Should the U.S. launch a military strike against Syria after that government’s apparent use of chemical weapons? Just what motives justify involvement in the internal conflict of another country?
Newspaper and television coverage has depicted lines of dead wrapped in shrouds, including children, and some Americans have spoken of the moral necessity to respond.
“But it’s never just humanitarian grounds that make us act,” says Ronald Cox, international relations expert at Florida International University. “It’s how it impacts U.S. interests.”
Russia and China have so far refused to back a United Nations Security Council resolution to attack Syria. President Obama was in Russia last week for a G20 summit where he failed to win majority support for an attack on Syria outside the auspices of the United Nations. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress is debating what it wants to see done – or not done.
The Obama administration says a poison gas attack by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad Aug. 21 killed 1,429 people, including 426 children. France, Britain and Syrian human rights watchdogs put the total number at less than 510. But Obama still insists a response is necessary to convince Assad and other leaders not to use weapons of mass destruction in the future.
Obama has offered moral and strategic reasons to act.
“This attack is an assault on human dignity,” he said in an address to the nation. “But it also presents a serious danger to our national security. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm.”
So far he hasn’t persuaded the majority in the United States, who oppose a strike against Syria. One of them is Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a possible GOP presidential candidate.
“The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring in to power people friendly to the United States,” Paul said.
With the prospect of the U.S. striking Syria without U.N. approval, a basic issue is being argued by Americans: Should the U.S. ever act on moral and humanitarian grounds alone, or must it only go on the offensive to advance its own strategic interests? How has it decided that question in the past?
Cox says even when the U.S. has intervened in countries suffering through a humanitarian crisis, it has always had pragmatic reasons.
He mentions the crises in Bosnia, 1995, and in Kosovo, 1999, parts of the former Yugoslavia. In both places NATO forces – including U.S. air power – were used to end ethnic cleansing by Serbian troops. But Cox says at the time some European countries, including Germany and France, were discussing a separate European security alliance and the U.S. wanted to preserve NATO, where it plays a leading role.
“The U.S. was intent on seeing that the security architecture that came into being during the Cold War continued to exist,” Cox says. “The former Yugoslavia was a test case for NATO in the post Cold War environment. It was successful. Not only is NATO still in place but it has expanded.”
Cox says the U.S. has strong political and economic alliances in Europe and preserving order there was important. That is also true of the Middle East. Cox refers to what is known as the Carter Doctrine, President Jimmy Carter’s proclamation, following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, that the U.S. has the right to use military force to protect its interests in that region.
In cases of serious humanitarian crises in Africa, however, the U.S., has not acted, Cox says. The U.S. did not intervene to stop the 1994 genocide in the East African country of Rwanda –where at least 800,000 people died, mostly members of the Tutsi tribe killed by Hutu tribesmen. The U.N. had a small peacekeeping force there but it was ineffectual. President Bill Clinton has since regretted the lack of U.S. action.
“The U.S. did not see any strategic reason, economic or otherwise, in that region that was crucial to our security,” Cox says.
Other observers have named Darfur and the Congo as embattled African sites of humanitarian crises. U.S. forces did not intervene there, either.
But Dustin Berna, a Nova Southeastern University political scientist, says it is a mistake to underestimate the U.S. commitment to humanitarian concerns in its foreign policy.
“I know there are two ways of thinking of that, but I don’t agree that it all has to with strategic interests,” Berna says. “I believe humanitarian concerns and democracy are part of our motivation.”
“Yes, we always act rationally,” he says. “But after World War II we took the lead in writing the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Yes, there was U.S. guilt involved and Western European guilt, due to not having done enough to stop the Holocaust. But we did take the lead on human rights. And we think about humanitarian issues today. The discussion we are having on Syria right now, that reflex, says a lot.”
Berna recalls that the U.S. played the lead role in the United Nations mission in Somalia in 1993-95, where a small group of rebels was disrupting distribution of food to millions who were suffering from a famine. That mission ended tragically for the U.S. when 18 Marines died in the incident that was immortalized in the book and film “Blackhawk Down.”
“Somalia is the perfect example of doing something for humanitarian reasons,” Berna says. “This is also why we left so quickly after it went bad. We had no strategic reason to stay.”
Berna also points to President George W. Bush’s emphasis on spreading democracy and Obama’s commitment to the 2011 U.N.-sanctioned intervention in the Libyan civil war. The U.S. fired Tomahawk missiles from ships, as it apparently plans to do against Syria, and other nations supplied air power to help topple the increasingly bloody dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi.
Jeffrey Morton, Florida Atlantic University political scientist, agrees that the U.S. is seen as a “guiding light” among nations when it comes to humanitarian issues. International human rights organizations often plead with the U.S. specifically to involve itself in crises.
Morton mentions the U.S. incursion into Haiti in 1994, approved by the U.N., to remove military leaders who had overthrown the elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The military men were persuaded to step down before any fighting occurred. Morton says action in Haiti, like that in Somalia, carried no great political or economic motive.
“America is a caring nation, a crusading nation and it’s not surprising that when we go to war we speak about moral imperatives,” Morton says.
But he says the U.S. has been selective about what it calls a humanitarian crisis and it depends on whether the country involved is an enemy or an ally. He points to the many years that the U.S. did business with South Africa despite its apartheid system of government.
During the Cold War, the U.S. turned a blind eye to human rights abuses and official killing in countries on its side, many of them in Latin America, and today it still has alliances with authoritarian countries with spotty human rights records — Saudi Arabia being one.
“We raise humanitarian issues with our enemies, but we dismiss bad behavior from our allies if there is an overriding strategic or economic interest at stake,” he says. “It’s a case-by-case matter.”
WHEN WE INTERVENED
The following is a list of some internal conflicts in the past two decades in which the U.S. did intervene militarily. All were sanctioned by either the United Nations or NATO:
- 2011, Libya: Bombing, missiles, NATO coordinates air strikes and missile attacks against government of Muammar Gaddafi during uprising by rebel army.
- 1999, Kosovo: Bombing, missiles, heavy NATO air strikes after Serbia declines to withdraw; NATO occupation of Kosovo.
- 1995, Bosnia: Bombing; no-fly zone patrolled in civil war.
- 1994, Haiti: Troops, ships; blockade against military government; troops restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to office three years after coup.
- 1992-94, Somalia: Troops, ships, bombing; U.S.-led occupation during civil war; raids against one rebel faction.
WHEN WE DIDN’T
Large scale humanitarian crises in which the U.S. did not intervene militarily:
- 1996-2008, Congo: The International Rescue Committee has said that at least 3.9 million people died, including in combat and from starvation and disease caused by fighting.
- 1994, Rwanda: At least 800,000 killed in 100 days, mostly Tutsis killed by rival Hutu tribe.