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American Military Interventions In Post 9/11 World

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A year after the September 11, 2001 attacks on Washington and New York, former President Bush's national security strategy was clear: US interests triumph all else and international institutions would not hinder military actions deemed necessary. Therefore, when contemplating humanitarian interventions, the US would weigh the potential benefits--in terms of foreign lives saved--against the likely costs to the United States. Even if US strategic interests intertwine with internationally accepted humanitarian criteria for humanitarian interventions, it may have consequential effects on the notion of the 'responsibility to protect.'

Throughout the 1990s, experiences such as Rwanda, Kosovo and East Timor among others built a momentum towards the idea that governments had a "responsibility to protect" people suffering in complex humanitarian emergencies. However, according to experts like Thomas Weiss, author of 'Military-Civilian Interactions', the September 11th attacks and subsequent US led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, led to two world organizations: "The United Nations, global in members; and the United States, global in reach and power."

The primary purpose in a humanitarian intervention must be 'right intention'--to halt or avert human suffering, despite other motives intervening states may have. But the debate after September 11th, shifted to the right to intervene-to protect the intervening country's people from a threat seen to be originating from another country. The debate shifted to self-defense. Samantha Power, author of 'A Problem From Hell', writes that since the September 11th attacks, the "U.S. government is likely to view genocide prevention as an undertaking it cannot afford as it sets out to better protect Americans."

Security Council resolutions have authorized the use of armed forces led by US-led coalitions, rather than under the command of the UN. In a humanitarian intervention, the intervening states have the responsibility to rebuild. Since September 11th, none of the US interventions taken were primarily called humanitarian interventions, despite clear complex humanitarian emergencies. But Weiss points out the US led invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, turned primarily humanitarian. In 2002, a planned operation against Iraq began to surface. The Bush administration called on the UN to enforce its resolutions on Iraq or risk 'irrelevance'. But military intervention without a UN mandate raises questions over a country's motives and capabilities to rebuild in the post-conflict period. The implication of such a reality has also posed a dilemma for the notion of 'neutrality' once forces are deployed on the ground and raises concern among independent aid agencies.

With the initial absence of aid organizations in Afghanistan, because of inadequate security on the ground, the military took on the role of humanitarian assistance. But this type of assistance left the Afghan people confused between cluster bombs and aid packages, which threatened civilians. As the invasion of Iraq and the fall of Baghdad loomed, the UN headquarters was bombed. The looting of UNICEF offices, prompted staffers to evacuate. Margrat Hassan, head of CARE International was kidnapped then shot to death. Humanitarian aid became one of the first causalities of war. The 'peace-building' efforts have been hindered by 'security measures' led by the US today in Iraq. Some supporters of humanitarian interventions argue that invasions like Iraq--and humanitarian interventions should be distinguished and are in fact not the same.

However, interventionist supporters must also realize that the aftermath of Iraq's invasion may be a good indicator of the complexities of any future humanitarian interventions that may arise if a multi-nation effort is absent, including strong support for the UN. When referring to humanitarian intervention in terms of 'reasonable combination' of both US strategic interests and internationally accepted criteria, it must be better defined. Romeo Dallaire, wrote in a New York Times op-ed entitled, "Looking at Darfur, Seeing Rwanda" that despite receiving more news coverage than the Rwandan genocide, "Western governments are still approaching it [Darfur] with the same lack of priority. In the end, it receives the same intuitive reaction: What's in it for us? Is it in our 'national' interest?"

Despite Iraq being a non-humanitarian invasion, the notion of humanitarian intervention at this point has fostered a sense of unpredictability about U.S. responses. It has undermined the confidence of would-be coalition partners as well as the deterrent threat of intervention. The first casualty of these actions has been eroding domestic confidence and support for intervention. Dallaire wrote in the same New York Times op-ed, "Powerful nations like the United States and Britain have lost much of their credibility because of the quagmire of Iraq." As a result, 'right intention' may be only one of the principles that will be primary in future humanitarian interventions, even if the US justifies the humanitarian intervention for strategic reasons, or a 'little bit of both', due to its significance.

It is safe to conclude that few Americans believed that the threat of terrorism could affect them directly until September 11, 2001. And it is true, in general, complex humanitarian emergencies are affecting neighboring countries--creating 'bad neighborhoods'--and threatening the globe as in the case of Sudan, Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Somalia shows how events in a place of little or no apparent strategic interest can have enduring effects. During the current Iraq war, statistics have shown that about twenty five percent of 'foreign' fighters detained are from Africa, especially from East Africa. Conditions in the occupied Palestinian territories--a humanitarian complex emergency--have affected the Middle East region for decades. "Citizens victimized by genocide or abandoned by the international community do not make good neighbors, as their thirst for vengeance and their acceptance of violence as a means of generating change can turn them into future threats," warns Power.

However, on the whole, despite the events of September 11th, the international community faces many of the same problems that it faced in the 1990's: Civil wars, failed or failing states and other humanitarian disasters around the globe. Several hundred thousand people a year continue to lose their lives directly to war as well as to war related famine and disease. Almost 90 percent of the dead are innocent non-combatants. In a more global world, there are implications across the planet. But non-intervention or intervention for purely strategic reasons may disregard the Western argument that democracies protect and promote human rights.

Does this mean that naturally, in most cases, every humanitarian intervention would be strategic? That may be true in some cases and that is an advantage to those who argue for a combination of both strategic and internationally accepted humanitarian criteria for interventions. The Rwandan genocide destabilized the entire Great Lakes region and it continues to do so today. It created massive refugee camps in eastern Congo and triggered a cycle of warfare in much of central Africa. But the international community has generally failed to come up with rules on how and when to intervene, and under whose authority. And these debates will not go away. Yet, it is imperative to understand that a humanitarian intervention is unique in its core mission--the responsibility to protect, to prevent, to react and to build.