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Americaâ€šÃ„Ã´s president-elect needs to remake the case for humanitarian intervention abroad
IN AMERICA this has been a week for the drawing up of listsâ€šÃ„Ã®lists of the virtues of Barack Obama, lists of big names for his administration, lists of big tasks for his bulging in-tray. But in Congo this week a million hungry and terrified refugees are in desperate need of food and protection (see article). The two things are connected, in a way that may surprise, and dismay, Mr Obamaâ€šÃ„Ã´s admirers. If he is to prove worthy of the near-universal exaltation with which his election has been greeted, he has to prepare America and the world for the possibility of further American military interventions overseas.
This is not to say that it is America that has to provide the 3,000 extra peacekeeping troops the United Nations has asked for in Congo. The French have troops available, and America is in no mood for new entanglements. With an overstretched army and an economy on life support, most Americans reckon this is a time to rebuild at home, not embark on new adventures in far-flung places. Most foreigners probably agree. In their eyes, George Bushâ€šÃ„Ã´s wars were a disaster, if not a crime. They think that whatever Mr Obama says about winning in Afghanistan, he was elected to practise war no more.
A lovely sentiment. The trouble is that history does not take a holiday just because America needs a breather. Mr Obama will sooner or later face a question that has plagued all recent presidents. Forget about wars launched in the name of defeating terrorism, stopping nuclear proliferation or pursuing some other direct American interest. What should the worldâ€šÃ„Ã´s strongest and (still) richest country do when famine or conflict strike places whose own governments will not or cannot help, where America has no direct interest, but where averting a humanitarian disaster may require military intervention?
The answers of previous presidents have depended on temperament and circumstance. George Bush senior sent marines to feed Somalia. Bill Clinton used force to stop the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo but not in Rwanda, where Hutus killed close to 800,000 Tutsis. The junior Bush decided against intervention in Darfur, even though his own administration called the ethnic cleansing there a genocide and the killing goes on.
It remains to be seen where Mr Obamaâ€šÃ„Ã´s temperament will lead, but it is easy to see how circumstances might dull any appetite for intervention. It is not just that America is stretched thin; the Bush years have also damaged the intellectual case for intervention. America did not invade Afghanistan and Iraq out of altruism, but those wars have shown how hard it is to rebuild broken countries. Congo itself is an example; even with the UNâ€šÃ„Ã´s biggest peacekeeping operation it is still in danger. For several years The Economist has repeated like a stuck gramophone needle a call for intervention in Darfur, but we acknowledge the law of unintended consequences. In all such cases, the use of force should be the very last resort.
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