One Time’s site, Romesh Ratnesar argues we should consider invading Burma in order to head off a humanitarian disaster that could claim upwards of a million lives.
It’s not a bad idea except it is at least 6 months too late.
One can certainly make a moral case that the circumstance justify military intervention. More people have died in the last 100 years at the hands of their own peacetime government than have died in all international wars combined. Around half died in circumstance such as Burma’s, in which a government chooses to follow polices it knows will lead to mass death, just to preserve its own power.
Unfortunately, war takes time. Preparing for war takes time. I think that fictional representations of war, especially in video and film, often compress people’s sense of the pace of conflicts. People lose the intuitive sense of time and scale that modern warfare requires.
Using force humanely takes more time than using force indifferently. We could use nukes and kill virtually everyone in the country in 45 minutes. We could take a few hours and use nukes to decapitate the leadership. Anything more than that would require weeks to even start. All of this ignores the inherent problem of trying to fight a war and stave off a humanitarian disaster at the same time. Realistically, almost anything we did now would disrupt any ongoing relief effort, pathetic though it is, before we could replace it.
If we wanted to prevent the disastrous response of the Burmese government, we needed to have invaded and removed the mad generals months ago. Of course, had we done, so we couldn’t have pointed to any justification at the time other than the possibility of a mass loss of life in the future.
We’re in a Catch-22. If we use a possible future harm to justify an action which then prevents that harm, then we simultaneously destroy the evidence that we made the correct choice. Political opponents can always claim the action unnecessary and no one can demonstrate otherwise. Paradoxically, the more successfully one averts disaster, the more one’s actions appear unnecessary. If the phenomenon prevented is very rare, many will question its very possibility. It’s like that old joke, “Why do we have so much fire proofing? We never have any fires.”
Even if Burma turns out as horribly as many now fear, I think few would support military action to head off a future repeat. So many people have been programed to view international war as the worst possible fate that can befall a people that few will support a war for any reason. For example, many still believe that the people of Cambodia are better off for having living through Pol Pot’s killing fields, and the death of 1 in every 5 to 7 Cambodians, than they would have been in a U.S. supported war against the Khmer Rouge.
The liberation of Iraq was largely a historical fluke. Without something like 9/11 fresh in people’s minds they won’t support a preemptive action. We could only hope to prevent a future Burma disaster if another similar disaster occurred soon enough before to create public support for preemption.