Written by Ryan McMaken via the Mises Institute,

In domestic policy, a proven strategy for passing ill-advised laws is to insist do better Something than standing up doing nothing. Are "too few" people graduating from higher education? Then we are told that we need to increase tuition subsidies. Will this solve the problem? Who knows? What is important is that we did it Something.

This kind of thing has a political value, of course, because the new program and the new expenses can be seen and measured.

The truth fresh of the program, however, are not seen. We can, for example, easily ignore the fact that subsidies tend to raise tuition levels, which in turn increases the level of student loan debt. The students then postpone the purchase of houses and the constitution of a family to later, to repay their debts. These realities impose costs on students. But they are not easily visible or measured.

Thus, the benefits of the program are presented, while the costs remain hidden.

In the area of ​​foreign policy, particularly humanitarian intervention, this problem is even worse, partly because the stakes are higher. The methods employed here are now very familiar. Defenders of humanitarian intervention repeatedly show real or perceived violations of human rights in a foreign country. It is then assumed that the United States will have an interest in intervening to solve the problem – probably in a short period of time. Intervention costs, both financial and non-financial, are assumed to be at most minor. So, we must conclude that it's better to do Something nothing. Those who insist on opposing humanitarian interventions are then described as motivated by a lack of empathy or perhaps outright hostility and cynicism.

The rise of humanitarian interventionism as a privileged policy

For over twenty years, this narrative and method has gained popularity and influence, with humanitarian interventions becoming an increasingly acceptable option for the United States in addressing global human rights issues. .

The actual costs and uncertainties of these interventions are almost never addressed in detail in media commentary and information coverage. The focus is on highlighting the benefits and the need for intervention while ignoring the unintended consequences of these actions.

In addition, ignoring these costs has become more urgent for advocates of intervention, as ostensibly humanitarian intervention has become the cornerstone of US foreign policy. While these interventions began sporadically, Stephen Wertheim notes in the Journal of Genocide Research how after 1991,

Humanitarian intervention becomes a central and insistent concern in the US discourse, regularly presented as a raison d'être of US global leadership. It was only then that humanitarian intervention was primarily conceived, not as an emergency response to extraordinary episodes, but rather as a permanent program requiring special doctrines, which American and British leaders have published1.

This increased acceptance of humanitarian interventions largely focused on the world's failure to respond to the Rwandan genocide in 1994. This development, coupled with ethnic cleansing campaigns in the former Yugoslavia, sparked many calls for attention. more active international humanitarian response in the world. .

As Wertheim notes, however, the debate has long been problematic, namely that large and wealthy states like the United States can relatively easily remedy human rights violations.

A radical change began around 1998. It brought a new belligerence, convinced that the American troops would easily put an end to the Rwandan genocide and should stop all others. This point of view permeated the establishment of American foreign policy in 1999 and 2000, appearing both in government doctrine and in popular commentaries, among neoconservatives and humanitarian interventionists …

But were things as simple as alleged lawyers?

For Wertheim, the answer is no, he continues:

[H]Humanist interventionists have often assumed military challenges, not thinking concretely how an intervention could unfold …[But] a war to end the Rwandan genocide would not have been as simple as the interventionists would later say … The interventionists who are really determined to achieve humanitarian results must realize the difficulties that it is necessary to forge peace after the war – and to record the potential disadvantages of post-conflict occupation in calculating intervening in the first place … Overall, humanitarian interventionists tend to minimize the difficulties in bringing an end to ethnic conflicts, to ignore the challenges of post-conflict reconstruction, to remove the constraints imposed by public opinion and to override multilateral procedures.

However, in real life, these costs and constraints are numerous. For example, there is always a "loser" side when interventions take place. Once the force of intervention is gone, will the losing party retaliate? If the intervention required bombing campaigns, who would pay for infrastructure reconstruction? And how long will an occupation force be needed? And if counter-insurgency became necessary? How many stakeholders will be willing to kill in counter-insurgency battles in order to implement a "humanitarian" solution?

These questions are not just logistical and administrative issues either. The political constraints imposed on the states by the populations having the right to vote are very real. For example, the invasion of Somalia by the United States initially appeared to be an easy sell to US voters. After 18 American soldiers were killed at the Battle of Magadiscio, President Bill Clinton quickly withdrew his troops. It is easy to gain public support when interventions are brief and do not kill. But things do not always go that way.

In fact, care is often taken to avoid losses to the occupation troops (in cases essentially justified by humanitarian reasons), which would lead to other tactical problems. In the Kosovo response, for example, planes flew at an unusually high altitude of 15,000 feet to minimize the risk to themselves. But this increased the danger for civilians and severely limited the credibility of claims that the NATO coalition was engaged in "precision bombing".

But the strategy nevertheless worked. The fact that the United States and NATO were able to win the capitulation of the Serbian government during the intervention in Kosovo – even without risking national political reaction – furtherreinforced calls for greater openness to humanitarian interventions.

Second thoughts among advocates of interventionism

A decade after Rwanda, however, even many advocates of at least some the use of humanitarian intervention was starting to have doubts.

In his book of 2006 At the end of the rifle: democratic dreams and armed interventionDavid Rieff, an influential journalist who had enthusiastically supported humanitarian interventions in the 1990s, had become more cautious. For Rieff, humanitarian interventions had become so common and so often invoked to justify a wide variety of foreign policy goals that:

I changed my mind in that I did not imagine Bosnia or, as the case may be, Rwanda would become a model for the messianic dream of remaking the world, in the image of American democracy or legal utopias of international society. rights law.

As a result of Afghanistan and the Iraq war, Rieff was more aware of the real costs of "repairing" foreign regimes that behaved in an undesirable manner. Rieff also noted that many leftists continue to deny this reality.

For example, in his book A problem of hellSamatha Power, US ambassador to the UN (under President Obama), regrets that none of the persecutors of the Kurds of the Saddam era "has been sanctioned". But Rieff answers:

But how should we sentence? Sometimes human rights defenders behave as if one could get justice in Nuremberg without military occupation in Nuremberg of countries where war criminals live. … These human rights regimes will be imposed by force of arms or will not be imposed at all.

Worryingly, the future of humanitarian intervention resembles more of Iraq than the NATO mission in Kosovo.

That does not mean that Rieff opposes all humanitarian interventions. He always thinks explicitly that Western states should intervene in cases like the Rwandan genocide. But, as Rieff says, his position is

… the opposite of [neoconservative Robert] Kagan. I think we should get away from the war as much as possible without falling into pacifism. Of course, there are only wars … [b]But I would like to emphasize that there are not many wars, and that the endless wars of altruism proposed by so many human rights activists … or the endless wars of liberation proposed by the American neoconservatives – Iraq was supposed to be that the first step of this type – can only lead to disaster.

The realities of Iraq remain a problem for humanitarian interventionists. While the war was originally only partially justified by a humanitarian effort of liberation, it is now justified almost entirely by humanitarian considerations. Only the most obtuse decision makers and experts continue to (wrongly) insist that the regime of Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States or that it was involved in the terrorist attacks of 11 September. Today, Iraq is justified almost entirely as a war of humanitarian liberation. The invasion of Afghanistan followed a similar pattern. Americans have been told that the invasion would free women from Islamist oppression just as much as the invasion would attract terrorists to lag behind.

The cost of occupation, however, has been enormous in terms of life and health for Iraq (and Afghanistan), as well as for US losses (at least compared to other efforts humanitarian).

In his book of 2005 The dark sides of virtueHistorian David Kennedy explores the true record of humanitarian interventions and usually overestimates the benefits, noting:

As with humanitarian activism … it is easy to overestimate the humanistic potential of international policy-making. Many of the difficulties encountered with activism for human rights also arise in humanitarian decision-making campaigns. Policy makers can also ignore the dark aspects of their work and treat initiatives that take a familiar humanitarian form as likely to have a humanitarian effect. It's always tempting to think some The global humanitarian effort must be better than nothing. Like activists, policymakers can confuse their good intentions with humanitarian results or enchant their tools – using a humanitarian vocabulary may seem like a humanitarian strategy. … It is too easy to forget that saying "I come from the United Nations and I come to help you" may not seem promising at all.

In other words, do not confuse the visible government programs with the actual costs and benefits.

One of the solutions, Kennedy concludes, is to stop assuming optimistic results, taking into account the many unknown and unpredictable variables, and

develop a new posture or a new character for the international humanitarian – enlightened by the dizzying experience of disenchantment, to see that one is responsible and that one does not already know.

Nine issues to be considered by policy makers

In the light of the seventeen years of continuous war since 9/11 – primarily in the name of national liberation and humanitarian intervention – it would be in the interest of policymakers to be more rigorous in assessing real costs. of the intervention.

In his critical essay "The limits of intervention – humanitarian or otherwise," J. Peter Pham, Atlantic Council, presents a list of issues that policymakers must address when advocating for foreign intervention:

  1. Since most acts of violence are perpetrated more quickly than most people think, an intervention will almost inevitably come too late for many, if not most, victims.

  2. The intervention attacks symptoms rather than the underlying causes.

  3. Interventions will have significant, perhaps unintended, effects on the value of position and distribution assets for particular individuals.

  4. The intervention opens the political space to new actors, often unexpected. External intervention, by shifting the old political order, allows the emergence of new forces.

  5. An intervention can favor the warlord.

  6. The intervention is the starting point of a complex political process whose final result can not be predicted.

  7. Economic progress will be difficult if the intervention distorts pre-existing incentive structures.

  8. An intervention can exacerbate rather than reduce the humanitarian crisis.

  9. Interventions can have a significant impact on trust, social capital and the character of society, but it is difficult to produce positive effects directly.

We could also add to the list of Pham the problems posed by the interventions to further strengthen the crippling international respect for national sovereignty and its potential to further strengthen the power of hegemons to the detriment of smaller states.

In However, the target country still faces problems in which entire economic and political systems are disorganized. This can lead to human rights abuses by formerly out-of-power groups that claim to regain their power. Meanwhile, economic recovery may escape the newly "liberated" population for many years. An end result may not be a net overall benefit for the population as a whole.

Any discussion of suggested new interventions, be it from electors or alleged policy experts, must present compelling information and arguments suggesting that all of these issues can be resolved with the resources and time that the complainant, according to his or her assertions , is necessary. The burden of proof lies with the advocates of the intervention, and if they can not bring sufficient rigor to the debate to account for all these issues, the intervention must be categorically neglected.

In addition, evaluating success, even after the fact, will remain an impossible task. Even when the interventions seem to be successful, we still have what is essentially a major economic calculation problem. Foreign policy tends to be examined in a comprehensive manner, with descriptions of entire national populations – or factions – as if all members of these groups shared roughly the same objectives and outcomes as interventions. This is of course no more true in foreign policy than in domestic policy where it is impossible for governments to plan, regulate and measure results for individuals or households. At the end of the day, there remains only a huge centralized planning effort at the national level. The evaluation of results apart from huge aggregated averages will be impossible. As a result, the real costs to individuals may remain hidden forever.

However, at the present time, those who advocate for new interventions in Syria and Venezuela seem little interested in coping with the real costs of intervention. They see the political benefits of saying that they "have done something", even if these things will prove to be disastrous.