12 May 2008

The empire you have

The Donkeyman points out this article in Time floating the possibility of invading Burma to force needed relief supplies to victims of the recent cyclone there. Erik Loomis of Alterndestiny has posted a few important caveats to such an idea, and more thoroughly than I could, but this thought piqued my interest because it's related to the broader impulse of liberal humanitarian intervention as expressed well by this paragraph from War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.

And yet, despite all this, I am not a pacifist. I respect and admire the qualities of professional soldiers. Without the determination and leadership of soldiers like General Wesley K. Clark, we might never have intervened in Kosovo or Bosnia. It was, in the end, a general Ulysses S. Grant who saved the Union. Even as I detest the pestilence that is war and fear it's deadly addiction, even as I see it lead states and groups toward self-immolation, even as I concede that it is war that has left millions dead and maimed across the planet, I, like most reporters in Sarajevo and Kosovo, desperately hoped for armed intervention. The poison that is war does not free us from the ethic of responsibility. There are times when we must take the poison--just as a person with cancer accepts chemotherapy in order to live. We cannot succumb to despair. Force is and I suspect always will be part of the human condition. There are times when the force wielded by one immoral faction must be countered by a faction that, while never moral, is perhaps less immoral.
This seems like a very natural and laudatory goal, and makes you wonder why cold-hearted lefties are so unflinchingly opposed to such obviously well-intentioned interventions. I think the answer is a curiously realist one. Bleeding-heart liberal internationalism could only work in a world where such a faction which is actually committed to its goals existed. But there is no omni-benevolent Captain Planet in our world sweeping to the bloodless rescue of the oppressed and persecuted. There are industrial empires who keep an army designed to project their national interest around the world, and the global hot spots where they wield this power are often a labyrinthine landscape of ethnic and political tensions they seldom understand and frequently exacerbate.

To paraphrase a certain ex-defense secretary, you carry out your liberal humanitarianism with the empire you have, not the comic-book army you wish you had. Any decisions on armed interventions must be made with this reality in mind.