I haven’t done any political writing on this blog, but I am going to change that with this post. Syria has been in the news lately and now because of Assad’s use of chemical weapons it has reached a level of international consciousness such that leaders are talking about military intervention. As such I want to present my idea for how to deal with oppressive regimes around the world that draws from promising law enforcement techniques and puts military intervention on firmer moral ground.
Right now in the U.S. a novel and effective technique is being developed to deal with parole violators. The idea is fairly simple, use your limited resources to focus on a small number of parolees, probably your worst offenders, and monitor them scrupulously for violations. When they realize they can’t get away with anything they will naturally fall in line. At this point you shift your resource to the next group, but you leave the explicit threat that you will bring down the hammer on anyone in the first group that gets out of line even though you are no longer targeting them intensely. The best feedback is always assayed quickly and regularly and as such the targeted parolees quickly learn to behave within the bounds of their parole.
This technique allows the limited resources of our parole officers to cover a much larger group of people effectively. Apart from that it works better for the parolees who are much less likely to to commit violations and be sent back to jail with the commensurate increase on our government coffers that entails. It’s a win-win situation for everyone and it has has great success in the states that have tried it like Hawaii.
Now I would adapt this to foreign military interventions. Make a list ranking nations based on how much better life would be for its people without its current oppressive regime. There is a lot of guess work here, but it’s better than nothing. Maybe you would even factor in how much it would cost to topple said regime and rank the list based on cost/benefit analysis, though that might look a bit cold-hearted.
Now explicitly state that you are going to work from the top of the list on down and start taking down dictators. You would be careful not to embroil yourself too much in nation building, though obviously some stability is required. Instead, you clearly threaten to return if the next regime starts to get out of hand even if it’s not top of the list material. Hopefully, this will curtail recidivism in nations. In a broader context, once the nasty regimes of the world see you are serious I suspect they will begin to moderate themselves in a competition to not be at the top of the list.
This to me, puts military intervention on sturdier moral footing. As it is now we seem to play whack-a-mole with malevolent dictators based on whoever currently has the world’s notice. Decades long atrocities in a country are fine as long as you don’t escalate anything and in doing so bring it to the forefront of international consciousness. If we decide to make it a policy to police the world then we should start with those countries that stand to gain the most from our help rather than based on whatever country pricks our first world guilt at any given time.
I mean why was it OK to intervene in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan and not a dozen other countries at least as terrorized by their government? Why is it now conventional wisdom that invading Iraq was a mistake and that maybe Afghanistan is still justified? Is it just because rebuilding Iraq was so much harder than anticipated? Why is it, suddenly, that we are contemplating intervening in Syria? Is it because he used chemical weapons? Would it have been less worthy of action if he had just killed the rebels with bullets?
I still haven’t been able to tease out a morally consistent answer to all of these questions. I guess in Iraq and Afghanistan we were defending ourselves against terrorists, but I think any moral code would find our response to terrorism a disproportionate response and thus inappropriate justification for war. Three thousand people died in the September 11th attacks with another six thousand injured. We have killed at least an order of magnitude more foreigners in retaliation, probably most of them innocent civilians, along with uncountable amounts of human suffering.
More recently we entered the fray in Libya to help dethrone Qaddaffi. While not a nice guy he no longer supported terrorism and seemed a bit less exuberant in his oppression. His opposition was a bunch of rebels that once in power committed their own human rights abuses. At the same time, our support of the rebels may have created a moral hazard. Rebels in other countries may conclude that if they start a minor civil war that maybe the Western nations will take their side and help topple the current regime. This may be why the Syrian civil war started at all.
Anyways, my point is that if we, as a nation, decide that military incursions to change governments is acceptable (and post-WW2, at least, our leaders have decided it is) then we need to do it in a morally consistent fashion and not whenever it catches our fancy. I, personally, think there are better humanitarian interventions than killing people. Even if we employed the Carr doctrine I am skeptical that using military force would be a net positive change in human welfare in the vast majority of cases. It is certainly not clear that is the case in Iraq yet, but maybe more time needs to accrue.
In conclusion, any properly calibrated moral system should be weighted heavily against aggressively killing people. But even if it is justifiable, it should be done in a consistent manner. You can’t solve all the world’s problems, but you should aim for the ones where you can do the most good.