What Justifies Military Intervention?
by Charles Knight
This commentary is adapted from a speech by Charles Knight to the Ethical Society of Boston on 4 February 2001. With a Postscript addressing the new "war on terrorism" (revised 10 March 2003) and Selected Readings on Just War, Total War, and Strategic Bombing (revised 01 March 2002).
A question to consider: What justifies military intervention?
I begin my exploration of this question by recounting my relationship to it as an American citizen during the recent Kosova/Serbia crisis. Events in Kosova unfolded for me against a background of many years of horrendous Serb nationalist behavior in Croatia and Bosnia. By the time that the Kosovar nationalist efforts at succession heated up in 1998 I was deeply suspicious of Serb intentions and proclivities toward other nationalities in the confederated republic of Yugoslavia.
I thought of it as a positive step when the United States and a few other great powers of Europe commanded Serbia to negotiations at Rambouillet. It seemed like an opportunity to settle a difficult and dangerous situation peacefully by negotiation: a relatively benign use of big state power to pressure warring parties in smaller states to the table. It was not until months later that I learned of the extraordinary demands placed on the Serbs by the U.S. negotiators...demands that in essence and effect guaranteed Serb rejection of agreement.
Events unfolded quickly after the Serb rejection: the Serbs escalated their campaign against the KLA and began a well-planned program of expulsion of people of Albanian ethnicity from the territory. NATO began a bombing campaign against Serb forces in Kosova, but in the greater part against targets inside Serbia proper. The U.S. Secretary of State reportedly thought that three or four days of bombing would force the Serbs back to the negotiating table... what she had conceived as coercive diplomacy would instead become a medium-sized war.
For me the pictures of thousands of Kosovar on the roads, forced to flee their burning villages, together with stories of hundreds and perhaps thousands murdered by Serb militias, reminded me powerfully of the genocide during World War II. In my judgement at the time, the scale of the immediate harm being done appeared to require that "something be done to stop this atrocity." Hadn't I and thousands of other sincere Americans solemnly pledged "Never Again"?
My country was in another war, but was this one justified? At least two criteria of Just War Doctrine appeared to be satisfied (see Mona Fixal and Dan Smith, "Humanitarian Intervention and Just War" and Bjørn Møller, Kosovo and the Just War Tradition for a useful explications of Just War Doctrine.) Resort to armed force was a last resort; initiated only after negotiations failed to arrive at agreement. And the anticipated harm of armed intervention was relatively small compared to the immediate harm it sought to end. At worst the use of armed force was the lesser of the evils in the existential choice we faced in this emergency.
Nevertheless, I recall being immediately troubled by several things. First, there was the announcement by President Clinton that only air power would be used to compel a change in Serbian behavior. I was troubled by what I know about Air Force strategic bombing doctrine. This is a military doctrine imbued with ideology; it chaffs against the limitations of prohibited targets (one of the key notions of Just War Doctrine) -- in particular, strategic bombing doctrine orients toward the idea of Total War in which civilian economic and social infrastructure is viewed as intrinsically complicit and involved in enemy war efforts and therefore legitimate to target for destruction (for a discussion of the confluence of Total War doctrine, jihad, and genocide a century ago see James J. Reid, Total War, the Annihilation Ethic, and the Armenian Genocide, 1870-1918).
This orientation of strategic bombing doctrine is supported by practical considerations: it turns out that it is far easier to hit and destroy civilian targets than military ones from the air. This would prove to be the case once again in the war with Serbia. Indeed the bombing of Serbia took a predictable pattern: the targeting of primarily military assets in the early days gave way, as the war dragged on for weeks, to the targeting of more and more transportation nodes, public buildings, and economic infrastructure. Increasing civilian casualties inevitably accompany widening bombing campaigns.
In the Gulf War the allied forces achieved a decisive military victory over Iraqi occupation forces within a few weeks from the onset of offensive action. Allied air forces targeted and bombed a great deal of Iraqi civilian infrastructure outside the immediate Kuwaiti theater of action; Destruction of many of these targets deep inside Iraq could only have the most marginal effect on the fighting in the Kuwaiti theater, especially in a short war. As it turned out, this choice to target Iraqi national infrastructure was the cause of the greatest loss of life in that war, as thousands of Iraqi civilians died in the months after the war as a result of the destruction of facilities vital to the distribution of power and food stuffs.
Secondly, I was troubled by the nagging question, By what authority did the United States and NATO intervene? The NATO treaty speaks specifically of the obligation of the allies coming to the common defense of NATO members... and all of Yugoslavia was outside the NATO treaty area. The UN Security Council is authorized to call on member nations to intervene to stop aggression as it had after the invasion of Kuwait ... and the U.S. declined to seek a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the intervention against Serbia.
So by what authority did the U.S. intervene? Although the President referred to the humanitarian crisis as a moral justification for military action against Serbia, it remains unclear by what authority he ordered intervention. The U.S. did gather the consent and coalitional support of allies in an exclusive alliance neighboring to the region of conflict. It is reasonable to believe that NATO countries had an interest in the Yugoslavian conflict, but without U.N. Security Council resolution it remained outside NATO purview to intervene.
Some will argue that no other country was prepared to take on the responsibility of stopping Serb atrocities. Had the U.S. taken the matter to the Security Council, Russia and/or China would have most likely vetoed the intervention. Russia has a long history of strategic and ethnic ties to Serbia and China and is suspicious of any Western intervention in the sovereign affairs of a nation, especially under the cover of humanitarian motives. Accordingly, in a situation where some nations tacitly condone great harm to a defenseless people, it is a moral obligation of other great powers with the means to step forward and take action either in concert with like-minded nations or alone, if necessary.
This, I have come to believe, is a dangerous rationale; principally consistent with the notion that "might makes right," suggestive of an arrogance of power, and likely to contribute to international relations dynamics destructive of the peace in the longer run.
As a nation we have come to understand that due process is an essential, and perhaps defining, characteristic of the best approximation of justice in civil disputes and criminal affairs. Why is process is so central to achieving justice? Because when passions are high it is hard for us to fairly weigh evidence. Furthermore, a process that requires judgements by juries and panels of judges makes sure that more than a few people with some meaningful degree of power to reach independent judgements share a common assessment of the evidence and its relevance before a verdict is rendered.
Compare this process to that used in the aftermath of the 1998 bombing attacks on several US embassies in east Africa. Citing evidence from unspecified intelligence sources of complicity with the suspected perpetrator, and invoking the "inherent right of self-defense," the President and his security advisors in Washington decided to retaliate against a pharmaceutical factory in the sovereign nation of Sudan, thousands of miles away from where they sat.
Such a process of deciding to use deadly force violates nearly all of our notions of due process of justice. In this case the injured party takes it upon itself to be prosecutor, judge, and jury and allows the accused no opportunity for testimony or witnesses.
Quite simply we can not hope to calm the impulse to settle international disputes with violence if we condone such instances of unilateral retaliation by great powers. Moreover, I believe we must come to appreciate that justification for military intervention requires adherence to a commonly agreed upon decision-making process for intervention.
In the case of Kosova there can be little doubt that prescribed procedures of decision-making were not followed! U.N. resolutions clearly state that nations are prohibited from engaging in offensive military action against sovereign members without sanction from the Security Council. The U.S., in leading the NATO alliance into offensive battle, disregarded this exclusive authority and responsibility of the Security Council and took it upon itself to intervene in the Kosova conflict. The Serbs were legally correct to assert that United States and NATO were engaged in aggression.
Returning to the dilemma of intervention in early 1999: On the one hand, we have the facts of Serb expulsions and murders of a largely defenseless people -- acts with potential genocidal outcomes that begged for intervention by those able; On the other hand, the most ready and able nation does not have the direct and immediate authority to intervene. What should be done?
The best answer I believe is one conditioned by consideration of what other actions the primary actor (the United States, in this case) is prepared to take; it is conditional on the wider policy context in which the decision is made. If the decision to intervene without authorization is truly exceptional to a sustained commitment by the United States to support the development of an effective international process of authorization of military interventions... then it might well be justified in this extraordinary emergency. It might stand up to scrutiny as "the best in a bad situation."
If we had witnessed the leadership of the United States emerge from the Kosova/Serbian war with renewed and vigorous commitment to the U.N -- with, for instance, a proposal to expand the permanent membership of the Security Council and eventually replace the veto privileges of the permanent members with a 2/3rds rule -- then making a pragmatic exception in this case of intervention would be justified.
Unfortunately, history reveals quite another context for the Kosova intervention. I believe this decision represented a historic turning point in the post-Cold War era in which the United States deliberately sought to reassert American unilateralism and put an end to the growing international expectation that military interventions must be sanctioned through the Security Council. I have concluded that this was not so much a case of taking "the best option in a bad situation," but rather a case of the United States taking advantage of an instance of abhorrent Serb behavior to reassert its prerogative as the world's greatest power to use its power as it alone (or at best, an exclusive alliance) sees fit.
The decision by the US to go to war in this instance reflects the successful culmination of efforts by conservative Realists to regain nearly complete control of post-Cold War US foreign and security policy. These conservative Realists are ideologically dismissive of and opposed to any global security institutions which do not narrowly serve the interests of the United States. Therefore they can not tolerate any real power residing in collective decision-making in the Security Council or any other globally inclusive institution.
In this essay I will not attempt to outline an alternative to the conservative Realist's world view. But I do want to offer my version of a realistic assessment of the situation:
What I have addressed so far are questions about U.S. military power in use or action. I conclude with some thoughts and observations about U.S. military power in repose. Most strategists understand that military power has the greatest value in repose, in other words when power is present as potential for violence rather than violence in action. Military power in repose is thought to deter opponents and to leverage effect in negotiations. Some strategists go so far as to suggest that the use of military power in war signifies the failure of military power to effect a satisfactory outcome in peace. I believe this rather overstates the potential usefulness of military power, but I mention it to call attention to an error we make if we only attend to the ethics of military power when war is imminent.
Over the last twenty years the United States has accumulated a very large arsenal of relatively accurate long-range stand-off conventional weapons. Ninety-nine percent of the time this power is in repose, under the sea or waiting at airbases. Nonetheless, the United States now possesses the capacity to rapidly destroy with conventional munitions a substantial portion of the leadership and vital national assets of any nation on Earth. The U.S. military can effect this destruction from platforms protected by their great distance from their targets or by stealth technology or the superior capacity to destroy counter-air artillery, missiles, and aircraft. With these capacities and advantages any such warfare is essentially one-sided, as it was with Serbia.
Furthermore, it is now the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as technologically feasible missile defenses, in both national and theater variants. By this means the United States seeks to add a formidable shield to its already very sharp sword.
Such a military posture can not result in long-term stability: in Realist terminology it worsens the "security dilemma" for other nations. Increasingly other nations are literally subject to the power and will of the United States. Few nations will simply acquiesce to such vast widening of military power differentials; Especially if this is associated with the military activism demonstrated recently by the United States. Other nations will do what they can to narrow the gap. As the fundamental defense of their national sovereignty against an unconstrained and unilaterlist United States becomes more difficult, it will appear increasingly attractive for a number of countries to acquire Weapons of Mass Destruction as the best available means to strategically balance against U.S. military power.
In anticipation of this developing strategic situation, the United States has been preparing for what is called "offensive military counter-proliferation," meaning preemptive bombing of facilities in other countries used for developing and making weapons of mass destruction. The new administration is pre-disposed to such military action against Iraq, and I expect we will see a very substantial counter-proliferation raid against Iraq within a few months to a year.
More broadly, by militarizing arms control, our government will likely put an end to the hopes for a permanent non-proliferation arms control regime nascent in the Non-Proliferation Treaty and Review Process.
By embracing unilateralism in the expectation of short-term advantage and in the vain hope of permanent advantage, our government's present security stance contributes to a dynamic that breeds fear, suspicion, and uncertainty on all sides. The emphasis on bolstering and exploiting military primacy invites competition and undermines the very stability goals it is supposed to serve. It helps sustain a militarized international system and could eventually lead to a repolarization of the world. In sum, the present orientation runs the risk of contributing to its own problem set. In effect we create the insecurity we seek to overcome when we accept military power unchecked by international decision-making authority rooted in global norms and process.
Postscript on the War on Terrorism
After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 the President of the United States has declared a "war on global terrorism." Several things about how this war has developed so far are notable in light of the foregoing commentary:
Bread and bombs
An America above the law
Ethics of this war have yet to be spelled out
Military Intervention and the European Union
Why Milosevic Decided to Settle the Conflict over Kosovo When He Did
The Princeton Principles on Universal Jurisdiction
Kosovo: A Review of the Rules of Engagement
The Efficacy of Strategic Bombing: World War II to the Kosovo Campaign
Just War and Humanitarian Intervention
Humanitarian Intervention, NATO and International Law
After Kosovo: The Risks and Deficiencies of Unsanctioned Humanitarian Intervention
Kosovo and the Just War Tradition
U.S. Military-Strategic Ambitions: Expanding to Fill the post-Soviet Vacuum
Kosovo and the Challenge of Humanitarian Intervention: Selective Indignation, Collective Intervention, and International Citizenship
Kosovo/Operation Allied Force After-Action Report
Life After the Cold War
Interventionism Reconsidered: Reconciling Military Action With Political Stability
The Lessons and Non-Lessons of the Air and Missile War in Kosovo
The Coming Transformation of the Muslim World
Just War and Intervention: The Challenge of the International for Social and Political Thought
Contrasting the Theoretical Just War Doctrine with the Strategic Air Campaign of the Persian Gulf Conflict
Humanitarian Intervention and Just War
The Development of US Strategic Bombing Doctrine in the Interwar Years: Moral and Legal?
Total War, the Annihilation Ethic, and the Armenian Genocide, 1870-1918
Citation: Charles Knight, What Justifies Military Intervention? Project on Defense Alternatives Commentary. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, 27 September 2001. http://www.comw.org/pda/0109intervention.html
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