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What determines the humanitarian military response?

Gandhi and Che, two kinds of freedom fighters

Gandhi and Che, two kinds of freedom fighters

Most of us prefer to avoid using the military and killing people to solve problems.

At least, that’s what we say — that we prefer non-violence. Hollywood and the entertainment industry, however, seem to think shooting at people is, in fact, our favorite problem-solving strategy.

The reality is that a military response is sometimes the only course of action that will work.

Take what’s happening in Libya.

Is there a credible argument out there that challenges the need for the current international military response to Muammar Gaddafi’s murderous retaliation against those Libyans who are — as part of the broader Arab revolt — seeking an to end his dictatorship?

I’ve seen a few articles questioning the political validity of this move, or the specific tactics. Here’s a thoughtful post by Yale development expert Chris Blattman noting that military interventions imply broader failures in foreign policy.

But I can’t find anyone (other than Gaddafi and his few supporters) arguing that the military response aimed at stopping the pro-Gaddafi forces is fundamentally wrong. Rather, this action has become a humanitarian obligation. Yet:

  • Many innocent people will probably also get killed.
  • This is a violation of national sovereignty.
  • It’s not really our problem.
  • The military response can only solve the immediate problem.
  • This could turn into a political quagmire, as military interventions overseas are wont to do.

These are the kind of arguments our political leaders and others typically use to avoid getting involved in selected overseas conflicts. Yet the humanitarian obligation often looks the same, or very similar, as in Libya.

Take Ivory Coast, where another incumbent political leader is refusing to relinquish power despite the people’s will (and, in this case, a bonafide election) that he step down. Elizabeth Dickinson writes in Foreign Policy about “The other African war we were supposed to stop,” noting that:

Once upon a time, the world was supposed to intervene — militarily if necessary — to ensure democratic transition and prevent conflict in the Ivory Coast. These days, the momentum is gone. And in fact, the closer this country comes to civil war, the less interested anyone is at getting involved. I get it; geopolitically, the Ivory Coast doesn’t hold a candle to the Middle East. But how about all of West Africa — all of which is threatened by the current conflict?

The Ivory Coast case is especially poignant, tragic and perhaps morally indefensible. But the same question could be asked in many other parts of the world. I’m no expert on foreign policy, on the calculus of international military interventions, or, well, on anything.

But after watching the Obama Administration drag its feet on Libya, eventually answering the call by the United Nations and the Arab League — as well as France and Britain — to intervene, I still can’t tell on what basis we (the world’s biggest military power by far) decide whether to act or not.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.