Intervention in An Age of Austerity

As the American military budget is significantly reduced after more than a decade of war, many believe that the United States will not undertake expensive “wars of choice” for a long time. Indeed, the Obama administration’s “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific region may seem to suggest that the U.S. will concern itself primarily with preventing China from threatening its neighbors or threatening core American interests, like freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. It may seem, therefore, that a sustained use of U.S. military force for humanitarian reasons simply will not happen in the foreseeable future.


But this "pivot" does not mean that America and its allies can or should turn a blind eye to atrocities they are capable of stopping. Unfolding events in the Middle East and North Africa may easily threaten Western strategic and moral interests. As in case of the NATO intervention in Libya, when a strategic interest (like stemming the flow of Libyan refugees into Europe) intersects with a moral interest (like preventing the massacre of tens of thousands of civilians by a brutal regime), the United States, in concert with other nations, must be prepared to take action.


Moreover, it is not always necessary for a country to use land forces in order to conduct a successful military intervention. If the objective of the intervening states is to bring stability to a region and put an end to atrocities (as opposed to conducting a full-scale counterinsurgency), it may be better for the intervening parties to leave the task of fighting on the ground to local forces. This may mean supporting people with blood on their hands, like the Kosovo Liberation Army. But as distasteful as this may be, in the real world, one must sometimes choose the lesser of two evils.


To be sure, there will be humanitarian crises in which the West cannot or will not intervene, especially as Western military budgets are cut. The current fighting in Syria may, sadly, be just such a case. But the fact that no country can intervene everywhere it might wish should not be an excuse for intervening nowhere. Western use of force in some places but not others is not hypocritical. It is simply an acknowledgement of the fact that even strong states possess limited military and financial resources.


The challenge for America, NATO, and others willing to conduct humanitarian interventions will be to develop a coherent strategy for future conflicts. This should include strengthening early warning systems in regions of vital interest; maintaining the capacity to use force quickly and decisively in those regions, in concert with local allies; and coordinating military capacities with international development and diplomatic efforts, to ensure that military force is not the only option available. Even in an age of austerity, those concerned with preventing mass slaughters must be ready and willing to fight for humanitarian ends.


Submitted by Michael D. Purzycki


The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not represent the opinions of Rutgers University or the Division of Global Affairs.

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