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Saving Lives With Force

How to stop genocide

Was the NATO air campaign against Serbia just a onetime thing, or can the United States and other like-minded countries really stop genocidal wars around the world? Although this war is ending, we might face the question again soon. In recent years, the world has witnessed the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the 1992-1995 Bosnian civil war, and the 1992-1993 war-induced famine in Somalia. Even today, wars that have taken many more lives than the conflict over Kosovo remain unresolved in places such as Angola and Sudan.

We certainly cannot settle every conflict in the world. But the international community can generally do something about the worst wars--if not in every case, then at least in most. The question is how to decide when and where to intervene. Under the 1948 U.N. convention against genocide, the United States is, in theory, obligated to take major steps--up to and including the use of force--to stop genocide. In practice, however, the convention is not such a clear guide. It defines genocide as an effort to destroy, "in whole or in part," a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. But does that mean that a dozen ethnically motivated murders qualify? Presumably not; otherwise, there would be genocides going on all over the world all the time.

Yes, some cases are clear, such as the 1994 genocide by Hutus against Tutsis in Rwanda. But was Serbia's war against the Kosovar Albanians genocide? In 1998 and early 1999, about 2,000 Kosovar Albanians were killed by Slobodan Milosevic's forces--a very modest number of combat-related deaths in comparison with many other wars around the world. However, Serbia's ethnic cleansing operations eventually drove hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians from their homes, exposing them to deadly hunger and disease, and NATO now estimates that Serbian forces killed at least 10,000 mostly unarmed civilian Kosovar Albanians once the air strikes began.

Partly because of these ambiguities, former Representative Stephen Solarz and I have proposed that military intervention should be considered whenever the rate of killing in a country or region greatly exceeds the U.S. murder rate, whether the killing is genocidal in nature or not. Our moral premises are twofold: first, since all human lives have equal value, the United States and other countries should use their military and political resources where they can save the greatest number of individuals. Second, the United States cannot be politically or morally expected to try to make other countries safer than its own domestic society.

The annual U.S. murder rate is roughly 1,000 people per every 10 million. According to our proposal, the United States and other countries should strongly consider intervention where the intensity of killing or war-related starvation is several times greater--say five to ten times that number. To be sure, precise data about death rates in wars is rarely available. Nor should the world wait a whole year to determine an annual rate. And there will sometimes be cases where fewer deaths justify humanitarian intervention. For example, in Haiti in 1994 and in Kosovo this year, the fact that countries suffering civil violence were near to the United States and Western Europe provided an added rationale for action.

Generally, though, the criteria for intervention that Solarz and I have devised narrow the list of candidates for intervention. While wars in Algeria, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Congo, the Ethiopian-Eritrean border area, and a few other places have been severe, they haven't been nearly as lethal as others. As Solarz and I have argued, there were about eight extremely lethal conflicts between 1992 and 1997 that met our criteria: Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, and Angola, as well as Bosnia and Chechnya. Since we first wrote on the topic in the Autumn 1997 Washington Quarterly, North Korea (where the famine stems from the government's tyranny and corruption and is therefore akin to a war) and Kosovo might have joined the list, making for a total of ten during the Clinton presidency. All told, these ten cases have accounted for more than 75 percent of all war-related deaths in the world since 1992.

Once we have reasonable criteria for determining which conflicts are so lethal that they may warrant intervention, the next question is: How do we actually intervene? First and foremost, since saving lives is an inherently political mission that will often be opposed by at least one local party to a conflict, intervening forces need to be braced to take sides; well-intentioned proposals for "separating combatants" and "disarming militias" may not work smoothly. Taking a side means that any intervention will require battle-ready combat units deployed in sufficient numbers to protect indigenous populations and themselves.

In a small, militarily weak country like Rwanda, it might have sufficed to send 10,000 to 15,000 troops. But, in gigantic Angola, where fighting is spread throughout much of the country, or in Kosovo, where the enemy has many tens of thousands of troops under arms and a good deal of heavy military equipment, an intervening force could easily require tens of thousands of troops.

With interventions of this magnitude, the difficulty then becomes getting troops into place quickly enough to stop the killing. In discussions about a possible ground war in Kosovo--and the logistical complications of deploying 100,000 or more fairly heavily armed forces to a remote part of the world with challenging terrain and underdeveloped infrastructure--some people suggested that any NATO ground invasion would have taken three or more months to prepare. While I believe that half that time would have sufficed--an intervention that emphasized Army air assault and Marine Corps forces could have been under way in a little more than a month--Kosovo is probably one of the most difficult interventions we would face. Yes, in most instances we'd likely encounter physical conditions just as challenging as those we would have faced in the Balkans, but the presumed enemy would not be as strong as Serbia.

In such situations, airborne and other light infantry forces, backed up by modest amounts of heavy weaponry, would generally be able to get the job done. And those units could be transported fast--10,000 to 20,000 troops can be moved virtually anywhere in the world within a couple of weeks, even to inland locations like Rwanda. The American C-17 transport aircraft can use most short runways; it and other large planes can also fly to a regional staging base and then transfer equipment to smaller C-130 aircraft and helicopters for a final approach.

And what about air power? Alas, NATO's partial success in Kosovo hardly proves that air power alone can stop civil wars. Most involve few heavy weapons that can be spotted and attacked from long range. And, in less developed countries, there are few large strategic economic targets; bombing them as we bombed Serbia's infrastructure may exacerbate a humanitarian crisis without gaining great leverage over the factions that generally wage such wars.

The truth is that we cannot usually expect humanitarian interventions to be as casualty-free (for our forces) as the recent war against Serbia. Ground-combat missions are inherently dangerous. Dozens of Americans were killed in action in such relatively minor operations as Grenada, Panama, and Somalia. A lucky shot by a man-portable surface-to-air missile or even a rocket-propelled grenade could bring down an airplane or helicopter; that's how the Mogadishu debacle began for U.S. forces in 1993. Even poorly armed militias can successfully ambush Western forces in urban or forest settings.

If we do intervene, we will generally have three kinds of options: (1) take sides, either overthrowing a reigning regime or helping one side in a civil war defeat the other; (2) impose and then enforce a partition line between two main geographic zones (not simply between different militias within a given city or region); or (3) set up safe havens or humanitarian relief zones to protect a threatened population from murder and starvation.

Even if the United States and like-minded countries choose the right time and place to intervene, they could easily go about it the wrong way. For example, waffling between a limited intervention to provide food relief in Somalia and aggressively seeking to eliminate one particular militia from the country's political scene cost 18 American lives in October 1993. In Bosnia, setting up safe havens failed to make towns like Srebrenica anything close to safe. Using air power against Serbia this year has produced an ambiguous result: ethnic cleansing may be largely reversed and Milosevic's aggression ultimately defeated--but at the cost of thousands of Kosovar Albanian lives and the wholesale destruction of their homeland. The wrong intervention may well be worse, or little better, than no intervention at all--not just for our own country but even for those we are trying to help.

Moreover, there will be times--even in cases like the ones that meet Solarz's and my criteria for lethality--when using force to stop genocide or other mass killing won't be appropriate. For a humanitarian intervention to be wise and ethical, it must be attempted only if the odds are excellent that it will make a bad situation better and not worse. Intervening to stop Russia from killing tens of thousands of innocent Chechens, for instance, would have risked a major-power war between nuclear-weapons states with the potential to kill far more people than the intervention could have saved. Invading North Korea to bring food to its starving people would probably precipitate all-out war on the peninsula, quite possibly killing as many civilians in Seoul (to say nothing of soldiers on both sides of the war) as the food aid would save in North Korea. Entering into the Angolan civil war would force us to choose sides between our former anti-Communist associate Jonas Savimbi, a maniacal killer who has already violated two major peace accords, and the corrupt dos Santos government.

In Rwanda, however, the sheer scale of the killing--nearly one million dead in several months' time in 1994--meant that almost any intervention would have been better than standing aside. The international community should have quickly sent at least 10,000 forces to defeat the genocidal Hutu militias that targeted Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Whether those forces then stayed on for years to help the country rebuild or took the radical step of partitioning Rwanda would in this urgent case have been a secondary concern.

In Sudan, we should also have intervened in the early '90s. In fact, the case for doing so may become compelling again, as the cease-fire that has been in effect there for several months shows signs of fraying. The most natural solution to end the fighting and associated famine would be to partition the country into two parts: a predominantly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south. That would not please Western liberals who insist on promoting multiethnic democracies all over the world, but it could save hundreds of thousands of lives quickly, and at a modest blood cost to the United States.

In Liberia, the number of victims in the civil war during the first half of the '90s was much smaller than in Rwanda or Sudan. Nonetheless, the world should have intervened to stop the killing and help establish a coalition government and a professional military. Ethnic hatreds were less severe, and the violence more arbitrary and wanton, than in many other wars. Under those conditions, chances were good that the bloodshed could have been quickly stopped. Liberia's modest geographic size is an additional factor that would have lent viability to a possible intervention.

Does the United States really have to do the lion's share of the work in these types of interventions? Unfortunately, no other country is capable of doing so yet. But our European allies, and several other countries such as Canada and even Japan, should get better at deploying modest numbers of troops to distant combat zones. Granted, this improvement will take several years, even if the European Union's recent efforts to organize itself more effectively for power projection bear fruit. (Only Great Britain and, to a lesser extent, France are making any serious efforts in this direction at present.) As for the neighbors of a country where genocide or highly deadly warfare might be occurring, most would not be militarily capable of conducting operations beyond their own borders. Moreover, it's doubtful that neighboring countries--which may be predisposed to favoring a certain faction over another--are removed enough to play the role of a fair-minded outsider.

Stopping the world's worst wars is not always practical or worth the cost--sometimes our efforts will only produce a temporary peace. But we should have intervened in Rwanda, Sudan, and probably Liberia. In addition, we were right to get involved in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. At least in Somalia and Bosnia, hundreds of thousands of lives were ultimately saved--even if hundreds of thousands had already been lost by the time the interventions took place. If we had intervened properly in all six of these cases, we could have prevented about half of the world's war-related deaths since 1992 and, depending on how you apply the term, two or three genocides. Doing so would have required us to spend a couple percent more on defense than we did this decade. It might have cost dozens or even hundreds of American lives. But we could have saved literally millions of souls in the process--and given a country still searching for its place in the post-cold-war world a much clearer and nobler sense of purpose. 

This article originally ran in the July 12, 1999, issue of the magazine.