That, in essence, is the question George Friedman addresses in a very interesting STRATFOR article, 'Immaculate Intervention: The Wars of Humanitarianism'. Extensive excerpts follow.
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There are wars in pursuit of interest. In these wars, nations pursue economic or strategic ends to protect the nation or expand its power. There are also wars of ideology, designed to spread some idea of “the good,” whether this good is religious or secular. The two obviously can be intertwined, such that a war designed to spread an ideology also strengthens the interests of the nation spreading the ideology.
Since World War II, a new class of war has emerged that we might call humanitarian wars — wars in which the combatants claim to be fighting neither for their national interest nor to impose any ideology, but rather to prevent inordinate human suffering. In Kosovo and now in Libya, this has been defined as stopping a government from committing mass murder. But it is not confined to that. In the 1990s, the U.S. intervention in Somalia was intended to alleviate a famine while the invasion of Haiti was designed to remove a corrupt and oppressive regime causing grievous suffering.
In humanitarian wars, the intervention is designed both to be neutral and to protect potential victims on one side. It is at this point that the concept and practice of a humanitarian war becomes more complex. There is an ideology undergirding humanitarian wars, one derived from both the U.N. Charter and from the lessons drawn from the Holocaust, genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia and a range of other circumstances where large-scale slaughter — crimes against humanity — took place. That no one intervened to prevent or stop these atrocities was seen as a moral failure. According to this ideology, the international community has an obligation to prevent such slaughter.
The doctrine becomes less coherent in a civil war in which one side is winning and promising to slaughter its enemies, Libya being the obvious example. Those intervening can claim to be carrying out a neutral humanitarian action, but in reality, they are intervening on one side’s behalf. If the intervention is successful — as it likely will be given that interventions are invariably by powerful countries against weaker ones — the practical result is to turn the victims into victors. By doing that, the humanitarian warriors are doing more than simply protecting the weak. They are also defining a nation’s history.
The point here is not simply that humanitarian interventions tend to devolve into occupations of countries, albeit more slowly and with more complex rhetoric. It is also that for the humanitarian warrior, there are other political considerations. In the case of the French, the contrast between their absolute opposition to Iraq and their aggressive desire to intervene in Libya needs to be explained. I suspect it will not be.
There has been much speculation that the intervention in Libya was about oil. All such interventions, such as those in Kosovo and Haiti, are examined for hidden purposes. Perhaps it was about oil in this case, but Gadhafi was happily shipping oil to Europe, so intervening to ensure that it continues makes no sense. Some say France’s Total and Britain’s BP engineered the war to displace Italy’s ENI in running the oil fields. While possible, these oil companies are no more popular at home than oil companies are anywhere in the world. The blowback in France or Britain if this were shown to be the real reason would almost certainly cost French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron their jobs, and they are much too fond of those to risk them for oil companies. I am reminded that people kept asserting that the 2003 Iraq invasion was designed to seize Iraq’s oil for Texas oilmen. If so, it is taking a long time to pay off. Sometimes the lack of a persuasive reason for a war generates theories to fill the vacuum.
In all humanitarian wars, there is a belief that the war could not be about humanitarian matters.
Therein lays the dilemma of humanitarian wars. They have a tendency to go far beyond the original intent behind them, as the interveners, trapped in the logic of humanitarian war, are drawn further in. Over time, the ideological zeal frays and the lack of national interest saps the intervener’s will. It is interesting that some of the interventions that bought with them the most good were carried out without any concern for the local population and with ruthless self-interest. I think of Rome and Britain. They were in it for themselves. They did some good incidentally.
My unease with humanitarian intervention is not that I don’t think the intent is good and the end moral. It is that the intent frequently gets lost and the moral end is not achieved. Ideology, like passion, fades. But interest has a certain enduring quality. A doctrine of humanitarian warfare that demands an immaculate intervention will fail because the desire to do good is an insufficient basis for war. It does not provide a rigorous military strategy to what is, after all, a war. Neither does it bind a nation’s public to the burdens of the intervention. In the end, the ultimate dishonesties of humanitarian war are the claims that “this won’t hurt much” and “it will be over fast.” In my view, their outcome is usually either a withdrawal without having done much good or a long occupation in which the occupied people are singularly ungrateful.
North Africa is no place for casual war plans and good intentions. It is an old, tough place. If you must go in, go in heavy, go in hard and get out fast. Humanitarian warfare says that you go in light, you go in soft and you stay there long. I have no quarrel with humanitarianism. It is the way the doctrine wages war that concerns me. Getting rid of Gadhafi is something we can all feel good about and which Europe and America can afford. It is the aftermath — the place beyond the immaculate intervention — that concerns me.