The Painful Death of Humanitarian Intervention

Published on, by Doug Bandow, November 3, 2006 – Iraq was about many things, supporters of the war intone. The fact that no WMD were discovered is irrelevant. President George W. Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, and a host of Republican (and many Democratic) legislators solemnly proclaim that knowing what they know now they would go to war all over again.

Why? It was important to “drain the swamp,” even if there were no alligators. After all, plenty of other unsavory creatures haunted the muck. Saddam Hussein had violated all sorts of UN resolutions, threatening the international organization’s credibility.

And democracy had to be spread. Hussein was a murderer, the Iraqi people deserved to be liberated. Never mind America’s national interest: there was a humanitarian imperative to intervene.

It sounds very attractive. In fact, the most appealing argument for invading and conquering another nation is precisely this one: war is awful, but is the lesser of moral evils when it is the only means to save lives.

That the Republican Party has become the party of humanitarian intervention is ironic. After all, Woodrow Wilson, the great proponent of war to end war and spread democracy, long was a liberal icon criticized by conservatives for his disregard of U.S. interests and international realities. His misguided decision to enter World War I and his incompetent negotiation at the Versailles peace conference led to World War II.

The GOP was skeptical of humanitarian warmaking less than a decade ago, when President Bill Clinton took America into war with Serbia, a small state that had threatened neither the U.S. nor any of its allies. Thuggish Slobodan Milosevic was, but dangerous to anyone but those who were in – or were attempting to secede from – his own nation he was not. Then-House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas) famously called the conflict “Bill Clinton’s war.”

In 2003, however, the Bush administration, with the congressional Republican Party in tow, dressed in full warrior garb. If you didn’t believe that Saddam Hussein was more dangerous than Hitler, armed with nuclear weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles capable of hitting America, and massive stocks of biological weapons, no matter: it was America’s duty to take him out because he was a killer.

Whether the president and his supporters were sincere is hard to know. After all, there are many ugly regimes around the world. Republicans hadn’t seemed terribly concerned about mass slaughter in Rwanda, bloody civil war in Liberia, a bitter Kurdish insurgency in Turkey, years of conflict in Sudan, a horrific civil war that killed millions in the Congo, decades of brutal repression in Burma, or a host of other conflicts, including the Kosovo insurgency. In these cases, the GOP’s passion for the helpless and dying was strangely absent.

Any commitment to safeguarding Iraqis was well-concealed before 9/11. Had the administration been focused on saving Iraqi lives, the president should have asked the Pentagon to begin drafting war plans on the afternoon of Jan. 20, 2001, or the morning of Jan. 21, at the latest. After all, lives were at stake: if the administration believed the U.S. had to go to war to save Iraqis, why did it wait more than two years to liberate them?

The only logical conclusion is that administration officials weren’t particularly interested in suffering Iraqis, and that humanitarianism was primarily a politically popular gloss for a war that the president was determined to undertake for other reasons. Finding an alternative justification was particularly important when it became evident that Hussein had no WMD. So much for the smoking mushroom cloud with which then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice attempted to scare the public. (Read the rest of this very long article on

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