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what to do in myanmar?

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.


Filed under: World

One Response

  1. ZRand007 says:

    First, the UN is absolutely worthless. In any situation where two members of the Security Council disagree, nothing can get done. Off the topic, 100% consensus in the SC is required to alter the UN bureacracy. It is broken and will not change for the foreseeable future as long as China and Russia are permanent members.

    It’s too bad our German Allies have lost their nerve for war. There is evidence that it isn’t just your German friends who have lost their nerve, but the the German government, too; despite decades of American protection, they refuse to come to our defense even after Article 5 of the North Atlantic Charter was invoked after 9/11 and still do to this day. We could really use their help in Afghanistan, yet they are unwilling to help.

    I read this article in Time earlier today. The gist of the argument against aid-by-force seems to be the threat of retaliation against aid workers and military forces.

    First, I can assure you that no other nation would be willing to put their blood and treasure on the line for some other poor, remote country. That’s a job reserved for the United States (I would say Great Britain and Australia, too, but their citizens and lawmakers have become soft in general since 2003).

    There is no doubt that the US could easily overwhelm whatever defenses Myanmar has to get aid in. Aid would probably be dropped by air in many cases, and disrupting enemy air defenses is the US Air Force’s spesh-e-ality (particularly 1970’s-80’s era Soviet systems).

    The problem is this: the world, and our some of our European “allies,” are unwilling to accept the Just War Theory. They are unable to see that there are circumstances where the use of force, while more costly in the short term, will have long lasting, positive effects.

    Use of military force in Myanmar is justifed, based on the Just War Theory’s two critera: jus ad bellum and jus in bello:

    An attack would be just, because the Burmese government is allowing millions to suffer when many nations and NGOs are willing to provide aid;

    An attack would be a last resort due to the Burmese government’s failure to allow aid to their people any other way;

    An attack would be proportional (if that): US forces could quickly overwhelm Myanmar’s defenses with probably a far smaller amount of bloodshead than would occur if nothing was done;

    An attack would be distinctly against the military establishment of Myanmar, and not against the people.

    I doubt that the people of the US would accept an attack on Myanmar, even if it is for the greater good- Obama and Clinton would denounce such actions, primarily because President Bush is the one making decisions. If those two condemn something, those sheep that blindly follow them will do the same.

    I am eager to see if the Bush Administration is willing to again do what’s right versus what’s popular.

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