Further thoughts on Eric Posner's broader argument against humanitarian intervention, which I said I mostly disagreed with earlier. Basically, I do agree that Iraq should make people (like me) who were humanitarian intervention enthusiasts in, say, 1999 somewhat more cautious. But there is a baby/bathwater issue here and I think it's hard to say anything super-general about the matter. Circumstances vary, and there's a lot of "it depends" factors here. But what does it depend on? Some scattered bullet-points below:

  • For one thing, it depends on exactly what we're talking about. I really do think Iraq has shown that forcibly overthrowing entrenched regimes, even extremely nasty ones, is extraordinarily problematic. At great cost, it runs a substantial risk of generating the almost-as-bad humanitarian conditions of anarchy, and then there's no telling what will eventually emerge from the anarchy or how long it will last. Even if you could manage to make the situation "better" (in some sense) than what preceeded it, it looks extremely implausible to me that this will ever be a remotely efficient way of helping people.

  • A lot of these considerations don't apply when you're talking about a situation of ongoing chaos (i.e., a failed state) or an ongoing or imminent mass slaughter. In these circumstances, the bar for what would be "better" is quite low, so it become much more plausible that military actions can make things better.

  • Nevertheless, the entrenched dictator case wouldn't be so problematic if not for the fact that effective post-conflict stabilization turns out to be really, really hard. Kosovo and East Timor are both tiny in the scheme of things, but the results of intervention in those places has been decidedly mixed nonetheless.

  • Consequently, you need to think seriously about available resources and not just pound your feet insisting that someone "do something" and then criticizing people post hoc for not having committed enough resources. How many troops are really available and are they the right kind? Do the would-be interveners have the language skills? Do policymakers actually understand the situation? You can mark me down as skeptical that American (or, for that matter, German) NCOs and junior officers are well-suited to being mayors of Darfuri towns or that US policy elites (down to and including, say, foreign policy bloggers) have a solid grasp of all the ins-and-outs of East African geopolitics.

  • Context matters. UN authorization for something should be a very important consideration. Interventions that re-enforce the idea of a liberal global order are one thing, interventions that undermine it are another. Sadly, the world is a rather tragic place and sometimes it won't be possible to achieve everything it would be nice to be able to achieve.

  • Relatedly, forum-shopping to NATO has its uses, but also real limits. Appealing to a European regional organization to get around the UN is a defensible idea for actions in Europe, but having a bunch of European countries agree to send a bunch of European soldiers to Africa to redraw the lines on a map is imperialism, not humanitarianism. And, yes, the 19th century imperialists cited humanitarian motives for their actions, too. They probably even believed in them, which is really neither here nor there.

  • There's a whole other class of humanitarian military deployments -- consensual peace-keeping. This happens when parties to a civil war reach and agreement and ask outsiders to come in and help enforce it. The record of these operations is decent, but the problem is often that outsiders don't want to send as many forces as are being asked for. This is a damn crying shame. If you want to dispatch the Marines somewhere, first on your list should be the places where people are asking for Marines.

In sum, stuff like this Brookings op-ed on Sudan (via Justin Logan) makes me nervous with its offhand "The United States, preferably with NATO involvement and African political support, would strike Sudanese airfields, aircraft and other military assets" and "If the United States fails to gain U.N. support, we should act without it." If you're taking the idea of liberal internationalism seriously, issues like UN support and African political support ought to play an actual role in your decision-making. Not just a "preferably" kind of role. It needs to make a difference somewhere.

If existing institutions of international legitimacy don't produce the outcomes the United States prefers, we need to work on either altering the institutions, persuasing people to think differently in the future, or something else along those lines. Otherwise, what the liberals are laying down here is, really, just a mild modification of neoconservatism and it suffers from many of the same flaws. The world needs to operate along some kind of principles -- not just the whims of the American political system. Efforts to establish unilateral global hegemony won't work, won't serve our interests, and won't advance humane ends in the long run.