These should not be confused with "humanitarian operations." Humanitarian operations
are approved by countries affected by some disaster or another, such as the aid rendered to the victims of the tsunami of December 2004 or other efforts to assist areas impacted by storms or earthquakes. In such cases, military forces may end up working with non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross or transnational entities like the UN and its disaster contractors. In such cases, the role of the military is usually logistical support.
Refugee boat capsizing after escaping a the consequences of a humanitarian intervention
By contrast, in a "humanitarian intervention" armed force is used directly to intervene in a sovereign nation's affairs even against the will of the sovereign of the invaded or attacked nation.
So it was with a great deal of interest I read David Bromwich's "The Roots of Hillary's Infatuation with War" in which he discusses the alter ego of "humanitarian intervention" - "smart power":
Smart power is supposed to widen the prospects of liberal society and assist the spread of human rights. Yet the term itself creates a puzzle. Hillary Clinton’s successful advocacy of violent regime change in Libya and her continuing call to support armed insurgents against the Assad government in Syria have been arguments for war, but arguments that claim a special exemption. For these wars—both the one we led and the one we should have led—were “humanitarian wars.” This last phrase Clinton has avoided using, just as she has avoided explaining her commitment to the internationalist program known as “Responsibility to Protect,” with its broad definition of genocide and multiple triggers for legitimate intervention. Instead, in a Democratic primary debate in October 2015, she chose to characterize the Libya war as “smart power at its best.”
Understanding the impulse to "protect" (couched as a "responsibility to protect") is important in examining political candidates for high office.
Not just in terms of the presumptive Democratic Party presidential candidate who is the topic of Dr. Bromwich's piece, but also in thinking about how we get into messy situations abroad - like Kosovo (still not at peace and hello ISIS, Somalia ("Blackhawk Down"), and Libya (hello, ISIS). If I recall correctly there were some "red line" warnings to Assad in Syria that sounded in humanitarian concerns.
In any event, Dr. Bromwich is right in asking at what level of humanitarian concern is intervention acceptable to a candidate? Would the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields of Cambodia now qualify? Rwanda? What about Mao's China and its "cultural revolution?" Stalin starving the Ukraine?
I think you get the drift - putting U.S. forces into combat in defense of the U.S. is one thing. Using our forces to deliver aid after a disaster is another. But is intervening in another country's affairs "for the children" - a mission we ought to undertake?
Indeed, as Dr. Bromwich writes, "An incorrigible belief in the purity of one’s motives is among the most dangerous endowments a politician can possess."
My mother always quoted, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."
It's a dangerous path.