Timing Invasions

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.

30 thoughts on “Timing Invasions”

  1. Perhaps a limited strike on the generals themselves would free the country to accept unlimited aid, rather than the carefully controlled help that the madmen who rule Burma are currently allowing. I am aware of how difficult that would be — probably almost impossible, but it might free the international community to help the Burmese, so it is worth considering.

  2. Daniel,

    Killing the generals would most likely just start a struggle for power among the colonels. We could actually trigger a deadly civil war.

    Remember, relief operations are massive logistic operations carried out against the clock in chaotic environments. The last thing we need is for a shooting war to break out.

    What we could do would be to make a credible threat to kill the generals later if they don’t cooperate with the relief operations. Unfortunately, we don’t have the credibility such that anyone would take such a threat seriously.

  3. Time magazine has trashed President Bush for invading Iraq every week since May 2003. They either need to admit that they are full of $#;+ or that this article is a joke.

  4. Shannon,

    I agree that the power vacuum would be too tempting for the junior madmen to pass up. But destruction of command and control would render them relatively powerless, regardless of their desire to destroy. And yes, I just added an additional requirement for success, but these evil men are going to be responsible for the deaths of many hundreds of thousands of Burmese. Perhaps a civil war would be less deadly than what is surely coming.

    This is an ugly situation with no clear solution.

  5. The US government and military should stay the Hell out of there.

    If the Myanmar government asks for help, we can decide what to do. If not, so be it.

    There is no way the US should shoot its way in there to help the victims. Their suffering is very sad, but it is not our fault or our problem. Their rotten government is evil, and making things worse, but that is also not our fault or our problem.

    Most likely, a US invasion would rally the survivors to wage an insurgency against our “humanitarian” occupation. Forget about it.

    There is no tangible benefit to the USA to sending anyone in there without a request from the government. If the entire country died of dysentery, it would have zero impact on us beyond feeling queasy at the TV images. Absent some tangible benefit to the USA, the wellbeing of the entire population of Burma is not worth one American life lost in an invasion.

    We stayed out Rwanda, wisely. We have stayed out of Sudan, so far, wisely. We should have stayed out of Somalia and Bosnia and Kosovo.

    Lots of unfortunate things happen in the world. This one of them. Change the channel.

  6. “And Europe and the Pacific? At what point do you think we should interfere?”

    When the person proposing the invasion can articulate some tangible interest of the USA for an invasion.

    The first Gulf War was seen as protecting our oil supply. The public supported the war on that limited basis. Humanitarian appeals had little impact on the public.

    After the big tsunami, the Indonesian government asked for help. We helped. That’s fine.

    But the American public gnerally seems to believe that its military exists to defend America — specifically, to kill America’s enemies. It does not like it when its military goes to some foreign locale for supposedly humanitarian reasons and gets shot at. I share this view.

    I don’t think any of this is complicated.

  7. Lexington,

    Your condescension aside, no, it’s not complicated. It is an interesting question that Shannon asked and answered. My point was not that the idea of decapitation in Burma was good or bad, but that it might work in releasing the international communities relief efforts. And I did not suggest a presence in the country, merely the killing of the generals who run the country. So whatever unhappiness on the part of the American people would be muted by the conspicuous lack of a military presence in the country.

    As for your comment that we should “change the channel?” I hope that you are being inflammatory, because regardless of one’s feelings about American involvement in a purely humanitarian operation in a hostile country (and your points are valid, and I agree, at least in part), the suggestion that we simply ignore this disaster is insulting and, in fact, beneath contempt.

  8. Daniel, looking at my comment, I see it comes off as being snide to you. Sorry about that, and you are right to object to the tone.

    The suggestion that American soldiers should be killed and maimed so that the American public can pay to take care of of the victims of a disaster in a foreign country is, in my view, the idea that is beneath contempt. The USA really is not the world’s SWAT team.

    Also, “decapitating” a government that is a close ally of China is a good reason not to do it. We have enough conflict with China. We would be better off getting on the phone to the Chinese and asking them to go in there and help their ally, then we could probably assist with that project. But as the Tsunami showed, countries that are not dictatorships respond a lot better to these kinds of things. It is sad for the Burmans, but it is not a situation we can fix, let alone with armed force.

    When I say “change the channel” I mean it literally. These disasters that are not our fault and not our responsibility are only a problem when people see the images on TV and feel pangs of baseless guilt. Then, as they so often do, they want the Government to “do something”. Our Government “doing something” is very often a bad idea. Attacking a foreign country that has not offended us except by being corrupt and inept is a terrible idea.

  9. This is off-topic, but we might at least learn from this tragedy that a) a totalitarian government estranged from and paranoid about the rest of the world is likely to use its citizens as pawns and care little about their deaths; and b) democide kills more than wars do. The second does not seem to be a lesson we often take from tragedies such as these, perhaps because it seems so coldhearted. Perhaps also because it demonstrates that wars can solve some problems and one such problem is a corrupt leader.(Not that America can go around knocking off every leader who is abusing his citizens and committing democide, not that this situation and ours is far too complex to do this.) In the U. S., some corrupt mayors rule in a similar fashion; they may not be killing their citizens but by not instituting a real respect for law and by filling their administrations with cronies and relatives, they are miniature versions of tinpot dictators. Of course, we view the torturers of Saddam in a more dismal light than, say, such mayors. And well we should. But, people are as dead – and unnecessarily so – in Chicago from uncontained violence as in Burma from lack of health care that could be available. We need to keep these in mind whenever we think that voting for someone who we know is likely to be susceptible to corruption or egomania doesn’t make much difference. It does.

  10. Invasion is not a good idea. The soft-heart internationalists and humanitarians who are clamoring for military action against the Burmese government would change their tune the second a missile got fired and someone got hurt.

    They love to propose this kind of give-a-damn armed social work (as long as a Republican isn’t in charge), but their record of follow-through is spotty at best.

  11. Hmmmm.

    I’m with Lexington.

    The US military is busy. NATO on the other hand doesn’t have the stones to offer up 3,500 troops from a combined military of 3.5 million.

    Want military intervention in Burma? Ask NATO. Ask the EU. Ask the UN.

    Don’t bother US.

  12. There is nothing the U.S. military can do to undo what has befallen the people of Burma. Invading the country under the pretext (no matter how noble) of saving the citizens from their evil, yet legitimate government will only result in the meaningless deaths of U.S. servicemen and vomitous spewings by the liberals of the world with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, telling us that we had no business invading in the first place.

    Let some other country have this one. Russia seems anxious to show off its new military toys – let them handle this humanitarian invasion.

  13. Marketeer,

    …saving the citizens from their evil, yet legitimate government…

    Sovereignty rest only in the people. A government is made legitimate not by international recognition but by the consent of its people it holds authority over.

    For the government of Burma to be considered legitimate it would need broad support in the population expressed by some explicit mechanism such as an election.

    If our goal is to bump off the government and restore sovereignty to the people, we have the moral right to invade or otherwise subvert the government anytime we want.

  14. I think that we could easily topple Burma.

    I suggest we start with N. Korea for a real challenge. Same rationalle.

  15. Shannon –

    I should have qualified my comment – their government is ‘legitimate’ in that it is recognized by other nations.

    However, you are naïve in your assertion that “A government is made legitimate not by international recognition but by the consent of its people it holds authority over.”

    That’s an American way of thinking (and one that I happen to agree with).

    Unfortunately for much of the rest of the world, a government that holds power over its people doesn’t give a damn about our thoughts of legitimacy, democracy, fairness, or morals.

    I can think of several countries that the US considers allies that are ruled by a government not elected by the people. Do you propose that we after we finish with Burma, we pay a visit to Saudi Arabia? What about Egypt? For that matter, what about Vatican City? It’s considered a sovereign state, and I don’t see too many Catholics voting for the Pope (okay – bad example).

    My point is, if we are to start “bumping off governments and restore sovereignty to the people” because we think we “have the moral right to invade or otherwise subvert the government anytime we want,” then we truly are an imperial superpower imposing our will and our views on the world, and we are in for a lot of “humanitarian invasions.”

  16. Markateer,

    you are naïve in your assertion that “A government is made legitimate not by international recognition but by the consent of its people it holds authority over.”

    My definition is not naive, rather it speaks to morality of war and sovereignty. If you purpose to that the state of “sovereignty” protects an arbitrary region from being attacked, then you must propose a real world mechanism for establishing which areas are sovereign and which are not. I offered the only practical means of doing so.

    Unfortunately for much of the rest of the world, a government that holds power over its people doesn’t give a damn about our thoughts of legitimacy, democracy, fairness, or morals.

    So? Why do we care what others who do not hold our values think? Come that, how do we actually know what the people of the world think as opposed to their self-interested ruling class? Being popular and accepted is nice and all but being right and making the world a more free, just and prosperous place is even better.

    I can think of several countries that the US considers allies that are ruled by a government not elected by the people.

    Again, so what. The lack of moral sovereignty doesn’t require us to intervene it just allows to intervene if we judge it necessary without having to worry that we are subverting the will of the people who live there.

    My point is, if we are to start “bumping off governments …

    You making a strawman argument. No one is suggesting we start simultaneously trying to improve everything, everywhere at once. We could however, intervene in the worst 5% of cases in order to prevent mass death or to further our own security interest.

  17. Whew…

    How many posters have spent time in that part of South/South East Asia? Because this talk about “averting” humanitarian this or disaster that in that part of the universe isn’t as neat as it looks on a neo-colonial map from the U.S. or Europe. On one side is a slice of India that not even the Indian military really controls. On another side is Bangladesh, a 150 million person Country that’s pretty much chronically in a state of chaos and civil mayhem. On another side is Cambodia, which itself has yet to recover from a genocidal civil war so bad the Vietnamese actually sent THEIR military over the border to squash their former ideological pals. And right smack (apropos pun) in the middle of Burma’s border with China and it’s other neighbors is the Golden Triangle, which after Afghanistan is the second largest producer of the universes raw opium harvest, controlled marginally by… NO ONE (although the warlords pay off all the areas militaries).

    In other words, one would have to have just about zero experience with the area to imagine establishing “order” there is possible without the local militaries (i.e. the allied factions of “officer corps” who rule those places). lol. “Hey, Heroin Warloard! Stop enslaving locals to harvest your crops and drafting children into your gang! Or else we fat rich civilians are going to sic the U.S. military on you! We mean it! We have a VOTE and we’ll MAKE our Congressmen or President ORDER those other Americans volunteering in the military to kill you!” lololol. Good luck.

  18. A. Scott Crawford,

    That was rather my point. Establishing even the limited amount of order necessary for relief work would be a long term project.

    In colonial days, colonial powers could make a credible threat to merely punish and perhaps kill the leadership of groups who crossed them. We lack that ability today. Nobody will believe we will do act until we do so.

  19. A modest proposal:

    How about rounding up all military-age illegals in this country, arming them, and then air-dropping them over Burma, in a Dirty Dozen-style operation, with the proviso that if they succeed and survive, they’ll automatically receive U.S. citizenship.

    Works for me.

  20. I have live in that area of the world, and you are percisely right about the fractured nature of nations there. ESPECIALLY Myanmar which already has several insurgencies going on (and has for a long time).

    Were we, theoretically speaking, to actually invade, we would need to define success down to control of certain geographical areas and restoring sovereign control to the majority in those areas only. There are parts of that country controlled by minority groups that have intractible grievences with the central government, and isn’t a conflict we want to insert ourselves in. Nor is the area that these groups inhabit particularly accessible: it’s not good ground for an invader to fight on.

    We could invade the bulk of the country and ignore the areas of worst insurgency, leaving it to the new Myanmarese government to deal with (or not). Whether we actually should is a whole different question, however.

  21. I’m coming in a little late here, but I have to ask: If we choose not to invade, will we be called “stingy?”

    And, to what degree should fear of being so tarred determine my nation’s collective response to this disaster?

    Stayin’ tuned…

  22. I think the USA learned its lession with Iraq, and will not be sending troops into other countries for military operations anytime in the near future, regardless of who wins the next election.

    So to those suffering under the evils of the Burmese junta or the depredations of the Sudanese muslims, I guess the answer is to look to the EU for your salvation. I suggest not holding your breath, at least while you can still draw one.

  23. As nuclear weapons spread we are faced with the probable future deaths
    of millions of americans when nuclear devices are set off in american
    cities. All of the burmese sufferings today seem minor compared to
    this likely future catastrophe.

    And of course the potential and likely use of nuclear weapons threaten
    every human being, not just americans, even though for the moment we
    may seem most in danger.

    I’m not calling for a world free of nuclear weapons; this isn’t a
    genie that can be put back in the bottle. But I am saying that the
    reduction in the number of groups that have access to this should
    be at the top of our priorities.

    And further that this should be a legitimate pretext for invasion. The
    only pretext really, because our power is limited. If we systematically
    go after small countries that seem on the verge of acquiring nuclear
    weapons then maybe we can change the future, or at least alter the

    We need to create a world where it’s acceptable to demand and get
    proof that a small country is not developing or acquiring nuclear weapons.

    We need to be aggressive in demanding that proof and actually invade
    even if we are less than certain the activity is actually occurring.

    I don’t imagine this advice is going to be followed. I’m sure we will
    only really start to do this after ten million americans are dead.
    Unfortunately at that point this will seem like moderate advice. Many
    will be arguing for the total nuclear annihilation of suspected enemy

    I’m afraid we will give in to that temptation.

  24. Mark: you’re calling for a return of the Bush Doctrine.

    It’s been put on hold due to total lack of support by the media and the Congress, The CIA, the State Dept….

    We’ve returned to James Baker style diplomacy. I guess we have to relearn the lessons of 1990-2001

  25. Vince…

    its the James Baker realist pro-stability doctrine that led up to 9/11, the current Lebanon disaster, and the mess in the middle east with fanatic/fascist/pan-arabic regimes free to scapegoat the US as the great satan.

    Agreed, the Bush doctrine isnt all that, but in my opinion, its a step in the right direction, (until we formulate something better) away from tolerating regimes like Myanmar/Burma that if something isnt done, could be another khmer rouge, with noone left alive but fearful, cowed, terrorized citizens.

    Whats sad is that we are the only superpower to take a step to promote liberal values of individual freedom abroad in recent times. And ridiculed by its own elites for doing so.

  26. Jay: I’m totally for the Bush Doctrine and against the stupid, shortsighted, and suicidal James Baker model

    We’re in complete agreement

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