A Humanitarian War?

Do you remember the first time you gave some money to a beggar? How many had you turned away, telling yourself, "next time, next time" before you finally dug some change out of your pocket? If you have given often, have you ever thought, he's just going to use it to get drunk? I'll bet you have. Did that stop you from giving again?

If you could help everyone who was in need, and it was no sacrifice, I bet most of you would. But you can't, so you have to be picky. The guy at the street corner with that smoldering spark of hope in his eyes, holding up a sign declaring that he will work for food: I bet you'd rather help him than the inebriated chap stumbling toward you saying, "Gimme yer money, I need some fuckin' money!" I bet the choice is even easier when both guys are standing right there, in front of a bar. You have this gut feeling that the guy who hasn't given in to drink is probably more worth your dollar than the lush.

So it is with humanitarian aid: In a world of finite resources, you help the ones that will benefit most, or maybe the one that's easiest to reach. So too with humanitarian intervention. Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe writes in defense of a humanitarian case for the Iraq War, beginning with a quote from Pamela Bone:

She is writing about a group of female Iraqi emigrees whom she met in Melbourne in November 2000.

"They told me that in Iraq, the country they had fled, women were beheaded with swords and their heads nailed to the front doors of their houses, as a lesson to other women. The executed women had been dishonoring their country with their sexual crimes, and this behavior could not be tolerated, the then-Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, had said on national television. More than 200 women had been executed in this manner in the previous three weeks.... Because the claims seemed so extreme, I checked Amnesty International's country report.... Some of the women's 'sexual crimes' were having been raped by one of Saddam's sons. One of the women executed was a doctor who had complained of corruption in the government health department."

It was cruelty such as this that has stirred other liberal lions, such as Christopher Hitchens, to join others in support of the war. And yet. And yet:

I remember asking Ted Kennedy during the run-up to the war why he and others in the antiwar camp seemed to have so little sympathy for the countless victims of Ba'athist tyranny. Even if they thought an invasion was unwise, couldn't they at least voice some solidarity with the innocent human beings writhing in Saddam's Iraqi hell? Kennedy replied vehemently that he took a back seat to no one in his concern for those who suffer under all the world's evil regimes, and demanded to know whether supporters of war in Iraq also wanted to invade North Korea, Burma, and other human-rights violators.

It was a specious answer. The United States may not be able to stop every homicidal fascist on the planet, but that is hardly an argument for stopping none of them.

It is not a perfect analogy to the beggars, certainly. The fact of war makes it a less than perfect analogy. But the fact is that, despite whatever you, dear reader, may believe about the Bush Administration's rationale for war, there was a deeply urgent humanitarian need in Iraq, that could only be met by the ousting of Saddam's regime. Iraq was the case that could most benefit from "help", and that was most easily reachable: Saddam had, through his intransigence not only on ceasefire terms, but U.N. Security Council Resolutions (for what they're worth), provided the legal basis for what amounted to a resumption of the first Gulf War. There are few other countries that are implacable inimical to the United States, that are also security risks as well as humanitarian time bombs waiting to go off.

There is no doubt that we have expended much treasure on Iraq, not only in money, but in the irreplaceable lives of our sons and daughters. A cost so dear may not seem, to some, to have been worth it. Yet how much more meaningful is our aid, than mere money? Anyone can throw money around. But how many would have sacrificed lives? Especially, who among the Western nations would have sent soldiers in the path of real harm, for a people from such a different culture?

Anyway, what's done is done. Now we have a choice. Do we withdraw, and congratulate ourselves for having given a fish to the pauper? Or do we stay, and teach the pauper how to fish for himself?

(Hat-tip: Lorie Byrd)

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

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