Thursday, May 15, 2008

More on Intervention in Burma

Yesterday, I briefly discussed some of the issues regarding humanitarian intervention in Burma. I linked to Rob's solid essay arguing against intervention.

A few more pieces discussing intervention - or, as those opposing intervention are putting it, "invasion" - have popped around the internet. See, for example, Robert Kaplan's piece yesterday in NY Times. I don't read Kaplan as actually supporting an invasion, though others interpret the article this way. The central take-home message from Kaplan's article is that "the very act of our invasion could land us with the responsibility for fixing Burma afterward." He points out the glaringly obvious example of the current Iraq invasion and occupation. The analogy is a false one, however, and insidiously so. It shouldn't color the moral arguments about a Burma intervention. The Bush administration may have used the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention in Iraq (as a human rights issue) at the time, but it wasn't the true motivation, and made little sense given the the crucial "last resort" criterion of any intervention that I mentioned yesterday. Military invasion in the name of shoring up resources (in this case, oil) is illegal in the international system. That argument simply couldn't be made publicly by the administration for political, moral, and perhaps especially legal reasons.

For some reason, however, almost all commentators these days can see only two general foreign policy options: either an interventionist policy or a non-interventionist policy. That's far too simplistic and fallacious. Iraq was and is a mess. That was always going to be the case. Powerful moral and practical arguments against the invasion were in heavy circulation, but were ignored. The Iraq invasion was a bad idea before it even began. But this doesn't mean that all intervention is bad or doomed to failure. A general non-interventionist foreign policy completely ignores important moral arguments about providing assistance to those who are suffering. Each potential case of intervention has unique qualities, unique obstacles, and unique logistical issues. To take a non-interventionist stance, a priori, is to take a simplistic and dangerous moral route that excludes any moral considerations tout court. It's simply dumb.

But this also doesn't mean that a generally interventionist foreign policy is a good idea either. The US certainly has a poor record on intervention in terms of motivations, means, and outcomes.

Last resort means not only that any and all other avenues for resolving the problem have been tried. It also exists as a principal criterion because, as I also mentioned, any intervention faces other, often unforeseeable, outcomes that can exacerbate the situation. For Kant and Mill, even if there is a powerful moral imperative to provide assistance, it must always be weighed against the strong possibility that things can go seriously awry and that the intervention can become something much bigger and more harmful than itself. That is a serious practical consideration which shapes the moral argument.

In other words, even if we accept the moral imperative of assisting those who are suffering (and Burma may be rising to the level of genocide), that imperative must be tempered by sober and sound assessments of the practical logistics of carrying out any particular humanitarian intervention. Mark Goldberg makes a crucial point:
...Without intelligence on the ground (i.e. where to drop the relief) and a ready-to-go distribution mechanism, airdrops can do more harm than good. The strong will fight off the weak and people with guns will sell the relief on the black market. The aid will not go to the people who need it most.
In one of the most important reads thus far on the issue, Barbara Stocking discusses the logistical problems of airdropping supplies:

For a start it requires excellent intelligence. Yet no one knows exactly where the worst affected areas are, or how many people are suffering in each place. We don't know if people are on the move, or what diseases are starting to appear, or exactly what state their homes and infrastructure are in.

Without good intelligence it's very hard to run an effective humanitarian operation - especially an airborne one. It would be only too easy to drop the food miles from the nearest village, or even in water or swamp. Food is perishable and leaving it outside for too long could ruin it. You can't drop a well or a sanitation system from the sky without specialists to set it up. Communities could find themselves with aid completely inappropriate to their situation.

The final stage of food aid distribution is often the most difficult in the whole operation. Aid workers don't turn up at a starving, desperate village with a truck full of food without having organised the trip with village elders or officials first. Things can easily go wrong when giving food to hungry people, and there have to be staff on the ground to organise the process. There are other problems too. Arriving unannounced could lead to a riot, with the strongest getting the food and the weakest leaving with nothing. Crowd control is vital.

Basically, helping the Burmese people requires careful organization the distribution network on the ground, which the junta is resisting. Politically, in light of the last resort condition, the best approach at this point is likely one Goldberg mentions, although the rhetoric of frothing at the mouth isn't terribly helpful,
The way to fulfill that [moral] obligation is not to froth at the mouth for toppling another odious regime, but by working diplomatic channels to force the junta to relent their obstruction of humanitarian relief efforts. This may mean taking a harder line with China over its support of the junta. It certainly does not mean we need to ready the gears of war to invade and occupy the country. That, frankly is a distraction and counterproductive to first imperative of helping those in danger.
Negotiations with China on the UN Security Council are fraught with difficulties for a UN-mandated humanitarian intervention. But not impossible, especially as China suffers through its own natural disaster and reluctant need for international assistance.

There are very good practical arguments against "invasion," but that term does this particular case a disservice because it moves us back into the falsely dualistic interventionist / non-interventionist logic that has such currency these days. Invasion is, of course, a non-starter. Much more importantly, and reasonably, there are legitimate arguments against a forced airdrop-type of intervention or other limited forms of intervention. There are nonetheless interventionary instruments at our disposal, namely via the UN, which did have some degree of success in East Timor and Kosovo against oppressive states. Examining these in light of the political context of Burma is where the difficult work of combining moral imperatives with hard practical considerations ought to take place.

Today, Joshua Marshall writes,
I have an even simpler idea. Why don't we not invade any more countries for a while?

I know that will strike some as too flippant or isolationist. But it's not meant as the former and I'm confident it is not the latter. Many of our foreign policy thinkers seem to be developing the kind of character damage suffered by children who can buy the best toy every time their parents go to the mall -- the inability to distinguish between necessities, simple wants and the mere desire for kicks which is born of pervasive moral boredom. Add to this the fact that we are now managing two foreign occupations -- one of which is going poorly and a second which can only be described as a national catastrophe of historic proportions -- and you see the true level of the disconnect.

It's not simply a matter of having our hands full. More than this, it's an obliviousness to the reality of the downsides of our proposing to invade or actually invading countries more or less for the hell of it -- both in the sense of creating a more dangerous global political environment and the squandering of material resources and global political capital in advance of actual threats to our security we will likely face in coming decades. In the 90s, when most of our global rivals were flat on their back, such thinking may simply have been arrogant and short-sighted. Now it's just nuts.

Marshall is right about his own remarks, this is flippant. It turns the discussion into one in which practical logistics seem to matter more than anything else, including the complex problem of how logistical difficulties hang together with the moral imperatives of assistance. Just as I worry about this administration's disastrous interventionist policies, I also worry about a moral compass turning away from a people for whom the very notion of humanitarian intervention exists.


MT said...

What about airlifting to Myanmar's airbases and shaming the government into distributing the stuff themselves? What have they accepted so far? Crackers?

troutsky said...

A reformed UN is the long term goal, those starving now are the tragic victims of western abuse of the system of international law, aid , development, peacekeeping etc. NGOs are the only current form of help, unfortunately.