The ‘Humanitarian Intervention’ Misnomer

By Bleddyn E. Bowen

This article was originally published in the Euro-Atlantic Quarterly.

Humanitarian intervention has been a hotly debated topic in Western policy circles (epitomised by the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P), especially in the aftermath of the numerous interventions (such as the Balkans) carried out by Western armed forces around the globe during the 1990s. However, whilst there is extensive literature on ‘humanitarian’ intervention, it should not be disguised from its part in the practice of ‘liberal’ intervention. One cannot engage in a humanitarian intervention without making such an intervention ‘liberal’ in its practice. This is discussed in greater detail below. Using the cases of Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011, I interpret both interventions as ‘liberal’, despite some motives, or justifications, for them which were humanitarian in nature. In other words, ‘humanitarian’ intervention cannot be separated from the politics involved and as a consequence becomes ‘liberal’ in its practice as the interventionists impose political influence on the local political actors, be they governments, warlords, or other entities.

‘Liberal interventionism’ is defined here as overt military-supported (though not wholly military in nature) invasions/deployments in foreign territories or regions (including maritime regions) with the aim of developing the target state’s institutions and government to reflect the relatively more liberal-democratic nature of governments and institutions in the West. This is informally dubbed the Bush Doctrine, epitomised by the 2002 National Security Strategy. Liberal interventionism is not initially synonymous with humanitarian intervention. I adopt Nick Wheeler’s broad thresholds for classifying an intervention as humanitarian which are elaborated below.[1] Liberal interventionism incorporates humanitarian intervention, but a true humanitarian intervention would not be overly concerned with protecting the intervening state’s security (as in the protection of the US from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction [WMD]). Liberal intervention would incorporate the security-interests of a state in institutionally engineering other states as a result of removing a regime that was (perceived to be) openly hostile to the intervening state. However, the lines of distinction are blurred: where do humanitarian missions end and state-building missions begin? When does altruism become security seeking for the intervening party? These are subjective distinctions which may only be possible to determine on a case-by-case basis.

Ideally, a liberal intervention is a conflict in which an external party topples a regime because it was deemed to be an intolerable threat to the intervening parties, and in its place liberal values would be spread and democratic life and institutions should be imposed. In practice, such a conflict may not be too different to what the US did in Germany and Japan after the Second World War. Suffice to say that such wars could not be deemed wars of conquest and occupation today due to a general attachment in the West to the norm of national self-determination (at least in principle). Liberal interventions may use humanitarian motives and operations, but they do not determine the intervention mission itself. Humanitarian intervention is ‘what it says on the tin’ – an intervention sold on the premise of humanitarian grounds (prevention of, or reaction to, genocide, mass murder, mass expulsion and other “acts that shock the moral conscience of mankind”).[2] The mission would ideally prevent or alleviate the impending or on-going humanitarian crisis. However, it should not begin building institutions and promoting the intervening party’s values beyond the physical protection of those in the humanitarian crisis.

Wheeler’s minimum requirements of a humanitarian intervention are thus: first, there must be a just cause or a ‘supreme humanitarian emergency’ as it captures the exceptional nature of the circumstances at hand; second, the use of force must be a last resort; third, it must meet the requirement of proportionality; and fourth, there must be a high probability that the use of force will achieve a positive humanitarian outcome.[3] Using these four requirements, it does not require an extensive investigation to realise that we cannot label the Iraq War as a humanitarian intervention. Although the no-fly zones and Operation PROVIDE COMFORT were in effect, there was no additional pressing humanitarian need for intervention in 2003.

The justifications for the war in Iraq oscillated between Iraq’s possession of WMDs, Saddam’s apparent links to Al-Qaeda, and once those two avenues became suspect, the humanitarian logic came to the fore.[4] Indeed, the retrospective and unrepentant justifications for the Iraq War by Tony Blair on humanitarian grounds and the difficulties in post-war Iraq have cooled the appetite for more interventions, particularly those couched in humanitarian terms.[5] Indeed, the “US [presided] over a highly mobilised society about which it [had] limited understanding.” Its task of rebuilding state institutions was “hugely ambitious” in a country where its civil society was “largely broken during the Ba’athist dictatorship.”[6] The notion of humanitarian intervention may have been contaminated by association with Bush and Blair’s “spurious and largely ex post facto “humanitarian justifications” for invading Iraq.” As such, R2P could be such a grave threat to ‘international society’ under Bush and Blair that the pluralist principle of non-intervention needed to be renewed.[7] Welsh shares a similar analysis, citing that the Iraq War ‘tore the UN apart’ on whether the war was justified under the rules of the UN Charter, as opposed to the ‘just cause’ of the invasion of Afghanistan under the norms of international society.[8]

Iraq was indeed a war of liberal interventionism as it was intended to spread liberal values in the wake of the toppling of Saddam’s regime, justified in preventing attacks on the West and its way of life.[9] However, the disastrous ‘liberal intervention’ that it was will not be the end of the practice of the principle. Granted, we may not see a major deployment like that of Afghanistan and Iraq in the near future (as elaborated in the new US defence review[10]), but we have seen the principles of liberal intervention being put to use since the Iraq War.

The Arab Spring’s consequences will dominate the Middle East’s strategic trajectory in the decade ahead. Libya makes a good case in point over one possible insight over the future of liberal and humanitarian intervention, and how humanitarian intervention cannot be discussed in the absence of the promotion of liberal values, bringing it into line with the broader agenda of liberal intervention.

UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1973 allowed for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya and the allowance of ‘any means necessary’ to protect civilians.[11] Only after the backing of the UNSC (although China, Russia and Germany abstained) and the Arab League, NATO countries led by the US, France and the UK—and supported by Arab states such as Qatar—enforced the resolution and aided the popular uprising against Muammar Qaddafi’s rule, culminating in his overthrow in the early autumn of 2011 with air and naval assets, and token ground personnel to act as ‘trainers’ or ‘mentors’ for rebel forces.

Even though the main selling point of the intervention was that it was to prevent a massacre of ‘civilians’ in Benghazi by Qaddafi loyalists and mercenaries, by the end of the conflict (or at least the official end of NATO operations at the end of October 2011), we cannot escape the importance of political values in this intervention. Yes, it was a humanitarian intervention in terms of protecting the rebellious eastern coastal towns from certain reprisals. Wheeler’s supreme emergency existed, force was the only way to deal with Qaddafi’s means of inflicting human rights abuses, precision-guided munitions allow for unprecedented levels of accuracy and proportionality, and there was relative confidence within NATO that it could enforce the no-fly zone and blunt the edge of Qaddafi’s forces.

However, the Libyan intervention was liberal, not only humanitarian—the popular uprisings in the Middle East were born of discontent with autocratic rulers, and there was a general desire among the people for a relatively more democratic or representational system. The Libyan intervention was in direct support of this trend, as Egypt and Tunisia had already overthrown their autocracies, Libya ought to follow suit. Libya was also a feasible target for the spread of Western values via military force due to its concentrated population along the coast and the military weakness of Qaddafi relative to NATO’s capabilities.

This brings to light an interesting insight: namely, that ‘humanitarian intervention’ is a misnomer. The long-term protection of innocents in Rwanda in 1994, or Kosovars in 1998 depended upon an environment where they could live without the state or entity that has resulted in their demonisation and extermination. Such an admittedly humanitarian goal would inevitably have become ‘liberal’ in the sense that they would have aimed to change the society which aimed to bring about their end as a people to accommodate them. Of course, a mission could be deemed to be more humanitarian if there were no compelling strategic or self-interested reasons for the intervening party to do so. However, with a broadening security agenda it could be easier to create indivisible security objectives between the interventionists and the intervened.[12] Kosovo was on Europe’s doorstep, and mass migrations and instabilities from the Balkans are ironically not entirely new to security issues of European states.

Libya may now accompany Kosovo as an example of a preventative humanitarian action.[13] However, both are liberal interventions. Whether NATO was directly or indirectly supporting the victims of humanitarian injustices, NATO was promoting its values outside its member states’ territories by breaking the norm of non-intervention and making Qaddafi a perpetrator of humanitarian crimes. The political consequences were unavoidable. NATO, and particularly Britain, had a chance to remove a dictator, who had plotted and conducted operations against it in the past, with the obvious blessing of the majority of the Libyan people who were clamouring for a new government which incorporated some Western norms. The congruence of strategic interests with a compelling humanitarian case for intervention would make an understanding of the Libyan intervention as only humanitarian deeply flawed.

The events in Libya have shown that the West can upset the pluralists of the world and act in a solidarist manner with UNSC acquiescence (if not unanimous approval) after the debacle of the Iraq War, and because the principle of ‘liberal intervention’ may have been used poorly once, it does not necessarily mean it cannot be used again. To associate liberal intervention in its entirety with Iraq is a fundamental error, a point that has thankfully made its way into British mainstream media.[14] Out of 17 interventions in the 1990s, more succeeded than failed.[15] Indeed, a brief look at European Union missions shows that liberal intervention (civilian and military in nature) is alive and well today.[16] As the West once again writhes over a clear humanitarian emergency, now in Syria, any consideration of intervention should not be in isolation from the local political consequences of doing so. Humanitarian-motivated intervention will most probably lead to the practice of liberal interventionism. The labelling of both Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 as liberal interventions should caution against any hasty dismissal of the principles of the Bush Doctrine and the uncritical advocacy of ‘humanitarian’ interventions.

Bleddyn E. Bowen is a Teaching Fellow in Intelligence, Strategy, and Military History at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. His interests include Clausewitzian theory, maritime strategy, and the politics of outer space. His views have been published in Astropolitics, Intelligence and National Security Journal, and the Euro Atlantic Quarterly, and he has regularly appeared as a ‘talking head’ on BBC Radio Cymru, BBC Radio Wales, and S4C.


[1] Wheeler, N. Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) pp. 34-52

[2] Ibid., p. 28

[3] Ibid., p. 34

[4] Coates, D., Krieger, J. Blair’s War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) pp. 65-66

[5] Taranto, J. ‘Is ‘Liberal Interventionism’ Dead?’, Wall Stree Journal Online, 24-04-2009,

[6] Dodge, T. ‘US Intervention and Possible Iraqi Futures’, Survival (45:3, 2003) p. 103

[7] Weiss, T.G. Humanitarian Intervention (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007) p. 124

[8] Welsh, J.M. ‘Conclusion’ in Welsh, J.M. (ed) Humanitarian Intervention and International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) p. 182

[9] Freedman, L. ‘Iraq, Liberal Wars and Illiberal Containment’, Survival (48:4, 2006) p. 52

[10] US Government, ‘Defense Strategic Guidance’, January 2012, Washington, D.C.

[11] United Nations, ‘Resolution 1973,2011’ New York, 17-03-2011,

[12] Collins, A. (ed.) Contemporary Security Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) pp. 127-204

[13] Wheeler, Saving Strangers… p. 34

[14] Ash, T.G. ‘Libya’s escalating drama reopens the case for liberal intervention’, The Guardian, 03-03-2011, (accessed 14/01/2012)

[15] Seybolt, T.B. Humanitarian Military Intervention (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) p. 270

[16] European Union External Action, ‘EU Operations’, (accessed 14-01-2012)