The Dangers from ‘Humanitarian’ Wars

The West is rushing toward another major war in the Middle East, in Syria, behind the “responsibility to protect” banner, which may justify endless U.S. military interventions, says Conn Hallinan at Foreign Policy in Focus.

By Conn Hallinan

While the mainstream media focuses on losers and winners in the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, a largely unreported debate is going on over the future course of U.S. diplomacy. Its outcome will have a profound effect on how Washington projects power — both diplomatic and military — in the coming decade.

The issues at stake are hardly abstract. The United States is currently engaged in active wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Somalia. It has deployed troops on the Russian border, played push-and-shove with China in Asia, and greatly extended its military footprint on the African continent. It would not be an exaggeration to say — as former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry has recently done — that the world is a more dangerous place today than it was during darkest times of the Cold War.

Samantha Power, Permanent Representative of the United States to the UN, addresses the Security Council meeting on Syria, Sept. 25, 2016 (UN Photo)

Samantha Power, Permanent Representative of the United States to the UN, addresses the Security Council meeting on Syria, Sept. 25, 2016 (UN Photo)

Tracking the outlines of this argument is not easy, in part because the participants are not always forthcoming about what they are proposing, in part because the media oversimplifies the issues.

In its broadest framework, “realists” represented by former National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Harvard’s Steven Walt, and University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer have squared off against “humanitarian interventionists” like current UN Ambassador Samantha Power. Given that Power is a key adviser to the Obama administration on foreign policy and is likely to play a similar role if Clinton is elected, her views carry weight.

In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Power asks, “How is a statesman to advance his nation’s interests?” She begins by hijacking the realist position that U.S. diplomacy must reflect “national interests,” arguing that they are indistinguishable from “moral values.” What happens to people in other countries, she argues, is in our “national security.”

Ambassador Power — along with Clinton and former President Bill Clinton — has long been an advocate for “humanitarian intervention,” behind which the United States intervened in the Yugoslav civil war. Humanitarian intervention has since been formalized into “responsibility to protect,” or R2P, and was the rationale for overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Hillary Clinton has argued forcibly for applying R2P to Syria by setting up “no-fly zones” to block Syrian and Russian planes from bombing insurgents and the civilians under their control.

But Power is proposing something different than humanitarian intervention. She is suggesting that the United States elevate R2P to the level of national security, which sounds uncomfortably like an argument for U.S. intervention in any place that doesn’t emulate the American system.

Facing Off Against the Kremlin

Most telling is her choice of examples: Russia, China, and Venezuela, all currently in Washington’s crosshairs. Of these, she spends the most time on Moscow and the current crisis in Ukraine, where she accuses the Russians of weakening a “core independent norm” by supporting insurgents in Ukraine’s east, “lopping off part of a neighboring country” by seizing Crimea, and suppressing the news of Russian intervention from its own people. Were the Russian media to report on the situation in Ukraine, she writes, “many Russians might well oppose” the conflict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on May 10, 2015, at the Kremlin. (Photo from Russian government)

Russian President Vladimir Putin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on May 10, 2015, at the Kremlin. (Photo from Russian government)

Power presents no evidence for this statement because none exists. Regardless of what one thinks of Moscow’s role in Ukraine, the vast majority of Russians are not only aware of it, but overwhelmingly support President Vladimir Putin on the issue. From the average Russian’s point of view, NATO has been steadily marching eastwards since the end of the Yugoslav war. It is Americans who are deployed in the Baltic and Poland, not Russians gathering on the borders of Canada and Mexico. Russians are a tad sensitive about their borders, given the tens of millions they lost in World War II, something of which Power seems oblivious.

What Power seems incapable of doing is seeing how countries like China and Russia view the United States. That point of view is an essential skill in international diplomacy, because it is how one determines whether or not an opponent poses a serious threat to one’s national security.

Is Russia — as President Obama recently told the U.N. — really “attempting to recover lost glory through force,” or is Moscow reacting to what it perceives as a threat to its own national security? Russia did not intervene in Ukraine until the United States and its NATO allies supported the coup against the President Viktor Yanukovych’s government and ditched an agreement that had been hammered out among the European Union, Moscow, and the United States to peacefully resolve the crisis.

Power argues that there was no coup, but U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt were caught on tape talking about how to “mid-wife” the takeover and choose the person they wanted to put in place.

As for “lopping off” Crimea, Power had no problem with the United States and NATO “lopping off” Kosovo from Serbia in the Yugoslav War. In both cases local populations — in Crimea by 96 percent — supported the “takeovers.”

Understanding how other countries see the world does not mean one need agree with them, but there is nothing in Moscow’s actions that suggests that it is trying to re-establish an “empire,” as Obama characterized its behavior in his recent speech to the U.N.

When Hillary Clinton compared Putin to Hitler, she equated Russia with Nazi Germany, which certainly posed an existential threat to our national security. But does anyone think that comparison is valid? In 1939, Germany was the most powerful country in Europe with a massive military. Russia has the 11th largest economy in the world, trailing even France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and Brazil. Turkey has a larger army.

Power’s view of what is good for the Russian people is a case in point. Although one can hardly admire the oligarchy that dominates Russia — and the last election would seem to indicate considerable voter apathy in the country’s urban centers — the “liberals” whom Power is so enamored with were the people who instituted the economic “shock therapy” in the 1990s that impoverished tens of millions of people and brought about a calamitous drop in life expectancy.

That track record is unlikely to get one elected. In any case, Americans are hardly in a position these days to lecture people about the role oligarchic wealth plays in manipulating elections.

View from China

The Chinese are intolerant of internal dissent, but Washington’s argument with Beijing is over sea lanes, not voter rolls.

China and its neighbors

China and its neighbors

China is acting the bully in the South China Sea, but it was President Bill Clinton who sparked the current tensions in the region when he deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups in the Taiwan Straits in 1995-96 during a tense standoff between Taipei and the mainland. China did not then — and does not now — have the capacity to invade Taiwan, so Beijing’s threats were not real.

But the aircraft carriers were very real, and they humiliated — and scared — China in its home waters. That incident directly led to China’s current accelerated military spending and its heavy-handed actions in the South China Sea.

Again, there is a long history here. Starting with the Opium Wars of 1839 and 1860, followed by the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 and Tokyo’s invasion of China in World War II, the Chinese have been invaded and humiliated time and again. Beijing believes that the Obama administration designed its “Asia pivot” as to surround China with U.S. allies.

While that might be an over simplification — the Pacific has long been America’s largest market — it is a perfectly rational conclusion to draw from the deployment of U.S. Marines to Australia, the positioning of nuclear-capable forces in Guam and Wake, the siting of anti-ballistic missile systems in South Korea and Japan, and the attempt to tighten military ties with India, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

“If you are a strategic thinker in China, you don’t have to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist to think that the U.S. is trying to bandwagon Asia against China,” says Simon Tay, chair of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Meanwhile in Latin America…

As for Venezuela, the U.S. supported the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez and has led a campaign of hostility against the government ever since. For all its problems, the Chavez government cut poverty rates from 54.5 percent of the population to 32 percent, and extreme poverty from around 20 percent to 8.6 percent. Infant mortality fell from 25 per 1,000 to 13 per 1,000, the same as for Black Americans.

The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

And the concern for the democratic rights of Venezuelans apparently doesn’t extend to the people of Honduras. When a military coup overthrew a progressive government in 2009, the United States pressed other Latin American countries to recognize the illegal government that took over in its wake. Although opposition forces in Venezuela get tear-gassed and a handful jailed, in Honduras they are murdered by death squads.

Power’s view that the United States stands for virtue instead of simply pursuing its own interests is a uniquely American delusion. “This is an image that Americans have of themselves,” says Jeremy Shapiro, research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, “but is not shared, even by their allies.”

The “division” between “realists” and R2P is an illusion. Both end up in the same place: confronting our supposed competitors and supporting our allies, regardless of how they treat their people. Although she is quick to call the Russians in Syria “barbarous,” she is conspicuously silent on U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s air war in Yemen, which has targeted hospitals, markets and civilians.

The argument that another country’s internal politics is a national security issue for the United States elevates R2P to a new level, sets the bar for military intervention a good deal lower than it is today, and lays the groundwork for an interventionist foreign policy that will make the Obama administration look positively pacifist.

Looking Toward November

It is impossible to separate this debate on foreign policy from the current race for the White House. Clinton has been hawkish on most international issues, and she is not shy about military intervention.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressing the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C. on March 21, 2016. (Photo credit: AIPAC)

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressing the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C. on March 21, 2016. (Photo credit: AIPAC)

She has also surrounded herself with some of the same people who designed the Iraq war, including founders of the Project for a New American Century. It is rumored that if she wins she will appoint former Defense Department official Michele Flournoy as secretary of defense. Flournoy has called for bombing Assad’s forces in Syria.

On the other hand, Trump has been less than coherent. He has made some reasonable statements about cooperating with the Russians and some distinctly scary ones about China. He says he is opposed to military interventions, although he supported the war in Iraq (and now lies about it). He is alarmingly casual about the use of nuclear weapons.

In Foreign Affairs, Stephen Walt, a leading “realist,” says that Trump’s willingness to consider breaking the nuclear taboo makes him someone who “has no business being commander in chief.” Other countries, writes Walt, “are already worried about American power and the ways it gets used. The last thing we need is an American equivalent of the impetuous and bombastic Kaiser Wilhelm II.” The Kaiser was a major force behind World War I, a conflict that inflicted 38 million casualties.

Whoever wins in November will face a world in which Washington can’t call all the shots. As Middle East expert Patrick Cockburn points out, “The U.S. remains a superpower, but is no longer as powerful as it once was.” Although it can overthrow regimes it doesn’t like, “it can’t replace what has been destroyed.”

Power’s framework for diplomacy is a formula for a never-ending cycle of war and instability.

Conn Hallinan can be read at and [This article previously appeared at Foreign Policy in Focus,]

22 comments for “The Dangers from ‘Humanitarian’ Wars

  1. Zachary Smith
    October 9, 2016 at 01:19

    The wikileaks release was of course smothered by Trump’s Tape. However, one selection demonstrated that Hillary knew her desired intervention would hardly be “Humanitarian”.

    “So we’re not as good as we used to be, but we still—we can still deliver, and we should have in my view been trying to do that so we would have better insight. But the idea that we would have like a no fly zone—Syria, of course, did have when it started the fourth biggest Army in the world. It had very sophisticated air defense systems. They’re getting more sophisticated thanks to Russian imports. To have a no fly zone you have to take out all of the air defense, many of which are located in populated areas. So our missiles, even if they are standoff missiles so we’re not putting our pilots at risk—you’re going to kill a lot of Syrians. So all of a sudden this intervention that people talk about so glibly becomes an American and NATO involvement where you take a lot of civilians.” [ Speech to Goldman Sachs, 2013 IBD Ceo Annual Conference,

  2. James lake
    October 8, 2016 at 04:00

    Who will be in this grand coalition
    Ths UN would need to agree
    Russia will veto
    China abstain

    1. The UK – the public will not support any intervention like libya which produced all these refugees crossing the Mediterranean.
    2. The EU- germany won’t fight and france have there own agenda in post colonial Syria
    3. The U.S. warmongers will wait for hillary

  3. Bill Bodden
    October 7, 2016 at 20:54

    Donald Trump reportedly talked in crude and vulgar terms about how easy it was for celebs like himself to seduce women. Certainly nothing to be proud of there, but what did Hillary say after the regime change in Libya promoted by her and Samantha Power? “When Gaddafi was summarily executed by al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels on the streets of Sirte, Clinton’s response in a subsequent interview was to say “We came. We saw. He died,” before breaking out into Riddler-style laughter” –

    Gaddafi’s execution included being sodomized by a knife which, surely, Clinton must have known.

    The preceding suggests Trump might qualify as the lesser evil – BUT if we consider his history of irresponsible and unscrupulous behavior and potential with near absolute power in the White House then we are back to a tie.

  4. Bill Bodden
    October 7, 2016 at 20:14

    The “big news” about The Donald’s “locker room talk” broke just a few hours ago. Cable “news” channels are taking advantage of this to show their own high moral standards (?) and informing their listeners of Trump’s scurrilous behavior and that it must surely doom his quest for the presidency. Dana Bash at the Corporate News Network (CNN) assured us that after this expose no woman will vote for Trump. How could they after The Donald showed his innate capacity for demeaning women? Presumably, women voters will now flock like lemmings to Hillary Clinton who, with Samantha Power, helped promote regime change in Libya. The consequences for women in that and other Clinton- and Power-promoted disasters were surely many times more tragic than that of any woman groped or propositioned by Trump.

    As for Trump, we would do well to consider his power at the time of this hot-mike episode contributed to his alleged habit of abuse of women. The question now is, “What would he be liable to do with the near absolute power of the US presidency?” You could consider Bill Clinton’s history for likely possibilities.

    • Realist
      October 8, 2016 at 02:41

      Not to excuse it, but I have heard such “locker room” talk from distinguished academics and the highest levels of university administrators. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, they probably did it to appear to be “just one of the guys” or somebody “cool”–an alpha male perhaps. I have heard distinguished award winners in science (I have conversed with several Nobel laureates) brag about how their reputation attracts “science groupies” and allows them to get the pick of the litter. Low class? Sure. But Trump is undoubtedly right in that Bill Clinton was the biggest horn dog to ever occupy the White House (maybe other than Jack Kennedy) and Hillary had no objections then. What really takes the cake in this whole episode was hearing Andrea Mitchell say on Friday afternoon that Putin was most definitely responsible for leaking this information to interfere and cause discord in our national elections… and for Chris Matthews to agree with that rubbish. This campaign is way beyond high farce and, showman that he is, Trump has contributed no more (and probably far less) than 50% of the outrageous lies spoken by the candidates or their surrogates, not when Hillary seems to have the entire American media in her pocket. This country must be perceived as a tragic and dangerous disgrace to the rest of the world.

  5. Joe B
    October 7, 2016 at 18:51

    It is good to see that most readers agree that the reliance upon “humanitarian intervention” and “responsibility to protect” rationales is pure propaganda. Those concepts are never heard in policymaking except in rationalizing wars to serve hidden policies of hidden rulers, and the US not only has no significant humanitarian programs, it regularly overthrows social democracies and substitutes dictatorships.

    • Bill Bodden
      October 7, 2016 at 19:02

      the US not only has no significant humanitarian programs

      Unlike those Cuban “commies.”

  6. Zachary Smith
    October 7, 2016 at 18:09

    Interesting headline at the Moon of Alabama site:

    Syria – Is The U.S. Preparing A “False Flag” Bombing?

    This may be an innocent coincidence: Secretary Kerry is asking the scam artists of the White Helmets for video of Russian jets “bombing civilians” in Syria and, just by chance, the U.S. military is painting one of its jets to look like a “Russian” Su-34 strike fighter like those deployed in Syria.

    But many incidents in Syria, the Ghouta gas attack, the recent aid convoy attack, get attributed to Russia or the Syrian government without any proof (or even despite contrary evidence). The media always eat these falsehoods up based simply on some official’s say-so, some unverified pictures or video and without asking any further questions. A “Russian attack” on some large civilian target like a refugee camp, documented on video!, would be a very easy sell. The propagandized “uproar” over such an attack could be easily used to launch a wider war.

    Needless to say, the US of A isn’t the only nation which can quickly repaint some of their airplanes and put a Russian-speaking pilot inside it.

    While driving home from town I flipped on the radio to check the news. What I found was an NPR station discussing Syria. Would you believe that every bad thing happening over there is the fault of the Russians? The melodious voices also spoke of how Russia is the villain in the releases of Hillary & the DNC’s email information. How do they know? The US government says It Is So, and that’s that. You know, just like if it’s on the internet it must be true. I’ll bet Dick Cheney is getting a good belly laugh out of all of this. After all, Obama has represented the Texas Torturer’s 3rd and 4th terms.

    What would BHO have to do to get stripped of his “Peace Prize”?

    • Realist
      October 8, 2016 at 02:24

      AND… if they find any damning words in those Clinton emails, they will be denounced as Russian forgeries.

      Don’t you remember? We have always been at war with Eurasia. It will be a trip to Room 101 for you, if you need to be reminded again.

      Soon we will have to drop all we are doing and participate in nation-wide “10-minute Hates” against Vladimir Putin.

    • jack epikoureios
      October 8, 2016 at 17:54

      Dear Zachary,

      Here’s my idea of torture: They tie you to a chair, and they force you to listen to NPR for an hour …
      “Realist”, below, is completely right …

      Regards, Jack

      PS: “Democacy Now”, in foreign policy matters (ME, Ukraine, Russia etc) isn’t much better.
      Try Prof. Stephen Cohen (weekly radio programs, at the John Batchelor show; recorded on Tuesdays, made public on Wednesdays.)

  7. October 7, 2016 at 17:18

    “Despite overwhelming evidence that wars were planned on a number of countries, the perpetrators of these war crimes are free, and use the perverted slogan “responsibility to protect.” Some of the countries suffering from the planned atrocities of these barbarians in business suits and fancy uniforms are Iraq, Libya, Syria and others….”
    [read more at link below]

  8. Wobblie
    October 7, 2016 at 16:13

    R2P is the Liberals’ version of of the neocons’ spreading democracy.

    It’s all about justifying conquest and intervention under the cover of human decency.

    Democrats and Conservatives are all trash.

  9. Bill Bodden
    October 7, 2016 at 16:11

    Power’s view that the United States stands for virtue instead of simply pursuing its own interests is a uniquely American delusion.

    If Samantha Power really believes that then she should be removed from the United Nations building and transferred to another where the residents have their walls padded. The United States has had and still has many virtuous and admirable people among its citizens but very few among the plutocrats and elected officials in the higher ranks of government comprising the ruling establishment.

  10. LUX
    October 7, 2016 at 15:34

    All of this MESS in Syria is once again, just like the conflict in Iraq, over an oil pipeline. Aleppo was supposed to be the oil hub according to the elite’s EVIL “plans” – thus, Aleppo is the center of the problem.

    Enough with our government driving conflict on behalf of oil barons and other evil actors! using our tax dollars! while destroying our economy! and millions of lives!

    Enough with the humanitarian tag line to disguise the real agenda – MORE GLOBALIST ELITE WEALTH TRANSFER FROM THE PEOPLE TO THEM!

    We know what is going on – more elite foreign policy and domestic policy garbage that is destroying humanity and everything that is good in the world while simultaneously destroying people’s lives and driving them into poverty and death for a globalist agenda that only rewards those who have TOO MUCH ALREADY!!

    Evil has a name and it is ELITE GLOBALISM!

    Prepare for the AMERIEXIT come November! WE WILL VOTE IN MASS to end this ELITE GLOBALIST TYRANNY!


  11. Bill Bodden
    October 7, 2016 at 15:00

    She begins by hijacking the realist position that U.S. diplomacy must reflect “national interests,” arguing that they are indistinguishable from “moral values.” My emphasis.

    This claim of moral values is more preposterous than President Obama’s claim that no one is above the law.

    What moral values were applicable to the sanctions against Iraq during the Bill Clinton presidency or in the outright war on Iraq initiated by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and supported by around 70 percent of politicians in Congress and the American people?

    What moral values were and are applicable to U.S. support for Israeli crimes against humanity and violations of international law in Gaza and the West Bank? It is certainly not in our national interest to have people around the world observe officials in the highest levels of government groveling before AIPAC and other elements of the Israel Lobby.

    What moral values were and are applicable to …? Well, readers of this website are mostly well-informed so I don’t need to belabor the point.

  12. Bill Bodden
    October 7, 2016 at 13:02

    Warmongers and other megalomaniacs proposing wars can’t be honest about their real reasons for attacking some unfortunate nation failing to surrender its sovereignty to the rapacious barbarians so they trot out some versions of ‘humanitarian’ war and “responsibility to protect” as themes for their propaganda.

  13. delia ruhe
    October 7, 2016 at 13:01

    Washington didn’t invent hypocrisy, but it has perfected it — and Samantha Power is its current mascot.

  14. Zachary Smith
    October 7, 2016 at 12:22

    And the concern for the democratic rights of Venezuelans apparently doesn’t extend to the people of Honduras. When a military coup overthrew a progressive government in 2009, the United States pressed other Latin American countries to recognize the illegal government that took over in its wake. Although opposition forces in Venezuela get tear-gassed and a handful jailed, in Honduras they are murdered by death squads.

    The situation in South American where there is great concern about the evil Venezuela government and total indifference to the horrors in Honduras is mirrored in the Mideast – Evil Assad fighting the Good Terrorists vs the active assistance the US is giving Saudi Arabia in destroying Yemen. Though none of the Corporate Media talks about Yemen, they’re screaming their lungs out about Syria.

    Queen Hillary was instrumental in creating the current situation in Honduras.

    June 1, 2016
    Hillary’s Role in Honduran Coup Sunk US Relations With Latin America to a New Low

    Read how the woman removed 100 pages of her book in the paperback edition everybody will see so as to cover up how she was up to her ears in the coup installing the thugs desired by the US Empire.

    But since Trump is playing to lose, this dreadful ***** is going to become President.

  15. Zachary Smith
    October 7, 2016 at 12:12

    Our neocon nuts are setting the stage for a “humanitarian intervention”. Latest blather from John Kerry:

    Syria, Russia Should Face War Crimes Investigation

    That’s because murdering hundreds of thousands of innocent people and bombing hospitals are things only the evil Ruskies do.

  16. evelync
    October 7, 2016 at 11:45

    Retired colonel and Boston University history professor Andrew Bacevich on Democracy Now the other day:

    on the failure of the candidates to address our tragic reliance on the military to pursue failed foreign policies

    he also covers his thoughts on the candidates’ failure to address “first use” and U.S nuclear policy.

  17. Joe L.
    October 7, 2016 at 11:06

    Sometimes I am just stumped how anyone with a brain can buy the “humanitarian” line anymore or the “right to protect” especially after the Iraq War. Surely people should be wise enough now to know that when our politicians start spouting about human rights and using military force to protect anyone that it is just a facade to hide their true “interests” or those of the corporations that they front for. If any of these wars had truly been about “people” then they would have been over years ago through a peace process. Instead our politicians insist on “regime change” (which likely they instigated through Middle Eastern proxies to begin with) which prolongs these stupid wars and drives the number of civilian casualties. Remember Madelaine Albright’s “1/2 Million Dead Iraqi children was worth the price for sanctions on Hussein” interview or listen to people like former Senior CIA Official Duane Clarridge casually speak about the US coup in Chile (War on Democracy by John Pilger) where the US overthrew a democracy for US “interests”. It is just a broken record that keeps repeating, I mean how many times do we have to be lied to or manipulated before people wise up to the game?

    • October 8, 2016 at 13:25

      Brainwashing by state subsidized corporations that control government central planning with lobbyists is very advanced these days.

      The US holocaust counts 20 million dead and fifty democracies destroyed since 1945. Terrified liberals are afraid to know why Berta Cáceres was assassinated in Honduras and want security from the assassins by putting their enabler in the white house.

      Terrified democrats have squeaky clean brains and wear rose colored glasses.

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