It is too early to know whether the current crackdown in Myanmar (Burma) will succeed in quelling the rebellion of the Buddhist monks and their pro-democracy allies.
However, one thing is clear: the events of the last two weeks in Myanmar have revived the debate about the role that the international community should play in such circumstances.
Broadly speaking, there are two views.
One belongs to a coalition of interventionists. Their devise is: "we have to do something about it."
The rationale for that position is that catastrophic events in any one country are bound to spill over into others, thus affecting the entire humanity.
For example, if the current violence in Myanmar spreads further, it could produce hundreds of thousands of refugees who would pour into neighbouring countries and destabilize the region. On the other hand, if, as some fear, the central authority in Myanmar falls apart, the traditionally rebellious tribes could return to the warpath, provoking a series of parallel civil wars that could spill over into China, Thailand and India.
The idea that the international community has a duty, not to say a right, to intervene to protect a nation against its own murderous follies, is as old as history. All classical empires used it as a pretext for taking sides in dynastic feuds and civil wars.
It was with that excuse that the tiny kingdoms of Georgia and Armenia changed hands between the rival Persian and Roman empires half a dozen times. More recently, the Spanish civil war provided an excuse for proxy war between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. The American intervention in Vietnam was also a proxy war, this time against the USSR and China. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 on the side of the Communist regime and against the Islamist-nationalist resistance in a civil war. After 1983, the United States also entered the Afghan civil war in support of the anti-Soviet freedom fighters.
Supporters of the "we have to do something about it" doctrine, however, have never managed to reach consensus on what to do. Those on the liberal left believe that something has to be done only against regimes that they regard as right wing and reactionary.
For example, it was wrong for the US to help anti-Communist guerrillas in Nicaragua and El Salvador. However, it was right for Cuba to send troops to fight right wing, pro-West regimes in African countries. Trying to topple Saddam Hussain in Iraq would have been noble in the 1980s when he was an instrument of Western imperialism. However, it became "a crime against humanity" when Saddam transformed himself into an anti-West champion of mythical Third Worldism.
Some supporters of the "we have to do something about it" coalition insist that intervention is justified only when expressly endorsed by the United Nations.
In real life, however, most interventions take place without a UN mandate, if only because consensus is not always possible. The Tanzanian army marched into Uganda and destroyed Idi Amin's despicable regime without any UN mandate. However, almost no one was prepared to lament the demise of the "Big Friendly Giant". Without the Vietnamese army marching into Phnom Penh to dislodge the murderous Khmer Rouge, Cambodia would have spent many more years of bloody savagery. Outside intervention was also necessary to end the tragedy of "ethnic-cleansing" in Bosnia-Herzegovina and to save the Muslim majority in Kosovo from extermination. Sierra Leone and Liberia were also saved from possible extinction as nations thanks to the deus ex machina of foreign troops. Attempts at codifying outside intervention date back to the 1920s and the emergence of the League of Nations. The league fell apart precisely when it failed to intervene to save Abyssinia from Fascist Italy's imperial land grab.
In 1999, Tony Blair, then Britain's prime minister, tried to define a framework for intervention with a speech in Chicago. Later labelled "The Chicago Doctrine", Blair's analysis was based on the assumption that the duty of care that human beings have towards each other as individuals should be extended to whole nations.
Blair's idea of a "duty to intervene" was soon translated by others, among them Bernard Kouchner, France's new foreign minister, into a "right to intervene". It was in the name of that right that Kouchner campaigned in favour of war against Ratko Mladic, Slobodan Milosevic, Mullah Mohammad Omar and Saddam Hussain.
As France's foreign minister, Kouchner has already succeeded in creating an international coalition to "do something" in Darfur, in the name of the duty to intervene. And there are those who want Kouchner to lead a campaign for intervention in Zimbabwe, another black African nation gripped by violence and terror.
To President George W. Bush, the "duty to intervene" and "the right to intervene" are two faces of the same coin. The difference is that he bases his judgment on American national interests rather than any set of general international principles. The idea of pre-emptive war is that it is more prudent to attack those who are preparing to attack you before they do so. The strategy might work for a superpower with the means to undertake pre-emptive attacks. For most nations, however, the only protection could come from the international community.
This is why a serious debate on both the right and the duty to intervene is still necessary.
Myanmar may prove, once again, that the international community is powerless against regimes determined to maintain their hold on power at any cost. The operation in Darfur may also fall apart, if only because the level of intervention on which a consensus has been reached is far from adequate. In some cases, inadequate intervention could prove counter productive. One example is Zimbabwe where a good part of President Robert Mugabe's destructive behaviour may have been prompted by an assurance that the international community will never reach a consensus on effective intervention against his regime.
May be, when one is not prepared to exercise the right to intervene in an effective way, one has a duty not to talk of intervention.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian author based in Europe.