Roundtable
Picking a Good Fight
David Rieff
Round Three: Concluding Remarks - April 14, 2000

If we take the idea of humanitarian intervention at face value, and base the discussion on, say, Tony Blair's assertion during the Kosovo bombing campaign that, in effect, insisted this was the first of many wars the West would fight in defense of its values rather than its interests, or Kofi Annan's grotesque and dangerous suggestion at the opening of the 54th General Assembly that what was needed was humanitarian intervention applied consistently throughout the world, then I share Edward Luttwak's exasperated sense that the endeavor is largely useless. But the salient point when we talk about humanitarian intervention is that the ostensible is often not the real.

From their very different perspectives, Robert Kaplan, Edward Luttwak, and Benjamin Schwarz have all pointed out the ways in which the ethos of humanitarian intervention is both dysfunctional and doomed to failure. I disagree in some important respects, particularly with Edward Luttwak's inaccurate and reductive description of the Nigerian "peacekeeping" operations in West Africa, which manages to omit the central point that as long as the Nigerians were being paid (courtesy of the U.S. government) they were quite effective in dampening the conflict. It was only when they stopped being paid that they became one more faction in the conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia. I was there, and saw the change.

If Luttwak is not careful, he really will give hard-headedness a bad name. I share his revulsion toward the sentimentality and wishful-thinking of the age. But the hard-boiled approach often blurs reality just as comprehensively.

As someone who wrote an entire book denouncing the conduct of the UN forces in Bosnia, I have no wish to defend their conduct now. But it is naive in the extreme of Luttwak to describe that conduct as simply a paradigmatic case of the nature of post-heroic warfare. The reality was otherwise. In fact, the cowardice of UN forces faced by the Serbs was due to their carrying out the mission they had been assigned by the British and the French -- which was to contain the conflict inside Bosnia. In this sense, the tactics (letting the Serbs get away, quite literally, with mass murder) and the goal (containing the conflict while a dishonorable peace of the graveyard was negotiated) were perfectly in sync. That the UN stood by, toadying to the last, and gave what remained of its threadbare moral warrant to the affair, disgraced the UN -- but that was a sub-plot, not the main theme.

Luttwak was a soldier, and perhaps his indignation derives from this fact. But while he is always stimulating, his categorical assertions that peacekeeping deployments and humanitarian deployments can never be effective should not be taken seriously. General Romeo Dallaire, who commanded the UN force in Rwanda at the time of the genocide, insists that with 5,000 men he could have stopped the evil in its tracks. Why is Luttwak so sure that this able and experienced officer was wrong and -- sitting in Washington reading intelligence reports and looking dyspeptically out toward Africa -- that he is right? I would not be so certain, were I in his place.

But even if it turns out to be true that many humanitarian interventions will not work because of the military problems they pose (see Luttwak's point about the lack of high-value targets in places like ex-Zaire), the political challenges they present (on what side, one wanted to ask Kofi Annan, should there be an intervention in Angola, which is basically a war of the oil companies' surrogates versus the diamond companies' surrogates?), or the lack of willingness on the part of the public to support any costly intervention (here, I agree with Benjamin Schwarz; the complaints he lays at my door in this regard are, to put it charitably, misaddressed), none of this addresses either the real purpose or function humanitarian intervention plays in our political life.

A planner trying to devise a sensible system for humanitarian intervention might well be drawn to some version of an international constabulary force, whether it is the one Brian Urquhart outlined some years ago with the UN at its core or Robert Kaplan's lucid prescription in this exchange. But the prestige and centrality of the idea of humanitarian intervention do not derive from such practical considerations. The fact that it is so easy for us to poke holes in the doctrine should give us pause, not lead us to pat ourselves on the back. It should, at the very least, make us wonder where humanitarian intervention fits in and why it has become (along with human rights) a central rhetorical plank of so-called Third Way politics in the West.

The answer, I would submit, is that far from being some hobby-horse of Wilsonian internationalists -- or an elite conspiracy, complete with hidden agendas and the press as an unindicted co-conspirator (Schwarz's sentences on this subject are, I'm sorry to say, Buchananite, the worst things by him I have ever read, and his implication that I have a personal hidden agenda that I "give away" in this exchange is contemptible in the extreme) -- humanitarian intervention is important because it is central to the post-Cold War West's moral conception of itself. Without Christianity, without anti-communism, there is a moral and ideological vacuum crying out to be filled.

Again, the issue is not Kissinger (or Ronald Steel for that matter) versus Woodrow Wilson. No modern democratic state can garner the allegiance of its citizens on foreign-policy questions without some virtuous master narrative. This is why the same forces are at play in France, with its very different foreign-policy tradition, as in the supposedly Wilsonian United States. And in this context what is important about humanitarian intervention is an idea, rather than a practice. So I will close by saying that those who oppose the doctrine should not console themselves with the thought that by refuting its practical applications they have accomplished much of anything.

New! Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- April 14, 2000
Robert D. Kaplan | Edward Luttwak | David Rieff | Benjamin Schwarz

Round Two -- April 11, 2000
Robert D. Kaplan | Edward Luttwak | David Rieff | Benjamin Schwarz

Round One -- April 6, 2000
Robert D. Kaplan | Edward Luttwak | David Rieff | Benjamin Schwarz

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David Rieff is the author of Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (1995) and the co-editor, with Roy Gutman, of Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know (1999). He is currently completing a book on humanitarian aid and, with Kenneth Anderson, co-authoring a critique of the human-rights movement.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.