Doing It Right: The Future of Humanitarian Intervention

Using military force to save lives is difficult, dangerous, rarely politically rewarding—and yet somehow here to stay. American presidents, UN Security Councils, and western publics will almost always want to do something when thousands or tens of thousands of innocent people are dying as a result of war. But dozens of civil wars are being waged around the world at any given time; demands being made on the U.S. armed forces already verge on being excessive; and conducting successful interventions is difficult. American policymakers must be judicious in deciding when and how to use force to save lives in conflicts that do not involve vital, strategic U.S. interests.

Each such decision requires answering three crucial questions. When and where should we intervene? How should we do so? And who should do the intervening? By answering these questions carefully—and by trying to develop more global capacity for conducting peace and humanitarian operations—the international community can significantly reduce violence around the world in the years ahead.

When and Where to Intervene?

Given the many conflicts in the world today, how can we possibly decide which ones to try to resolve by force? The answer is to focus on those where the scale of death and suffering is greatest, where intervention is unlikely to create great-power conflicts, and where a mission can be designed that promises many lives saved at low cost to intervening soldiers.

But aren’t civil and ethnic conflicts spinning out of control to the point that the problem is intractable? The short answer is no. Yahya Sadowski argued convincingly in a 1998 Brookings book that contrary to what doomsayers have been prophesying for years, the prevalence and intensity of civil conflict are not increasing as a result of the end of the Cold War, globalization, or anything else. Of the many civil wars around the world, most are not especially violent. Their per capita death rates, for example, are not notably worse than murder rates in U.S. cities. That is not to say we should ignore these conflicts—only that the blunt, dangerous, and expensive instrument of forcible military intervention should not be applied in most instances. As Steve Solarz and I have argued, the United States and like-minded countries cannot be expected to try to make the rest of the world safer than U.S. society.

In the 1990s, ten conflicts were extremely lethal: those in Sudan, Rwanda, Angola, Somalia, Burundi, Liberia, Iraq, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, and Chechnya. These should have been the prime candidates for humanitarian intervention, as should any future conflicts of comparable severity (Kosovo and Haiti were not on this list, but the Clinton administration’s wise decisions to intervene in those places reflected the presence of strategic stakes alongside humanitarian concerns). But it would not have been wise to intervene in all ten, which brings us to the second criterion for intervention—that a mission not risk major-power war costing far more lives than could possibly be saved. Notably, intervening in Chechnya was and is simply out of the question, given Russia’s size and nuclear weapons capability. (In North Korea, where not war but severe repression and misgovernment, joined with starvation, caused at least hundreds of thousands of deaths last decade, intervention was also impractical given the North’s ability to retaliate and cause at least tens of thousands of casualties in South Korea. Likewise, a hypothetical intervention in Kashmir would be unthinkable without the permission of India and Pakistan. And similar considerations rule out any forceful military mission to protect Tibet from Chinese oppression.)

What about the other nine terrible wars of the 1990s? How could outside powers have used force to save lives without making the problems worse than they already were and costing many lives of intervening troops in the process? That is probably the hardest question of all.

How to Intervene?

Simply deciding to intervene is not enough. Using force the wrong way can exacerbate some conflicts and get a lot of people, including U.S. troops, killed as well.

For this reason, it is often said that the United States needs an exit strategy before choosing to intervene. That is generally good advice—as long as the exit strategy is sound. Sometimes, however, as in Kosovo, insisting on a precise itinerary of intervention and a concrete political end-state for the region before becoming involved would be counterproductive. We do not, and probably cannot, know in advance how long outside forces might be needed; setting arbitrary deadlines risks creating unrealistic expectations at home and undesirable doubts abroad as to our commitment. Trying to determine now whether Kosovo will remain part of Yugoslavia, become independent, or be divided into two parts would do more to reignite the Serb-Albanian conflict than to resolve it.

But at a minimum, the international community needs some sense of how it will apply military force before intervening. Should it simply do enough to feed starving people, should it create safe havens for individuals or groups at risk, should it impose a ceasefire line between warring parties—or might it even help one side to win a conflict?

It all depends. Where tens of thousands are at risk from war—related famine, disease, or exposure, simply setting up protected humanitarian zones may make sense. That is particularly the case when, as in Somalia in the early 1990s, the conflict that has produced the problem seems severe and intractable.

Imposing ceasefire lines, or even permanently partitioning countries into two or more parts, can work well in some ethnic conflicts. We need not always create multiethnic, inclusive societies; sometimes saving lives is accomplishment enough. The international community’s long-term goal in Bosnia remains recreating a multiethnic state, but in the short term, at least, allowing separate entities with separate armies is sound policy and represents a huge improvement over the state of war that prevailed there five years ago. In Sudan, if the war-related famine again becomes severe, dividing the country into an Arab north and a Christian south may save the vast majority of threatened Sudanese lives at the lowest cost in dollars—and in the blood of intervening troops.

Finally, we should even be willing to take sides when one party to a conflict is clearly the better choice for its own country and when taking sides is likely to end a conflict. For example, the Bush administration was right to overthrow Manuel Noriega in Panama, clearing the way for a democratically elected successor; the Clinton administration was right to threaten to depose the Cedras regime in Haiti to allow the Aristide regime to take charge. Had the global community been willing to step up its involvement in Rwanda in 1994, it would have been wisest to ally with the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front against the Hutu-led armed forces that, in league with various militia groups, ultimately carried out that country’s terrible genocide.

What about the future? The world’s most severe wars today include those in Sierra Leone, Congo, Angola, Algeria, Colombia, and Sri Lanka. Intervention in the last three would pit outside forces against battle-toughened, dedicated, and rather large insurgencies fighting on terrain advantageous for guerrilla-like warfare. Those are the situations U.S. and other outside forces should generally avoid, since they are likely to inflict substantial casualties on intervening troops. But the other conflicts in Africa, particularly the brutal war in small Sierra Leone, may be easier to contain. Any intervention there should take the side of the government against Liberia-financed mercenary rebels. It has been no credit to the international community that it did not address this conflict seriously—instead hoping for the best while poorly armed peacekeepers interposed themselves in a civil war they were not able to contain. Things may be changing for the better, however, as of this writing.

The war in Angola involves larger indigenous fighting forces over a much wider area. The government—the lesser of two evils in this case—has recently been making inroads against the rebel forces of former U.S. client Jonas Savimbi. Were outside countries to try to stop this extremely bloody, long, and pointless war, they would be wise to side with the government and help it win a decisive victory. But it could take many thousands of international troops—and most likely dozens of fatalities to them—to do so. Finally, in the huge country of Congo, the global community should be willing to deploy a force at least 10 times larger than the 5,500-person UN monitoring operation now proposed if a true ceasefire ever is accepted. The larger force would deploy along a ceasefire line running north-south through the center of the country, forcibly keeping hostile armies apart and denying sanctuary to the Hutu extremists who fled to Congo from Rwanda several years ago. But muscular interventions in wars like those in Angola and Congo will probably not happen until more countries develop the military capabilities for such operations—which brings us to the final question.

Who Should Intervene?

How much of the work in forcible humanitarian interventions should the United States be expected to do? It seems unreasonable—not to mention politically unsustainable-for U.S. troops to do most everything. Saving lives is not a uniquely American interest. And the United States, alone among the major western powers, already maintains high military vigilance in the Persian Gulf and the Korean peninsula.

Unfortunately, other countries in general have neither the forcible entry capabilities nor the sustainable logistics to intervene in distant lands to save lives. Australia has done most of the work in East Timor, and our European allies have provided the vast majority of troops in Bosnia and Kosovo, of late. But U.S. capabilities are generally needed, at least initially, in the face of armed opposition. And the United States will need to contribute troops to postwar missions in places like the Balkans if it wishes to influence their conduct.

Although the United States need not create a specialized armed force for peace operations, it should modify its military force structure to lessen the strain of various types of limited missions around the world. Primary U.S. military attention must remain focused on those parts of the world where our economic interests are greatest, allies are at risk, and dangerous military competition could break out if local parties are not reassured or deterred. That means a continued emphasis on Europe, the Persian Gulf, and East Asia. But some military units—including special forces with particular language and political skills, military police, and support units that provide water, food, and medical care—should be beefed up for peace operations. Some of these special units, many now in the reserve force structure because they do not require constant training and drilling to do their jobs in war, are being overused. Placing more of them in the active-duty force structure would allow them to be deployed without excessively disrupting the lives of reservists, many of whom do not expect such duty short of a national crisis. Some 10,000 to 20,000 specialized troops should be added—at a cost of about $1 billion a year, less than half of 1 percent of the defense budget. That is not too high a price to pay.

Other countries have much more work to do. The European allies, Canada, and even Japan should improve their ability to move troops to distant combat zones. The United States should overcome its ambivalence about its allies strengthening their military capabilities and enthusiastically endorse most any steps they take toward greater military burdensharing.

Among the major western European nations, the model for improving peace operations and forcible intervention capabilities is clear. In a word, it is Britain. Its military is smaller than that of France or Germany but much more useful beyond its own borders. It can deploy perhaps 50,000 combat troops, with air support, well beyond its territory within three to four months and sustain them there for months. Britain is also planning to acquire more sealift and airlift to move its forces fairly rapidly. Smaller European countries cannot use Britain as an exact model, of course, but they can scale their efforts to some extent proportionately or band together in subgroups, with each country developing certain specialties. Because the European Union cannot be expected in the near term to act as a single entity in matters of war and peace, the most realistic alternative is for several countries or subgroups of countries each to have the capacity for meaningful military action abroad on their own or as coalitions of the willing.

What of budget constraints? Most European countries do not need to spend more—they need to spend differently. Large force structures are no longer needed, as Britain has already recognized and as Germany appears to be concluding as well. By cutting troops and buying lift and mobile logistics, NATO European countries can do far more than they do now with the $170 billion a year they spend on defense.

Were Germany and Japan to follow the above prescriptions, their neighbors might be highly agitated, worrying about their capacity for autonomous power projection. The simplest way to defuse—or at least contain—such concerns is to begin with modest military ambitions for those two cases. Deploying troops only under multilateral, and preferably UN, auspices would further reassure nervous neighbors.

What about non-Western countries? Expensive hardware such as airlift capabilities, helicopters, and fighter aircraft, especially in large numbers, will generally be beyond their means. It is more realistic to ask these countries to develop well-trained soldiers, proficient in basic combat and peacekeeping skills, and equipped with serviceable small arms, body armor, vehicles for transport, and logistics and communications support for sustained operations abroad. Even if such countries cannot be expected to lead forcible interventions, they can provide valuable combat forces that enable peacekeeping missions to uphold ceasefires and peace accords under challenge. As the world witnessed in Angola in the early 1990s, some of the worst and most deadly conflicts erupt in countries where peace accords are reached, but later disintegrate. The breakdown of the Sierra Leone peace accord in 2000 that left many African troops held hostage is another reminder of the need for better-prepared peacekeeping troops, particularly from regions such as Africa, where conflicts are most common.

The United States and other western countries can do a great deal to help in this regard by providing modest sums—perhaps a couple hundred million dollars a year in all—for improved training, equipment, and other basic military needs. Programs like the African Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI), created by the Clinton administration, should not only be continued, but expanded dramatically. At present the ACRI funds only occasional training rotations for a few thousand regional troops, to the tune of about $20 million annually.

Again, the focus should be on improving individual countries’ military capacities, so that they can deploy as ad hoc coalitions, rather than depending on unanimous participation from all members of regional security groups to carry out missions. Regional institutions are useful for negotiating peace accords and politically legitimating interventions, but not for owning or maintaining actual military forces-at least not yet.

This agenda is not particularly de-manding for the United States. It involves small changes in the U.S. armed forces, limited aid to certain poorer countries, and diplomatic efforts to promote the plan. But the actions outlined here can make a big difference in preparing the world to handle peace operations in war-ravaged lands like Angola and Congo-lands whose forsaken people are now being often forgotten.