Benign motives are suspect. They intellectually disarm, when they should trigger heightened scrutiny. As Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis elaborated in Olmstead v. United States (1928): “Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent … The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.”
What then should be made of clamors heard across the political spectrum for the United States to initiate “humanitarian” warfare against Syria, Sudan, or other nations to prevent or punish genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing, or their incitement? Champions contend that every sovereign nation is saddled with a responsibility to protect (RTP) its citizens from such horrors, and that a failure to do so justifies humanitarian warfare to cure their dereliction.
The concept of “humanitarian” warfare seems oxymoronic. General William Tecumseh Sherman opined: “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.” War heroizes and rewards what is customarily first degree murder punished by death. Humanitarian war exponents bear a heavy burden to defend such grisliness.
In addition, implementing a RTP standard for war justification would conflict with the post-World War II Nuremburg principles of punishing international crimes only after a due process trial. The standard would authorize any nation to pronounce sister nations guilty of violating RTP and initiate humanitarian warfare without a shadow of due process: no notice, no opportunity to respond, no impartial judge, no opportunity to present exculpatory evidence, and no opportunity to confront accusers. No statute of limitations would prevent humanitarian wars over ancient history.
A planet that sanctioned “humanitarian” warfare would be indistinguishable from a war of all against all in a Hobbesian state of nature in which the strong do what they wish and the weak accept what they must. Adolph Hitler invaded the Sudetenland allegedly to defend ethnic Germans from maltreatment by Czechoslovakia. And contemplate the humanitarian war dilemma when both sides in a civil conflict are perceived as guilty of RTP crimes, for example, the recent ethnic civil war in Sri Lanka or the ongoing upheavals in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Does the United States intervene to kill adherents to both sides?
At the conclusion of a humanitarian war, the United States would be morally responsible for creating a new government that would respect human rights — a monumental if not impossible task that could require U.S. troops or a proconsul to remain and rule indefinitely. Bosnia remains partitioned, bitterly divided, and militarily occupied 18 years after the 1995 U.S-NATO military intervention with no end in sight.
Citizens or subjects of foreign lands, including Syria and Sudan, neither pay taxes nor pledge allegiance nor obey the laws of the United States. We are neither legally nor morally complicit in their current plight. Nothing in the moral universe or in the Constitution saddles the United States with an obligation to send its citizens abroad to risk their last full measure of devotion in hopes of preventing or diminishing evils we had no hand in making. Indeed, the sole moral obligation of the United States Government is to protect its citizens from domestic or foreign predation or attack. It has no business coercing its citizens into playing Don Quixote with their lives and money.
A humanitarian war policy would result in more deaths than lives saved. It would have prompted the United States to initiate war against China in response to Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, against the Soviet Union in response to Stalin’s liquidation of the kulaks and Ukrainian famine, against North Korea for persecuting or enslaving its entire population, against Zimbabwe for Mugabe’s persecution of whites and terrorizing political opponents, against Cambodia for Pol Pot’s crimes against humanity, and so on. Lesser numbers would probably have died in Libya and Ambassador Stevens would not have been assassinated if the United States had refrained from overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi in favor of countless lawless ethnic and tribal militias. The Iraq War to overthrow the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein claimed more than 116,000 civilian lives in the space of eight years at a cost approaching $1 trillion.
Pointing to possible lives saved by professedly humanitarian military interventions by the United States in Bosnia (1995) and Kosovo (1998) does not disprove the immorality of humanitarian warfare. The interventions reflected an unjust “sentence first, verdict afterward” theory of justice. They exceeded the just powers of the United States government by coercing Americans to risk their lives and fortunes on behalf of foreigners. Finally, the humanitarian war concept contains no limiting principle to prevent it from creating a chronic problem of American warfare and military occupations on a substantial portion of the planet.
In sum, humanitarian warfare is like an iatrogenic treatment of an illness — a cure worse than the disease. Its moral patina dissolves under the slightest scrutiny.
Bruce Fein is founder and president of the National Commission on Intelligence and Foreign Wars and author of American Empire Before The Fall. For more information, please visit www.brucefeinlaw.com