The area where security studies and humanitarian intervention cross is a very interesting space for contemplation.
It appears that approval from the United Nations or NATO has become a necessary condition for US humanitarian military intervention. Conventional explanations emphasizing the pull of legitimacy cannot fully account for this, since US policymakers vary considerably in their attachment to multilateralism.
Stefano Recchia argues that America's military leaders, who are consistently skeptical about humanitarian intervention and tend to emphasize its costs, play a central role in the existence of multilateral approval.
As long as top-ranking generals express strong reservations about intervention and no clear threat to US national security exists, they can veto the use of force because no threat is thought to exist.
In such circumstances, even the heavyweight “humanitarian hawks” among the civilian leadership, who initially may have wanted to bypass multilateral bodies to maximize US freedom of action, can be expected to recognize the need for UN or NATO approval—if only as a means of mollifying the generals, reassuring them about the prospect of sustained multilateral burden sharing.
Two case studies drawing on interviews with senior civilian and military officials illustrate and probe the plausibility of this argument. In late February 2011, after Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi launched a brutal crackdown on local insurgents, national security leaders in the Barack Obama administration began debating the possibility of humanitarian intervention (of a military nature).
At one end of the policy spectrum were senior civilian officials of liberal Wilsonian persuasion. They included National Security Council (NSC) staffers, Samantha Power and Benjamin Rhodes, as well as ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice—who vigorously called for military action. At the other end were secretary of defense, Robert Gates, and the top military leaders who opposed intervention and highlighted attendant risks and potential long-term operational costs.
President Obama waited until 17 March before deciding in favor of intervention—but by then, NATO allies, led by Britain and France, had pledged that they would carry most of the operation's burden after the initial degradation of Libyan air defenses.
Moreover, on that same day, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1973. This authorized NATO allies “to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.”
The Libya intervention is part of a pattern. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has used military force for humanitarian purposes numerous times, including in Northern Iraq (1991), Somalia (1992), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1994–95), and Kosovo (1999). In each case, policymakers secured approval from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) or NATO's North Atlantic Council (NAC), as well as concrete burden-sharing commitments from international partners prior to intervention.
Securing UNSC or NAC approval is often time consuming. It constrains US freedom of action, it may require substantial side payments and logrolling, and it entails a loss of secrecy and thus typically eliminates the element of surprise.
Policymakers can therefore be expected to seek such approval only if and when they anticipate that the benefits will undoubtedly outweigh the costs. The conventional wisdom is that US civilian leaders have either internalized or feel bound by norms of legitimate behavior, which demand that “in situations other than self-defense, decisions to use force must be made multilaterally.”
However, standard explanations emphasizing the pull of legitimacy norms cannot fully account for why the approval of standing international organizations (IOs) like the UN or NATO has apparently become a necessary condition for US humanitarian military intervention.
Policymakers in the United States vary considerably in their attachment to multilateralism and consequently in the degree to which they are willing to accept the potentially costly constraints on US freedom of action for the sake of IO legitimation.
Civilian policymakers who view humanitarian intervention as a matter of urgency (the “humanitarian hawks”, as Stefano calls them) often do not feel bound by norms requiring IO approval.
When confronted with humanitarian crises abroad involving mass atrocities, war crimes, or ethnic cleansing, and when international partners do not share the same sense of urgency, the humanitarian hawks may initially be inclined to bypass multilateral bodies like the UNSC and NATO's NAC, to ensure swift military action.
The more dovish policymakers can be expected to place greater importance on IO approval. They do this as a source of legitimacy and a catalyst for domestic and international support. And yet, among US civilian leaders, the interventionist hawks tend to carry disproportionate weight. In the face of a worsening humanitarian situation, they have common morality on their side, and they can appeal to America's sense of exceptionalistic thinking and unique responsibility.
Furthermore, the civilian doves may lack the professional expertise to effectively challenge the humanitarian hawks' optimistic assessment about the risks and likely operational cost of intervention.
It is in this context that the top-ranking generals and admirals play an important role of restraint.
Senior US military officers are consistently more skeptical than civilian policymakers regarding deploying American forces abroad for human rights–related purposes. As the prospect of intervention becomes increasingly real, top-level military leaders: the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the commanders of the unified combatant commands, and senior officers on the Joint Staff typically request clear objectives, a viable exit strategy, and assurances that the operational burden will be shared with international partners.
Because of their informational advantage and the military's high standing in American society, these top-level officers wield an extraordinary amount of influence over decisions related to armed intervention.
As long as they express strong reservations, and the civilian leadership is divided over whether to intervene (which is likely when clear threats to US national security are absent), they can tilt the bureaucratic balance of power toward nonintervention (thus vetoing the use of force).
In such circumstances, even the most heavyweight humanitarian hawks among the civilian leadership are likely to come to recognize the need for UN or NATO approval, if only as a means of mollifying the senior military officers by reassuring them regarding the prospect of sustained multilateral burden sharing.
Stefano´s argument is not that the uniformed leaders' role is always decisive in steering US policy on humanitarian intervention toward the UNSC or NATO's NAC. C
Civilian policymakers may have other, independent motives for seeking IO approval: complying with international norms, reducing international opposition, increasing US public support for intervention, etc.
However, the central hypothesis here is that, perhaps counterintuitively, military leaders constitute the ultimate bulwark against US unilateral humanitarian intervention.
The uniformed leaders are likely to play a particularly salient role in multilateralizing the coercive humanitarian operations that aim to resolve a humanitarian crisis.
Given the difficulties of securing IO approval for such intrusive missions, hawkish civilian officials may at first be especially tempted to bypass multilateral bodies altogether. However, those are precisely the types of interventions that the American military is most likely to oppose in the absence of credible assurances about sustained multilateral burden sharing.
Scholarship on civil-military relations has long emphasized that, although US generals and admirals are reluctant to intervene abroad in pursuit of internal political change absent clear threats to national security, when the civilian leadership orders them to do so, their preference is the deployment of “overwhelming force”, with as much autonomy as possible.
You might infer from this that senior officers should be suspicious of multilateral constraints. During the Korean War, General Douglas MacArthur in fact bemoaned “United Nations restrictions”. He complained that they made it more difficult for the United States to employ force effectively and decisively.
More recently, uniformed leaders have been wary of deploying US troops under foreign command and allowing them to international jurisdiction. However, America's senior officers ultimately appear to be pragmatists on the question of multilateralism. There is evidence that, on average, they value international cooperation through bodies like the UN or NATO more than civilian leaders do.
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