Humanitarian intervention: Why is NATO bombing Libya but not Syria?

Military analysis.
Aug. 19 2011 1:25 PM

It's Not What We Ought To Do, But What We Can Do

Rory Stewart says humanitarian intervention is like mountain rescue—protecting lives doesn't require destructive adventures.

Rebel forces in Libya. Click image to expand.
Rebel forces in Libya

If NATO is dropping bombs on Libya, why not on Syria? Aren't the two regimes equally murderous? Where do we draw the lines on these things, and why?

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan, Slate's "War Stories" columnist and a Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is writing a book about the group of soldier-scholars who changed the American military. His latest book, 1959: The Year Everything Changed, is in paperback. He can be reached at

These are some of the questions bandied about in the latest round of the great debate over what some call "humanitarian intervention." The U.N. agencies sanitized the term not long ago as "R2P," for the "responsibility to protect."*From a different angle, the editors of n+1 decried the whole concept, in an article excerpted in Slate, as "A Solution From Hell" (a savage play on Samantha Power's book, A Problem From Hell, which shamed many liberals into reassessing genocide as a major problem of international relations and foreign policy as an essentially moral undertaking).


To the n+1 authors, there has never been "a truly successful, truly humanitarian humanitarian intervention," not even NATO's action in Bosnia (the one instance that most skeptics concede was worthwhile) because, "while it stopped Milosevic and ensured the safety of Kosovo," the country itself is not yet "a viable state."

This is a dishonest argument in two ways. First, the authors implicitly exempt from their no-successes assessment those interventions that were not "truly humanitarian humanitarian" (their italics), which is to say, presumably, interventions that had political as well as moral motives. But it would be hard to find any interventions, successful or otherwise, for which the motives were entirely "pure." Second, by judging Bosnia a failure because it hasn't yet produced "a viable state," the authors are switching their criteria; suddenly politics are primary, and humanitarian results ("while it stopped Milosevic and ensured the safety of Kosovo") are irrelevant.

My guess (I don't know them, or even who they are, so I can't say for sure) is that the authors' main gripe is ideological. The giveaway comes in this sentence: "Wars waged by the U.S. are inevitably imperialist." (Italics added.) If that's the premise, the rest is Q.E.D.

But all the arguments on nearly all sides of the debate—including the implicit arguments in the questions that I recite in this column's first paragraph—fail to grasp the real point, which is that, while the discussion's premise (that a nation might consider intervening in the affairs of a sovereign state to relieve human suffering) is moral on its face, the issue at hand (what do we do about it?) is not.

The most thorough examination of the subject that I've read in a while is a new book by Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus called Can Intervention Work?, and the way they put it is this:

It is not a question of what we ought to do but what we can: of understanding the limits of Western institutions in the 21st century and of giving credible account to the specific context of a particular intervention.

They accept the basic notion that intervention is sometimes justified. But, they warn, there are inherent limits to what this sort of intervention can accomplish, and—as Stewart puts it in his half of the two-part book—"you don't have a moral obligation to do what you cannot do."

Stewart likens the advice he'd give humanitarian interventionists to the advice routinely given to mountain-climbing rescue societies. "Mountains," he writes, "are intrinsically risky and dangerous; they can defeat and kill even the best; therefore, if you can avoid climbing, do." And if you decide to climb on rescue missions anyway, "be prepared to turn back if conditions turn against you," for (to apply the metaphor to the issue at hand) "in interventions, as in a mountain rescue, the moral right and duty to protect lives does not require futile or destructive adventures."