Monday, October 02, 2006

"Humanitarian War" Is a Myth

And finally, this truth gets a hearing in the pages of a mainstream news source [emphasis mine]:

More than 40,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the rate at which civilians die has been increasing in recent months. Many thousands of innocent Iraqis have been detained, and some have been abused by American troops. Many others have been tortured or killed by Iraqi police. Basic services have been lacking in large portions of the country for three years. Civil war looms, conjuring memories of the 16-year Lebanese civil war, during which more than 100,000 people were killed out of a population of fewer than 4 million.

Yet, if the United Nations were to have its way, the Iraqi debacle would be just the first in a series of such wars -- the effect of a well-meaning but ill-considered effort to make humanitarian intervention obligatory as a matter of international law. Today Iraq, tomorrow Darfur.

Civilians suffer in all wars, but the suffering of Iraqi civilians in this war is particularly unfortunate because one of the main justifications for the war was humanitarian: to rescue suffering Iraqis from a tyrant. There were other justifications, of course, including the related but distinct idea that bringing democracy to Iraq would enhance America's long-term security. But the humanitarian justification was embraced by many who rejected the other justifications, including liberal elites as well as some conservatives, and it helped mobilize public opinion behind the war. Events have served the humanitarian justification poorly.

The idea that war can have a humanitarian as well as a national security justification has a long pedigree and surface plausibility. Some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century occurred in weak states whose governments could not have resisted a foreign military invasion. The genocide in Rwanda, which killed more than 800,000 people in a few months, was eventually halted by a force of Tutsi rebels; surely a Western army could have stopped it sooner. If nations can intervene at little cost to themselves because the target nations are weak and by doing so they prevent massive human suffering, then surely they should do so. The logic seems compelling.

But logic is no substitute for experience, and experience shows that humanitarian war is an oxymoron. ...

Any calculation of Iraqi civilian casualties for which the United States bears responsibility must include the 1991 Gulf War and its aftermath, and the 12 years of sanctions imposed on Iraq by two successive U.S. administrations. Posner writes:

Saddam Hussein was an especially bad tyrant, and Iraqi civilian casualties attributable to the U.S. intervention do not yet equal what he was able to accomplish, albeit over a longer period. The Kurds and many Shiites are better off. And many Iraqis continue to think that the war was worth it, according to polls.

But polls do not reveal the opinions of dead Iraqis. The humanitarian effect of the war has been at best ambiguous against the baseline of the containment period that preceded it, and if current trends continue, the overall effect will be that of a humanitarian disaster.

This is correct, but incomplete. The 12 years of UN sanctions against Iraq -- which three successive U.S. administrations refused to lift -- are directly responsible for the deaths of up to 2.5 million Iraqis (half a million of which were children). Those sanctions, of course, began immediately after the 1991 Gulf War, which was also responsible for tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian casualties. In his enormous history of Middle East conflict entitled The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East, Robert Fisk writes (page 694 of the book):

The only serious attempt to estimate overall casualties was made by Beth Osborne Daponte, the U.S. Census Bureau demographer assigned to gather statistics on the number of Iraqis killed during the war. Her figures suggested that 86,000 men, 40,000 women and 32,000 children died at the hands of American-led coalition forces, during the American-inspired insurgencies that followed and from immediate post-war deprivation. ...

"American-inspired insurgencies" refers to the U.S.-encouraged uprisings against Saddam Hussein: thousands of Kurds and Shiites were slaughtered by Hussein in response, while the first Bush administration stood back and watched. This slaughter has been used by right-wing Bush supporters to justify the 2003 invasion: in this view, the current Iraq war is a humanitarian "atonement" to the Iraqi people for urging them to revolt in 1991 and then abandoning them when they did. But as Posner writes, and we all have seen, the "humanitarian" invasion supposedly intended to "make up for" the failure to intervene after the first Gulf War only deepened the humanitarian disaster.

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