Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Humanitarian Intervention

A Libertarian friend of mine has on more than one occasion defended to me the belief that there is nothing wrong, and indeed something very right, about the United States using force in a foreign land to liberate oppressed peoples. For this reason he defended the Iraq war, regardless of the reasons it was actually fought, because it had the consequence of liberating the people of Iraq. I vehemently disagreed with him, yet somehow was unable to come up with convincing arguments why.

Tonight I watched parts 1 and 2 of the West Wing episode “Inauguration,” in which the President is faced with just such a choice: to send troops into an African nation (I don’t remember the name, but it was meant to be Rwanda) to stop the genocide of one group of people against another. And I believe I have my answer.

Nevermind that we almost never have a real grasp of the nuances of the particular situation, and therefore have every likelihood of making things worse in the region rather than better. Nevermind that no one ever thanks us for helping; that we make no friends by intervening in other people’s business. No, the real reasons to keep our dick in our pants are twofold. First, not only do we not make friends through foreign intervention, we are almost certain to make enemies. For when we intervene for one group of people, we are intervening against another. If we don’t mind having a National Security State; if we don’t mind living in constant fear of attacks from random people who hate us with blinding passion, then this is not a problem. But the larger reason is simply that “liberty,” “tyranny,” “oppression,” and “liberation” can be rather slippery words, especially when other people, with their own agendas, are using them about you. What I mean is that “liberating the oppressed” and “helping the helpless” really have no limit. How “oppressed” do you have to be to rate military intervention by the U.S.? It seems an easy call when there are millions dying, but what about when there are only thousands? Hundreds? Perhaps there is no mass murder, but people are being pulled out of their homes and tortured. What then? What if a people simply lack the right to protest government policy? Is that a legitimate criterion for invasion? The point is that this path can easily lead to world hegemony, with the U.S. (or the U.N.) dictating to all nations exactly how they will treat their citizens. Is this the world we want to live in? If we think people hate us now, wait until we have intervened in half of the regions on Earth.

No, the answer is not intervention. It’s liberty. One of the stories told in the West Wing episode I mentioned was that mothers were stationing themselves in front of attacking tanks in an effort to preserve their people. What if those mothers had tanks themselves? The answer to oppression and genocide is not invasion; it is not intervention. It is simply allowing people to defend themselves, and any individuals who wish (as happened in the Spanish Civil War) to assist in that defense. It is impossible to commit genocide against a well-armed people. Instead of sending them troops, sell them guns! If a people is so oppressed that even this is impossible, then allow American citizens to arm themselves and help out on their own. But the notion of selling oppressed peoples weapons goes against our grain. Why? Is it because we don’t like guns? No, we don’t mind at all if we have them. No, this bothers us for a darker reason: We prefer to do the job for them instead of selling them weapons to do it for themselves because we want to retain control. We want to be in charge. Providing weapons to a people gives them power, and we don’t want that. In fact, we in America would be quite happy if we were the only nation on Earth to possess weapons of any kind. That’s why we prefer intervention to assistance.

No, the only sensible answer is the same most sensible answer to almost any political problem: More freedom. Not enforced freedom, not freedom at the point of a gun, but the freedom for people, individually, to do as they think right.

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