when it’s undertaken in the defense of basic human rights, is just plain wrong—morally, politically, and strategically.
Thus do we come to the debacle in Syria. Once Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unleashed chemical weapons against his own people, Western policymakers were confronted with a textbook case for humanitarian intervention. In a different context, they might have acted. But there was little domestic backing, even from those who had spoken strongly in the 1990s of “never again.” This lack of support was one critical reason America and its allies caved under Russian pressure, calling off planned air strikes in favor of a dubious diplomatic process guided by Moscow.
Was humanitarian intervention just a passing fad, or can it be resuscitated? Can we ever reach agreement among both liberals and conservatives that military action in defense of human rights is sometimes justified, or are we fated to remain polarized, to the detriment of those under the boot of tyrannical regimes?
Call me a dreamer, but I’d like to think that the morally grounded determination of the 1990s can be revived, which is why it’s important to grasp what humanitarian intervention doesn’t involve. It doesn’t have to mean lengthy occupations of countries where much of the population is hostile. It doesn’t have to mean choosing one side in a war over another. And it doesn’t have to result in our own troops coming home en masse in body bags.
So what is humanitarian intervention? Fernando Tesón, an Argentine political philosopher who describes himself as a liberal, explains it in an article entitled “Whatever Happened to Humanitarian Intervention,” as follows: “The serious violation of fundamental civil and political rights generates obligations on others … We have a general duty to assist persons in great danger if we can do it at reasonable cost to ourselves.” Elsewhere in the same essay, Tesón stresses other conditions, such as the proportionate use of force and the importance of the intervention being greeted by the victims themselves.
What the Obama administration originally proposed for Syria was exactly that—the use of air power to neutralize Assad’s weapons of mass destruction, in an operation that would undoubtedly have been welcomed by huge numbers of Syrians. Instead, the policy debate was hijacked by the Russians and their allies, who pushed for engagement with Assad, arguing that respecting state sovereignty is more important than respecting the rights of persons who suffer because of state actions.
Again, Tesón gives the lie to this argument: “Those who wield or seek power over their fellow citizens have an obvious incentive to support non-intervention,” he writes. Put more baldly, if you’re not systematically abusing human rights, you have nothing to worry about.
We also need to think about the consequences of not acting. As Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, asserted on Syria: “People will draw lessons if the world proves unwilling to enforce the norms against chemical weapons use that we have worked so diligently to construct.”
She’s right. It’s not an exaggeration to argue that junking humanitarian intervention really does involve a fatal compromise of the values all of us should hold dear.
This article originally appeared in Moment magazine’s November/December issue. Moment magazine is an independent bimonthly of politics, culture, and religion, co-founded by Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel. For more go to momentmag.com.