War Powers Resolution: Libya

Lowering the Domestic Political Cost of Humanitarian Intervention

By Curtis Bradley
Wednesday, April 27, 2011, 12:10 PM

I have recently blogged about two issues:  whether congressional authorization is required as a constitutional matter for U.S. involvement in military operations such as the one in Libya, see here and here, and whether modern technology (such as unmanned drones) is making it easier to avoid thinking about the human cost of warfare, see here.

These two issues are connected when it comes to humanitarian intervention.  Many of those who support such intervention would typically also be concerned about presidential unilateralism in the use of force, and about the dehumanizing effect of modern warfare.  They appear to have relaxed these concerns in the context of humanitarian intervention.  Ken Anderson makes this observation with respect to the use of drones – see here.

In the past, one of the central obstacles to greater U.S. participation in humanitarian intervention has been the domestic political cost.  The American public appears to have little enthusiasm for suffering casualties in support of operations that have no direct connection to U.S. security, something illustrated by the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia following the Black Hawk Down episode in 1993.

Bypassing Congress, and using technology that substantially lowers the risk of U.S. casualties, may make it substantially easier for the United States to use force abroad for humanitarian purposes.  It is not surprising, therefore, that supporters of this type of intervention have shifted their positions somewhat, now that they have a presidential administration that shares their view of the proper use of military force.

To be sure, even with this lowering of the domestic political cost, U.S. involvement is likely to be highly selective and ad hoc, helping some oppressed peoples and ignoring others.  The difference between the way that the United States has responded to the situations in Libya and Syria recently is a good example.  I don’t see this as a dispositive objection.  American foreign policy is always selective and ad hoc, both because it reflects a mix of idealism and pragmatism, and because the cost-benefit tradeoffs vary so much depending on context.  Supporters of humanitarian intervention can correctly note that it is better to do some good, even if inconsistently, than to do no good at all.

Nevertheless, I want to suggest that, even for proponents of humanitarian intervention, there are reasons to question whether lowering the domestic political cost of the use of force for humanitarian purposes is an unequivocally good development.  Most significantly, a shift in this direction requires a substantial faith in the wisdom and motivations of the Executive Branch.  If liberals abstract away from Obama, they may start to question this faith.  For example, the United States has a long history of claiming that its military and covert operations in Latin America were for humanitarian purposes.

In addition, there is a significant danger that what starts as a limited intervention will escalate into something that goes beyond preventing a humanitarian disaster.  The Libya operation was initially sold as a “no-fly zone” to help equalize the combat situation between Qaddafi’s forces and the rebels.  Once the United States became involved, however, the Obama Administration appeared to realize that anything short of a rebel success is likely to be viewed as a foreign policy failure, and the operation has steadily broadened in scope, see here.  Humanitarian intervention is morphing into regime change.

Finally, the United States’ belief in itself as a trustworthy police officer is unlikely to be shared by much of the rest of the world.  Even when the United States acts under the auspices of the Security Council or NATO, these operations will be perceived by many as another iteration of U.S. and Western hubris and imperialism.  The resulting resentment and potential backlash are difficult to measure, but they create additional hidden costs that may be appreciable in the long run.  The possibility of such costs does not mean the United States should avoid engaging in humanitarian intervention, but it suggests the need for more domestic political deliberation, not less.