Syria

In Syria, the Wrong Kind of Humanitarian Intervention

Bombs shouldn't be taking the place of aid.

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Syria strike
Xinhua/TNS/Newscom

Americans are a generous and selfless people, ever eager to improve the lives of foreigners cursed to live in less fortunate places. In fact, we are the nicest folks who would ever invade your country and leave it in ruins.

President Donald Trump's heart was long thought to be two sizes too small. But he was suddenly so moved by the sight of Syrian children caught in a nerve gas attack that his nobler impulses overcame him. These were victims he didn't care enough about to admit to the United States as refugees. But he cared enough to blow up some stuff at a Syrian air base on their behalf.

The Syrian attack is the latest case of using the American military for humanitarian intervention—a term that has become a virtual oxymoron, like "Midwestern skiing" or "national unity." Our presidents have a long practice of using soldiers and warplanes to heal conflict and a long record of opening new wounds.

One early example was Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, ordered in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush to help alleviate a famine brought on by a civil war. How did that work out? Reported The Economist last year, "After a quarter-century of costly foreign intervention, Somalia is still Africa's most-failed state"—plagued by war, terrorism and, yes, famine.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton bombed Yugoslavia, a response to the Serbian-dominated government's persecution of ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo. The NATO air campaign, however, spurred the Serbs into a frenzy of ethnic cleansing and killed some 500 Serbian civilians in raids that "violated international humanitarian law," according to Human Rights Watch.

President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq was justified as a favor to the oppressed people of Iraq, who had been brutalized by Saddam Hussein and were expected to greet us as liberators. But in toppling Saddam, we unleashed deadly chaos that persists even now.

A 2013 study led by public health professor Amy Hagopian of the University of Washington concluded that the Iraq war and occupation caused nearly a half-million Iraqi deaths. That's not counting the turmoil in Syria, another regrettable byproduct of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In Libya, President Barack Obama acted against the alleged prospect of mass slaughter by dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Our intervention played a central role in turning Libya into what it is today: yet another failed state, a cauldron of anarchy and a hotbed of terrorists. Our assumption that nothing could be worse than Gadhafi turned out to be overly optimistic.

Trump's air raid confirms that the main thing Americans have learned from history is that our leaders don't learn from history. He and his advisers say Bashar Assad's savagery could not be excused. But the only savagery that has prompted retaliation involved chemical weapons.

As long as he limits himself to conventional forms of slaughter, the administration has made clear, he can expect to be left alone. If Trump elected to expand our military involvement, on the other hand, the likely consequence would be more bloodshed rather than peace.

If the president were serious about humanitarian concerns, he would not be trying to cut the foreign aid budget—which has a better record than military force of actually helping the afflicted. George W. Bush set out to curb AIDS in Africa with a program that has saved millions of lives through prevention and treatment.

So what does Trump propose? He proposes to cut U.S. funding for that program by $300 million this year. He is lavishing money on efforts that have proved destructive while shorting those that have worked. As a humanitarian, he's got things backward.

"International public health programs are almost certainly the most cost-effective way to save lives abroad," wrote Dartmouth College political scientist Benjamin Valentino in Foreign Affairs in 2011. "Measles alone killed more than 160,000 people in 2008, almost all of them children. It costs less than $1 to immunize a child against measles, and since not every unvaccinated child would have died from measles, the cost per life saved comes out to an estimated $224."

Public health efforts have other advantages: They make friends, not enemies. They don't kill innocent civilians. They don't shatter societies.

Those advantages count for little among leaders and voters who think the only solutions are military solutions. Our message to the world's unfortunates: If you need bombs dropped or bullets fired, we're here for you. If you need a vaccine, you're on your own.

© Copyright 2017 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

NEXT: 83 Percent of Major Newspaper Editorial Boards Supported Syria Strike

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  1. Maybe this administration thinks that charity should be done by private entities and the US government, so aid budgets are a being cut.

    The mess in Syria has been active through the last president’s period in office and this administration thinks it should do something different. Letting Syrian refugees into the USA is NOT the answer and is a stupid idea. History shows us that letting people into the USA who hate America is a flawed strategy to “help” them and has led to American being injured during attacks in the USA. Let them fix their own country.

    As the media incorrectly thinks it is in the driving seat with the Trump administration, Trump is clearly going to push these tyrant foreign leaders around- Namely Assad, Putin and Kim Jung-fat dipshit. I would bet Trump is going to push China around too, since any conflict with China would void Trillions in debt owed them and make Trump a Hero to Americans.

    All that being said, I think combat action by the US military needs a declaration of war.

    1. “The mess in Syria has been active through the last president’s period in office and this administration thinks it should do something different.” “Trump is clearly going to push these tyrant foreign leaders around”

      Do something different: like repeating the strategy that Chapman mentioned has failed under his predecessors. It worked so well with Hussein, Milosevic, and Gadhafi.

      “Letting Syrian refugees into the USA is NOT the answer and is a stupid idea. History shows us that letting people into the USA who hate America is a flawed strategy to “help” them and has led to American being injured during attacks in the USA.”

      Because as long as we plug our ears and remain in denial about the lack of terrorist attacks by refugees, we can continue to presume that refugees are terrorists who hate America.

      1. And I’m not necessarily advocating the “humanitarian” solutions. But, I think we should all be clear that the military solutions of the last 25 years or so have been abysmal failures.

    2. RE: History shows us that letting people into the USA who hate America is a flawed strategy to “help” them and has led to American being injured during attacks in the USA.

      Could you give an example, please? In what I find to be a great irony, America is actually really great at assimilating people in to our country. This is in contrast to many European countries, who kind of suck at it and end up with domestic terrorists.

      What history has actually born out is that when people are treated decently or poorly, they return the favor.

      1. Ordinarily I’d criticize this sort of argument for being deeply dishonest, but in your case I don’t think you are even smart enough to recognize your own fallacy.

        1. Yeah, I guess not. At this point the only thing I can hope for is for you to shine your beautiful, truth-revealing light on to my poor pathetic opinion. Hurry up, as I’m holding my breath.

  2. Posit a moral duty to intervene and you are guaranteed to get intervention. It just may not be your kind of intervention.

    Why the fuck does a ‘libertarian’ magazine continue to publish Chapman’s bilge???

    1. “…Bilge….”

      Now that’s sailor speak.

  3. We are helping Al Qaeda and Al Nusra in our undeclared war on Dr. Assad (who I don’t like anyway). What a mess we are getting into. And when the rebels take over (G-d forbid), we can watch the slaughter of Syria’s Christian population :-I

    “There’s no need to fear. Underzog is here.”

  4. Furthermore, Rabbi Meir Kahane, zt”L said that a Jewish fist should be attacked to a Jewish head. Not just a fist and not just a head. Rav. Kahane’s admonition goes for everyone else, too — and that includes President Trump.

    “There’s no need to fear. Underzog is here.”

  5. But he cared enough to blow up some stuff at a Syrian air base on their behalf.

    It is my understanding that we hit military infrastructure. I disagree with this action, but lets not freak out about it.

    He proposes to cut U.S. funding for that program by $300 million this year. He is lavishing money on efforts that have proved destructive while shorting those that have worked. As a humanitarian, he’s got things backward.

    A “libertarian” is defending a gov’t program that shovels tax dollars to foreign despots. As a libertarian, ole Steve’s got things backward.

    1. RE: A “libertarian” is defending a gov’t program that shovels tax dollars to foreign despots. As a libertarian, ole Steve’s got things backward.

      Sending some relative pittance of aid to foreign countries should be thought of as an investment. If a country isn’t a decaying hell-hole, it has people in it who 1) don’t become terrorists, and 2) buy our shit. Even the most self-interested country should see the benefit of this.

      1. Sending some relative pittance of aid to foreign countries should be thought of as an investment. If a country isn’t a decaying hell-hole, it has people in it who 1) don’t become terrorists, and 2) buy our shit. Even the most self-interested country should see the benefit of this.

        How does propping up foreign despots and warlords with our tax dollars benefit anybody? Because that’s what foreign aid amounts to.

        Anybody who uses the term “investment” for government spending is a liar and a charlatan; government spending is never an investment, even if you are justifying it by some future benefit.

        1. Containing or treating preventable diseases like AIDS, measles, polio, etc., and trying to bring clean water to people is only tenuously arguably propping up warlords (I suspect it has the opposite effect), but it’s definitely improving people’s lives significantly. The less starving, sickly, and desperate someone is, the less likely they are to become radicalized and try and kill us.

          If you want to define government spending that way, I suppose that’s your prerogative, but it’s extremely arbitrary and not especially defensible. One of the main benefits of government is it’s ability to spend money on big picture, very long term payout situations that wouldn’t make sense for a private entity. Foreign aid is exactly that.

  6. “As a humanitarian, he’s got things backward.”

    Oh the humanity!

  7. A military intervention Syria seems particularly unlikely to help, given that if Assad goes, the country would be left in the hands of extremist groups that are even worse… In case someone is interested, I wrote a very detailed blog post, in which I examine the evidence about the recent chemical attack and compare the situation with what happened after the chemical attack in Ghouta in August 2013. I argue that, in that previous case, the media narrative had rapidly unravelled and that, for that reason, we should be extremely prudent about the recent attack and not jump to conclusions. It’s more than 5,000 words long and I provide a source for every single factual claim I make. I really believe it’s the most thorough discussion of the allegations against Assad with respect to his alleged use of chemical weapons out there. Please share it if you thought it was interesting.

  8. Aid is useless while the bullets are flying.

  9. And here we see, yet again, why Ayn Rand referred to Libertarians as the “hippies of the right.” Rather than dealing with a war as a war (i.e., an essentially violent conflict), they just want to give people free stuff and hope for the best or welcome them, uninvited, into our homes to smoke pot and sing Kumbaya with us.

    1. Hippies of the right..hehehe

  10. In Syria, the Wrong Kind of Humanitarian Intervention

    There really is no “right kind”. Just leave other countries alone, period.

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