The Myth of Humanitarian War

Two thinkers challenge claims of compassionate combat

| January-February 2000

Somalia 1992 . . . Haiti 1994 . . . Bosnia 1996 . . . Kosovo 1999 . . .

The “humanitarian” military campaign has become a distinctive feature of U.S. foreign policy in recent years. But is it really humanitarian?

Not at all, writes Noam Chomsky in his new book, The New Military Humanism (Common Courage Press). Indeed, the scholar-activist finds scant evidence in human history of wars fought out of a sense of compassion. “The category of genuine humanitarian intervention might turn out to be literally null, if investigation is unencumbered by intentional ignorance,” Chomsky writes. That assessment is in keeping with his suggestion elsewhere in the book that the term “moral state” is oxymoronic.

The United States, with its long record of aggression, epitomizes the hypocrisy of nations that have instigated wars under altruistic pretexts, he argues, noting that the recent instances of “humanitarian war” in East Africa, the Caribbean, and the Balkans are of a type with decidedly nonhumanitarian U.S. interventions in Southeast Asia and Central America.

And in Kosovo, several factors, none of them humanitarian, motivated a military campaign that had the very effect—mass expulsion of Kosovar Albanians—that it was supposed to prevent, Chomsky says. He cites the recurrent need to stimulate military spending, “the basis for U.S. preeminence in computers,” as one major motive for the war.

In placing Kosovo on a continuum that includes El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Vietnam, Chomsky rejects what he terms “the doctrine of ‘change of course.’” In all essential respects, the United States’ global behavior is the same in the post-Soviet era as during the Cold War, he contends. U.S. interest in defending its unjust share of wealth has not changed, so why should we assume its modus operandi is now somehow nobler? The only difference in today’s one-superpower world is that the United States has many more opportunities for low-risk intervention.

Eric Solstein
12/31/2009 2:41:14 PM

Chomsky is wrong-headed and contradicts himself. If there is no "moral" country, than there can be no "moral" war, perhaps not even a moral person - he apparently considers self-interest as contradictory to morality. Even worse, Chomsky must fill his recount of recent history full of qualifications or his supposed point flames out gloriously. Krauthammer - and I am no fan of his - makes almost perfect sense. A sad (NEw Year's) day when Chomsky gets out-thought by Krauthammer, but these are trying times.

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