Saving Burma

Those suggesting we should conduct a “coercive humanitarian intervention” in Burma would do well to consider this, from a WaPo article that otherwise describes the junta’s efforts to mask the country’s underlying dysfunction:

The primary focus of the rulers is to ensure unity in a country with 130 ethnic groups, many of which have fought the military — dominated by the Bamar ethnic majority — for six decades.

The moral arguments for intervening in Burma are irrefutable. And in a world where decisions were made free of any practical considerations, they’d suffice. So while I can’t really say I object to the idea of a “coercive humanitarian intervention,” I do object to the way in which it’s being proposed.

We’ve already seen what happens when you remove a violent, repressive regime that holds an ethnically volatile population together. Even if the kind of militarized relief efforts being proposed don’t trigger a war whose outcome would spell the end of the Burmese regime, there is the non-negligible possibility that they would destabilize it to the point that the country slides into anarchy.

In other words, the argument that needs to be supported is not whether to provide relief to the victims of Cyclone Nargis, but whether to declare Burma an international protectorate, and engage in the nation-building operations that will necessitate. With the added condition that the entire operation will have to take place outside the auspices of the UN, with no help and probably a good deal of hostility from the part of Pekin.

Given the moral calculus involved, that’s still an argument that can be legitimately defended. But we should be clear about the task we’re taking on, and just how we intend to accomplish it.