An Australian participant in a Yahoogroups list to which I belong brought up a point this weekend about humanitarian intervention. More specifically, he has always been disturbed in some way about the fact that what he calls "the Left" seemed to be insufficiently outraged about Saddam Hussein's regime's human rights record. Although he's been very critical of the Iraq War and Australia's participation in it, he also argues that Saddam's human right record alone would have been a legitimate cause for war.
And he's sympathetic to calls now for outside intervention to effect "regime change" in Zimbabwe.
Following are some of my (slightly edited) comments which I shared with that group on this general topic.
Fans of invasion and war in Zimbabwe might want to look at the results of "regime change" in Iraq - a million-plus deaths, millions of refugees, sectarian civil war, devastation of the infrastructure, etc. - before they dream up new wars for noble purposes. But then all wars are for noble purposes, aren't they?
American conservative bloggers were cheering the Ethiopian Army when they marched in to Somalia (with American backing) to change the "Islamic Courts" regime that was briefly in power. For a week or two, they were suggesting the US could take lessons from Ethiopia on how to do "regime change". Then that quickly descended into the Ethiopian Army raping and pillaging, and unable to keep order between competing Somali warlords. And the US rockets a Somali village now and then to kill "terrorists". But I'm sure the Ethiopians and Dick Cheney have pure intentions.
Meanwhile, if you're looking for African military actions to cheer for, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is asking European countries to send more troops to the Republic of the Congo to contain a rebellion there that is creating an enormous humanitarian crisis. Or does cheering for war in Zimbabwe mean that you think the people in the Congo just deserve to suffer? Come to think of it, anyone who's not in favor of Australia and the US invading and occupying the Congo to set things right must be a fan of slaughter, starvation and disease! (In case it's not clear in the context, those last two sentences are meant ironically.)
No matter how good the cause, the limits of power on behalf of the intervening nations is still a factor that has to be considered.
War in itself is an evil. Climate change may eventually outdo it. But war has been the greatest source of self-inflicted damage the human race has come up with so far. War should be the last resort. It's never an easy solution. And it's the "solution" with most potential to spin out of control and have destructive effects not anticipated.
It seems to me it's more than a bit of a cop-out to say that we should have overthrown Saddam Hussein on the basis of human rights and not realize that the death and destruction the war has caused is the real-world result of actually overthrowing him. Yes, we can always say that we should have had smarter American viceroys, that we should have kept the Christian cowboys from Blackwater on a shorter lease, and so on.
But in 2003, no matter what the excuse was, the US military had the same deficiency in counterinsurgency warfare, very few Arabic speakers, an enormous dependence on and immense faith in the magic powers of air war, and the same tendency to lie their hineys off whenever something went wrong. We can make up all kinds of fairy tales about how the war might ideally have been. But the basic results wouldn't have been essentially different.
And while things are looking promising for the US to get out of Iraq over the next couple of years, it's still true that it's harder to get out of a war than to get into one. That's as true in southern Africa as it is in Mesopotamia or South Asia. There's likely to be another outbreak of civil war - Arab vs. Kurd, Shi'a vs. Sunni, Shi'a vs. Shi'a - after we leave or while we're leaving Iraq. It will be an immense accomplishment if we can manage to avoid direct intervention by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey. All those countries are actually intervening in some way now. Turkey periodically crosses into Iraqi airspace to bomb some Kurds.
International law is also important, as much as today's American Republicans love to sneer at the whole concept. That part of the American tradition most of them seem to dearly despise. And even though the UN General Assembly in 2005 recognized something like a "responsibility to protect" in cases of massacres, there is really no criteria comparable to the legal prohibitions on preventive war. Basically, the UN can declare any situation a "threat to international peace and security". But there are no clear standards for "humanitarian intervention".
And it's also the case that American Republicans always become deeply, passionately concerned about the human rights of political prisoners and the oppression of women - in countries they want to invade. But even the most besotted Republican would find it hard to argue that the social position of women in Iraq is improved over what it was in the Baathist years. It's probably marginally better in Afghanistan than it was before, at least in the capital city of Kabul, which is basically the only place the pro-Western government - which rules under a form of Islamic law, sharia - actually controls. To see exactly how much today's segregationist-minded Republican Party cares about human rights, read up on what's been going on with the lynch-law system they use in Guantanamo and other stations of the Bush Gulag.
Maybe Australian politicians are honest enough that none of them would ever use a humanitarian justification for a war they want to wage for less noble ends. They're lucky if that's the case. It ain't that way in the United States, though. Really not.
I also don't think there's anything hypocritical about being concerned for human rights in some other country while also not being in favor of going to war to rectify the conditions in that country.
During the days of Communist East Germany, the Green Party in West Germany distinguished itself by highlighting the democratic opposition and human rights cases. And that had some real effects in giving the democratic movement more room to act and got some dissidents out of prison or otherwise mitigated their treatment. But the Greens never advocated invading East Germany because, among other things, doing so would have kicked off global thermonuclear war.
The US government under Jimmy Carter (1977-81) made a point of highlighting human rights abuses under the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina in 1976-83. So did international human rights NGOs and other governments whose citizens were "disappeared" by that hateful regime. But no one except Britain went to war with them. And that was over the Malvinas/Falklands Islands, not over human rights. Actually, I think Argentina had and has good claim to the Malvinas. But the dictatorship's defeat in that war was also the final blow to its existence. What was the pure position there? To cheer for the democracy going to war to assert an illegitimate claim to territory? Or to cheer for the dictatorship when they were fighting for something genuinely in their country's perceived interest? But, again, the human rights protest against the regime did make a difference in saving lives and restraining the regime's hand to some extent.