An Olympic swimmer is walking on a beach when he notices a man who has ventured out too far in the water. Buffeted by waves, he is flailing about, disoriented, calling for help. The only other people in the vicinity are a few children and an old woman.
For George Bush and many supporters of the American intervention in Somalia, the United States is the Olympic swimmer, and Somalia is the drowning man. Because we are uniquely qualified to help, we are morally obligated to do so.
"The people of Somalia…need our help," Bush said when he announced the operation in December. "America must act….Only the United States has the global reach to place a large security force on the ground in such a distant place quickly and efficiently and thus save thousands of innocents from death."
The implicit analogy to bystander intervention is powerful, but it obscures a crucial distinction: The United States is not a person. It is a collection of some 250 million individuals. When the U.S. government acts on their behalf, using the resources of many and risking the lives of some, it is morally constrained in a way that the Olympic swimmer on the beach is not.
American taxpayers have a right to expect that the money they are compelled to contribute to this nation's defense is used for that purpose. American military personnel have a right to expect that their missions will have something to do with protecting U.S. security, the function they have agreed to serve.
Granted, this leaves much room for debate about what constitutes a threat to U.S. security. But the possibilities are not limitless. At the very least, those who argue for U.S. military intervention have the burden of demonstrating some plausible link to national defense. In the case of Somalia, the interventionists have abandoned any pretense of doing this—without a word of protest from a single member of Congress.
The operation in Somalia expands the range of acceptable grounds for military action. It will no longer be an adequate argument against intervention to note that U.S. security interests are not involved.
This does not mean, as some have argued, that the United States from now on will have to intervene everywhere people are suffering and dying. Cost-benefit analysis always plays a role in foreign-policy decisions, as it should. It's relatively easy to get food to starving people in Somalia, considerably harder to rescue Bosnians from Serbian aggression. That might be reason enough to intervene in one case but not the other. A future famine caused by civil war in Africa (an all too likely prospect) may threaten fewer lives or present more formidable strategic challenges. If so, the Somalia precedent need not dictate U.S. policy.
On This Week with David Brinkley, Tom Wicker rightly warned against "broad-scale policies, where you say you've always got to do this or that or the other thing." But the alternative he offered, an "ad-lib" approach to foreign policy, is at least as dangerous. Without principles, the United States would have no definitive reason to act, but neither would it have a definitive reason to refrain from acting. Ideally, "broad-scale policies" should establish conditions that are necessary but not sufficient for intervention. Such conditions do not eliminate cost-benefit analysis, but they do dictate when that analysis comes into play.
If intervention can be justified by purely "humanitarian" reasons, U.S. leaders will have to analyze costs and benefits more often. This multiplies the possibilities for disastrous error. At the same time, the humanitarian rationale makes detecting error harder because potential critics of intervention don't want to appear cold-hearted. In the current climate of opinion, for example, questioning the intervention in Somalia is tantamount to endorsing mass starvation.
Even Sam Donaldson, who stressed the risks of setting a precedent during discussions on the Brinkley show, could not bring himself to oppose the operation. "It's a noble impulse," he said. "Who can be against it?"
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Rescuers".
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