No Armed Interventions in Zimbabwe

07/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The opposition to the government of Robert Mugabe just called for the African nations to send peacekeepers to Zimbabwe. Given that there is no peace in this battered nation, the troops are in effect called to impose one. At first blush, this may seem highly justified given the abuses that recently took place in Zimbabwe. Sanctions (many forms of which have yet to be imposed, and ought to be) may indeed be insufficient. However, the situation must be examined in the context of a global triage. If one takes into account that this is a natural time to consider the foundations of a foreign policy for the next U.S. president, all this leads one to view the highly disturbing situation in Zimbabwe as an opportunity to consider under what conditions armed humanitarian interventions are justified.

The tragic fact which the supporters of armed humanitarian intervention find it difficult to fully take into account is that global conditions are like what Hobbes used to say about domestic conditions: they make life nasty, brutish, and short. There are numerous countries in which abuses occur, on a much larger scale, over much longer periods, than in Zimbabwe. Abuses in Zimbabwe are foremost in our minds because of the CNN effect -- they are news. However, it is too easy to forget that the number of people killed in Zimbabwe is estimated to be somewhere between 65 to 86 or somewhat higher; those detained without cause, in the scores; several white farmers have been driven off their land; and many citizens are terrorized, all despicable acts that call for strong reactions from the global community. But these abuses pale in comparison to the "old" ones, those that faded from news but are inflicted on many hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- of people who are killed, subject to the systematic campaigns of mass rape, burned out of their villages in the Congo and Sudan.

If grossly manipulated elections -- and a terrorized electorate -- are a cause for armed interventions, there is reason to march into Tibet, Burma, North Korean, Kazakhstan, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, Kenya and Libya, just to mention a few.

Now add to this oppressive list the incontestable and deeply distressing fact that the international community finds it very difficult, to put it mildly, to put together the forces need for armed humanitarian interventions. One must first get the UN Security Council to resolve to act, which is no small feat, given that one power or another is quick to slow down the process if not block it all together (for instance, as China has done with Sudan). Then one must find the budget to pay for the intervention and -- above all -- nations willing to volunteer the troops to be shipped to the country at issue -- and keep them there as the body bags pile up. Then one must ensure that these peacekeeping troops do not perpetuate crimes themselves, such as selling drugs and prostituting young girls. The brutal fact is that after many years of outcry, the international community has not yet stopped the atrocities in the Congo and Sudan, and did not act when nearly a million people were killed or maimed in Rwanda, and before that in Cambodia. In short, the global need for intervention is very considerable and the resources available are very meager. Calling for armed humanitarian interventions is easy; getting them going is excruciatingly difficult.

The global situation is akin to a disaster zone, in which bodies are strewn all over the place. For some, it is too late to help (e.g. Rwanda). Some have relatively minor injuries (e.g. Zimbabwe), and their treatment should not take priority over those most in need, such as Sudan and the Congo. Zimbabwe may be next in line, but for now sanctions will have to do. For instance, the international community should declare that if any of the leaders of the government and of Mugabe's party set foot outside their country, they will be subject to arrest. However, if there are forces available for armed interventions, these are urgently needed elsewhere.

Good people find the need for triage and the setting of priorities for care that it entails offensive. So do I. In a better world the global community would have sizable stand-by forces, ready to stop humanitarian crises at the first sign of trouble. The very fact that such forces would be readily available would make such abuses much less likely. Maybe the next president can convince the other powers that be and the UN to vastly increase the forces available for humanitarian intervention. Until this happens, triage is unavoidable if we are not to leave the those most in need without help, and assist those who are second -- or third -- in line.

To argue that triage is a moral must is not to argue against action. There is a world of difference between doing the best we can with our limited resources--they are always limited even if they are much increased -- and not doing anything; between well-focused action and inaction.

Above all, instead of vainly promising to institute a new global order, in which all nations will prosper and democratize, we best start with delivering an international very basic minimum: to stop genocides. Once this is achieved--we can turn to second priorities, which may get us to the likes of Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, sanctions rather than troops will have to do.

For more discussion, see Amitai Etzioni's latest book Security First: For a Moral, Muscular Foreign Policy (Yale University Press 2007). email: