By Roland Watson
January 6, 2005


Historically, other than through efforts at self-defense, there has been no social check on tyranny. If your group was attacked by a foreign aggressor, or subjugated by a homegrown dictator, you were on your own. No one from neighboring societies or the broader international community would help you in any way (unless it was in their own selfish interests to do so).

This situation is still the norm. While the response to the tsunami disaster in South and Southeast Asia does demonstrate a desire to assist others, such desire is dependent on the circumstances. We are most willing to help the victims of natural disaster (and the bigger it is the better); and secondly, the victims of what might be termed the most commonplace social disaster, poverty.

Humanitarian aid is also provided, in some cases, to the victims of conflict (i.e., for refugees). However, this does not qualify as intervention. In no such circumstances are there concomitant actions to end the tyranny and establish a real peace.

In other words, we are willing to help, but only with money – not if it puts us at personal risk.

Further, all such assistance can be viewed reflexively, in terms of what it tells us about ourselves. For the first, we will help the victims of natural disaster because, after all, it could happen to us, too. For poverty, it is arguable that the rich, including rich societies, help the poor out of guilt. But for conflict, since to provide real assistance is so much more difficult, we persuade ourselves that in some way the victims must be to blame and hence it is not our problem.

This failing, our unwillingness to exhibit a moral imperative to assist others in need, with personal and not only financial sacrifice, reflects the primitive state of our species. In a truly civil society, we would put our differences aside and work together to assist anyone who requires it, including through confronting and ending all cases of physical oppression. Therefore, since we will not do this, and notwithstanding our science, technology, wealth and art, I contend that we remain essentially uncivilized.

It is for this reason that history records a never-ending series of the worst forms of conquest and repression, including the extremes of slavery, human sacrifice and genocide.

Following World War II, there was widespread recognition that aggressors, both external and internal, should not go unchallenged. To this end the United Nations was established, with the goal of a stable and peaceful world, where members not subject to an immediate threat would assist those who were.

This initiative has failed. Not only does the United Nations include among its members the leading aggressor countries (e.g., China, Burma, Sudan and North Korea), national selfishness remains paramount. The world is based on competition and self-interest. There is no real sense of community or ethic of selflessness and cooperation.

Because of this, the following analysis is in a sense speculative. It describes those conditions that must be met before a foreign military intervention can be considered to be ethical, and hence justifiable. By way of illustration, the analysis uses as its principal examples the conflicts in Burma and Iraq.

Justifiable military intervention

There are some circumstances – a few – where violence and even war are justifiable. These include: in self-defense, and to assist the self-defense of others. However, in both cases many conditions apply.

For self-defense, the threat must be real, immediate, and verified without dispute. Not only must the gun be pointed at you, you must be certain, with a conviction grounded in reason, that the aggressor is about to pull the trigger. If an armed intruder enters your house, you can presume that he or she means you harm. You therefore have the right to defend yourself. Similarly, if an individual on a street raises a weapon, the police (and bystanders) can presume that he or she will fire and take the necessary steps for self and public defense.

Such a test applies to the defense of one’s society as well. Also, it demonstrates that the doctrine of preemptive war, as it has been promulgated by the Bush administration with regard to Iraq, is not only invalid: it is unethical. The threat of weapons of mass destruction, and their use against the United States, was neither immediate nor real. The threat was based on false intelligence that was knowingly misrepresented to the American public. President Bush did not simply pass on unfounded intelligence to the American people; he knew it was inaccurate. He premeditatively lied to the country (and the world) when he made the case for war in his 2003 State of the Union Address.

(It is astonishing that this lie, that for a President to lie to the people to justify beginning a war, is not itself a criminal act.)

Regarding the defense of others, many additional considerations apply. Furthermore, if we do aspire to become a civilized society, in some cases intervention is not a choice: it is an obligation.

Just as we are obliged to intervene if we chance upon the public commission of a crime, e.g., a woman being raped in the street, so to must our social institutions, i.e., our society’s leaders, step in to end genocide and related crimes against humanity, wherever they are being committed.

Intervention conditions

1. The first condition that applies to a prospective foreign military intervention is that it should be clear that one side is the aggressor and that the other is the victim. In other words, one side must be in the right and the other in the wrong. Needless to say, one should only assist the party that is in the right.

This condition is regularly abrogated, to satisfy perceived national interests. Indeed, this failing, in tandem with similar diplomatic and economic interference, is so commonplace that it has its own descriptive term, “geopolitics,” is studied in universities, and is not even perceived as a flaw.

For example, the pursuit of geopolitics underlies America’s long record of supporting dictatorships in other countries, including militarily, such as the litany of proxy wars through which we fought the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Similarly, it explains our military and financial support for Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. (We should assist neither, at least not in direct, certainly military, terms, since both sides use the most unethical of tactics.) Further, geopolitics underlies the economic support that we, and the European Union, give China.

For Iraq, while it is true that the entire country suffered under Saddam Hussein’s repression, it is also the case that there is no “one side.” The country has many competing or adversarial groups and is effectively a colonial construction. This situation alone should have been sufficient to delay if not block United States military action.

The circumstances are different in Burma. While the country has great cultural diversity and also a history of inter-cultural conflict, there is now unanimity and commitment among the different groups to establish a free and democratic federal union. In Burma, there is “one side” in opposition to the military dictatorship, and further this side is pursuing democracy for the most part using non-violent means.

(There is great violence in Burma, of course, by the Army against the people, and this has been met to a degree by a self-defense response from the groups that are suffering the most.)

2. The second condition is that even in those situations where the repressed population constitutes one side, and is acting ethically, you still must ask first before you make the decision to intervene. It is presumptuous to assume that in all such circumstances your assistance will be welcome. What might seem clear from the outside may be much more confused on the inside.

Further, if in response to your offer you receive a resounding and uniform: “Yes, please liberate us,” then the intervention is certainly justified. On the other hand, if the result is a cacophony of voices, including many objections and reservations, then it is not.

This raises the question: How does one ask? The answer is publicly and repeatedly, through as many media outlets as possible, so not only the suffering population becomes aware of the offer, the entire world is engaged. (Public discussion of the offer, and associated intervention planning, may also be sufficient to convince the offending party to end its repression.)

The issue then becomes, how do you hear the response? In such societies you cannot go door-to-door and conduct a poll. The answer to this is that in even the worst of cases repressed publics do have ways to make their voices heard. This includes through underground communication channels to foreign-based advocacy groups, but more importantly through public demonstrations and acts of sabotage and subversion. Indeed, the onus is not only on the foreign party making the offer; it is on the local population. They have to demonstrate that they are willing to take risks to end their suffering, in other words, that they are deserving of assistance. (This demonstration in turn justifies the costs, and not only the financial costs, but the human as well, of the actual intervention.)

For Iraq, the U.S. did not ask the Iraqi people if they would welcome an intervention. This is not that surprising, though, since the response likely would have been mixed. For Burma, we can only speculate what the response would be, but it is clear that many people in the country would welcome an end to their suffering, however it might be accomplished.

3. In those cases where the above conditions have been met, military intervention, prima facie, is legitimate. The question then shifts to the nature of intervening party. Ideally, of course, it should be multilateral. If there is no real coalition of the willing, this does not in all cases preclude intervention, i.e., a unilateral intervention, but again it should give one pause. Indeed, the likely series of events in a real world situation is not as linear as the above outline presupposes. The international community should begin building a coalition in all cases where evidence of severe repression exists, before the offer of assistance is even conveyed.

4. Lastly, the actual intervention, the resulting conflict, must be carefully considered and planned, and then conducted in an ethical manner. For the first, you need an armed force and intervention strategy sufficient to overwhelmingly defeat the aggressor party, and a follow-on plan for nation building and the establishment of democracy. This entire effort must also include an honest appraisal of the risks involved, including of potential worst-case scenarios – and what would trigger them.

For Iraq, the U.S. intervention was not carefully planned. The force was insufficient; the Iraqi resistance that developed was far greater than expected (and facilitated in part by poor U.S. planning); and the preparation for nation building and democracy was minimal. The result is that the U.S. is now involved in a quagmire, of its own making. If the above analysis defines the textbook case of how to initiate an intervention, the U.S. did everything wrong.

An additional complication is that the people of Iraq are poorly prepared for democracy. They have no experience with or understanding of the political system, including of the responsibilities that they will be called upon to bear. Indeed, it is not even clear that they want it. Democracy is the most advanced political system that humans have developed, but that does not mean that you can force other people to accept it. This must be voluntary. Also, many of the Iraqi leaders openly embrace authoritarianism, in particular through Islamic theocracy, and aspire to become dictators themselves. All of this implies that even if a successful election is held, the resulting democracy will be weak. There is a high probability that a successor dictatorship will evolve.

For the second issue – ethics – an ethical war, which seems an oxymoron but is not, has many characteristics. The first of these is that there should be as small an impact as possible on non-combatants, on the civilian population. This implies many different things, including that child soldiers should not be used, nor landmines or terrorism, that “collateral damage” is not acceptable, and that there should be no imposition of collective punishment.

In addition, there should be fair treatment of prisoners, with no summary execution or torture, and the environmental damage associated with the conflict should be limited to the greatest extent possible.


In Iraq, the U.S. broached these conditions in many different ways. The use of torture was authorized at the highest levels in Washington, and even given legal justification. Further, as the conflict has bogged down and the insurgency grown, the U.S. has excused greater and greater collateral damage, with the result that rather than liberators, we are now viewed by large portions of the Iraqi public as conquerors and occupiers.

What all of the above illustrates is that the war in Iraq was done for the wrong reasons, and in the wrong way. Counter to the statements of Administration officials, it was not a war of liberation. The war was launched for many different reasons. Initially, the threat of war was used as part of the Republican Party effort to win control of Congress in the elections in the autumn of 2002. Then, because Bush had basically written himself into a box, he had to start the conflict. Of course, he wanted to, with or without WMDs and a multilateral coalition. Wartime leaders have a much higher stature than leaders in time of peace. If the conflict goes well, they can claim historical significance. Further, Bush wanted to divert attention from his failure to capture Osama bin Laden; to complete unfinished family business; and to secure oil supplies for American energy companies and industry.

What this analysis makes clear is that the U.S. should not have intervened in Iraq, at least not in the way that it did. It further raises the question, what should we do now?

There is no easy answer to this question (and as a proviso, since I am not on the ground in Iraq, with direct access to local conditions, I must state that I am not sufficiently informed to answer it). One is tempted to leave, now. We made a mistake going there, so we should leave. Further, the people of Iraq can solve their own problems (just as if Hussein had been assassinated). The problem with this position is that there are profound risks associated with a hasty departure, including that the country will degrade into civil war; that Islamist elements will gain large areas of control and then use this to escalate terrorism, both within Iraq and outside; and even that Hussein could be freed and regain power. The risks of staying, though, are no less severe. Iraq is well on its way to becoming another Vietnam, or Palestine, with – for the latter – the U.S. filling the role of the Israelis. But where the Palestinians have few resources and arms, the Iraqi insurgents are very well armed and have substantial foreign support. The conflict, even with a U.S. military presence, could and likely will continue for decades.


The situation in Burma is much more clear-cut. First, the people truly desire democracy, as evidenced by the election that was held in 1990 and which the democratic forces overwhelmingly won. Secondly, there are two sides: the bad one – the military; and the good one – the people of the country, including in all of its different ethnic groups. Further, the military is weak. It has limited armaments, and many of its soldiers have been forcibly conscripted. There is a high probability that a liberation conflict would be extremely short lived. And lastly, the people of the country are suffering terribly. Dire poverty and gross human rights violations are commonplace: the military has conducted a systematic campaign of genocide against numerous ethnic groups.

Burma is a situation where the countries of the world clearly should intervene – militarily. Otherwise, all the talk about democracy, from the United Nations, the European Union and even the United States, is just hollow rhetoric. Burma is the example that proves the opening contention of this article, that the international community will not do what is right, that it exists in name only, and that the grand aspirations arising out of the cataclysm of World War II have not been realized.

The Darfur region in Sudan is a similar illustration. Supplying a small number of peacekeepers to the region to assist the victims of the Sudanese government’s campaign of genocide, and which peacekeepers withdraw at the first sign of trouble (just as they did in Bosnia) is not a real intervention. It is treating the symptom, not solving the problem. The countries of the world will not provide appropriate assistance for Darfur, either by bringing down the government or by inserting a force into the region sufficient to end the repression. The reason for this, again, is geopolitics (Sudan is now claimed by China as part of its sphere of influence, and no one will confront the Chinese dictatorship), and also cowardice. We say we want a world that is civilized and at peace, but this does not come cheap. It is disingenuous to keep stating the goal but refusing to take the necessary steps.

In closing, the above analysis defines those situations where violence and war are ethically justifiable. It also describes why those populations that require foreign military intervention to end their suffering are never helped.

However, we should also not forget that just as the United States (and Israel) cannot use terror to end terrorism, so too we cannot use war to end war, at least for all time. The only way our species can end war for all time is to transcend it, by changing our behavior such that we leave it behind. To do this we must learn, and then actively and continuously work, to cooperate and not compete, including in every aspect of life. It really is that simple. (Even a child can understand it.) Anytime we are in a situation involving other people, we should ask ourselves how we can help them and work together with them, not how we can position ourselves to get an advantage over them and defeat them.