Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Military Humanitarian Intervention and International Justice

Paul Edgar


By Paul Edgar

January 19, 2015


Ten years ago, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami compelled us to pay attention for a longer duration than we normally grant a crisis. Within hours of the disaster, the US military flew reconnaissance jets overhead. Unable to provide direct relief, they collected information and provided it to a global network. Within a week, in an operation called Operation Unified Assistance, the military deployed more helicopters to the affected area than any other organization. For many months, all kinds of military units served those who suffered, and their role in that humanitarian crisis has been widely praised. 

Borrowing from the name of that historic effort, Operation United Assistance currently includes about 3,000 US service members supporting a USAID-led response to Ebola in West Africa. These two examples hint at the frequent involvement of the US military in international relief operations, a practice influenced by the colossal civil-military effort in Europe and Japan following World War II. The military’s humanitarian record in Indonesia, West Africa, Europe, and Japan are encouraging cases. But there are discouraging examples, too.    

Operation Restore Hope, an international effort supported by President George Bush in late 1992, sought to establish a secure environment within Somalia so that humanitarian organizations could work. However, the international community underestimated the tenacity of Somali warlords, among them Mohamad Farrah Adid, who escalated violence against relief workers and peacekeeping forces. In 1993, President Bill Clinton deployed a small force of Army Rangers and other special operators to kill or capture Adid and senior members of his organization so that relief work could progress. 

The deployment concluded in the deaths of nineteen members of Task Force Ranger and hundreds or even thousands of Somalis. The domestic repercussions were notable: Les Aspin resigned as Secretary of Defense and President Clinton unintentionally reinforced the narrative of the Democratic Party’s ineptitude in foreign and military policy. Some attribute the emerging hubris of Osama bin Laden, who was living in nearby Sudan at the time, to America’s mismanagement of the incident. 

Soon after, while discussing ethnic injustice in Bosnia, Madeleine Albright posed the loaded question to Colin Powell: “What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?” However she meant it, this is a legitimate question and it deserves our thoughtful reflection. Given the military’s primary strategic defense role, when should the United States send its military to establish international justice or intervene in a humanitarian crisis where there is little tangible national interest? Risking lives of American service members and spending taxpayer money requires justification, especially if doing so risks an end similar to what happened in Somalia.  

The term “moral imperative” is frequently offered as the answer to Secretary Albright’s question.  But lots of far-fetched ideas are pawned as moral imperatives. Personally, I find the term too enigmatic to be practically helpful. Instead, I offer the following four considerations as a point of departure:

1. How will the use of the military in an international crisis detract from its ability to fulfill its primary national defense role?  This common sense question often eludes us in the midst of a crisis. The military must be prepared 24/7 for thousands of regional and global contingencies, some self-generated and others imposed by the president and Congress. Before responding to an international crisis, decision makers ought to understand and evaluate the risk to standing contingencies that will be neglected. Whenever possible, decisions to assume risk should be transparent to the American public and allies who are affected.

2. Can anyone else adequately do the job?  The responsiveness of the military is mesmerizing, especially to public leaders who want to solve problems quickly. The military can analyze a problem anywhere in the world, plan a response, and put its own people overhead or on the ground within hours, and it can do so unilaterally. Compare that to USAID, which over the course of months or years identifies problems with interested parties, negotiates solutions, and contracts the solutions through implementing partners. Identifying the best organization to address a problem requires some strategic wisdom. Often, even in a crisis, the less-responsive solutions of diplomatic, relief, and development organizations may not only be adequate, but more enduring.

3. Is immediate brute force the likely solution to the real problem?  Is there reasonable certainty that military force can establish conditions for others to solve the problem?  We are inclined to imagine that all problems are responsive to force. Fred Cuny, an important American relief worker who advocated for the military deployment to Somalia in 1992, once spoke of “breaking the back of the famine” in Somalia. Sometimes we use this kind of language to provoke a sense of urgency or seriousness.  But more often it shows our one-dimensional understanding of the world exclusively in terms of physical force. Has military force ever broken a famine?  Famine, like so many other problems, eludes force.

4. Will introducing military power inappropriately change the legitimate sources of local, regional, or diplomatic power?  The military affects formal and informal power systems at every level. If nothing else, introduction of military power primes the vacuum that will exist when it leaves. A rifle platoon delivering humanitarian supplies is likely the most organized, responsive, and physically powerful entity in the neighborhood. Similarly, under the right conditions, a four-star combatant commander is the largest source of political and economic power in an international region. Naturally, often perversely, military power shapes how indigenous populations and leaders respond to legitimate civil sources of power. Only insightful diplomats, military leaders, and relief workers are able to discern this two-edged influence and navigate its use. 

A recent report from former Senator Gary Hart to President Obama demonstrates that public leaders continue to view the military as a tool for contingencies other than war. Hart proposes reforms to make military deployments more feasible, “when our interests or our ethics [emphasis added] demand.” Indeed, we will continue to encounter humanitarian and other “non-war” crises, and in response, we will continue to express various aspects of the American ethic through military power. Ideally, we will carefully employ the military in a manner consistent with the nature of the problem, the nature of military power, and the nature of a penetrating political endgame. 


- Paul Edgar is a retired Army lieutenant colonel. He commanded 4thBattalion, 3rd U.S. Infantry from 2011-2013. He has worked extensively in Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Tunisia, Europe, Thailand, and Korea. He currently is pursuing a Ph.D. in Middle East studies at the University of Texas.


“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”