None of the above is to say that the U.S. and its allies should never intervene in national conflicts where civilian lives are at risk; no-one wants to see women and children being shelled. But we should only do so as a last resort, where action can be taken quickly and effectively, without the risk of being drawn into a civil war, and where we know the people we’re helping into power are the good guys (remember all the media excitement about those Tweeters and Facebookers in Cairo? Looks like that might not turn out so well). And we certainly shouldn’t act as a knee-jerk response to upsetting television pictures. If we can take out a Gaddafi or Assad regime with a few well-aimed missiles, and then offer support to factions who won’t lynch Western aid workers, all well and good. And if that sounds like a set of conditions so strict they’ll rarely be fulfilled, maybe that’s no bad thing.
And any such action should be embarked upon with as little regard for the UN and other transnational talking shops as possible. The fact that so many stars have to be aligned before anything can be done makes a mockery of so-called principles such as the “Responsibility to Protect.” If there’s a guiding principle for humanitarian intervention these days, it’s the Responsibility to Protect, as long as Russia and China don’t object and there’s something in it for France. Unfortunately as mentioned above, the Obama administration is compromised in this respect by its rejection of all things Bush, which means fudges and half-measures will be the order of the day until late January 2013 at the earliest.