The Moral Hazards of Military Intervention

May 13, 2010

I know this sounds like an unbelievably dry topic, but this was actually the most interested I’ve been in a single thing I’ve done so far in my grad program. I took close to three times as many words of notes for this piece as I ended up actually typing. After the piece is done I’m going to include a few quotes and thoughts that I couldn’t squeeze in to the 800 word limit. Also, I cannot recommend enough the article from The Atlantic by Samantha Power that I reference in this piece. If you can get ahold of it, read it. Your blood pressure will be through the roof, but it is absolutely vital stuff. Without further ado, the journal entry:


Alan Kuperman’s essay “Humanitarian Hazard: Revisiting Doctrines of Intervention” sets out to question the consensus reached in December 2001, when an international panel introduced the idea of the responsibility to protect, or the idea that international actors are obliged to intervene in cases of ethnic conflict. Kuperman thinks this is a risky stance to take, one that actually encourages conflict and makes intervention almost inevitable. In order to interrogate his ideas, I will use Samantha Power’s article from The Atlantic from September 2001, “Bystanders to Genocide,” in which she argues, contra Kuperman’s assertions, that a robust international military intervention could have saved countless lives in Rwanda in 1993. The views play off each other and ultimately leave the reader in a place of uncertainty.

Kuperman opens by acknowledging the good intentions of interveners and those who espouse a “responsibility to protect.” But he argues “a more sophisticated analysis calls into question the value of humanitarian military intervention, even when judged by its own explicit standard of saving lives.” Where Power thought that appropriate military response could be mustered to counter the Rwandan genocide, Kuperman thinks that the three weeks most of the killing was done in would not have been enough time to muster an adequate force to draw down the conflict. In the cases of Croatia and the Serbs, Kosovo, Serbs and Bosnia, and East Timor and Indonesia most of the killing was finished within a few weeks, arguably before any credible military effort could have intervened.

Power argues that in Rwanda threats to remove peacekeepers if the peace process was not adhered to simply spurred violent rebels on, because the removal or marginalization of the peacekeepers would make it easier for them to carry out their plans. In diplomatic negotiations the US made the attempt to keep “both sides” of the story involved when apportioning blame, even if the actions of Tutsi groups were nowhere near as significant as the actions of Hutu ones, they were conflated. “We were looking for the hopeful signs, not the dark signs. In fact, we were looking away from the dark signs.” Ambassador David Rowson. The assumption was that the framework for peace would work, that negotiations would work. The smallest ray of hope needed to be clung to.

This is almost the direct inverse of Kuperman’s claim, “(t)he most counterintuitive aspect of humanitarian military intervention is that it sometimes may cause the very tragedies it is intended to prevent.” The reasoning behind this position is that if insurgent groups know that the escalation of conflict will induce foreign intervention. In Bosnia and Kosovo there is plenty of evidence that nationalist independence groups waited to launch their campaigns until after they knew that they could reasonably expect international backing. In this case, foreign military backing served to guarantee conflict rather than prevent it. In the wake of 9/11, insurgent groups have quickly realized that the US is more likely to deem them a terrorist threat than assist them, so things have calmed down.

Under the terms of the 1948 Genocide Convention, the US would have been obliged to act in Rwanda had the killings there been defined as genocidal. So, despite widespread popular acceptance that what was going on was indeed genocide, the Genocide Convention acted to disincentivize the US from acting to prevent genocide. Furthermore, in conflict situations the primary focus of international actors is in keeping their own nationals safe. In Rwanda the mission was essentially considered over for the US once the embassy and all the diplomats had been evacuated from the area. Additionally, some US officials feared that the situation in Rwanda represented a choice between “staying out of Rwanda (or wherever conflict might crop up) and ‘getting involved everywhere.’”

Kuperman’s argument comes most into its own as he advocates finding ways for the international community to reward nonviolent movements, and simultaneously discouraging armed protest. This will shift the risk/reward equation and take away the moral hazard of intervention. Finally he advocates a ratcheting back of the rhetoric when it comes to dealing with conflict groups, and this can spur them to kill with even more ferocity. Both articles leave one feeling uneasy about the chance of success of international military intervention. Part of this is because, until the very end of Kuperman’s piece, both take for granted the utility of military intervention. Very obviously Kuperman and Power are right that the existence and absence of militaries can incentivize fighters. If rebel groups know they can garner international aid by starting a war, then of course they’re incentivized to do so. Likewise armed groups know that they can inflict enough damage on international actors and act out enough to induce them to withdraw their forces. Focusing on nonmilitary modes of conflict management and assessment, as Kuperman advocates, can begin to turn this assumption on its head, reshaping conflicts.


The first additional thing I wanted to share was a journal entry that Power cites in her article on Rwanda. We have, it says,

“A military that wants to go nowhere to do anything—or let go of their toys so someone else can do it. A White House cowed by the brass. (and we are to give lessons on how the armed forces take orders from civilians?). An National Security Council that does peacekeeping by the book—the accounting book, that is. And an assistance program that prefers whites (Europe) to blacks. When it comes to human rights we have no problem drawing a line in the sand of the dark continent (just don’t ask us to do anything—agonizing is our specialty.), but not China or any place else business looks good.

“We have a foreign policy based on our amoral economic interests run by amateurs who want to stand for something—hence the agony—but ultimately don’t want to exercise any leadership that has a cost.

“They say there may be as many as a million massacred in Rwanda. The militias continue to slay the innocent and the educated… Has it really cost the United States nothing?”

I’ll be honest and say that this quote made me want to puke. There’s evidence in the article that a big reason the US avoided going into Rwanda was economics. We didn’t have much to gain from the place, for one thing. Also, this was 1993. The US had just come out of a recession, and Clinton administration officials didn’t think– particularly after the Somalia fiasco– that the Congress would approve of diverting resources to Rwanda. At one point some State Department officials had the idea to deploy a military plane that could jam radio communications. This wouldn’t have been a panacea, but since the government and paramilitary groups doing the slaughter in Rwanda were communicating via radio stations, it would have slowed things down. Instead, they got this answer, “Commando Solo… costs approximately $8500 per flight hour and requires a semi-secure area of operations due to its vulnerability and limited self-protection.” $8500 per hour apparently being worth more than the lives of almost one million Rwandans. When one of the State Department officials objected to this analysis she was told, “Pru, radios don’t kill people. People kill people.”

That’s just fucking stupid.

But this thinking wasn’t limited to just the government. The Washington Post wrote this in an editorial: “The United States has no recognizable national interest in taking a role, certainly not a leading role.” That’s right. We don’t have enough of a stake there to care, so don’t worry if one million people are slaughtered with machetes. This blinkered utilitarianism is symptomatic of our consumptive society. Things only matter to us anymore if they can make us money, and since we had no economic stake in Rwanda– none of our shirts came from there; there were no well known entertainers from Rwanda; Nike didn’t make our shoes there– we had no emotional stake in preventing a preventable disaster.

The Rwandans were just numbers in a cost/benefit analysis. The same ideas used to siphon public education funding away from the arts and into “economically productive” areas of education ultimately leads us to think of each other as nothing more than just dollar signs. So in 1993, one million Rwandans were deemed not worthy of $8500 an hour from the US government. In 2008 the biggest financial corporations had no problem betting against their customers and rigging the system. They were just dollars after all.

This is all of a piece. Obsession with money and making more of it is dehumanizing us.

2 Responses to “The Moral Hazards of Military Intervention”

  1. Evan said

    I would have to disagree with you on this Mr. Christopher. Not, of course, with the assertion that obsession with money is dehumanizing (it surely is), but with the assertion made that all decisions involving intervention tend to boil down to economics. I mean if that were true, then we most likely wouldn’t have intervened in Somalia either right? It would seem that there was little economic interest for intervention there. I would say the problem lies in the fact that our political leaders are to beholden to the “winds” of shifting public opinion to commit to a course of action that might, at some point be deemed “unpopular.” It seems to me that the American public tends to be gung-ho to provide military assistance, but the minute that things get tough, they quickly remove their support. I think we’ve seen that in the last 10 years with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Public opinion was decidedly in favor of action in both instances, but when the body count of American soldiers started to rise, things quickly changed. Somewhere along the line we lost the concept of doing what has to be done, even if the times are tough. In that way, I think I appreciate President Bush. He made a decision and stood by it though people (who were initially supportive) eventually crucified him for it.

    • christophermahlon said

      Right, I should probably walk my position back a little bit here. Obviously economics aren’t the sole factor when talking about humanitarian efforts, as you point out the Somalia intervention occurred during a recession. But at that time the Soviet Union was falling apart, and the US saw its star rising. Interventionism was a chic thing in the early 90s.

      Just a few years later, though, and the US did absolutely nothing to stop the killing in Rwanda. You’re right, this doesn’t all boil down to economics; things had changed in those few years. After reading Power’s article (Again, I can’t recommend it enough) it is pretty tough to escape the fact that economics DID play some role in determining the US stance towards Rwanda. Once US officials determined that nothing of strategic worth was in the country, the issue was backburnered. No-one high up touched it. When the Washington Post– our political newspaper– says, “We’ve got no stake in this; no reason to get involved,” it is hard to read anything other than, “These people aren’t worth it.” The plane I talked about wouldn’t have been in combat. All it would have done was jammed the radios, and even that was considered too expensive.

      As I hinted in the last part of my real essay, I think a huge part of the problem here is that military is taken for granted. People know that they can attract and drive away foreign militaries if they try hard enough, which ends up leaving those militaries to do cost/benefit analysis on the conflicts. In the meantime foreign states suffer from a chronic lack of creativity. “Oh, this looks like a tough problem. We’ll just send in the army.”

      At all stages we’re stuck in a rut, and this rut breeds economized thinking. So no, I don’t think that economics is the ONLY reason that we intervene or don’t intervene in places, but I do think it is a HUGE factor.

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