Military Intervention

War and International Law

America’s Foreign Policy: Military Intervention

One of the most difficult issues in foreign policy is deciding when the United States should exercise military force. Most people think that military force may be used if a vital national interest of the United States is threatened. The difficulty lies in getting people to agree on what constitutes a vital national interest.

Almost everyone would agree that an attack by a foreign country on the United States threatens a vital interest. Many  also would think a vital interest threatened if a country attacked a nation that we had signed a security agreement with. Disagreements emerge when the threat involves the free flow of a precious commodity, such as oil. They also surface over situations that do not pose an immediate threat to U.S. security but could imperil it in the future, such as when a region becomes unstable and the instability may lead to wider conflicts. Another area of debate opens over human rights and humanitarian efforts. The United States is the most powerful democratic nation on Earth. Does that mean we always have a vital interest in promoting human rights and democracy? Or, should we stay out of the affairs of other nations unless they threaten other of our national interests?

Another issue arises over how the United States should exercise military force. Some argue that America should never act unilaterally, but should only act with others, allies or particularly with the United Nations. They believe America has a strong interest in upholding international law. Others agree that it is appropriate to act in coalitions, but they think demanding it in every circumstance would paralyze America’s role as a world leader.

Debates over intervention have arisen often. Below are a few situations in which American presidents decided to use military force in recent years.

The Invasion of Panama in 1989

The Panama Canal is a strategic waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In 1977, the United States, which had controlled the canal zone since the canal was built, agreed to return control to Panama by 1999.

In the 1980s, Panama was led by the head of the military, Manuel Noriega. He had permitted elections, but allegations of his wrongdoing—voter fraud, intimidation, murder, drug dealing—were widely believed. In 1988, the United States indicted Noriega for drug trafficking and racketeering. That same year, Panama's president tried to dismiss Noriega. But the Noriega-backed legislature dismissed the president instead. The Reagan administration refused to recognize Noriega's choice for president and imposed economic sanctions on Panama. Noriega held new presidential elections in May 1989, but when a Noriega opponent won, Noriega voided the election. He placed a new president in office in September. In October, military leaders tried to overthrow the regime, but Noriega put down the coup. In December, the legislature named Noriega chief executive officer of the government. It also declared that Panama was in a state of war with the United States. The following day, a U.S. soldier in civilian clothes was killed by Panamanian soldiers. Four days later, President George Bush ordered the invasion of Panama. The U.S. Marines quickly took the country. Noriega was taken to the United States, tried, and convicted. The winner of the May 1989 election was inaugurated as the new president of Panama.

The Persian Gulf War of 1991

In August 1990, Iraq invaded and occupied its small, but oil-rich neighbor, Kuwait. The U.N. Security Council called for Iraq’s immediate withdrawal and imposed a trade embargo on Iraq. With 300,000 troops in Kuwait, Iraq seemed to pose a threat against Saudi Arabia, a militarily weak neighboring country with huge oil reserves. The United States, its NATO allies, Egypt, and a few other Arab countries sent about 700,000 troops to Saudi Arabia. (More than 500,000 of these troops were American.) In September, the U.N. Security Council authorized the use of force against Iraq unless it withdrew from Kuwait by January 15, 1991. On January 16, the United States and its NATO allies started bombarding Iraq from the air. For several weeks, they pounded its air defense networks, oil refineries, communications systems, bridges and roads, government buildings, and weapons plants. Then they attacked Iraqi troops in Kuwait and southern Iraq. On February 24, troops under American command invaded Kuwait. Within three days, the troops had retaken Kuwait and driven deep into Iraq. With the coalition’s mission accomplished, U.S. President George Bush declared a cease fire. Kuwait’s independence was restored, and the trade embargo on Iraq remained in force.

The Invasion of Haiti in 1994

Haiti is a poor Caribbean nation on the island of Hispaniola. Half of the island belongs to Haiti; the other half is another country—the Dominican Republic. For most of its history, Haiti has been ruled by brutal military dictators. In 1990, the nation’s first free elections were held. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest, won election as president. In 1991, after seven months in office, the military overthrew Aristide. While the United States, United Nations, and the Organization of American States negotiated with the military government to get Aristide returned to power, thousands of refugees fled the island in small boats. Negotiations made little progress and boat people kept arriving in America. In 1993, the military government finally agreed to let Aristide return, but failed to keep its promise. In 1994, the United Nations authorized the use of force to remove the dictatorship. President Bill Clinton announced that the U.S. military would invade if Haiti’s military leaders did not leave the country. With the U.S. fleet approaching Haiti, Clinton sent a delegation led by former President Jimmy Carter to Haiti’s capital. After round-the-clock negotiations, Haiti’s military leader agreed to leave and to order his military not to resist American troops. Aristide returned to power. U.S. troops occupied the island for six years. Democracy in Haiti remains unstable.

The Kosovo Conflict in 1999

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the Eastern European nation of Yugoslavia started disintegrating. Four of the six republics making up Yugoslavia declared independence. Serbia, the largest of the republics, refused to recognize their independence. A bloody civil war erupted. Particularly disturbing were incidents of “ethnic cleansing,” when one side would drive members of the other group from their territory and sometimes even commit mass murder. In 1995, a peace agreement was brokered by the United States.

Amid this chaos, a crisis was growing in Kosovo, a region in Southern Serbia. More than 90 percent of its inhabitants are ethnic Albanians. (Albania is a neighboring country.) Kosovo had traditionally been treated almost as a seventh republic in Yugoslavia, but in 1989 Serbian rule was imposed. In 1997, a radical group, the Kosovo Liberation Army, demanded independence and started carrying out guerilla attacks on Serbian police. In 1998, the Serbian military responded with brutal force, driving thousands from their homes. The Clinton administration worked to get NATO involved. NATO demanded that Serbia withdraw its troops. Both sides negotiated, but Serbia refused to sign an agreement that would place NATO troops in Kosovo. NATO threatened air strikes, and when Serbia didn’t back down, air strikes began in late March 1999. For two months, NATO pounded Serbian targets. Finally, Serbia relented and signed a peace treaty. Almost 800,000 refugees returned to their homes in Kosovo under NATO protection. In 2000, the president of Serbia, who had been indicted by the United Nations as a war criminal, was defeated in an election and stepped down.

For Discussion

1. How do you think domestic politics might impose restraints or obligations in the way the United States acts in the world?
2. In each of the situations described, what might be some reasons against intervening? What reasons were there for intervening?
3. What do you think are vital national interests of the United States? Why?
4. When do you think it is justified for the United States to use military force? Explain.
5. Do you think the United States should ever use military force unilaterally? Explain.


Small-Group Activity: Crisis!

Step 1. Divide the class into groups of three or four students.

Step 2. Distribute Handout—Crisis! Should the United States Intervene Militarily? to each student. Review the handout’s assignment, answer any questions, and tell students how much time they have.

Step 3. Call on a group to report on what it decided to do about Country A and why. Ask  if other groups agreed or disagreed with this group and why. Hold a class discussion.

Step 4. Repeat this process for Country B.

Step 5. Debrief the activity by asking under what circumstances they believe it is proper for the United States to intervene militarily in the world.

Handout: Crisis! Should the United States Intervene Militarily?

You are members of the National Security Council. You advise the U.S. president on matters of national security. The president has asked for your advice on whether the United States should intervene militarily in the following situations. For each situation, you should do the following:

1. Discuss reasons for intervening and reasons against intervening.

2. Decide whether to intervene.

3. Assign different members of your group to report your decision in each situation and the reasons for your decision.

Country A
This is a small country in the Caribbean. Its economy depends on tourism. For many years, dictators ruled it. In 1990, the country became democratic and held its first elections. Unfortunately, in recent years, tourism has declined dramatically, causing an economic crisis in the country. In recent weeks, a military coup took place. Protests have taken place, and disorder reigns in the streets. The military leaders have threatened to nationalize the tourist industry, jeopardizing privately owned American investments. A small contingent of American medical students live on the island. Their safety is in question. The Organization of East Caribbean States has called on the United States to intervene militarily and restore order.

Country B
This is a poor African country near the equator. Two major ethnic groups live in the country and have a long history of not getting along. When the country became independent in the 1960s, a dictatorship began. Its leader favored members of one ethnic group over the other. Many members of the oppressed group left the country and lived as refugees. In 1990, an army of these refugees invaded and forced the dictator to allow refugees to return and share power in the government. The two groups lived in peace, but tension remained high. Recently, extremists overthrew the government. They want to rid the country of all members of the oppressed ethnic group by killing them. Their carefully planned extermination has begun. If this army is not stopped, more than 1 million persons will die. This would be one of the largest genocides since World War II. A United Nations resolution has condemned the killing, but the United Nations has no armed force prepared to enter to the country. No neighboring country has the ability to intervene. Members of the fallen government have called on the United States to intervene militarily. The United States has no alliance with this country or with any countries bordering it. But several countries that have harbored refugees have offered the United States the use of their airports and facilities. No U.S. military force is nearby.