Blowing Things Up For Humanitarian Purposes

As we wait to see if the United States is going to launch a serious military strike in Syria, Matt Yglesias offers this timely reminder that less lethal humanitarian efforts are often more effective, even if they tend to produce far less patriotic fervor:

It is very possible for a given undertaken to be worth doing without being the optimal policy. But I do think it’s worth interrogating the larger political and ideological construct that says that spending a few billions dollars to help foreigners is a thinkable undertaking if and only if the means of providing assistance is to kill some people and blow some stuff up. The explosives-heavy approach to humanitarianism has a lot of unpredictable side effects, sometimes backfires massively, and offers an extremely poor value proposition. So whatever you think about killing some Syrians this summer, please consider throwing a few dollars in the direction of a cost-effective charity of some kind.

‘Tis true, but as Matt knows, Americans are very hostile to non-military foreign assistance. On some occasions they become hostile to military foreign assistance, too, and oppose active military interventions. But in their early stages, military actions tend to receive relatively strong public support in ways that life-saving dollars simply don’t. Chalk it up to a lack of public imagination or poor information or the Jacksonian Tradition of Killing Anything That Moves, or whatever you wish, but it’s real.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.