The Myth of Humanitarian War

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.

Every instance of American military intervention since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been utterly self-interested, in Chomsky’s view. Thus, the 1992 Marine landing in Somalia, allegedly to rescue thousands from starvation, was actually an elaborate effort to showcase U.S. military capabilities. Operation Restore Hope may also have taken as many Somali lives (between 7,000 and 10,000, the CIA estimated) as it saved (10,000 to 25,000, according to the U.S. Refugee Policy Group).

The 1994 occupation of Haiti did restore the elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Chomsky acknowledges, but only after Washington had facilitated his overthrow by “a murderous military regime.” What’s more, the United States forced Aristide to accept “an extremely harsh version” of its Third World economic regimen as the price for his return to power.

Charles Krauthammer, writing in The National Interest (Fall 1999), argues that the Somalia and Haiti interventions, as well as the 1996 U.S.-led occupation of Bosnia, were “quintessentially humanitarian endeavors in which an American national interest is hard to find.”

But Krauthammer is no fan of humanitarian wars, calling them “fool’s errands.” Somalia has returned to chaos; Haiti is once again in the grip of a “violent, unstable, squalid dictatorship”; precariously partitioned Bosnia looks more and more like a quagmire; and Kosovo presents a similar prospect of “endless occupation of a murderous neighborhood” of the most marginal strategic importance to the United States.

The problem, says Krauthammer, is that humanitarian war is fought in accordance with an “iron law” that is also its “central contradiction.” A war can be waged for purposes other than pure national self-interest only “with sustained political support at home,” he reasons. But the American public will remain supportive only “if the war is bloodless.”

By definition, wars cannot be bloodless, he says. As soon as U.S. soldiers start dying, political support for humanitarian interventions will be quickly withdrawn, as happened in Somalia. Even a mounting non-American death toll eventually will make this type of war impossible to prosecute, Krauthammer says. That’s what threatened to happen as U.S. bombs killed more and more Serbian and Kosovar civilians.

And, he adds, the need to prevent casualties–especially American casualties–requires that humanitarian war be fought with potentially calamitous means, such as high-altitude bombing. The ensuing “collateral damage” contradicts the very concept of humanitarian war.

“Humanitarian warfare has no future,” he writes. “It is an idea whose time has come, and gone.”

Chomsky, on the other hand, thinks humanitarian intervention may become more frequent in a unipolar world with no effective check on U.S. military power. International law will matter not at all, Chomsky predicts, pointing to Washington’s cavalier dismissal of World Court opinions and the United Nations Charter.

“Defiance of international law and solemn obligations has become entirely open, even widely lauded in the West,” he writes. Rampant lawlessness on the part of the world’s leading nuclear power is perversely depicted, Chomsky adds, as a “new internationalism” that heralds a wonderful new age, unique in human history.

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