Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Burma Problem

Robert Kaplan entertains the idea of providing Myanmar with Aid at the Point of a Gun:
60,000 people may have died as a result of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, and at least 1.5 million are homeless or otherwise in desperate need of assistance ... France’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, has spoken of the possibility of an armed humanitarian intervention, and there is an increasing degree of chatter about the possibility of an American-led invasion of the Irrawaddy River Delta ... As it happens, American armed forces are now gathered in large numbers in Thailand for the annual multinational military exercise known as Cobra Gold. This means that Navy warships could pass from the Gulf of Thailand through the Strait of Malacca and north up the Bay of Bengal to the Irrawaddy Delta. It was a similar circumstance that had allowed for Navy intervention after the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004.
I am going to opine on this problem presented by Myanmar.

This is the same old generic problem that comes up with all issues pertaining to intervening to prevent holocausts. Relevant provisions in international law would be most important components of any discussions of this scope, but I'm setting that aside because that's above my expertise and pay grade. I'll just stick with my level of non-expert, non-elite understanding of how things work.

In the first place, nations do not intervene militarily purely for the purposes of preventing holocausts. The American Civil War was not fought to stop slavery, our own national holocaust. Our entry into World War II was not motivated by a need to prevent the genocide of 6 million Jews. Where nation-states intervene in cases of genocide, they do so because of their national interests. This presents two questions.
  1. Where do national interests of states encourage intervention in incidents of mass mistreatment of populations? The most obvious answer is where ethnic cleansing and like abuses of populations infringes on national interest of other states in the neighborhood. The creation of tides of refugees can become an actionable national interest issue. An influx of refugees can gravely affect a neighboring nation's economy. Or it can destabilize a region. On these grounds, I enthusiastically approved of our intervention in Haiti, since 1990, anyways. And for these reasons, I actively urged NATO and American intervention in the Balkans. Serbia's wars of Yugoslavian dissolution threatened the demographic stability of the entire region. The most egregious current case is now Zimbabwe, which has caused a considerable (three million) emigration of refugees. Outsiders such as myself wonder why member states of the African Union do not intervene in this case.

  2. Where do national interest of states permit intervention in incidents of mass mistreatment of populations? The most obvious answer is location, location, and location. Where do the would-be interventionist powers have sustainable technological access to intervening? This is what prevented Clinton from intervening in Rwanda. This is what prevented intervention in the Cambodian killing fields. This is what put the kibosh on intervening in the currently infamous case of Darfur. And, this is what prevents great powers from intervening in Burma. With the exception of China and/or India, no one has logistical access to Burma.
A final consideration bears mentioning. Elective invasions have a tendency of breeding illegitimate, indefinite and costly occupations. Thus,
  • the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq
  • the Ethiopian occupation of Somalia
Kaplan correctly concludes his piece in the NYT:
Sending in marines and sailors is the easy part; but make no mistake, the very act of our invasion could land us with the responsibility for fixing Burma afterward.
Enough said on this point, eh? Where there's no exit plan, exits do not come easily.