Humanitarian Intervention?


Imagine a cathedral crammed with 2000 unarmed civilians, all terrified that they are about to be killed by the screaming crowd outside, who are waving the machetes which they intend to use for the killing. Then imagine a thin line of 20 armed UN peacekeepers, equally terrified but well-equipped and well-commanded, dispersed around the entrances to the cathedral, carrying out their assignment to protect the people inside the cathedral from the ones outside. Understand this about the protesters outside: they believe that they are there protesting for social justice, and that they mean to correct the injustices and oppression accomplished by the people gathered inside the cathedral, and their ancestors. The worst crime of which those “oppressors” stand accused is “racism”, yet the protesters themselves have selected the targets of their current anger based on “race” as they understand it. It may sound absurd to American ears, but the moral and ethical arguments of those protesters is sufficiently compelling, that many of their country’s liberal and social-justice minded Catholic priests support them (although of course the priests are always careful to say about that support, that they would “never condone violence”). The US ambassador in that country is a pacifist-minded Quaker, but he also feels a great deal of sympathy for the plight of the “oppressed” protesters. The government of France also generally supports them.

Here’s a ratio: as long as that stand-off continues, each individual UN peacekeeper is preventing about 100 killings, which means he is saving, for the moment, about 100 lives, and he is doing so without killing anyone himself.

What’s the end game? If more well-trained and well-equipped back-up is available to those peacekeepers when they call for it, maybe the stand-off could hold until the crowd is persuaded to disperse, at which point the refugees inside the cathedral might be escorted to a place where they can be protected for the longer term. But in this and other similar cases in Rwanda in early 1994, the UN peacekeepers received not back-up, but orders from New York to withdraw and be “evacuated” to “safety” themselves. They were appalled and horrified, but they followed their orders, and without their protection the 2,000 people huddled inside the cathedral were all butchered alive, women and children not spared. Those 2,000 mutilated corpses became another drop in the bucket of the million or so who died in Rwanda during that period.
In the whole world, the two individuals most responsible for those withdrawal orders from NY were US UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright, and US President Bill Clinton, who was giving Albright her orders about what to say at the UN. That’s why President Clinton, in a later visit to Rwanda, felt compelled to “apologize” to Rwandans. And that’s why Samantha Power, who studied Rwanda carefully and is now the Obama-appointed successor to Madeleine Albright at the UN, is now advising President Obama and the UN from a point of view characterized by a “never-again” attitude about “genocide”, which leads her generally in the direction of favoring “humanitarian intervention”. The problem for her now is mainly that the tools made available to her for proposed interventions are pretty much limited to air power alone, since in response to political pressure and his own personal inclinations and campaign promises, President Obama has generally taken US ground forces in hostile environments “off the table”.
Rhetorical question: can the effective life-saving that was briefly achieved by those brave UN peacekeepers ever be duplicated anywhere, tactically, by the use of air power alone, whether involving cruise missiles, helicopters, fighters, bombers, or the latest and greatest state-of-the-art drones? Can any of those things stand in the door of a cathedral, to protect people inside from people outside? And, can they do so without killing anyone themselves?
While wondering about that, the Obama administration foreign policy on questions like this remains Power-driven and mostly air-power-driven. Samantha’s book title about Rwanda was “A Problem from Hell”; some observers have labeled air-power only solutions as “Solutions from Hell”. Personally, I think both labels are generally fair and accurate.
Footnote: I wonder how the US UN Ambassador would view a Hillary Clinton candidacy for US President in 2016, given that she, as a zealous Obama supporter, called Hillary a “monster” during the 2008 Democratic primaries?

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