Gary J. Bass: Why humanitarian wars can go so wrong

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Gary J. Bass is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. He is the author of “Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention” and “Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals.”]

All wars are terrifying gambles, but the wars justified with moral claims of humanitarianism carry a distinctively harrowing set of risks and problems — above all, the challenge of preventing massive human catastrophes with limited means. In Libya, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Obama are already beginning to confront many of the classic dilemmas that bedeviled their predecessors facing massacres and genocide in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda.

The big democracies usually stand idly by during the worst atrocities, including the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda. Simply to defend core national security interests, the Western allies might have been better off this time concentrating on threats in North Korea, Pakistan or Yemen. (After the United States invaded Iraq, Condoleezza Rice reportedly warned George W. Bush about Darfur: “I don’t think you can invade another Muslim country during this administration, even for the best of reasons.”) If Western strategists saw a more complex interest in furthering the democratic impulses of the Arab revolutions, Libya still may not have seemed of paramount importance compared with, say, Egypt or Tunisia.

But what seemingly counted most in Libya was that civilians in Benghazi might, as Obama said last month, “suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”

This raises the first inevitable problem: Since the goal is the defense of humanity, and there are humans facing violence in many places, how do you intervene in one spot and not another without drawing accusations of hypocrisy? After all, horrific mass atrocities happen all over the world; there are other countries that have endured worse slaughter than Libya without eliciting Western interventions. As the writer David Rieff has noted, during debates about rescue in the Balkans in the 1990s, skeptics would say, “I’ll see your Bosnia, and raise you one East Timor.”..

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