What’s the proper rationale for military intervention? Recent US presidents seem confused on this point. One reason for the confusion may be rhetorical. Some presidents seem to think you need to invoke a humanitarian rationale to warrant military intervention. That somehow makes it more noble or worthwhile than invoking national security.
There are situations in which a president’s real motive might be a perceived threat to our national security, but in order to sell the policy he tries to dress it up in humanitarian terms. That’s one interpretation.
But at best, that can lead to moral confusion. It’s easy to believe your own propaganda. When you keep giving one reason in public when you have a different reason in private, that commits you to the public rationale. It’s hard to back down after you condition members of your own party and your own administration to tout the official justification. You become captive to your own rhetoric. And you may come to believe it yourself.
Which shades into the next point: there’s an ideology which thinks acting in our national self-interest is venal, whereas the only justification for military intervention is, in fact, some humanitarian crisis. That we have a moral imperative to sacrifice our own interests in the interests of the “international community,” or something like that.
At this point we’ve strayed very far from the proper rationale. The rationale for national defense ought to be an extension of self-defense.
As individuals, we have a right to defend ourselves against unjust aggression. In addition, we have a duty to defend others where we have social obligations to others. For instance, a husband has a duty to protect his wife. A father has a duty to protect his children. He has an obligation to assume a personal risk on their behalf.
This applies to analogous relationships, like close friendships. That’s because friends are indebted to each other in complex ways. As such, they’ve acquired certain mutual obligations. Conversely, parents and grown children have innate mutual obligations–although that’s subject to various qualifications.
This duty is not transferable to just any sort of relationship. For we don’t have the same degree of responsibility for the welfare of just anyone and everyone.
In a sense, national defense is an extension of these familial obligations. And, like a friendship, it’s grounded in mutuality.
The underlying principle is that I'm prepared to die for your loved ones if you’re prepared to die for my loved ones. There’s strength in numbers. In case of common threat, we may need to pool our resources to mount a common defense which generally beneficial to all concerned parties. I’ll defend your loved ones if you defend my loved ones. Mutual risk, mutual reward.
By the same token, it is wrong for a president to put the lives of our servicemen at risk for total strangers, with nothing in return. Friends and family have deep emotional investments in one other. All things being equal, it’s wrong for a president to sacrifice the son of an American parent to save the life of a foreigner. That young man has a standing right to live. And his parents (friends and siblings) also have a right to have him in their lives. He doesn’t exist to die so that strangers may live or have a better life.
What is fundamentally lacking in a humanitarian military intervention is reciprocity. Strangers won’t return the favor. They won’t come to our aid. They won’t risk their welfare for our welfare. They won’t stick their neck out to save our sons from harm. They don’t care about us. They care about their own friends, family, and countrymen. Foreigners have their own social obligations.
Keep in mind that I’m distinguishing between charitable humanitarian intervention and military humanitarian intervention. Foreign relief efforts due to some natural disaster can be justified, although we have to be circumspect about that, too.
But it’s wrong to put American soldiers in harm’s way unless the objective is to make the homeland safer–or contributes to some "vital" interest. Wrong to send a G.I. to his death so that a perfect stranger may live.