The Case for U.S. Humanitarian Interventionism

U.S. bombs being prepared for delivery in Libya.

The Arab Spring has been marked by a season of rebellion. With any rebellion, there will always be a force working to crush it, usually violently. Citizens all over the Middle East—including but not limited to those in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain—have suffered human rights abuses, many gunned down indiscriminately by the regimes that wish to stay in power. This leaves the United States and its Western allies in a difficult position, weighing the consequences of intervention, sanctions, or the lack thereof.

Because the U.S. record in this regard is rife with questionable choices, to say the least, the rest of the world views these decisions with a healthy degree of cynicism. Cases where the United States has intervened out of self-interest (which pockmark the bulk of the post-World War II era) seem to some to have dirtied our hands to such an extent that no action of ours could be seen as clean and virtuous.

This does not mean, however, that humanitarian interventionism is dead. In fact, the Arab Spring has brought with it opportunities to shift away from unilateral action built on a U.S. agenda and toward an interventionist policy that prioritizes the lives of innocent people. Not all these opportunities have been lost.

American disillusionment

In 2004, former Marine Captain Brian Steidle accepted a position with the African Union as a U.S. military observer in the Darfur region of Sudan. During this assignment he witnessed thousands being killed, villages being wiped out. Unable to intervene, he resorted to taking photographs. In writing home to his girlfriend, Steidle said that if the U.S. government were to see the images, "there would be troops here in no time." In the book and documentary of the same name, The Devil Came on Horseback, Steidle describes the disillusionment he went through when he realized how wrong he was about that assumption.

What Steidle discovered—and what is true about any case where intervention is considered by the United States—is that the criteria for intervention do not boil down simply to whether or not the U.S. military has the means to prevent innocent people from being killed. Steidle shared his photos and eyewitness account of what was happening in Darfur with U.S. heads of state, Congress and countless news programs. Nothing happened.

Of course, at the same time, U.S. forces were expending tremendous capital on the occupation of Iraq, setting up a veritable city in the Green Zone from which to operate. I need not go into the lies on which this operation were predicated, nor the mayhem it brought to the country, as plenty has been illuminated on these accounts. Suffice it to say that, as Iraqis worried about electricity and water, watching pieces of their infrastructure handed over to independent contractors, it is doubtful that any of them would have called this intervention "humanitarian."


Say what you will about President Obama's decision to lead a NATO intervention in Libya. The criticisms are plenty, and they are not unfounded. It is true that we armed and supported rebel fighters who neither knew what they were doing nor had a unifying identity. It is true that the National Transitional Council (NTC) faces a hard road ahead and is in no way guaranteed to succeed in effectively governing the Libyan people. One can even make the argument that our oil interests indirectly drove the decision. But the fact remains that Muammar Gaddafi was defeated, and that the brutal assault on his people has come to an end.

Democracy Now! correspondent Anjali Kamat recently reported from Libya, "Even though Gaddafi’s whereabouts remain unknown and his sons’ whereabouts remain unknown, in a sense, for most people we spoke to in Libya, it seemed like he had already passed into the dustbin of history." Heavy questions remain for the NTC, such as how to rein in the weapons that have proliferated, or to what extent to assimilate the Muslim community into the new government. However, for the Libyan people, Kamat added, "there’s a real sense of rebirth, a feeling that their lives are starting anew." They would not have accomplished this without help.


Analysts will debate whether supporting the rebels in Libya was a victory for humanitarian interventionism or not. After Gaddafi fell, Tom Nichols concluded, "Humanitarian interventions are here to stay and are going to be driven more by moral calculation and military opportunity than by 'national interest.'" I don't know if that will be the case, but I appreciate the optimism.

Nikolas Gvosdev wrote in World Politics Review, "Even with its fiscal constraints, the United States will continue to retain an absolute preponderance of the world's economic and military power for the foreseeable future. And if Libya provides a model for 'intervention on the cheap,' we are likely to see this template emulated in other situations."

Libya cost a sliver of what we're spending in Afghanistan and, arguably, accomplished more. If the civil conflict in Ivory Coast had received more press this spring—with hundreds caught in the crossfire as Laurent Gbagbo refused to give up his presidency to Alassane Outtara—the United States, working with its international partners and consulting the U.N. Security Council, could have saved more lives by stepping in and quelling the violence. We could have been in and out without violating the War Powers Resolution.

If we turn our eyes to Syria, clearly there would be a tangle of strings attached to taking military action against Bashar al-Assad, making an intervention in Syria diplomatically complicated. Assad has proven himself to be just as ruthless as any ruler clinging to power, but the ramifications for nearby countries, such as Iran and Lebanon, could turn the event into a regional debacle. Already we see Iraqi refugees who fled to Syria now turning around to head back to Iraq. The refugee problem alone would be significant. So for now, unfortunately (for Syrians living in fear), sanctions appear to be the prudent course in dealing with Syria.

Any intervention will bring with it political controversy and diplomatic complexities. These are not to be discounted. But the files of U.S. history show many examples of interventions that were not motivated by humanitarian aims (see South America in the 1970s) and other instances where a failure to act resulted in the deaths of innocent people (such as with the Rwanda genocide). With the power that the United States wields, we have a moral imperative to assist in protecting the lives of the innocent. Doing so should be viewed in the same light as the act of handing out food to starving Somalians.

Joshua Pringle is a journalist, novelist and singer living in New York City, and is the senior editor for Worldpress.org. He is currently studying international relations in the master's program at New York University.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Joshua Pringle.