Commentary Magazine

How to Think About Humanitarian War

No one—not even those who supported it from the beginning—can be entirely happy with our war in Kosovo. Our immediate goal was to put a halt to Serbia’s brutal treatment of the Kosovo Albanians, several hundred thousand of whom had been displaced into the countryside—and an unknown number killed—by the spring of 1999. But by the time our massive, 78-day bombing campaign ended, an estimated 10,000 Kosovo Albanians were dead, and an entire people had been expelled from its land.

Nor have we been successful in our subsequent goal of achieving a democratic Kosovo. Today, the Kosovars, restored to their land, are themselves ridding it of Serbs and Gypsies under the very noses of nearly 6,000 American troops and 37,000 international peacekeepers. About three-quarters of Kosovo’s prewar Serbian population of 200,000 has fled, and the remnant live under what a Washington Post reporter has called “a new apartheid.” American and international troops are increasingly engaged in search-and-seizure missions against their former allies, the guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Having failed to stop the killing, we are proving unable to win the peace or to prevent a smaller, revenge-inspired ethnic cleansing.

It could be argued, of course, that we did accomplish some good in Kosovo by saving lives and restoring refugees to their homes—a result the more impressive in that we stumbled into the war and then improvised on the fly. But our failures loom larger, and they are not completely traceable either to the fog of war or to the intractability of politics in the Balkans. The problem is more serious, and it lies in the constellation of ideas and assumptions that formed the backdrop of our military operation in Kosovo and of our efforts to find a lasting settlement there afterward.

In Kosovo, we were assured, we were fighting not for our national interest but selflessly, to save lives and promote democracy—we were fighting on behalf of humanity. Moreover, we were reminded, the campaign to push Serbia back was not being undertaken by us alone but with the multilateral cooperation of our European allies, and the effort to aid the Kosovars was similarly international in scope. Finally, we were instructed, we were fighting to establish in Kosovo a democratic and pluralist state.

Since this approach—which adds up to a contemporary variant of Wilsonian internationalism—has very nearly failed, and since we can be sure that there will be future instances in which we will wish to intervene to help innocents in faraway lands, it is incumbent on us to ask whether a more effective approach exists. The outlines of just such an approach have been sketched by William Kristol, David Brooks, and Robert Kagan in articles for the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal; by a number of contributors to COMMENTARY’s January 2000 symposium, “American Power—For What?”; and by Senator John McCain during the Republican primaries.

What these voices have proposed is a more nationalistic, patriotic form of internationalism. Applied to Yugoslavia, this would have meant, above all, eschewing the cover of multilateralism in favor of using American ground troops from the start to control the Serbs in Kosovo, and securing for the Kosovars not simply autonomy but independence. Such a policy would have rejected the no-casualty mentality of the Clinton administration, and would have viewed the entire undertaking less as an act of philanthropy than as a test of American resolve and responsibility.

It is hardly without significance that those who have put forward this more assertive strategy frequently appeal to the figure of Theodore Roosevelt. McCain invoked TR in many of his stump speeches, and Kristol, Brooks, and Kagan have all but made him their exemplar. He is not a bad choice. On the one hand, TR advocated a muscular American role in the world, one that emphasized national honor and, to use his words, “the great fighting, masterful virtues.” On the other hand, this unapologetic advocate of American power was, as his biographer John Milton Cooper has written, “the most visionary idealist in American politics.” Against the doctrine of realism in foreign policy, TR maintained that one morality applied to individuals and states alike, and repeatedly affirmed his belief that righteousness and justice were more important than peace. As it happens, TR also played a crucial role in America’s first quasi-humanitarian war, our intervention in Cuba in 1898, even taking part in the fighting.

But if Roosevelt’s life and thought thus point toward an alternative to the Left’s version of humanitarian intervention, one needs to know whether, today, the sorts of conditions obtain that might make intervention of this kind feasible. In learning from TR what is necessary for the success of the humanitarian endeavor, we may also discover whether we can, in fact, approximate his example.




For Roosevelt, humanitarian war was not only a matter of saving lives, as it is for today’s liberals. It was also freighted with political content, and carried implications as much for domestic as for foreign policy. In Roosevelt’s approach, perhaps the first requirement of humanitarianism was that it be rooted in a vibrant patriotism—a patriotism that could alone supply an answer to the all-important question of why we should fight for others.

Roosevelt’s understanding of the relationship between patriotism and humanitarianism was no doubt partly influenced by the Cuban crisis of 1898. Cuba had long been seeking independence from Spain, but without success, and with little support from the United States. But the view of the American public (and government) began to change when Spain cracked down on Cuban insurgents with its infamous policy of “reconcentration,” herding Cubans (along with their livestock) into designated towns occupied by Spanish troops while forbidding the transportation of food from town to town. The result, most certainly intended, was widespread disease and starvation, a foretaste of the bloody century about to dawn—President McKinley went so far as to label it a policy of “extermination.” The historian Ernest R. May believes that some 100,000 Cubans died; at the time, estimates ran as high as 400,000, or one-fourth of the island’s population.

Obviously, our motives for intervening in Cuba were mixed. America had long had designs on the island, and the limited recognition we extended once the war was over demonstrates that we had more on our minds than humanitarian relief when we invaded; nor must one forget that conquest of the Philippines was also part of the Spanish-American war. Yet even as harsh a critic of American imperialism as the historian Charles Beard could later discern in that war “a new note . . . in American diplomacy, the note of moral obligation.” More recently, the leftist political theorist Michael Walzer, in his Just and Unjust Wars, listed Cuba as one of only two identifiable instances of “mixed” humanitarian war (the other one being India’s intervention in East Pakistan—Bangladesh—in 1971).

It was in the midst of the Cuban crisis that Theodore Roosevelt forged his singular combination of humanitarian sentiment and patriotic mission, one of whose touchstones was the need to employ means sufficient to accomplish our ends. Indeed, TR’s patriotism might itself be seen in this light—that is, not simply as an end in itself (which it undoubtedly was) but also as a means to certain humanitarian objectives. As he would famously say during a later electoral season, “It would be a mistake to nominate me unless the country has in its mood something of the heroic—unless it feels not only devotion to ideals but the purpose measurably to realize those ideals in action.”

The connection between patriotism and humanitarianism was drawn explicitly by TR in an article published a few years before our Cuban intervention. Denouncing “milk-and-water cosmopolitanism,” he compared patriotism to, of all things, monogamy in marriage:

Some reformers may urge that in the ages distant future, patriotism, like the habit of monogamous marriage, will become a needless and obsolete virtue; but just at present the man who loves other countries as much as he does his own is quite as noxious a member of society as the man who loves other women as much as he loves his wife. Love of country is an elemental virtue, like love of home. . . . The useful member of a community is the man who first and foremost attends to his own rights and his own duties, and who therefore becomes better fitted to do his share in the common duties of all. The useful member of the brotherhood of nations is that nation which is most thoroughly saturated with the national idea. . . .

TR was on to something here. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville had observed how, in democracies, “the bonds of human affection are wider but more relaxed,” diminishing the willingness to make great sacrifices for great causes. For the spirit of sacrifice to flourish, stronger bonds were required. This was Roosevelt’s insight as well: just as, in the case of the family, those stronger bonds arose out of the conventions and habits of monogamy, so in the case of humanitarian action it was patriotism that inspired individuals to put their lives on the line even when their immediate self-interest was not implicated.

For humanitarian war to succeed, TR believed, it must be undertaken in our own name and monogamously—that is, by a people who had cultivated a special attachment to their own; a philanderer was unlikely to be any more deeply committed to those he hardly knew than to those he knew well.



And that brings us to a second requirement of humanitarianism in TR’s conception of it: namely, the willingness to put one’s life on the line, thus in effect answering the question of who would do the fighting. On this point, he wrote with characteristic bluntness, “I had very deeply felt that it was our duty to free Cuba, and I had publicly expressed this feeling; and when a man takes such a position, he ought to be willing to make his words good by his deeds unless there is some very strong reason to the contrary. He should pay with his body.”

Thus, at age forty, TR volunteered for military service, becoming a lieutenant-colonel in the First United States Volunteer Cavalry, eventually nicknamed the Rough Riders. In his book by that name, he writes that he drew many of his recruits from America’s elite universities, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. These Rough Riders indeed “paid with their bodies”: in 60 days of fighting, one-third of the officers and one-fifth of the men were killed or wounded.

Finally, there is the question of where and when to act, and on behalf of whom. “There are occasional crimes committed on so vast a scale and of such peculiar horror,” TR wrote, that we will want at the very least to express our strong disapproval, at most to intervene. In his view, what distinguished such crimes was the repression or slaughter of entire classes of people, as opposed to individuals: for him, Spain’s extermination of the Cubans, Russia’s treatment of the Jews, and Turkey’s oppression of the Armenians all fit that description. Although circumstance and context would determine where we intervened, our justification in such cases was certain.

But to this TR added a caution: when a country intervened on behalf of some group, it thereby became responsible for that group’s actions and programs, for its subsequent deeds and misdeeds. This was another way of saying, again, that interventions, even those motivated by the purest of humanitarian impulses, always occur in a political context—a point pressed hard in the Cuban crisis by President Cleveland’s Secretary of State, Richard Olney. Before granting recognition to the Cuban insurgents, Olney wanted certain questions answered. “Ascertain,” he instructed an American diplomat in Cuba,

what sort of civil government and administration, if any, prevail in that large part of the island which is under the control of the insurgents. . . . Are there any elections of legislators or other civil officers? Is there any legislature which convenes and enacts laws? Are the insurgent forces under the control of any such civil government? What does this civil government, if any, do in the way of protecting life, liberty, and property? Has it established courts which are actually administrating justice and whose judgments are executed by the ordinary civil processes? Does this civil government, if there is any, lay and collect taxes in accordance with general and special laws? Or is each military commander a law unto himself?

This was a remarkable list, the questions it asked perennially appropriate. It also went beyond what TR himself would probably have demanded as a condition antecedent to action. As he well understood, there would always be occasions when we would want to aid an oppressed people regardless of what we had in common with them politically, and sometimes we might have no choice but to save lives first and ask questions later. Still, the questions themselves would never go away, even when the bloodletting ceased. We would need reassurance that our soldiers did not die in vain, that their lives were given in the name of our ideals of liberty and democracy. This would dictate that we be both careful about where we intervened and forceful about imposing our ideals when and where we did.




Is Theodore Roosevelt’s version of humanitarian war, or an approximation of it, today a “realizable ideal,” to use one of his own phrases? To look again at the three conditions he stipulated for its success is to be filled with doubt.

To begin with, humanitarian war today is closely associated not with a defense but rather with a sharp critique of patriotism and indeed of nationalism. Thus Vaclav Havel, the president of the Czech Republic, celebrated the Kosovo intervention precisely on the grounds of its being unrelated to any one country’s interests—a sentiment echoed by American liberals who favored intervention in Kosovo because our own interests were not at stake. In undertaking humanitarian missions, the Left tends to speak in terms of large abstractions—human rights, democracy, tolerance, or simply the humanitarian ideal itself—and to disdain arguments from American power and its responsibilities. Last December, for example, the Washington Post criticized Senator McCain’s “brand of internationalism” as being too “forthright in celebrating American power,” and complained (!) that the Senator “spoke in one breath of the ‘interests of the United States and the rights of man.’ ”

To be sure, liberal humanitarians have been forced to notice that everywhere we have undertaken interventions in the name of their ideal—from Kosovo to Somalia to Bosnia—we have found ourselves wholly unwilling to match our means to our ends. In his new book, Virtual War, Michael Ignatieff wonders “why nations that have never been more immune from the risks of waging war should remain so unwilling to run them.” William Shawcross, in Deliver Us From Evil, enunciates the same “uncomfortable paradox”: “We want more [things] to be put right, but we are prepared to sacrifice less.”

Though both authors take a stab at explaining the paradox, they do not see what would have been obvious to Theodore Roosevelt: namely, that humanitarianism without patriotism cannot succeed. For if patriotism is like marriage in encouraging us to make sacrifices and commitments we otherwise might not make, humanitarianism, by contrast, is akin to free love: it arises from impulses that, however natural, are indiscriminating and fleeting, and that end, as TR warned, in “the same tepid equality of emotion.” That the present occupant of the White House should be both a great humanitarian and a great libertine would have been, for TR, undoubtedly a source of bitter humor. That he should also be a wildly popular President might have instilled graver worries still.

Which leads us to the issue of the willingness to put one’s body on the line. Whatever we can say about today’s volunteer army, we cannot say that the burden of the nation’s defense is being equally shouldered by all. It is not just that the ranks are filled largely by the less educated and the less affluent, or that certain minorities, especially blacks and Hispanics, are disproportionately represented. The problem goes deeper still. As Thomas E. Ricks has documented in Making the Corps, a vast and growing cultural divide separates the military from the civilian populace.

Many of our elite colleges and universities actively nourish an antimilitary sensibility. Decades ago, many of these same schools, in protest against the Vietnam war, forced officer-training programs from their campuses, never to let them return; others keep them off today because of the military’s policy regarding homosexuals. No less ominously, the gulf between civil and military cultures is also felt in government, where increasing numbers of officials and elected leaders have had no military experience. Yet these are the very same elites who tend to favor humanitarian interventions and wars—interventions and wars to be fought by others. The separation that now prevails between the civil and military leadership guarantees a schizophrenic foreign policy that cannot agree either on its objectives or its means, emboldening us to talk loudly while using a small stick.

Finally, there is the when and the where, and the for whom. On this point, at least, today’s liberal humanitarians would agree with TR that we are justified in acting when entire classes of people are targeted for repression or slaughter. Indeed, President Clinton said as much when he proclaimed to “the people of the world” that if a state sought to wipe out large numbers of innocent civilians based on their race or religion, the United States would intervene on their behalf. But of course, as Kosovo demonstrated, things are rarely so simple.

Certainly, the vast majority of Kosovars who were subjected to harassment and worse were innocent civilians, and their crisis was a humanitarian one. But the Kosovars also had political objectives and ambitions of their own. Most Kosovars, and certainly their political leadership in the KLA, wanted an independent Kosovo ruled by themselves—something they continue to press for today by means of political intimidation and violence. We, on the other hand, stood and have continued to stand against independence and for a multicultural society. Vice President Gore has said that in Kosovo “there must be a genuine recognition of and respect for difference. . . . [and] then . . . a transcendence of difference.” To Bernard Kouchner of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, “the best way forward” in Kosovo is “to create a tolerant and open society where everyone’s rights are respected, regardless of ethnic or religious background, and where all groups can participate in government, business, the arts, and education.”

These are fine goals, but they are ours, not those of the Kosovars—which means that eventually we will either have to accept the political ambitions of the Kosovars for a monocultural, independent nation or we will have to transform their political psychology, teaching them to value diversity and religious toleration. The first option—an independent Kosovo purged of non-Albanians—is unacceptable to most liberal humanitarians. As for the second, liberal humanitarians, and hardly they alone, are temperamentally unsuited to the neoimperialistic (and admittedly gargantuan) task of remaking an entire political culture. Thus we float in a no-man’s land, insisting upon respect for diversity and ethnic comity but, trapped in part by our relativistic tolerance for different ways of life, lacking the will to impose it.




Henry Kissinger contended not long ago that TR’s “approach to international affairs died with him in 1919.” Whether or not Kissinger’s dating is correct, it is hard not to agree with the truth of his dictum today.

Both the cosmopolitan or internationalist Left and the postmodern Left view American patriotism not as a force for good but as a form of ethnocentrism, and a particularly malignant form at that. As the philosopher Richard Rorty has rightly observed of his colleagues on the Left: “They often become convinced that they live in a violent, inhuman, corrupt country. They begin to think of themselves as a saving remnant—as the happy few who have the insight to see through nationalist rhetoric to the ghastly reality of contemporary America.” These are also the advocates of identity politics and multiculturalism, of ethnic and gender studies, of quotas and racial gerrymandering. How a balkanized America can bring peace to the Balkans or anywhere else is a mystery. And how elites who reject universalism at home can assert it abroad is entirely unclear.

But what about conservatives? Most of them, after all, have a considerably more favorable (and considerably more accurate) picture of their country. Nevertheless, their patriotism, and their sense of the national interest, are pinched. When William Kristol and David Brooks put forward their TR-inspired program of American greatness, the business and libertarian wings of the Republican party recoiled in horror at its big-government implications. For their part, some religious conservatives have accused Kristol, Brooks, and Kagan of indulging in a pagan form of state-worship. Most Republicans simply yawned.

Under the circumstances, the conclusion is inescapable that our country is not ready for humanitarian war. Is this to say that it will never be ready? One small but hopeful sign of change is the movement on some elite campuses—Harvard being a notable example—to bring ROTC back; even more heartening is the fact that this move is being spearheaded by undergraduates themselves. (At Harvard, where 51 percent of students support the return of ROTC, the undergraduate council voted last year for its restoration, only to have the administration reject the vote.) Then, too, with the end of the cold war, at least some on the Left have dropped their strident and reflexive anti-Americanism. Finally, if the McCain phenomenon proved anything, it is that patriotism is not dead in America, and that, the Washington Post notwithstanding, many Americans see nothing at all wrong in speaking “in one breath of the ‘interests of the United States and the rights of man.’ ”

In short, humanity’s cause is likely to have a future with us on the day when more Americans come to believe that upholding this cause is a matter of their special national honor. Bringing that day closer is a task for leadership, cultural and intellectual as much as political. Until then, our humanitarian interventions—such as they are, such as they have become—will continue to be marred by inconsistencies, in-consequentiality, and, possibly, worse.


About the Author

Adam Wolfson is editor of the Public Interest

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