The Trap of Humanitarian Wars
Tibor R. Machan
In moral philosophy altruism (or humanitarianism) has two versions. Under one, everyone must think of and work for others first and what counts for this is up to the beneficiaries. In short, your help is what they consider to be help, not something objective one can know without their input. Under the other, one must still think of and work for others first but what counts for this is something knowable by anyone and could even conflict with what beneficiaries would like to have done for them. The first is subjective, the second objective altruism or humanitarianism.
In connection with domestic public policies one can see the distinction when government gives cash to welfare recipients, so they can get what they want for it, versus when it gives them cheese or food stamps, insisting the poor get what is really good for them whether they like it or not. Both run risks—the first may amount to throwing money away since the poor might squander it, the second may offend by being paternalistic.
When governments go to war for the sake of helping people in foreign countries, it is always a puzzle whether they ought to follow the subjective or objective humanitarian policy. Should they just do for those who are in dire straits what they would like to have done for them or should they provide what will actually do them some good? The former approach trusts the people, rightly or wrongly, to know from what they will gain benefits, the latter trust the invading forces to do so. This is a paradox of humanitarianism – to do good for others, they sometimes need to be treated as children and have this good imposed on them. Otherwise all the help may be for nothing because those receiving it will squander it.
Many in Iraq, for example, seem now to be happy to have gotten rid of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship but this doesn’t mean they want what the American leaders believe would be best for them, namely, a liberal democratic regime. Rather, massive rallies have been held insisting that Iraq should become an Islamic country, run by Muslim clerics and other leaders. While this may indeed be more popular there than Saddam Hussein had been, it would be pretty harsh on many minorities the members of which do not embrace the Islamic faith, or not, at least, the version favored by the majority.
The impending democracy in Iraq would then mostly likely be illiberal, not liberal. That is to say, those who do not share the faith of the majority would not have constitutional protection against being bullied by the majority. It’d be as if, say, the Jehovah’s Witnesses or some other evangelical faith became the majority in America and could impose its religious practices on everyone else. Instead, now they must try to persuade people and if sent their way, they must leave.
In fact, in a just society it would never be tolerated to have morality or religion forcibly imposed, apart from the minimum protection of everyone’s basic rights. That much is required so that everyone has the chance to choose whether to do this or that, including whether to embrace this or that faith. The rest is entirely a matter of voluntary choice, otherwise it doesn’t count for much at all. Doing what is right, following a religion, because of threats from others, especially government, doesn’t count as doing what is right or following a religion at all.
Humanitarian or altruistic intervention is thus paradoxical. It aims to do good for others, especially political good, but then it must treat these others as if they were like children and couldn’t be trusted with deciding how they should act. Yet, if a country’s leaders have decided to tax their own people billions and billions so as to provide real help to the people of other countries and those people don’t want this help but want to do what is politically wrong, how is one to proceed?
Perhaps the lesson to be gleaned here is that humanitarian wars are wrong, period. The billions of dollars citizens of one country pay to keep a standing military should not be wasted on tasks that are hopeless. Americans should not be required to make the effort to help people who may not even want our help, or only want it to do something not much better than that from which they got liberated.
It isn’t as if Iraqis were incapable of taking part in a liberal democratic political order but the large majority of them may not want to do so, even if that’s wrong. American government officials should make up their mind—will they fight humanitarian wars that get them into the mess of having to impose the right system on unwilling people abroad or will they confine themselves to fighting to defend the people they are supposed to serve?
If the latter, then the only thing that made the war in Iraq just is that Saddam Hussein was very likely to unleash weapons of mass destruction against US citizens and their allies. OK, so he cannot do this any longer. Thus now the US military needs to leave and not play daddy or nanny to the Iraqis.