UCPU Debate: Humanitarian Intervention

Resolved: Humanitarian reasons can fully justify unilateral military intervention.

The latest UCPU debate covered humanitarian intervention. Parties argued the different conditions of this controversial topic and provided arguments for and against intervention and the use of force in intervention. Below, each party has provided a summary of their thoughts.

Party: Progressives | Aaron Brogan

Humanitarian intervention is an appropriate justification for military action in a democratic state, with the incidence of broad popular support for intervention, and in no other scenario. This statement follows from a simple trail of logic explained herein.

Ultimately, government exists for the protection of its constituency. While the social contract may not accurately depict the scope of modern governance, it bears a kernel of truth. There exists a non-voluntary, monopolistic, public conglomerate of force, because there is an ever present need for one. It is necessary for collective decision making, it is necessary for defense, and it is useful for the voluntary allocation of public goods towards interests broadly shared by a constituency.

It is this third function of government that can potentially justify humanitarian military intervention. Democratic states have an accepted mechanism for collective decision making and that that mechanism can be invoked prior to intervention (representative support is acceptable). Therefore, the support of that mechanism is enough to justify intervention. This argument rests on the assumption that we the people can be sufficiently informed of the risks of our actions to make decisions for ourselves. I believe we can. Note though, the “humanitarian intervention” aspect in no way weighs on this decision. An action of public volition is justified by that public volition; the specifics of that decision are insubstantial

Humanitarian military intervention (i.e. with no defense interest) can never be justified for any other reason. If the state acts without consideration of its constituents’ explicit interest, it must be for the purpose of protection or furtherance of the interest of its constituents. If a military intervention is purely humanitarian, this justification excludes the possibility of acting in the interest of the general welfare. The government in no way exists for the protection or furtherance of anyone who is not a constituent, and the negatives of military intervention are too obvious to merit explication. Knowing this, military intervention for solely humanitarian reasons cannot improve overall welfare and necessarily reduces it with exposure to risk, resource expenditure, etc. For this reason, excluding a collective decision making mechanism, purely humanitarian intervention can never be justified.

Note that this is not a moral argument. There may be a moral imperative to humanitarian intervention, and if a constituency believes as much then they may feel compelled to act and can justify doing so, but government abstracted is not a moral agent. Government is a tool, it can at the will of its people be used for anything, but absent that, any use which diminishes the welfare of constituents is a misuse.

Party: Democratic Left | Michael Howland-Dewar

The Democratic Left’s position hinges on the wording of the resolution: who exactly are we justifying humanitarian intervention to? In our opinion, an administration has to justify itself to three parties; one, it must assure itself that the task at hand is possible; two, it must justify itself to the international community that the intervention is merited; three, it must justify to its own citizens why some of them will die in the name of others’ safety, and must ensure that they approve intervention.

All parties at the debate agreed that the middle point was of little consequence. While we in the Democratic Left voiced concerns that a diplomatic free-for-all could allow less idealistic nations than ours a disingenuous casus belli for conquest, we all agree that the United States ought not to be limited by the UN veto power of the other P5 countries when it came to humanitarian intervention.

We also believe that a very practical question must temper humanitarian interventions; can military action make the situation better? Can the decision makers behind humanitarian war justify to themselves that it is a good idea? We pointed out that large scale humanitarian intervention, both multi-lateral and unilateral, has a distinctly checkered record. Many attempts to intervene in a crisis or depose a dictator (eg: Operation Iraqi Freedom which listed the lack of Iraqi Freedom as one of many casi belli) have resulted in chaos afterward, which is little better than the state of the country beforehand. If more people will die as a result of an action aimed at helping others, how exactly is that action justified?

Similarly, as former U.S. Representative Sue Kelly brought up, we believe that consent of the citizenry sent to do the fighting. Any government, but particularly the United States, must justify the fact that it will incur military losses for the sake of the rights and safety of people whom most citizens of the intervening nation will never meet. This can be easily overlooked in debates in the United States, since we have been blessed with a people uniquely willing to rush to the aid of others. However, it should never slip a leader’s mind what they ask of their people.

With this in mind, it is semantically the best position to vote against the resolution. A decision maker must temper their desire for humanitarian intervention with practical concerns, and must also ask the citizens whom they will send to war whether they are willing to die in a far off land for another’s rights. To the devil, crouching, hidden in the details, one cannot fully justify military intervention since one has to take in other concerns. However, to damn the resolution on the basis of one intensifier would be rather perverse, and would ignore the spirit of the resolution. With sensibility and consent of their people in hand, a leader can justify going to war for humanitarian purposes.

Party: The ConFeds | Sam Preston

Many politicians, including the Honorable former U.S. Representatives Sue Kelly and Lincoln Davis, who were gracious enough to visit our lively Union debate on Wednesday, endorse the establishment of ultimatums or “red lines” with regard to humanitarian intervention. These standards would determine whether the United States should intervene militarily to resolve international humanitarian crises. Proponents of these hypothetical thresholds argue that standards provide transparency to the US electorate and prohibit imperialist tendencies that have plagued Great Powers in the past. In addition, many Union participants insisted that a consistent, clear boundary would send a powerful message to the world about what constitutes intolerable injustice and thus deter heinous crimes from ever occurring in the first place.

However, establishing unnecessarily restrictive automatic triggers can be harmful to our Country’s long-term interests.  As Max Samels illustrated during last week’s discussion, a specific ultimatum can oversimplify complicated international matters and are often impossible to uphold. For example, the United States previously maintained that a foreign regime’s deployment of chemical weapons against its own people would trigger an immediate military action. However, promises like this can corner Presidents into a lose-lose situation, as demonstrated by the recent events in Syria; Obama’s decision to decline a military option has damaged our credibility, as it is widely acknowledged that Assad employed chemical agents to deter the Syrian Rebels. Yet, one cannot begrudge our President’s decision to break this promise if he believed US action would be too costly or if he considered a boots-on-the-ground-response to be ineffective.

Once we articulate specific criteria for intervention, there are a variety of complicating factors that can turn our promise of freedom into a commitment to failure. For instance, should we be compelled to intervene if our foreign policy advisers insisted that circumstances guaranteed a military defeat? What if these advisors were sure military action could not better the situation on the ground or result in mass US casualties? Humanitarian crises should be evaluated on a case by case basis, considering every situation as unique. Specific standards, such the chemical-weapons-in-Syria “Red Line”, corner Presidents into making future promises that may be impossible to uphold.

In addition, Osita Nwanevu made an excellent point about another unavoidable problem that accompanies drawing “lines in the sand”. If the US sets specific guidelines for what has to happen to constitute humanitarian intervention, dictators will simply navigate below the stated threshold and commit atrocious acts with impunity. Consequently, the United States should avoid establishing a specific death total, method of genocide, or any other necessary pre-requisites to substantiate military intervention. For if we set the “death limit” at 100,000, would we consider the genocide of 90,000 people to be less deserving of US attention? Such a proposition is ridiculous, and playing this numbers game is a dangerous endeavor that helps no one. Instead, the United States should demonstrate that any great international injustice is subject to United States intervention in order to deter rogue states from engaging in egregious crimes against humanity. We can stand on principle without committing to defeat. We are for liberty for everyone, freedom of religion everywhere, freedom from genocide for every race. We must establish clear principles for intervention, but not semantic handcuffs.

Many Union members argued against unilateral military action, pointing to the ambiguous results of past United States failed military efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba. However, humanitarian action will rarely result in a stable, democratic state. We still have a moral obligation to halt genocide and end egregious human rights violations if military action can viably attain these ends. These obligations persist even if we are not supported by the international community or lack a coalition to aid our efforts. Congresswoman Kelly’s question of whether humanitarian action is worth the lives of our soldiers should certainly be asked before our Commander and Chief acts unilaterally. However, if the President believes we can end atrocities like those that occurred in Bosnia, Cambodia, and Rwanda, then the United States must obey the call of our collective sense of humanity and put a stop to mass genocide or other egregious violations of human rights. No “red line” should either compel or deter military action. Instead, it should be based on the judgment of the President, Congress, and the American public, weighing the principles we as a nation stand for with the particulars of the situation on the ground.

For more information on this debate or UChicago’s Political Union, contact Charley Kargman.