Matthew Yglesias says the reason why Robert Kaplan and George Packer feel free to advocate or half-advocate invading Burma for humanitarian reasons is that it’s never going to happen, and if it were at all plausible they might have to actually think about consequences. “You can even show your thoughtful seriousness about matters of war and peace by chalking up the tragic failure to invade as yet another disastrous consequence of the war in Iraq,” he snarks.
That last twist is wrong: it’s correct to point out the significance of Iraq in the response to Burma. If the international political environment today were more like the one 10 years ago, military pressure by the international community would be a much more significant part of the response to the Burma situation — not invading Burma, but bringing pressure to bear in other ways. If the response were playing out according to the rough script that obtained in the ’90s for international interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, and East Timor, then Western governments would be holding summit meetings right now to put together a coordinated diplomatic approach to pressuring Burma to open hurricane-affected regions to foreign aid agencies, with a threat of military intervention as a last resort. It would be left unclear exactly what foreign militaries planned to do in the last resort, just as it was left unclear in Kosovo and East Timor. The aim would be to push the Burmese government to accept more access for foreign aid agencies in a compromise deal to avoid military conflict. As the unacceptability of the crisis became established in the international public’s mind, diplomatic pressure would be applied on countries reluctant to approve humanitarian interventions, such as China. Ultimately, just as Russia acceded to intervention in Kosovo, China might signal to the Burmese government that it could no longer shield it from international demands. At that point hopefully a face-saving compromise could be found that permitted more access for international aid agencies than would have been obtained without the vague threat of eventual military action.
The major problem obviously is: what if Burma calls the bluff, as Serbia did in Kosovo? Then you’re in trouble. An actual invasion or an attempt to seize and secure the entire hurricane-affected area for relief efforts would be wildly counterproductive, so some kind of smaller feasible action would have to be identified — seizing and securing one small area inaccessible to the Burmese military and thus unlikely to provoke immediate conflict, perhaps, and beginning relief efforts there.
These kinds of interventions had an extremely mixed record in the ’90s. All were complicated, drawn-out messes. Even the successes, in Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor, resulted in countries that are still pretty much basket cases, though they’d be worse off without the interventions. But this model of international action, holding summits, setting deadlines, making coordinated demands, and holding out the vague threat of military action in the background, was a big step forward in establishing an international norm that countries can lose their presumptive sovereignty when they persecute or fail to protect huge numbers of their citizens. They began to establish a norm in the true sense of the word: it began to seem abnormal for countries to engage in genocide or ethnic cleansing, to conquer weaker countries, to deny power to democratically elected leaders, to fake election results. The energy that drove the ’89 revolutions in the Soviet Bloc was the desire to become “a normal country,” and it was the same energy that continued to drive liberal internationalism in the ’90s.
The Iraq War torpedoed that project. There can now be no international threat of military intervention, certainly none led by the US, that is not seen as a fig leaf for American imperial ambitions. And the disastrous quagmire in Iraq has put a far greater accent on the risks of actual intervention, which makes any threat to intervene by democratic nations implausible. It’s not that if not for the Iraq War we would be invading Burma and that’d be hunky-dory. Invading Burma for a humanitarian intervention is such a bad idea that it would probably go nowhere anyway. But if not for the Iraq War, there would be summits and rumblings of international military responses, as there were over East Timor, that would ultimately build to a much more powerful diplomatic coalition against Burma. That’s not happening because, in a post-Iraq environment, when Bernard Kouchner makes noises about forcible humanitarian intervention in Burma, everyone just rolls their eyes. In ’98, it would have been a serious proposal.
Update: Almost a thousand people have read this post since Andrew Sullivan linked to it, and not one has left a comment. I guess it must be perfect!
Update update: Oh, okay, some good comments. I guess it wasn’t perfect.
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