No foreign policy seems more inherently benign than humanitarian military intervention. It is rooted in the altruistic desire to protect innocents from violent death. It appears feasible, given the military superiority of Western forces over those in developing countries where most violent conflict occurs. And the only obvious costs are a modest financial commitment and the occasional casualty.
For these reasons, in the wake of the world's failure to prevent violence in the Balkans and Rwanda, US President Bill Clinton declared in June 1999 the doctrine that bears his name: "If the world community has the power to stop it, we ought to stop genocide and ethnic cleansing." In December 2001, a distinguished international panel went a step further and declared the existence of a "Responsibility to Protect"--suggesting that the failure to intervene by those capable of doing so might even breach international law.
But a more sophisticated analysis calls into question the value of humanitarian military intervention, even when judged by its own explicit standard of saving lives. For two reasons the benefits of such intervention are much smaller, and the costs much greater, than commonly recognized. First, most violence is perpetrated faster than interveners can realistically arrive to stop it. Second, as economists could have predicted, but few humanitarians have acknowledged, the intervention regime actually exacerbates some conflicts through what I have labeled "the moral hazard of humanitarian intervention." In light of these two dynamics, an increase in intervention does not save as many lives as commonly claimed. Unless the West adopts a number of reforms outlined at the end of this article, more intervention might actually lead to a net increase in killing.
Killers are Quicker than Interveners
In the high-profile conflicts of the 1990s, most violence was perpetrated far more quickly than commonly realized. In Bosnia, although the conflict dragged on for more than three years, the majority of ethnic cleansing was perpetrated in the spring of 1992. By the time Western media arrived on the scene later that summer, Serb forces already occupied two-thirds of the republic and had displaced more than one million residents. In Rwanda, at least half of the eventual half-million Tutsi victims were killed in the first three weeks of genocide. When Croatia's army broke a three-year cease-fire in August 1995, it ethnically cleansed virtually all of the more than 100,000 Serbs from the Krajina region in less than a week. In Kosovo, when Serbian forces switched from a policy of counter-insurgency to ethnic cleansing in March 1999, in response to NATO's decision to bomb, most of their cleansing occurred in the first two weeks, and they managed to cleanse 850,000 Albanians, half the province's total. In East Timor, following a 1999 vote for independence, Indonesian-backed militias damaged the majority of the province's infrastructure and displaced most of the population in little more than a week.
Even less well recognized is the fact that logistical obstacles impose significant delays on military intervention, humanitarian or otherwise, even where a strong political will exists. For example, after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, and US President George Bush ordered an immediate deployment to defend Saudi Arabia (Operation Desert Shield), it took nine days for the first unit of 2,300 US troops to reach the area of conflict. Another week was required before the unit was sufficiently prepared to venture beyond its makeshift base. Thus, even with the vital national security interest of oil at stake, it took the United States more than two weeks to deploy and begin operations of a relatively tiny force. The reasons are numerous, but stem mainly from three factors: modern militaries cannot operate without their equipment, their equipment is extremely heavy, and there are limits to the rate at which such equipment can be airlifted to remote countries. …