What Metrics for Assessing the Ethics of Intervention?

| June 2014
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Despite the predictions of the optimists in both the Bush and Obama administrations, U.S. interventions to remove undeniably brutal dictators from powerrulers who had in the past shown no compunction to kill large numbers of their own subjectshave not led to noticeably better outcomes. Quiet assessments of civilian casualties in both countries suggest that more innocents have been killed in the chaos and strife that followed the destruction of the old regimes than would have been deliberately delivered unto death had Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qadhafi remained in power. Given that the emerging norm of the “responsibility to protect” was implicitly invoked to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraqand explicitly deployed to sanction the use of Western airpower and special forces against the Libyan regime in 2011–is there a corresponding and related norm for the interveners to ensure that fewer people lose their lives as a result of the intervention and its aftermath? And how long does the statute of limitations last? One could easily counter-argue that sovereignty was returned to Iraq in 2004 and, at the request of the Iraqi government, U.S. forces were asked to depart for good in 2011. The United States, for its part, explicitly renounced any role to serve as an occupying power in Libya and power was taken by a Libyan transitional regime. Can responsibility, therefore, for the chaos and turmoiland the deaths it has producedbe laid at Washington’s door, or is this the unfortunate reality of an international system predicated on national self-determination?

The reaction of the international community to the massacre of Palestinian refugees by Phalangist militias in Lebanon in 1982in holding Israeli forces partially accountable for the killings, even though Israeli troops themselves committed none of the atrocitieson the grounds that Israeli military action had created the conditions that allowed for the humanitarian disaster to occur and did not take steps to prevent it from happeningsuggests that interveners do bear some moral responsibility for what happens in an area after they have undertaken action that removes the existing government. But that responsibility remains vague in its definition, particularly if, under international law, the interveners have not taken on themselves the rights and responsibilities of occupiers.

One can also detect in these arguments real differences over the fundamental question as to whether a bad government is worse (or preferable) to conditions where tyranny may have been overthrown but effective governance is also lacking. The American preferencewith roots directly in the writings of Thomas Paineis to see the order provided by a tyranny as less desirable than a weak government which holds out the possibility of greater personal autonomy and freedom. In such an assessment, Iraq and Libya are certainly better off post-Saddam and post-Qadhafi. Other societies place a greater emphasis on order and stabilityand would see the losses of personal freedom demanded by a tyranny as preferable to anarchy and disorder. In this view, the Iraq and Libya operations must be assessed ultimately as failures for their inability to lay the basis for a better government.

In the summer issue of Ethics & International Affairs, Alan Sussman concludes his article:

No one can be oneself when hungry. No one can engage in commerce when deprived of liberty or autonomy. Scientists cannot work creatively in a laboratory if they are required to clear their research with a political overseer. No one can create or imagine or love when consumed by fear. We need human rights, in sum, to permit ourselves the possibility of being human.

Most would agree that these core rights would have been difficult to secure under the old regimes in Iraq and Libya. Many might argue that they still remain unrealized in current conditions. Does this mean that interventions should not have been launched in an attempt to create conditions to have these rights realized if the chances for success were low (and the possibility that things could get worse was also a possibility)? Or was the intent to do good sufficient? Amitai Etzioni and others have argued that the first human right that has to be considered is the right to securityto life itself; as this is secured, then conditions can be created for securing other rights. Given that the current state of Libya and Iraq is now very much part of the debate as to whether future interventions are justifiedand whether the very idea of the “responsibility to protect” is a viable concept for guiding international affairs, how this debate plays out will be decisive in determining the future of the very concept of an intervention taking place for humanitarian reasons.

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Category: Blog, The Ethics of War and Peace

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