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No Thanks, Let Our Subjects Starve

We can't fix the whole world, and shouldn't try.

By Petrarch  |  May 12, 2008

The LA Times reports:

YANGON, MYANMAR -- Myanmar's junta seized U.N. aid shipments headed for hungry and homeless survivors of last week's devastating cyclone, prompting the world body to suspend further help today.

With as many as half a million people dead, the kind of world-class natural disaster that has taken place in Burma (or Myanmar, as its dictators would prefer you to call it) usually causes normal international political strife to be suspended.  The free world does not like assisting military totalitarians who oppress their own people, but when an Act of God lays an entire country low, that is not the time for scoring political points.  It's a time when all the world's people and nations, in their common humanity, offer whatever assistance of whatever sort can be gotten together.

Thus it's utterly disgusting when the nation in question, rather than accept the help given, prefers to slap the hand away.  Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for this - for instance, any nation no matter how battered might not feel comfortable with allowing in military "search and rescue" teams from an enemy land.  But what Burma's military masters  are rejecting is simple food aid, provided by the United Nations.

To a heartless dictatorship, food aid is a powerful political tool.  Control the distribution of the aid, and a natural disaster can become a heaven-sent opportunity to ensure that your political opponents are the ones that starve and your supporters don't.

We've seen this pattern time after time, from Africa to North Korea to, now, Burma; so aid agencies have come to demand that their own staffers accompany the aid to ensure it's distributed fairly.  And fairness is just what a dictatorship is not about.

But there's a larger question here.  As members of the common family of humanity, we naturally want to help alleviate the suffering as much as we can.  What, though, is our responsibility to force the relief?

No one debates that Saddam Hussein was a murderous tyrant who poison-gassed his own subjects, "disappeared" countless thousands of innocent victims in the night, and tortured his own relatives when they crossed him.  Yet it was only when he extended the same evil hand against the independent nation of Kuwait that the great powers finally felt an intervention was necessary.

Even then, it took 15 years before America decided that he had to go.  Our military took him out despite the cries of the world and a large portion of the American political class that it's none of our business what wickedness a ruler gets up to in his own land.

Well, is it?  Do we have an obligation to intervene in a sovereign country?  The Sudan is much in the news these days as protesters attempt to alter China's support for the Sudanese government which is reportedly committing genocide in the Darfur.  Darfur is part of the Sudan; it is the Sudanese government's own sovereign territory.  What business is it of ours how they rule it?

If we are to be required to intervene whenever a country is ruled in a corrupt and brutal fashion then we truly would be the American Empire.  Freedom House shows a Map of Freedom In the World, indicating dozens of countries with hundreds of millions of citizens that are unfree, and dozens more nations only partly free.  What sort of abuses should trigger an intervention?  And what sort of intervention?

The Sudan has utterly ignored the pleas of the world's glitterati as have the generals in Burma.  Clearly, no amount of talking is going to accomplish much.  Shall we send in the tanks...  and then suffer from the venom that's been heaped upon George W. Bush for doing exactly that in Iraq?

When a nation's own rulers care not whether their subjects live or die, it's hard to expect that any amount of wheedling will make much difference.  If you rule a country, either you care about your people or you don't.  And if you don't, then the problem isn't the country, it's you.

There are many places around the world where we should "Do Something!"  The problem is that the only Something which would make any difference is exactly what we have attempted to do in Iraq: boot out the old hoodlums and run the place ourselves until, hopefully, someday, we can somehow magic up a "better" collection of local rulers.

As Bush has discovered, this is far easier said than done and cannot be done overnight under any circumstances.  Meanwhile, the old shopkeeper's rule of "you break it, you bought it" applies, and the lucky invader gets blamed for the chaos and score-settling.

The old rules of national sovereignty were not conceived in a vacuum.  They evolved over many decades and centuries of violent wars, vicious national rivalries, and yes, any number of massacres and attempted genocides.  They existed to try to limit the damage caused by real wars, real invasions, and real conquests of one country by another.

Which, of course, are all arguments used ad infinitum if the subject in question is Iraq, but all roundly condemned if the hellhole in question is some otherwise irrelevant and useless place.  Is a little consistency too much to ask?

There are good, reasonable, and rational arguments for the United States to intervene to depose a bloodthirsty dictator - all of which apply, in spades, to our actions in Iraq.  There are good, reasonable, and rational arguments for the United States to leave other nations to be ruled however chance dictates, no matter how wickedly, as long as they are not causing wars with other nations - all of which clearly demand that we stay away from Burma and Sudan.

What is neither good, nor reasonable, nor rational, is trying to have it both ways - people can't say we should intervene in Sudan, but should not have intervened in Iraq.

Unless, of course, the argument is phony and is being made purely for domestic political purposes.  Is such cynical opportunism so very far removed from the Burmese generals who confiscated aid meant for their suffering subjects and used it for their own domestic political ends?