The Fallacy of ‘Humanitarian’ War

The new excuse for U.S. imperial wars is “humanitarian” or “liberal” interventionism with Hillary Clinton and other proponents citing noble motives for destroying foreign societies, as ex-CIA official Graham E. Fuller discusses.

By Graham E. Fuller

Rajan Menon’s new book, The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, launches a timely argument against a dominant argument lying behind so much of modern American foreign policy — “humanitarian intervention” or “liberal interventionism.”

We are, of course, well familiar with Republican and neocon readiness to go to war, but the reality is that many Democrat Party leaders have been no less seduced into a series of optional foreign military interventions, with increasingly disastrous consequences. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is today one of the leading exponents of the idea, but so are many of the advisors around President Barack Obama.

President Barack Obama talks with Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, a major proponent of "humanitarian" wars, following a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Sept. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama talks with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, a major proponent of “humanitarian” wars, following a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Sept. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Menon offers powerful argumentation skewering the concept of “humanitarian intervention,” demonstrating how it operates often as little more than a subtler form of an imperial agenda. Naked imperial ambitions tend to be recognizable for what they are. But when those global ambitions are cloaked in the liberal language of our “right to protect” oppressed peoples, prevent humanitarian outrages, stop genocide, and to topple noxious dictators, then the true motives behind such operations become harder to recognize.

What humanitarian could object to such lofty goals? Yet the seductive character of these “liberal interventionist” policies end up serving — indeed camouflaging — a broad range of military objectives that rarely help and often harm the ostensible objects of our intervention.

Professor Rajan Menon brings a considerable variety of skills to bear in this brief and lucid book. Despite his first-class academic credentials in the field, he also writes in clear and persuasive language for the concerned general reader. Second, Menon is no theoretician: he has worked closely with policy circles for many years and understands the players and operations as well as anyone outside government.

In rejecting the premise of “liberal interventionism,” Menon is not exercising some hard-minded, bloodless vision of policy — quite the opposite. He is deeply concerned for the wellbeing of peoples and societies abroad — who are often among the primary victims of such liberal interventionism. He argues not as an isolationist but rather as an observer who has watched so many seemingly well-minded interventions turn into horror stories for the citizens involved.

From a humanitarian point of view, can the deaths of half a million Iraqis and the dislocation of a million or so more be considered to have contributed to the wellbeing of “liberated Iraq?” As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once said, she regretted the death of 500,000 Iraqi children who, in Saddam’s Iraq, had been deprived of medicines under a long U.S. embargo, but, she concluded, “it was worth it.” One wonders to whom it was worth it? Where is the humanitarian vision behind such a comment?

Libya too has been transformed from an unpleasant but quiescent dictatorship under Muammar Gaddafi into a nightmare of raging militias, civil war, anarchy and a breeding ground of ISIS and al-Qa’ida. Afghanistan is still mired in conflict. So Menon is arguing not for a hardening of hearts, but for questioning the real-world outcomes of such seemingly “well-intentioned” wars.

Ultimately the case for “humanitarian intervention” is justified by the quest for international justice, protection of civilians, and the broadening of democratization and human rights. The U.S. has regularly invoked these principles in justifying its ongoing — indeed nonstop — wars over the past several decades.

Yet the sad reality is that the selective nature of U.S. interventions raises serious questions about the true motivation behind invoking such “universal” values. U.S. calls for  “democratization” more often operate as punishment to its enemies (“regime change”) but rarely as a gift to be bestowed upon friends (“friendly dictators.”)

Menon argues, buttressing his case with striking examples from around the world, that such selective implementation of “universal values” by a global (imperial) power ends up tarnishing and diminishing the very values they are meant to promote; as a result they create broad cynicism around the world among those who perceive them as mere instruments of aggressive U.S. global power projection.

Yet when many genuine humanitarian crises do burst forth, as in Rwanda or in the ongoing agonies of the Congo (five million dead and counting) Washington has opted not to intervene because it did not perceive its immediate national interests to be threatened.

In short, the selective and opportunistic character of liberal interventionism ends up giving a bad name to liberalism. And it cruelly deceives many in the West who seek a more “liberal” foreign policy and yet who find that, in the end, they have only supported the projection of greater American geopolitical power — and usually at considerable human cost to the Iraqs, Afghanistans, Somalias, Libyas, and Columbias of the world.

Any reader of the book is eventually forced to confront a deeper question: when is war in fact “worth it”? Few would respond “never,” but many might respond “rarely.” Yet Menon is not arguing against war as such, so much as forcing us to acknowledge the faulty “liberal” foundation of our relentless quest for enemies to destroy — in the name of making the world a better place.

The title of the book, The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, suggests that at the very least such policies are self-deceiving, in other cases perhaps deliberately meant to obfuscate. Menon here poses the question whether, for whatever motivation, great powers can ever sufficiently master the complexity of foreign societies to truly engineer a better life in the countries we target for remodeling. And whether we can afford an enterprise that might take decades at the least.

In the end we become aware of the unhealthy nature of combining broad ideals married to global power. In the case of the British Empire, and now the American, this combination readily leads to the manipulation and then corruption of those ideals — discrediting U.S. prestige and credibility and damaging the lives of those living in troubled areas.

None of this is to say that there is never room for international intervention in arenas of horrific depredations against civilian populations. But it is only when such intervention is truly international (essentially U.N.-sanctioned and not a mere maneuver to insert NATO into another global hotspot) that it can it take on a measure of credibility and international respect. Otherwise it ends up perceived as a U.S. proxy move against Russia, China, Iran or some other adversary.

Menon’s book constitutes essential reading for anyone troubled by the ugly character of so much of the international scene these days, and yet dismayed by its exploitation by policy-makers who cloak invasion, power projections and military operations in the garb of humanitarian effort.

Here is a cogent critique of the recent decades of U.S. foreign policy misadventures in which our military has become the primary instrument of U.S. policy — and justified in the name of humanitarian goals. We rarely get to hear these arguments so clearly presented.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World. His latest book is Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan. (Amazon, Kindle)

14 comments for “The Fallacy of ‘Humanitarian’ War

  1. Bill Bodden
    March 21, 2016 at 21:15

    The United States and many other parts of the world would have been in much better condition if we had built a fleet of hospital ships instead of our naval armada and sent the former to ports around the world where medical and other humanitarian aid would have elevated some of the “poor and huddled masses” abroad. With Obama’s Cuba visit in mind, perhaps the United States could have formed a partnership with Cuba’s medicos already engaged in such work.

  2. Oz
    March 21, 2016 at 10:07

    If we want to get technical about this, the proper term for these people is “LIMPS”– Liberal Imperialists. And although the author seems to want to dance around it, a textbook case is Obama himself, not just the “people around him.” He is classic not only in the sanctimonious arrogance with which he launches war after war, but also in the flimsiness of his pretexts.

    It is worth remembering that the original “humanitarian intervention” was Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland, due to mythical violations of the human rights of ethnic Germans who lived there.

  3. kathy mayes
    March 21, 2016 at 01:32

    Wy do you continue to publish articles by this person who was a major player in the Boston Marathon bombing?

  4. Joe L.
    March 21, 2016 at 00:16

    “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”
    ? Smedley D. Butler, War is a Racket: The Antiwar Classic by America’s Most Decorated Soldier

  5. Zachary Smith
    March 20, 2016 at 21:21

    I’ve got the impression the title of this essay – “The Fallacy of ‘Humanitarian’ War” – would have been a much better one for Menon’s book, IMO.

    Since I’m unable to read Rajan Menon’s book I can’t really say much about it. I do of course wonder if the man is against all interventions. At Google Books I could see enough of it to judge it is very much about current topics. Hitler was mentioned twice, Stalin once, and Mao not at all. This despite the Great Leap Forward having a death toll rivaling WW2. By way of contrast, “Assad” appears 13 times.

    Still at Google Books, I looked for early instances of “humanitarian intervention”. In 1874 there was a mention of a “Portuguese humanitarian intervention” in the Chinese slave trade based at Macao. In 1898 President McKinley used the term to justify his land-grabbing war of aggression against Spain.

    Perhaps I’ll eventually learn if Rajan Menon is against all interventions, or only the ones he personally approves of.

    Momentarily dipping into a darker mood, could we all be getting conditioned to sit on our hands the next time something really horrible happens? None of our business that ISIS uses a stolen nuke in Damascus. None of our business Israel does a final ethnic cleansing of the subhuman “Paleos” in the “Holy Land.”

  6. incontinent reader
    March 20, 2016 at 20:54

    Excellent article, and Menon, of course is right, but, query: are liberal interventionism and its ‘humanistic’ roots, or at least the argument underlying them, so different from those used by Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany….and Japan, in the 19th century to exploit the nations of South and East Asia and Africa- in the name of civilizing them, or the notion of the American Century by the missionary’s son Henry Luce and adopted by his neoconservative progeny.

    As for Albright and her comment to Colin Powell, ‘what’s the good of having a military if you don’t use it’, I might have asked her ‘what’s the good of having a diplomatic corps if you don’t use it (or have any interest in using it, other than as a mouthpiece for a coercive military)- and, if so, why are you pretending to be a Secretary of State?

  7. Tom Welsh
    March 20, 2016 at 18:49

    In fact the death toll in Iraq is above 2.8 million (and counting). See the definitive two-volume work “Genocide in Iraq” by Dr. Abdul-Haq al-Ani and Tarik al-Ani. That it is way higher than 500,000 should be obvious from the text of the article, which explicitly cites the 500,000 children admitted by Madeleine Albright, and yet puts the total of deaths at the same figure.

  8. Drew Hunkins
    March 20, 2016 at 17:45

    Funny that Washington never intercedes on behalf of the exploited and beleaguered Palestinian civilians when thousands of them are routinely murdered in cold blood by the Israeli Defense [sic] Forces every few years when the rabid Zionists decide it’s time to mow the lawn.

    We never hear a word about “humanitarianism” or the most nauseating phrase of all, “right to protect!” when it comes to Palestinians or other underdogs across the globe massacred by Washington client states and quisling leaders.

  9. Erik
    March 20, 2016 at 17:07

    Humanitarian aid to improve health, education, and industry in impoverished areas deserves the vast budget given instead for military aid, and would have far better results in national security alone. If the US had built the roads, schools, and hospitals throughout the developing world, it would have no organized enemies, and would have lifted half the world from poverty. US military aid and action since WWII has had neither the intent nor the effect of improving security, human rights, or forms of government elsewhere, and has resulted in injustices for which the US is quite predictably and properly hated.

    The federal government has no warmaking power: it may only suppress insurrections and repel invasions. Warmongering for other purposes is tantamount to treason and should be a felony crime. Redefining invasion is not within the federal powers. Its treaty obligations should be interpreted as within this power, not an extension of it, and all contrary treaty language should be repudiated.

    The executive branch has no policymaking power: it may only administer the laws of Congress in finer detail. For the executive to secretly make, provoke, or facilitate war is tantamount to treason and should be a felony crime. Redefining administration is not within the executive powers.

    Any decision on the location and nature of intervention should be guided by a federal College of Policy Analysis to rigorously investigate every culture and region and explore what policies can really bring public benefit, a large institution with experts circulating with the universities, designed to protect unpopular and even “enemy” ideas, and rigorously analyze viewpoints and ideologies. It should be a branch of the federal government, independent of the other branches and DC and money influences, to which politicians and judges and officials should be accountable in detail for their policy statements and actions. A College of Policy Analysis would have prevented every US misadventure since WWII.

    But the US has intervened since WWII under false pretenses to serve the goals of warmongers whom Aristotle warned are the tyrants who destroy democracy. The US has the most powerful weapons and the largest moat in the world, and still its warmongers demand war against tiny and desperately poor nations far away, and have secretly overthrown democracies around the world from Iran to Chile and Venezuela, always because they are also socialist. The tyrant warmonger never establishes a democracy, because that requires the stability and education provided by humanitarian assistance, and always fails among the warring factions left by the warmonger, as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    The warmonger uses the military to steal natural resources and land for insiders. We pay for those natural resources at market prices regardless of who owns them; we pay for the wars that give those resources to insiders, and we pay a third time for the blowback when dispossessed revolt against the dictators warmongers have imposed. We will pay again throughout our history, for the enduring injustices caused by our warmongers, and our children will pay yet again to rebuild the societies we have destroyed. The warmonger steals our resources and enslaves us.

    The warmonger never has a plan for humanitarian results, but merely shops for propaganda fragments and shouts them while waving the flag and praising the lord of whatever nation he is in, an infantile bully, the lowest imitation of masculinity. His intended audience is the timid and the ignorant: those fearful of bullies and the irrationality of their own kind.

    • Jerry
      March 21, 2016 at 14:35

      Excellent comment. Thank you.

  10. Abe
    March 20, 2016 at 16:47

    Rajan Menon is a Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council, a regime change think tank managed by western military leaders and senior intelligence officials, including four heads of the Central Intelligence Agency. That may account for Menon’s lack of clarity about the actual intention of US wars.

    The Atlantic Council is an enthusiastic promoter of the deception operative Eliot Higgins. See comments at

    Menon just co-authored a new book, Conflict in Ukraine, with Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a prominent corporate-funded US think tank.

    Prior to serving as Director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, Rumer was the national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council from 2010 to 2014. Earlier, he held research appointments at the National Defense University, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the RAND Corporation. He has also served on the National Security Council staff and at the State Department.

    On the whole, Menon’s text on humanitarian intervention is more heavily weighted to apologetics than analysis.

    We have every reason to question the cogency of Menon’s critiques.

    • Kiza
      March 22, 2016 at 00:05

      Abe, masterful as always. Thanks for clarifying who “Professor Rajan Menon” as the author calls him, really is. One would guess that the author knows very well who Menon really is when doing this promo job. I have not read it yet, but the book appears to be a repackaging of the “humanitarian interventions”, not their repudiation.

      Let me just explain to the author that humanity has defined what a good war is long time ago: only a self-defensive war is a good war, but self-defense should not even be called a war. This is why the war propaganda emanating from Washington and London always presents warmongering as either a need for defense (Blair’s 45 minute claim against Saddam, mushroom clouds of Condoleezza Rice, etc) or a prevention of humanitarian catastrophe (a convenient, often invented non-existent one). By definition, war is anti-humanitarian and no verbal gymnastics can make it humanitarian. This is why the expression of choice is “humanitarian intervention”, not the oxymoron “humanitarian war”. Under the name of “humanitarian intervention” one would expect delivery of tons of food& medicine, not the delivery of tons of bombs.

    • Rajan Menon
      March 22, 2016 at 19:29

      Dear Abe (if I may),

      You will find that my book, The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, which I hope you will read, even if from a lending library (i.e., I’m not asking you to purchase it), is a wholesale repudiation of humanitarian intervention on multiple grounds, particularly as regards regime change. I resigned from the Atlantic Council because my views and the Council’s on Ukraine were poles apart. As for my book with Eugene Rumer, you may wish to read that as well: it’s not what you imagine it be, believe me.

      I’m all for people taking issue with my views and welcome debate. All I ask is they actually read what I’ve written and not base their views on surmise. I hope you’ll see this as a reasonable request. This a forum that attracts serious, intelligent people, and I’m confident that they will do so.

      With all good wishes,


  11. Eddie
    March 20, 2016 at 13:56

    Good article. I would also emphasize that the US’ antipathy (especially during our conservative presidencies) to the UN and the International Court, quickly gives lie to our leaders characterizing of our recent military actions as ‘humanitarian wars’ or ‘preventative wars’ or whatever deceptive terminology is used. Like most liberal/progressives, I favor the abstract concept of possible ‘humanitarian intervention’, but that phrase does NOT denote military action – – – it’s a phrase that normally would mean sending people food, medicines, water, perhaps political pressure against tyrannical despots, being part of a UN Peacekeeping unit, etc, etc.

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