I remember speaking with some German friends a few years back about just war and objecting to their characterization of ALL military engagements as inherently unjust. The context was the war in Iraq, but we weren’t discussing the wisdom of the invasion or the objective virtue of that particular engagement, but the potential for war to be just.
My stock scenario is the genocidal regime, which most people I talk to seem to agree justify the consideration of military intervention (the decision to actually intervene should also take into account the likelihood of success and potential fallout).
Romesh Ratnesar, over at Time, raises another scenario that might pass mustard with the peacenik crowd, or at the very least, make them acknowledge the terrific human loss that their international consensus politics and soft power allow to occur quite regularly. Ratnesar poses the question, “Is It Time to Invade Burma?“
I would rephrase the question; does the crisis in Burma warrant the consideration of military force to alleviate the crisis if need be? A less-appealing headline to be sure, but a bit more useful for our purposes.
Here are some relevant snippets from the article:
- “By most reliable estimates, close to 100,000 people are dead.
- “With as many as 1 million people still at risk, it is conceivable that the death toll will, within days, approach that of the entire number of civilians killed in the genocide in Darfur.”
- “The military regime that runs Burma initially signaled it would accept outside relief, but has imposed so many conditions on those who would actually deliver it that barely a trickle has made it through.”
- “The Burmese haven’t shown the ability or willingness to deploy the kind of assets needed to deal with a calamity of this scale — and the longer Burma resists offers of help, the more likely it is that the disaster will devolve beyond anyone’s control.”
- “A lot is at stake here. If we let them get away with murder we may set a very dangerous precedent,” says Jan Egeland, the former U.N. emergency relief coordinator.
- “Some observers, including former USAID director Andrew Natsios, have called on the US to unilaterally begin air drops to the Burmese people regardless of what the junta says. The Bush Administration has so far rejected the idea — “I can’t imagine us going in without the permission of the Myanmar government,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday — but it’s not without precedent: as Natsios pointed out to the Wall Street Journal, the US has facilitated the delivery of humanitarian aid without the host government’s consent in places like Bosnia and Sudan.
- “If there were, say, the threat of a cholera epidemic that could claim hundreds of thousands of lives and the government was incapable of preventing it, then maybe yes — you would intervene unilaterally.” But by then, it could be too late.”
- “The world has yet to reach a consensus about when, and under what circumstances, coercive interventions in the name of averting humanitarian disasters are permissible.”
Is there a difference in allowing hundreds of thousands to die from disease and hunger and outright execution? In some ways, yes, just as first degree murder differs from second and third. What is consistent in both cases is the preventable loss of human life.
Members of the international community have stated multiple times that state sovereignty extends only as far as the state’s willingness (and I would add ability) to protect its people from preventable death.
The issue is that these pronouncements carry little weight. Soft power (which usually ends up meaning economic bullying) works very well for certain types of regimes, but incentives have their limits.
I’m not advocating military intervention in Myanmar. I am suggesting that you don’t have to be a neocon to believe that the international community’s ability to act through existing international institutions to alleviate large-scale human suffering and death is basically non existent, and it is unacceptable to allow these preventable real human tragedies to occur because of abstract notions of state sovereignty (I’d love to hear someone, anyone, argue that the Burmese junta represent the people) or international consensus (couldn’t avoid a security council veto short of an alien invasion). We should reinforce the processes of international cooperation when possible and respect the people’s right to self-determination, but we mustn’t join our European friends in sacrificing the lives of others at the altars of multilateralism and state sovereignty.