THE BLOG
09/15/2014 04:20 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

Put the 'Humanitarian' Back in Humanitarian Interventions

In times past, talk of "humanitarian intervention" brought to mind images of Red Cross trucks and nurses coming to the scene of a natural disaster to tend the afflicted.

Today American leaders use it to mean instead aerial bombing campaigns and proxy wars led by Special Forces to oust dictators or resist insurgents, often with the best of intentions but disastrous results.

In the name of humanitarian goals, Washington has spent not billions but trillions of our dollars on such interventions, without bringing violence or suffering to an end.

Yet the world's richest country spends precious little money on actual humanitarian aid that could make a difference.

Take the disaster unfolding in West Africa from the deadly Ebola epidemic, which has already cost well over 2,000 lives.

This should be an easy cause to support real humanitarian intervention. The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says the plague is "spiraling out of control"; a top U.S. epidemiologist warns that it could infect hundreds of thousands of victims at the current rate of expansion.

The president of Liberia recently begged President Obama for assistance, saying her country needs 1,500 additional hospital beds: "I am being honest with you when I say that at this rate, we will never break the transmission chain and the virus will overwhelm us."

To date, the Obama administration has only pledged to set up a 25-bed health training facility in the country--"hardly a drop in the bucket for the people of Liberia," in the words of Dr. Timothy Flanigan, an infectious disease specialist at Brown University.

A 120-bed unit opened by Doctors Without Borders in Monrovia last month was filled to capacity within just a week.

Meanwhile, tiny Cuba, whose economy has been strangled by the U.S. embargo since the early 1960s, promises to send 165 doctors and nurses to West Africa to fight the epidemic.

Elsewhere, Washington pinches fewer pennies, but its aid does not begin to repair the damage caused by U.S. military intervention in the name of humanitarian motives.

Take the notorious case of Libya, where Washington joined NATO to bomb Libya in 2011, ostensibly to save civilian lives. Our intervention turned the country over to rival Islamist militia and armed gangs who now wage relentless war at home and abroad with weapons looted from Gadhafi's armories.

While Libya burns, Washington belatedly tries to make things right by supporting "English-language learning programs," "voter-education initiatives," "assessments of Libyan prisons," and local "structured dialogues." But our total spending on such non-lethal aid comes to about the same as the cost of one Marine Corps F-35B jet.

In Syria, where President Obama has requested $500 million (in addition to past covert spending) to arm anti-government rebels in the name of humanitarian motives, the civil war that we help fund has claimed the lives of 200,000 people and driven 3 million Syrians out of the country.

To its credit, the United States is the largest donor of food and other relief aid to Syrian victims of the war. But as Eleanor Acer of Human Rights First noted, as of this spring the United States had accepted only 121 refugees since 2011. That was only a tenth of one percent of the 135,000 Syrians who had somehow managed to pass through the gauntlet of regulations to apply for asylum here.

Elsewhere, Washington simply denies glaring humanitarian issues. In the Eastern Ukraine, for instance, Kiev's U.S.-backed crackdown on rebel territories has led to well over 2,000 deaths--comparable to the loss of life in Gaza--and forced more than one million people to leave their homes, according to United Nations estimates.

The New York Times reported last month that Ukrainian artillery shells "rained down" on rebel-held Donetsk, "striking houses, apartment buildings and the maternity ward of the city's main hospital."

Yet when Russia worked out a deal with the Red Cross to send a large convoy of trucks to the border--which Western reporters confirmed were filled with food and other relief aid--Secretary of State John Kerry warned that "Russia should not intervene in Ukraine under the guise of humanitarian convoys or any other pretext of 'peacekeeping.'"

President Obama, like leaders before him, never tires of reminding us about America's "responsibilities to our fellow human beings." Let's start acting on those responsibilities by putting our money toward helping victims rather than perpetuating endless war.