At one point, the president called on Congress “in the cause of humanity ... to put an end to the barbarities, bloodshed, starvation and horrible miseries” being visited upon yet another friendless, foreign land. 

“It is no answer to say this is all in another country, belonging to another nation, and is therefore none of our business,” the president declared, pre-emptively challenging those who might counter that American military intervention should be limited to the narrow defense of U.S. interests.  

The president who made this impassioned case for humanitarian military intervention was William McKinley, in April 1898.

McKinley’s speech explaining to Congress his decision to go to war in Cuba reminds us that humanitarian intervention is anything but a modern phenomenon. What McKinley and the Congress of 1898 might find surprising about 21st-century humanitarian interventions is that Congress is seldom involved in the process of determining where, when and whether the United States should intervene on humanitarian grounds. Perhaps it’s time for Congress to reassert itself – and help the commander in chief think through humanitarian operations.

IN THE INTEREST OF HUMANITY The notion that once upon a time the United States was content to focus solely on self-interest is more fiction than fact. Even before McKinley made the case for America’s first humanitarian war, the United States had intervened on humanitarian grounds in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas.

“In the autumn of 1832,” as the late historian Robert Bremner detailed in his book “American Philanthropy,” “when the starving people of the Cape Verde Islands rowed out to a ship hoping to buy food, they were astonished to learn that the vessel had been sent by the United States for the express purpose of relieving their necessities.”

When Ireland was ravaged by famine in the 1840s, Bremner writes, “the contributions of Massachusetts alone required two sloops of war, four merchant ships and two steamers.” The Congressional Research Service (CRS) adds that the United States sent warships to Turkey in 1851 “after a massacre of foreigners,” and U.S. forces protected civilians during an insurrection in Uruguay in 1868.  

So there was some precedent for humanitarian intervention in Cuba. It’s worth noting that McKinley’s request for a declaration of war did not directly blame Spain for the explosion of USS Maine. In fact, he took pains to report that Spain’s foreign minister had assured the U.S. ambassador, “Spain will do all that the highest honor and justice require in the matter of the Maine” and that Spain would accept the decision of “an impartial investigation.” 

In short, the Maine may have grabbed the headlines, but McKinley seemed more persuaded by what he called “the large dictates of humanity,” the need “to check the hopeless sacrifices of life by internecine conflicts” and the absence of “a stable government, capable of maintaining order” in Cuba.

The American people and Congress agreed with McKinley – and understandably so, given that 100,000 Cubans had perished in Spanish-run concentration camps on the island. As historian Robert Kagan observes, “The fact that many believed they could do something ... helped convince them they should do something, that intervention was the only honorable course.” 

Indeed, in the years that followed, honor and ideals would become increasingly important motivations for the United States in determining whether to intervene. Following McKinley’s lead, President Theodore Roosevelt argued against “cold-blooded indifference to the misery of the oppressed.” Even when “our own interests are not greatly involved,” he declared, there are times to act “in the interest of humanity at large.”  

Roosevelt recognized that the national interest and the interest of humanity are not necessarily separate spheres; the two often overlap. He explained it this way: having “stable, orderly and prosperous” neighbors is in the national interest. Roosevelt understood that stability, order and prosperity – and instability, disorder and poverty, for that matter – are not fated upon nations. Rather, they are a function of government policies, which are, by definition, a function of governments. 

Thus, he argued, “Chronic wrongdoing or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society” may sometimes “require intervention by a civilized nation.” He added that in “flagrant cases” the United States may be called upon to exercise “an international police power.” 

Given that he was defending his actions in Venezuela, Roosevelt spoke in terms of the Western Hemisphere. However, considering his expansion of the United States’ role in the world and explicit mention in this very speech of “the massacre of the Jews” in Russia and the “systematic and long-extended cruelty and oppression” of Armenians, it’s fair to conclude he was thinking globally.

ENLIGHTENED SELF-INTEREST Of the 300-plus U.S. military interventions since 1798 tallied by CRS, at least 35 fall under the umbrella of humanitarian intervention – 14 of which occurred before U.S. entry into World War II. These include naval deployments in response to massacres in the Ottoman Empire; repeated interventions to restore order in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and China; and the deployment of U.S. forces to “police order between the Italians and Serbs” in Dalmatia, protect civilians in Honduras and “keep order” in Panama. 

As the United States began to bear more of the burden of international stability after World War II – and began to realize that international stability was in the national interest – more humanitarian interventions followed. The Berlin Airlift was the first of some 450 humanitarian airlifts during the Cold War. Post-Cold War, U.S. troops swooped in to protect Iraq’s Kurds from Saddam Hussein and Iraq’s Yazidis from the Islamic State, end a man-made famine in Somalia, rescue Haiti from disasters and dictators, stop ethno-religious warfare in the Balkans, provide tsunami relief in Indonesia and Japan, prevent Muammar Qaddafi from turning Libya into another Bosnia, rebuild the Philippines after typhoons and floods, and smother Ebola in western Africa.

We can add to this list President Trump’s decision to launch missile strikes against Bashar Assad’s military in response to chemical attacks in Syria. After all, Trump described the deaths of “innocent children” as “an affront to humanity.”  This signaled an evolution for Trump. Before his election, he declared, “If we are going to intervene in a conflict it had better pose a direct threat to our interest.” It was also a realization that leading a superpower with a conscience is a thankless, endless but necessary task. 

At first glance, such interventions may not appear to serve the national interest. But many had strategic as well as humanitarian implications. 

The Berlin Airlift rescued a city from starvation and tyranny, highlighted the differences between the United States and the Soviet Union, and dealt a blow to Stalin. Helping the Kurds limited Saddam’s reach and forged what is now a decades-old
military partnership. Ending Slobodan Milosevic’s campaign of ethnic cleansing stabilized NATO’s doorstep. Early intervention in Africa prevented Ebola from spreading into Europe and America. Getting Japan back on its feet helped an ally return to important work of regional deterrence. Assisting the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan sent “a signal to all of Southeast Asia, to Asia, that the U.S. is serious about its presence,” explains Ramon Casiple of the Philippines’ Institute for Political and
Electoral Reform. Punishing Assad reinforced the international taboo against chemical weapons, reassured allies in Europe and the Middle East, and reminded North Korea, Iran and other rogues of America’s deterrent capabilities.

In short, humanitarian operations aren’t purely charity work. Rather, they are often expressions of enlightened self-interest. First, they address instability and chaos. As we have learned since the days of McKinley and Roosevelt, instability in other parts of the world has a way of undermining U.S. interests – and sometimes even spawns direct threats to the United States. Second, humanitarian operations generate goodwill, which helps Washington conduct foreign policy and defend the national interest. 

As an Air Force report puts it, humanitarian operations do far more than help those in need. They “ensure friendly regimes ... will be receptive to Americans politically, economically and militarily.”  

BURDEN SHARING The need for humanitarian intervention is arguably not greater today than in the past. However, our awareness of humanitarian crises and our ability to address them are. That’s because mass communications in this networked world make averting our gaze from mass suffering – what Roosevelt called the “misery of the oppressed” – nearly impossible. Also, 21st-century America’s reach and resources are such that claiming our nation is unable to help would simply be a lie. 

Yet just because America has the ability to intervene anywhere and everywhere doesn’t mean it should. The United States is not omnipotent and hence cannot fix everything. 

When Roosevelt spoke of humanitarian intervention, he conceded, “The cases in which we could interfere by force of arms ... are necessarily very few.” One reason he included that qualification surely is that the United States of his day was just coming into its own as a global power. Another likely reason: in this broken world, there will always be evil men, willful acts of brutality and benign neglect that will shock the conscience of the American people – too much evil, too many brutalities, too much neglect even for a good and great nation to address in every instance. Even a superpower must husband its economic, political and military resources.

Indeed, as Roosevelt understood, a president must balance America’s ideals and interests – a sense of justice with a recognition that power is a finite resource. Answering every emergency call would drain America’s capacity to serve as
civilization’s last line of defense, undermine domestic support for international engagement, and erode the U.S. military’s ability to carry out its primary mission: defending and protecting the people, territory and interests of the United States. In 2016, The American Legion passed Resolution No. 205, declaring that “support for democracy and human rights in other countries” should be an objective of U.S. foreign policy “when such is consistent with U.S. national interests and national power.” 

This is where Congress can help the commander in chief. The Military Humanitarian Operations Act (MHOA) aims to do that. 

The bill, originally introduced in 2012 by then-Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has been reintroduced by Lee in the new Congress. It was initially an outgrowth of congressional frustration over how the United States intervened in Libya in 2011. As one Democratic lawmaker said at the time, administration officials “consulted the United Nations. They did not consult the United States Congress.” That seems precisely backwards. 

To be sure, presidents have unique authority under the Constitution to wage war. After all, the Constitution describes the president as the “commander in chief.” Presidents must have the flexibility to act swiftly in defense of U.S. interests.

Hence, MHOA narrowly defines military humanitarian operations as those “where hostile activities are reasonably anticipated” and where the aim is “preventing or responding to a humanitarian catastrophe.” 

MHOA would not affect retaliatory operations, those aimed at preventing or repelling attacks on the United States or its interests, operations to protect or rescue U.S. citizens or personnel, operations to fulfill treaty commitments, freedom of navigation operations, and/or operations in response to natural disasters “where no civil unrest or combat with hostile forces is reasonably anticipated.” 

At the same time, the president’s war-making power should not undermine the co-equal role the Constitution accords Congress in determining whether U.S. forces should be put into harm’s way.

When it comes to launching military operations to support humanitarian aims – operations where no national interests are directly at stake and where there is no immediate threat to the United States, as in Somalia in 1992, Kosovo in 1999
and Libya in 2011 – seeking congressional authorization should not be seen as a hindrance. In fact, Congress can help the president by conferring legitimacy on a humanitarian operation (thereby sharing the responsibility of intervention) or by rejecting plans for intervention (thereby preventing the president from committing to an effort lacking public support). 

Part of being a great power is coping with the heavy burden that comes from intervening in humanitarian crises – and the equally heavy burden of choosing not to intervene. Now, as in McKinley’s day, it makes sense for the White House to share that burden with Congress.  

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.