A Framework for Intervention

Lieutenant So Won Silas Ahn, USN







As violent conflict around the world continues to imperil regional, and at times global, security, the United States has sought to preserve the world order in which it has a tremendous political and economic stake.  Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has retained a vast military, political, and economic ascendancy that it has used to maintain an international landscape favorable to its interests.  In an attempt to attain the necessary domestic and international support for this endeavor, the United States has appeared to often soften its own self-interest with appeals to humanitarian objectives.  In doing so, the dialogue concerning U.S. foreign policy has become fixated with trying to answer questions about the appropriateness and effectiveness of humanitarian intervention, and particularly intervention involving the employment of military force. This topic has attracted a high level of interest, and generally speaking, commentators have either attempted to produce a list with some general criteria that must be met prior to military intervention, or disparaged such attempts to present a specific framework of action in a “circumstanceless, universal idiom” without reference to the details of the particular crisis at hand.[1]  However, this discourse implicitly disregards the fact that the deployment of troops represents the last resort in a range of ways that a country can intervene: no action at all (Rwanda); diplomatic mediation (Israel-Palestinian conflict); the imposition and enforcement of economic sanctions (Iraq); and direct military action (Kosovo).  Furthermore, the intense focus given to answering the question of what constitutes justifiable intervention overlooks the fact that, in the past decade or so, the U.S. has employed military forces for humanitarian purposes in only a few limited engagements in the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia and Africa, with the evacuation of non-combatants comprising a significant portion of the operations.  In light of this apparent disparity between popular perception and reality, a more fundamental and instructive issue to consider is, “What are the assumptions that drive the United States to intervene?”  Amongst the many complex and varied aspects of this query, the following questions have particular significance:


·        What is the end state that the United States tends to strive for when it intervenes

using military force?

·        Can we separate questions of humanitarian intervention from the broader foreign

policy pursued by the United States?  Specifically, is there a broad consistency between humanitarian intervention, arms exports, and consideration of the national interest?


A deeper examination of these questions will help to place military intervention in a wider perspective. It will also demonstrate the desirability of non-military approaches to preserving global security.



Justice or Order?


            For obvious reasons, the question of humanitarian intervention is usually posed as one of preserving life over death, and the rhetoric of intervention leans toward the moralistic rather than the pragmatic.  It is certainly true that in most cases, the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of people hang in the balance during the decision-making process of whether or not to intervene.  Yet, as the history of intervention shows, the decision to act is rarely made quickly, if at all.  In the past decade, over five million people have been killed as a result of more than one hundred conflicts, a statistic that points toward the reality that the United States has infrequently chosen to intervene in a conflict.[2]  Even when intervention has taken place, whether that involves direct military force or diplomatic arbitration, lasting peace in places like the Balkans and the Middle East has rarely been achieved.  This points toward a basic flaw in the approach that intervening states will tend to take: that because the “security of an individual in one country is to be achieved through the agency of a state…in another country,” the person being “protected” has very little say in the “political procedure that ensures security.”[3]   Under this framework, the decision to intervene is based naturally upon the viewpoint of the state conducting the intervention, and not the viewpoint of the person on behalf of whom the intervention is taking place.  Of course, there may, but will not necessarily be, a correlation between the two perspectives, but not necessarily out of design.

The underlying assumption that drives United States intervention in other countries, as will be shown in the following discussion, is the high value that the U.S. places on peace, defined narrowly as the absence of violence or conflict – peace in “the negative sense of the mere absence of war.”[4]  Understanding the high value placed on order is central to making sense of the foreign policy decisions that the United States makes.  The cessation of violence is certainly a worthy goal, but viewed in the hierarchy of desired end states, it is not necessarily the highest priority.  This is especially true if the combatants feel that they have a just cause for fighting and are more concerned with “the achievement of justice in the world community, even at the price of disorder.”[5].  If this is the case, attempts to stop violence without regard to the resolution of the core issues driving the conflict may actually serve to hinder a longer-term solution for peace in a broader sense.  This division between those pursuing order and those pursuing justice will usually reflect the political, military and economic positions that actors in the international arena find themselves.  Simply put, a strong state with recognized and established spheres of interest has a desire to maintain the status quo, whereas a weak state (or, in some cases, a non-state actor) will seek to establish recognized spheres of interest, and sometimes find itself simultaneously having to protect those interests as they are still developing.

The long-standing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, in which the United States has had a lengthy involvement, serves as a pertinent example.  Mediation efforts by the United States in this conflict have stressed the importance ending violence, if not as the objective of mediation itself, then as an important initial step demanded by the Israeli government prior to any further attempts toward negotiations.  This contrasts starkly with the Palestinian position, which has sought peace in a more “positive” sense – that is, the just resolution of issues, including land distribution, the status of Jerusalem, and the human rights of Palestinians.  These differences between the approaches of Israelis and Palestinians to their conflict reflect the dissimilar positions in which the two sides find themselves.  As an established “strong” state, Israel has an innate desire to impose order and protect its own citizens in a conflict that many Israelis view as a threat to its very existence.  As a non-state actor struggling for recognition by the international community, the Palestinians are more concerned with human rights and the establishment of its own territories, and an end to abuses, both real and perceived, to these spheres of interest by Israel.  As another “strong state,” the United States’ worldview has much in common with Israel, and the rhetoric and ideology that Israel adopts makes sense to the American ear.  It makes sense to both Israel and the United States to invoke the principle of self-defense as a justification for use of force against an enemy of the state.  Conversely, the Palestinian resistance movement must constantly seek to overcome an inherent sense of illegitimacy, especially in light of the dominant worldview that only states have the legitimate right to employ force.

The United States’ approach to intervention on behalf of peace in this area makes little sense to the Palestinians.  From their perspective, achieving a mere ceasefire ignores issues that are fundamental to their notion of a just peace, and would simply not last, since to them, “order can only be delivered on a permanent basis by justice.”[6]  Arguably, neither side has fully committed to a peace in the widest sense – that is, in which Israelis and Palestinians would be able to live side-by-side in harmony with each other.  Neither has the United States, as mediator, truly committed to such an ideal.  Instead, the sights have been set much lower, to the dissatisfaction of all parties involved, and with no viable solution for long-term peace yet in sight.  Any further United States involvement must recognize the inherent systemic imbalance against the non-state actor in this conflict, and should as a first step push for the just resolution of grievances and desires of both sides as equitably as possible.

Similar instances exist elsewhere in the world, in which the conflicting parties’ visions of the way to peace depends on their prioritization of justice and order.  Another relevant example is the plight of the Kosovar Albanians, on whose behalf the NATO air campaign was waged in 1999.  On one level, the U.S.-led intervention had a just cause: protecting the minority Albanians in Kosovo from further atrocities inflicted by the Serbian majority.  However, it is instructive to examine history to understand that the U.S. imposition of order in 1995 actually helped to set in motion a series of events that brought about the eventual need for intervention.  After Slobodan Milosevic rescinded Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989, the Kosovar Albanians initially pursued a non-violent approach advocated by Ibrahim Rugova toward the construction of a “parallel society.”  Unfortunately, the Kosovars were excluded from the Dayton Accords in 1995, which partitioned Bosnia into the Bosnian Serb Republic and Muslim-Croat Federation while avoiding the issue of Kosovar national aspiration.  Again, the United States favored a resolution that seemed to give the greatest assurance for order and paid very little concern to what the Kosovar Albanians would have deemed a cause worthy of consideration.  The ensuing frustration gave rise to the Kosovo Liberation Army and the growth of a wider nationalist movement in the Kosovar population, culminating in attacks on Serbian police stations in 1998.  This provoked heavy Serbian crackdowns on the civilian Kosovar population that led to the NATO campaign.[7]  Of course, the abuses inflicted by the Serbians are inexcusable, and the U.S.-led intervention helped put a stop to the atrocities.  One has to wonder, however, whether a more thoughtful handling of the Kosovar struggle for self-determination by the United States and the international community several years earlier might have afforded a more peaceful solution in the end.






Consistency in Foreign Policy


It has almost become “fashionable” to argue about whether or not the United States should send its military forces abroad to intervene in the latest crop of humanitarian crises.  Yet, the enormous amount of attention given to this topic masks inconsistencies in other areas of policy that serve to weaken the overall integrity of U.S. foreign policy.  A major area that deserves more attention is the practice by the United States and many other developed countries of using the sale of arms to exert influence in other countries.  Even though export of arms does not involve the actual deployment of military forces to another country, selling or giving arms to another country or group is unquestionably a form of military intervention that has unpredictable long-term consequences, and in the short term continues to exacerbate violent confrontations all over the globe.  The export of arms is bound to contradict any humanitarian objectives that the United States may have, and even helps to create situations that give rise to the need for military intervention.  In the words of former President Jimmy Carter, “we cannot have it both ways.  We cannot be both the world’s leading champion of peace and the world’s leading supplier of arms.”[8]

Although the sale or transfer of arms has been an oft-used tool of foreign policy by a number of countries throughout the twentieth century, its actual effectiveness and precision in leveraging policy is at best ambiguous.  The arms trade had its greatest efficacy during the Cold War as the United States and the Soviet Union fought through indirect channels for allegiances.  They did this by way of the steady flow of arms to combatants, hoping to sway events while avoiding direct conflict.  Yet, even in this period, the results were unclear.  In Vietnam, the Kennedy administration attempted to utilize arms and advisors to support anti-Communist forces, a policy that was proven ultimately ineffective by the mobilization of a massive conventional U.S. military intervention that peaked at 500,000 troops in 1968. [9]  The Middle East was and remains a hotbed for arms export, but even during the height of tensions during the Cold War, the U.S. rationale for the sale of arms did not necessarily coincide with the intended use of arms by the recipients.  In 1981, the Reagan administration attempted to portray Saudi Arabia’s desire for AWACS aircraft as a defense against a potential Soviet attack on its oil fields.  Sheik Yamani, a Saudi oil minister, made it clear at a United Nations meeting that Saudi Arabia saw Israel, not the Soviet Union, as its primary threat.[10]  More recently, an example of the long-term repercussions of a permissive arms trade regime is Operation Desert Storm.  One of the major root causes of this conflict was inarguably Iraq’s ability to steadily acquire massive amounts of conventional arms (from mostly non-U.S. sources), and even ballistic missiles armed with chemical warheads, that ultimately endangered regional security and the global oil market.[11]

In the year 2000, global arms sales amounted to $36.9 billion, of which the United States accounted for 50.4 percent.  The sale of arms to developing nations accounted for almost 68 percent of total sales in the period between 1993 and 2000, and the U.S. was the leading supplier during this time, accounting for just over 37 percent of all international agreements with developing nations between 1993 and 2000.  The top two developing regions in terms of arms purchases have been the Middle East and Asia, respectively, and in 2000, major purchases by clients in the Middle East and Asia reflected a continuation of well-established defense arrangements.  In the Middle East, U.S. sold 80 new production F-16 block 60 fighters to the United Arab Emirates ($6.432 billion); upgraded of Egypt’s AH-64 Apache helicopters ($400 million); provided Egypt with 6 SPS-48E 3D land-based radar systems, as well as Avenger and Stinger missiles; reconfigured 24 of Israel’s AH-64 Apache helicopters ($270 million); and sold 35 Blackhawk helicopters with some engines ($340 million).  In Asia, the U.S. sold 29 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems ($260 million) to South Korea; sold component kits for South Korea’s F-16C/D fighters ($190 million); 18 earlier generation F-16A/B fighters to Thailand; and AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles to Taiwan.[12]

These high profile arms sales reveal both the quality of weaponry being exported by the U.S. and the massive scale of the export industry in which the U.S. has been involved in the past decade.  Perhaps even more important, however, is the small arms and light weapons market, which has had a more direct impact on the multitude of conflicts that have erupted since 1990.  Reliable estimates place the legal trade in small arms and light weapons at between seven and ten billion dollars annually, and a large but unknown quantity of small arms are traded illegally (estimated between two and three billion dollars).  The United States, despite stricter controls than most countries, sold or transferred $463 million worth of small arms in 1998 to 124 countries.  Of these, about thirty were experiencing some level of internal civil violence in 1998, and in at least five, U.S. or U.N. forces involved in peacekeeping duties were fired upon by U.S.-supplied weapons.[13]

Without systemic pressures to deter a state or other international actor from using force to achieve its goals, the rise of weapons exports, as depicted above, means that there are fewer and fewer constraints to the outbreak of conflict in the countries receiving arms.  To further complicate matters, the expansion of arms exports by major defense contractors out of their host countries has allowed a glut of arms to fall into the hands of both friends and foes.  Although the United States probably has the most rigorous legislation to prevent the transfer or sale of arms to nations committing “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights,” the actions of U.S. defense manufacturers deviates from such principles.  Between 1986 and 1995, the United States delivered $42 billion worth of arms to parties involved in forty-five ongoing conflicts.[14]  Part of the problem lies in the fact that the United States has a dual system for the export of weapons: a government-to-government Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system and a commercial system.  The overwhelming majority of sales are conducted through the former system, which entails more rigorous accounting standards.  In contrast, there is no requirement in the latter to report sales to the State Department once an exporter receives a commercial license authorization.[15]

The contradictory situation in which the United States finds itself is, on the one hand promoting democracy and order, while on the other supplying slightly over half of the world’s conventional arms exports. In the Middle East, the United States accounts for over sixty percent of arms imports, and yet, the resulting militarization of societies in this region is counterproductive to the peace that the U.S., for a multitude of reasons, would like to achieve in this region.[16]  A closer look at the arms trade scheme between the United States and the Middle East sheds further light on the unlikelihood of achieving a lasting peace.  The high level of conventional arms provided to Israel (worth approximately two billion dollars per annum) has been balanced regionally through arms exports to Arab countries such as Egypt (approximately $1.2 billion dollars worth per annum since the Camp David Accords).[17]  While this “balance of power” approach to the arms trade has maintained a certain level of peace regionally, the abundance of weaponry, along with the imbalance in power between the Israelis and the Palestinians, generates an environment of frustration and militarism that often tips into violence.  The Palestinians have had little legitimate external arms support, and have resorted to the illegal smuggling of weapons and honing of terrorist tactics as an attempt to counter-balance Israeli military superiority.  Although issues of regional stability must be considered, the reduction of arms flowing to both the Israelis and Palestinians would make sense.  Yet, the U.S. continues to uphold a double standard in this regard.  In early January 2002, the Israelis seized a ship containing arms that were apparently bound for the Palestinians.  The U.S. State Department called the $100 million dollar shipment an “effort to escalate the violence,” and asserted that “stopping the violence and cracking down…is the first step of getting into the building of confidence and a return to talks, which is the goal.”[18]  Again, the priority of achieving order by the United States and Israel on one side contrasts with the priority for addressing issues of justice by the Palestinians on the other.  Unfortunately, the export of arms by the U.S. into this region contradicts the larger aims that it has set out to attain.  Although the arms trade with Israel is only one of many obstacles to peace, hopes for even a ceasefire seem dim as long as arms continue to flow into the country.

The volatility of arms sales is also demonstrated by the example of Indonesia and its policy on East Timor.  After the invasion of the new nation of East Timor by the Indonesians in 1975, U.S. arms sales to Indonesia rose from $12 million in 1974 to over $65 million, and in the next several years included the sale of 16 Rockwell OV-10 "Bronco" counterinsurgency aircraft, 3 Lockheed C-130 transport aircraft, 36 Cadillac-Gage V-150 "Commando" armored cars, S-61 helicopters, patrol craft, M-16 rifles, pistols, mortars, machine guns, recoilless rifles, ammunition, and extensive communications equipment.  The majority of these weapons were used either in the initial attack on East Timor or in the subsequent military occupation of the country, which, within five years, had claimed the lives of over 200,000 people.  Over the twenty-five years of the brutal Indonesian occupation of East Timor, the United States transferred over one billion dollars worth of arms.  Continuing human rights abuses led the United States to eventually sever military ties with Indonesia through the passage of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act of 2000, which specifies the terms under which military ties will be restored.  Some of these terms included the return of displaced East Timorese to their homes, the criminal prosecution of members of the Indonesian military involved in human rights violations and massacres, and further investigation of those violations.  Despite the fact that these and other conditions have not been met, various groups within the U.S. have strong incentives for re-establishing closer ties with Indonesia.  Of relevance in this discussion are U.S. weapons manufacturers like Lockheed-Martin and Boeing, who are eager to see the resumption of military ties with Indonesia, which over the past five years has received an average of $11 million in weapons from the U.S. per year.   Furthermore, the willingness of other nations to continue arms sales to Indonesia means, in the words of Deputy Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz, the possible “diminish[ment] of U.S. influence with the Indonesian military….”  Yet, unless the Indonesian government addresses some basic issues, such as the subordination of the military to civilian control, and reconciliation of a long history of human rights abuses, the cycle of violence will continue to threaten peace and stability in the region, regardless of who provides the weapons.[19]





            The preoccupation with humanitarian intervention in the discussion of U.S. foreign policy in recent years belies the fact that the United States, in spite of its rhetoric, often conducts itself in ways that contradict the compassionate intentions it espouses.  Intervention should not be defined purely as direct military involvement, since many other forms of influence and coercion can and do have a great impact in international relations.  In light of the limited number of actual military interventions that the United States has participated in within the last decade or so, this expansion of the definition makes sense.  When the United States does intervene, its concern for maintaining order – peace in the “negative sense” – sometimes prevents it from tackling the root causes of conflict and violence in a region.  One example of this myopia includes the United States’ continuing diplomatic efforts to mediate between the Israelis and the Palestinians, in which the failure to address fundamental Palestinian grievances has prevented any real progress in peace talks.  Another failure to attempt to build peace in the “positive” sense is the exclusion of Kosovar Albanians from the Dayton Accords in 1995, which led to the rise of aggressive nationalism in Kosovo and the ensuing crackdown by Serbian police.  Both of these cases show that a paradigm shift in the way that the United States deals with sub-national actors.  A difference does in fact exist between radical terrorist organizations and those groups struggling to exercise the right to self-determination.  This distinction may be sometimes subtle or difficult to make, but ignoring the difference will cause greater problems down the road.

            The lack of consistency between U.S. rhetoric and action manifests itself in the United States’ massive participation in the international arms trade.  Comprising over half of total global arms sales and well over a third of total arms sales to developing nations, U.S. export of conventional weapons serves as another contradiction to its humanitarian rhetoric.  The vast proliferation of weapons, especially of small arms, has helped to fuel conflict throughout the world.  Heavy exports to the Middle East and Asia, although not the primary cause of conflict, have ensured that hot spots like Israel and Indonesia continue to experience violence and human rights abuses.  The lack of formal control over commercial arms exports from the United States is one loophole that contributes to this problem.  The sheer volume of arms exports and lack of close enforcement of existing controls suggests the unsettling possibility that private defense manufacturers, whose interests lie in the continued expansion of sales in new and existing markets, influence foreign policy in a direction contrary to the long-term interests of the United States and the rest of the world.

            Peace, secured not merely through the maintenance of order, but also through the pursuit of justice, is in the best interests of the United States and the world as a whole.  Some of the obstacles standing in the way of this goal have been erected by the United States itself.  The first step towards a more considered and defensible framework for intervention is the recognition that current U.S. foreign policy contains internal inconsistencies. Next, the U.S. must eliminate these inconsistencies – that is, the disregard for peace in the “positive” sense, while pursuing a massive arms trade without due regard for who receives these arms.  It is up to the U.S. to rethink its foreign policy, but it cannot accomplish the entire transformation alone, especially with regard to the global arms trade.  Tackling this problem has grown well beyond the capabilities of a single nation, and the imperative for multilateral efforts in global security remains as important as ever.



[1] Rothschild, Emma. “What is Security?” Daedulus, Volume 124, Number 3, Summer 1995: p. 72.

[2] Boutwell, Jeffrey and Michael T. Klare. “A Scourge of Small Arms.” Scientific American, Volume 282, Number 6, June 2000. (online version: http://www.sciam.com).

[3] Rothschild, p. 70.

[4] Clark, Ian and Iver B. Neumann, eds., Classical Theories of International Relations (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), p. 88.

[5] Bull, Hedley, Anarchical Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 74.

[6] Bull, p. 74.

[7] Chomsky, Noam, Rogue State (Cambridge: South End Press, 2000), pp. 35-36.

[8] Hartung, William D., “The Role of U.S. Arms Transfers in Human Rights Violations: Rhetoric Versus Reality).”  Testimony before the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, House International Relations Committee, 7 March 2001.   World Policy Institute.  (online version: http://www.worldpolicy.org).

[9] Laurance, Edward J., The International Arms Trade (New York: Lexington Books, 1992), p. 2.

[10] Laurance, p. 159.

[11] Laurance, p. 2.

[12] Grimmett, Richard F., Conventional Arms Transfers to the Developing Nations 1993-2000, Congressional Research Service, 16 August 2001: pp. 6-7.

[13] Boutwell and Klare, online version.

[14] Hartung, online version.

[15] Grimmett, p. 15.

[16] Grimmett, p. 11.

[17] Boutwell and Klare, online version.

[18] “U.S. Sees Arafat and His Aides Involved in Arms Shipment,” New York Times, 9 January 2002, online version: (http://www.nytimes.com).

[19] Berrigan, Frida, “Indonesia at the Crossroads: U.S. Weapons Sales and Military Training,” World Policy Institute Special Report, October 2001. (online version: http://www.worldpolicy.org).