The Evil of Humanitarian Interventionism
by Jacob G. Hornberger
American statists sometimes justify U.S. military interventionism in foreign countries by saying that it’s necessary to save people from the tyranny and oppression at the hands of their own government. When a dictator is killing his people, they argue, it is up to the U.S. military to invade the country, oust the dictator, and install a new, more benevolent ruler into office, thereby saving the lives of the people who the dictator would have killed but for the invasion.
However, there is an important factor involved here. While statists inevitably focus solely on the dictator himself—and the need to get rid of him—a military invasion inevitably involves the killing of many people before the troops actually reach the dictator himself. These include ordinary soldiers who have been conscripted to serve in the dictator’s army and civilians.
Thus, in the military attempt to get the dictator, many people who aren’t directly involved in the dictator’s killing of his own people are themselves killed as part of the operation to oust the dictator from power.
Thus, in any humanitarian military intervention, there is a type of cost-benefit analysis that takes place within the mind of the interventionist. The interventionist is saying that the lives of those people who are being saved are worth the lives of those people who are being killed in the intervention.
We saw this mindset in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. At first, the Bush administration tried to justify the intervention primarily as a self-defense measure. Saddam Hussein, Bush and his people said, was coming to get us with WMDs. Therefore, it’s necessary to invade Iraq to prevent Saddam from unleashing “mushroom clouds” on American cities, Bush and his people alleged.
The scare tactic worked, inducing many Americans to support the invasion under the belief that America was just defending itself. But once it became clear that there were no WMDs, the U.S. government refused to apologize for its “mistake” and bring its troops home. Instead, the mission morphed into one of humanitarian interventionism. Saddam Hussein is killing his own people and U.S. troops are here to save them and, as a bonus, even bring them democracy, Bush said.
But in the process of doing that, countless Iraqis would have to be killed (and maimed). One of the fascinating parts of this was that there was never any consideration of the number of Iraqis who would be killed in the process of saving those whom Saddam Hussein would kill. That is, there was never an upward limit. That didn’t matter to U.S. officials. Any number of Iraqi deaths, no matter how large, would justify ousting Saddam Hussein from power and saving those Iraqis he would have killed.
This was made clear from the inception, when the Pentagon announced that it didn’t even plan to keep count of Iraqi dead. It just didn’t matter. It was considered okay to kill any number to save those who Saddam Hussein would have killed.
That humanitarian interventionist mindset was reflected perfectly by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright, when she was asked whether half-a-million Iraqi children who had died from the sanctions were worth it. She responded that while the issue was a difficult one, yes, the deaths of those half-a-million children were “worth it.” By “it” she meant the attempt to oust Saddam Hussein from power.
An interesting moral and religious issue arises here. Is it ever morally and religiously acceptable to kill an innocent person in order to oust a dictator who is killing innocent people? I’m not convinced that God has made an exception along those lines to his commandment against killing. It seems to me that humanitarian interventionism, which inevitably kills one or more innocent people, is a direct violation of God’s commandment.
Humanitarian interventionists sometimes point to the Holocaust to justify their interventionist philosophy. “Would you just have let the Jews die?” they ask.
But I’m not sure that their example buttresses their point. After all, by the time World War II ended, practically all the European Jews were dead. That’s not exactly a success story for humanitarian interventionism.
Actually, it gets worse though. Guess who offered the let the Jews out of Germany during the 1930s.
You got it, Adolf Hitler himself!
And guess who refused to permit German Jews to immigrate to the United States.
You got it, President Franklin Roosevelt himself! (See “Locking Out the Immigrant” by Jacob G. Hornberger, June 1991.) In fact, Google “Voyage of the Damned,” to see how the FDR administration refused to permit the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner filled with German Jews, to land at Miami harbor, knowing that it would most likely have to return its Jewish passengers to Germany.
Under what authority did FDR refuse German Jews’ entry into the United States? By this time, the United States had abandoned the concept of open immigration on which our country was founded and embraced the statist vision of immigration controls. Thus, FDR said that the German Jews couldn’t enter the United States because immigration quotas were already filled.
So, humanitarian interventionists want the U.S. government to go abroad to save people’s lives with bullets, bombs, and missiles that will inevitably kill and maim countless innocent people. But these same humanitarians obviously don’t love the people they’re saving so much that they’re willing to let them come to America and live here.
Our Founding Fathers had it right. Their position was that if someone was suffering tyranny, oppression, or starvation, the U.S. government would not go abroad to save them with invasions and occupations that inevitably would kill multitudes of innocent people and, in the process, bankrupt the United States and lead to a loss of liberty for the American people at the hands of their own government.
At the same time, however, our American ancestors sent the following message out to the world: If you are able to escape your conditions, know that there is a sanctuary to which you can freely come whose government will not forcibly return you to your country.
It seems to me that is the best and most moral and religious way to help foreigners who are suffering from tyranny, oppression, and starvation, while also maintaining a free, peaceful, and prosperous society at home.