While news of human rights abuses in Syria are burning up the headlines, it’s worth remembering that Libya still has major human rights problems despite Western intervention there, thanks mainly to the plethora of militias run riot. And let us not also forget that Iraq, almost a decade on, still has serious problems with its humanitarian record. Afghanistan’s problems post-intervention have never been more manifest than this last week.
The lesson the West took from Iraq and Afghanistan is that it was best to intervene and get out again, rather than try to manage the aftermath. That’s why current calls for intervention in Syria, which are often hopelessly unrealistic even on their own terms, usually don’t mention any plan to manage the aftermath despite the fact that any such intervention will be destabilizing on a scale comparable to Iraq.
It would be far better to accept the utilitarian principle of “first, do no harm” and not employ military means in pursuit of humanitarian causes at all. After all, the resources involved could be better expended – saving more lives and relieving more misery, fulfilling “for the greatest good of the greatest number” – by non-military aid and development in places where the shooting hasn’t started yet.