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Learning to Live with Inconsistency

- March 23, 2011

Critics from both the “left”:http://www.therightscoop.com/kucinich-calls-obama-a-hypocrite-over-libyan-offensive/ and the “right”:http://piersmorgan.blogs.cnn.com/2011/03/16/rudy-giuliani-on-libya-ive-been-surprised-how-inconsistent-president-obama-has-been/ have called U.S. policy on Libya inconsistent and hypocritical, albeit for different reasons. Such criticisms are also popular abroad (just google Libya and “inconsistent” or “hypocritical” to get a sense). These critiques are obviously correct but they do not necessarily invalidate the policy. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that every reasonable humanitarian intervention policy (and most other human rights policy) is inconsistent.

There are two types of consistent humanitarian intervention policies. The first policy is to never intervene, regardless of how devastating the abuses or how easy it would be to stop them through intervention. There “are reasonable arguments”:http://www.amconmag.com/larison/2011/03/18/libyan-cease-fire-and-the-moral-hazard-of-intervention/ that can be made along these lines but few would defend them to the extreme. There are surely cases where the abuses are so horrific and the possibility of making a difference so obvious that intervention becomes attractive to even the staunchest of skeptics. This reduces the debate to precisely where that threshold should lie, which inevitably invites politics (and thus inconsistency) into the equation.

A second type of policy is to say that military intervention is only justified if criteria A, B, and C are met. “Charli Carpenter describes”:http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2011/03/true-but-irrelevant just such a doctrine, labeled the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), which states that intervention can be justified if there is _just cause_ (sufficiently serious abuses) , _right authority_ (generally meaning Security Council authorization), and _proportionality_ (harm done by intervention should outweigh the good to civilians). It is doubtful that philosophers or political scientists could apply those criteria in a way that would seem consistent across cases to interested publics. It is assured that politicians will not. I would argue that this is not just a feature of R2P but of any attempt to specify seemingly objective criteria for humanitarian intervention.

So what is to be done? One answer was offered long ago by “Stanley Hofmann.”:http://books.google.com/books?id=uPAHmhmOdnwC&printsec=frontcover&dq=stanley+hoffmann+duties+beyond+borders&source=bl&ots=nfBY6-0mVs&sig=wEwU9rjvYXM-c7xHoceQe2lLbRA&hl=en&ei=ghOKTb2BN4ma0QGk3-zkDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBQQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false. Hofmann argues that we should resign ourselves to a modicum of inconsistency in human rights policy but that it should still be guided by some general principles. As Hofmann put it:

bq. When one does not have clear (albeit flexible) guidelines, one will always end putting human rights last; they will become like a little bit of salt to be added on the plate at the last minute, or rather not at all, for almost every time human rights will yield to a good argument about something else.

To Hofmann, the most important principle is effectiveness; i.e. choosing the means that are most likely and at lowest cost able to achieve the desired outcome. We should not be hung up by the fact that military intervention is applied in one situation and not in another where similar human rights abuses occur. The right question is whether intervention can effectively end the abuse in a specific circumstance. Yet, Hofmann also warns about going purely case-by-case: there must be underlying moral principles that guide our policy objectives (though not necessarily the means by which those objectives are to be achieved).

These arguments are also somewhat vague and can be picked apart with relative ease. The broader point is important though: we must come to terms with a modicum of inconsistency while not losing sight that there are more general principles at stake. Striking the right balance is extremely difficult but criticizing a humanitarian intervention policy simply because it is inconsistent is a truism and thus not very helpful.