Humanitarian concerns have rarely topped the list of justifications for U.S. military intervention.
After all, the preservation of the Union, not emancipation, compelled Lincoln to invade the Confederacy. The peril of Pearl Harbor, not the horrors of the Holocaust, induced Roosevelt to fight the Fuhrer. Containment of Communism, not relief of political oppression, tied down our troops in Vietnam. And the threat of WMDs, not chemical attacks on Kurdish civilians, led Bush to invade Baghdad.
However, in recent years, ostensible humanitarianism has driven our political leaders to prevent mass casualties via military force. From Mogadishu to Kosovo, Libya to Mount Sinjar, it seems that the United States and its allies have supplanted the traditional rationale for military engagement with broader concerns for humanity.
This became particularly evident when President Obama initially cited concern for the wellbeing of the Yazidi minority, not the threat of terrorism or regional instability, in bombing ISIS forces in Iraq.
“When we face a situation like we do on that mountain — with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale… we can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide,” President Obama said.
While the president’s remarks may suggest a movement toward less restricted humanitarian intervention, we should not confuse this modest trend of stopping preventable massacres with any unwavering commitment to stop genocide or atrocities across the globe. On the contrary, today the world faces a bevy of insufferable humanitarian crises — from slaughter of civilians to forced labor camps — which the U.S. has not and will not dismantle in the near future.
Consider Syria, a country where an all-out civil war has terminated nearly 200,000 lives. On Aug. 21, 2013, Bashar Al-Assad defied international norms by allegedly using chemical weapons against hundreds of civilians. Meanwhile, Assad’s forces have dropped cluster munitions — indiscriminate explosives with often-unexploded submunitions — on at least 152 locations, many of which are densely populated. These abuses do not account for the myriad cases of abduction, arbitrary arrest and torture by both government forces and armed opposition against civilians in the region.
The U.S. response to these abuses has been paltry in comparison to the heinous acts committed. Instead of enforcing redlines or implementing proposed “no-kill zones,” the U.S. has increased sanctions, provided limited support to Syrian opposition forces, and negotiated a chemical weapons reduction deal with Assad that likely did not eliminate all of his chemical weapon stockpiles.
Despite the clear humanitarian imperative, the U.S. response to Syria’s crisis has been constrained by an apparent difficulty in differentiating friend from foe among opposition forces, as well as an underlying fear of becoming entangled in yet another armed conflict in Iraq and the Levant. In combination, these factors reveal the practical and political limits of our newfound devotion to humanitarian intervention.
So too does the hairy case of North Korea demonstrate the bounds of our commitment to limiting mass atrocities through intervention. North Korea is perhaps the most odious and unforgiving abuser of human rights, holding roughly 120,000 individuals in gulag-style forced labor camps called kwan-li-so. These political prisoners are not just those accused of menial crimes, as the United Nations has detailed, but their families as well. From forced abortions to routine executions and starvation, Kim Jong-Un and his predecessors have produced horrors unparalleled in modern times.
Yet, at what point would the United States be willing to intervene militarily? North Korea, a state in possession of nuclear weapons, has powerful but reluctant allies in China and Russia who assert that human rights abuses form no basis for military intervention. But if North Korea expanded its forced labor camps to mirror those of Nazi Germany, would the U.S. and the world stand by or act? In light of the political and practical considerations involved, it is hard to tell.
At the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., last April, President Obama called on citizens of the world to do more than just repeat the phrase “never again,” but to actualize it through a devotion to preventing genocide. At the same time, President Obama acknowledged the limitations of this message and the word “never,” articulating the sad reality that we cannot “intervene militarily every time there’s an injustice in the world.”
This is the quandary we face in preventing the cycle of mass killing. It is not always easy to justify humanitarian missions when it seems not to follow our strategic interests. Yet time and time again, from Nazi Germany to Rwanda, we will retrospectively realize the mistake of inaction and the grave human cost of standing by.
As ISIS troops press forward in their onslaught against the Kurds of Kobani, and Turkey watches from the sidelines, we must not forget the opportunities we have to prevent suffering and pursue our interests simultaneously.
When those rare, often competing interests align just well enough, we must act.