The politics of American humanitarian intervention

Over the last 20 years, the U.S. government has chosen to intervene in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Haiti and Libya, while resisting calls to take action in Rwanda and Sudan.

These days the Obama administration has been hesitant to get involved in Syria. President Obama’s varying view on humanitarian intervention is in keeping with over 20 years of inconsistent American policy on the issue.

Obviously, there are many reasons why Washington selectively engages in humanitarian intervention missions. Among them, recent research on when and why the U.S. engages in humanitarian intervention emphasizes two factors that might force the U.S. government’s hand on humanitarian intervention: public opinion and Congressional partisanship.

Although public opinion appears to have an influence on legislative behavior, traditional factors such as partisanship have the strongest influence on how legislators cast their votes.

Humanitarian intervention is most likely when the U.S. president enjoys a majority in Congress. In the case of the 1990s, humanitarian interventions failed to get off the ground when President Clinton lost majorities in Congress.

Politicians however are learning the lessons of the 1990s and circumventing Congress. President Obama contributed the U.S. military to NATO operations in Libya preceded without Congressional authorization, as he was aware that such a vote would go down to defeat in a Republican-controlled House and deeply partisan Senate.

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