The Mostly Hypothetical Case For Armed Humanitarianism

Speaking on the Don Imus show Tuesday, Rep Anthony Weiner endorsed military action in Libya with reference to Rwanda and the Holocaust:

My view is that there are times in American history — Rwanda was one, bombing the tracks during the onset to the Holocaust, that we could have sent a bomber wing in to take out the tracks, we didn’t do it — we look back and we see we should use military force to try and defend people who can’t defend themselves.

Maybe so. I think it’s telling that enthusiasts for this kind of war typically have to make the case with reference to hypothetical success stories about military operations we didn’t undertake. These are useful cases to deploy in arguments, because since the intervention didn’t happen one doesn’t need to wrestle with the potentially problematic consequences and downside risks. The key actual case is Kosovo, where American intervention was highly successful at helping the Kosovo Liberation Army achieve its political goal of independence from Serbia, but considerably less effective at actually preventing violence against civilians. What’s more, though Kosovo independence is very nice for the Kosovar Albanians, it’s hardly been a humanitarian boon to Kosovar Serbs and further afield it wound up creating problems for the good people of Georgia when Russia decided to use them as the target of retaliation for western recognition of Kosovo independence. We also have in Iraq and Afghanistan examples of military undertakings where the welfare of the inhabitants of the soon-to-be-bombed country was cited as a pro-bombing argument, and yet the actual results have been pretty mixed.

One thing you sometimes hear about Kosovo is the argument that the problem here isn’t that intervention didn’t work as well as its proponents promised, but that we didn’t intervene forcefully enough. Perhaps if we’d sent ground forces in things would have gone better. And maybe so, but again I think it’s a problem when all your best evidence is drawn from scenarios that didn’t unfold. In Libya I guess we’re at least finally getting a test case where the interventionists are getting their way and we can judge the results based on actual events.