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."

And so, to return to the question about Libya and Syria: This may sound awfully cold, but we're bombing Libya because we can and because it might have good effects; and we're not bombing Syria because we can't, and it almost certainly won't.

Libya is, in fact, the most straightforward case for "R2P" action that's come along in years, maybe decades. (The widespread claim, repeated in n+1, that Samantha Power, now a member of the National Security Council, persuaded President Obama to intervene is overstated.) Muammar Qaddafi was crushing a popular resistance; he said publicly that he would soon send his hired thugs door-to-door to exterminate the protesters, tens of thousands of them, like "rats." He had the power, and seemingly the will, to make good on his promise. So the Arab League unanimously passed a resolution (a nearly unprecedented event in itself), pleading for the international community to take action. The U.N. Security Council followed with a similar resolution, which neither Russia nor China vetoed. If the Western leaders hadn't responded under these circumstances, they may as well have announced that "humanitarian intervention" as a concept was dead.

Taking action was also a good idea from a realpolitik angle. The controversy unfolded in the wake of the Arab Spring; it was in our interest for the United States and NATO to appear on the side of a popular uprising against a quasi-allied dictator (and Libya's was about as quasi an ally as could be imagined).

While many criticized Obama and NATO for doing too little, too late, I suspect that, in the end (which now seems imminent), the effort will seem about right: assisting the rebels with air support (and probably more "training and equipping" by special-operations forces than is acknowledged) but not taking the lead—and, therefore, not getting lassoed with responsibility for determining, or fully funding, the new Libyan order afterward.

It's an approach that the authors of Can Intervention Work? probably appreciate. Stewart, to the extent he supports intervention at all, advocates an approach he calls "passionate moderation," while Knaus calls his attitude "principled incrementalism."

Stewart is a well-known author, and currently a member of the British Parliament, who was once more enthusiastic about these sorts of ventures, until he saw intentions run awry and good sense run aground in Iraq. (Until recently, he also ran an NGO in Afghanistan.) Knaus, Stewart's colleague when they both recently taught at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, spent many years working with human-rights groups in the Balkans.

Stewart's half of the book is about why intervention in Afghanistan is failing, Knaus' half is about why intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo succeeded.

Both authors believe that, while there are some "crises that 'the International Community' cannot address," there are others that it can, and in those instances, there are some well-worn guidelines to follow—the main one being: There are no universal guidelines. Taking another useful metaphor from mountain rescue, it's best to learn the environment, be honest about your capabilities, and trust an experienced guide.

The main problem in Afghanistan, to Stewart, was precisely the international community's tendency to apply abstract concepts—like "governance," "stable state," and "rule of law"—to a country where they had no resonance and where the members of the international community possessed little or no knowledge of the languages, the culture, or the traditional social structures. He notes, for instance, that a 2004 document titled Securing Afghanistan's Future, written with the assistance of 100 international experts, and containing 137 pages, with 69 tables and charts, does not include any of the following words: Pashtun, Tajik, Islam, Shiite, jihad, Northern Alliance,or insurgency.

Both authors leave occasional holes in their arguments. Stewart, for instance, writes that, a few years ago, he actively opposed increasing U.S. troops, advocating instead a "light long-term footprint," mainly of aid workers, but he doesn't explain how he would have supplied them with security. Knaus, in examining various theories on why Bosnia worked, dismisses but never really refutes those that give much credit to the preponderance of U.S. military strength.

Still, this is a valuable work, at once skeptical but not hopeless, and certainly not deterministic, about the prospects of a moral element in foreign-military policy.

In the end, Knaus responds to the question of what works and what doesn't in this way:

The answer from the last two decades is that where we believe that any price is worth paying, and that failure is not an option, we are likely to fail. Where we tread carefully, and fear the consequences of our mistake, there is a chance.

Correction , Aug. 20, 2011: This article originally said that R2P stood for "right to protect." (Return to the corrected sentence.)

  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Nov. 20 2014 11:08 AM “Food’s a Great Lens, but It’s Not the Actual Topic We Need to Address” Tracie McMillan on the story behind her piece “Can Whole Foods Change the Way Poor People Eat?”