In a new National Interest Online article, I discuss how advocates of “humanitarian” military interventions resort to a variety of excuses to evade responsibility once their crusades go awry. One especially maddening deflection of responsibility is when proponents insist that their intentions were good, and that the missions should be judged according to that standard.
Even Barack Obama seemed to recognize the insufficiency of that defense when he first met Samantha Power, an advocate of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine and U.S. involvement in multilateral military interventions for humanitarian goals. Obama reportedly observed to her that it “seemed like malpractice to judge one’s prospects by one’s intentions, rather than making a strenuous effort to anticipate and weigh potential consequences.”
Obama was right, but he didn’t heed his own advice. Not only did he select Power for a series of high‐level policy posts when he became president, culminating in her appointment as ambassador to the United Nations, but he launched several catastrophic interventions, most notably in Libya and Syria. The unintended negative results of those crusades continue to reverberate nearly a decade after the initial U.S. actions.
The situations in both Libya and Syria are substantially worse than they were before the United States and its NATO allies began to meddle. Overthrowing Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi produced pervasive chaos that has now coalesced into a bloody armed struggle between two rival autocratic regimes claiming to be Libya’s “legitimate” government.
The author of a new UN report states that that the adverse impact of the country’s 9‐year internecine turmoil on civilians “is incalculable.” Washington’s effort to oust Assad not only appears to have failed, but it helped lead to the rise of ISIS. More recently, nasty contests for influence between Turkey and Russia have erupted in Syria and Libya, raising the prospect of a dangerous clash between those two powers, especially in Syria. In both arenas, the Western‐exacerbated turmoil displaced vast numbers of civilians, and the resulting refugee flows caused severe societal tensions in neighboring countries—including Washington’s European allies.
One striking, consistent feature that humanitarian interventionists exhibit is undiminished confidence that more robust and determined U.S.-led efforts can succeed, despite logic and evidence to the contrary. Another maddeningly consistent feature is their assertion that Washington has a moral and strategic obligation to make the attempt, even when the previous meddlesome policy has imploded.
Daniel Larison, senior editor at the American Conservative, provides a compelling thesis on why humanitarian interventionists focus so heavily on their supposed good intentions. “Interventionists rarely anticipate and weigh potential consequences, because if they did that it would be much harder for them to get the interventions they want. Advocates for military action routinely minimize the risks and costs of war in order to reduce opposition to it.” Self‐proclaimed humanitarian interventionists have another incentive to downplay negative consequences, he argues. To admit that one of their interventions failed and made things worse “would be to bring discredit” on the entire concept—an outcome they will never risk.
But policies must be judged by their consequences, not their intentions. The observation that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions is especially true with respect to regime‐change wars and armed humanitarian crusades. The architects of such debacles as the interventions in the Balkans, Iraq, Libya, and Syria finally need to accept responsibility for their horrible handiwork. The “good intentions” excuse does not exonerate them.