A solution from hell: The perils of humanitarian intervention.

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Aug. 17 2011 6:57 AM

A Solution From Hell

The perils of humanitarian intervention.

(Continued from Page 2)

All this could simply be regretted as a well-intentioned plan not working well enough. But that issue of abrogated sovereignty cuts both ways—the American people are supposed to be sovereign, too. The Obama White House's attitude in this has been telling. Not only has Obama failed to seek congressional approval; his lawyers filed a laughable legal brief that argued that America was not even at war. As congressional Republicans correctly pointed out, the administration could not be serious! What could explain this fealty to the letter of international law, and utter contempt for the president's duty to get his wars through Congress?

The answer, it seems to us, can be found in the work of the humanitarian hawks; they have turned the world into a morality play, a ceaseless battle of good versus evil. In Power and the Idealists, his ambivalent farewell to the moralism of the generation of 1968, Paul Berman traced this worldview to the 1960s student left. Born too late to fight Nazis the way their parents did, idealistic young leftists in the prosperous countries of the West looked for Nazis where they could: in university administrations, in American carpet bombers, in the colonialist Israeli state. Even as they grew older and wiser, the hunt for Nazis continued, and continued; in 1999, it led them into Kosovo, and in 2003 it led some of them into the catastrophic invasion of Iraq. Berman was the most perceptive analyst of the humanitarian hawk mindset; Samantha Power was its most compelling exemplar. There are only three kinds of people in her A Problem From Hell: evildoers (Hitler, Pol Pot, Milosevic); saints (Raphael Lemkin, Jan Karski, George McGovern, Peter Galbraith); and cowards (everyone else). You're either with Power or with Pol Pot. The word evil is sprinkled liberally throughout the text (35 appearances), as are slaughter (65), mass murder (25), bloodbath (13), and massacre (99). The function of these words—as well as the word genocide, to whose propagation the book is partly devoted—is to place the evil people beyond the pale of politics, of negotiation, of human intercourse. Would you shake hands with a mass murderer? With the invocation of the word genocide, we move into some other sphere of human relations. Thought, strategy, negotiation shut down; there is only right and wrong, only fight or flight. Which is precisely, in fact, the point.

A politics this morally coercive may explain why a president who is a former law professor, and who came to power with the mandate to restore the rule of law, would so brazenly ignore the Constitution. But a politics this morally coercive is not a politics at all.

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What has happened to human rights in the last 20 years is a hijacking, of the sort Napoleon managed with the Declaration of the Rights of Man when he turned Europe into a bloodbath, as Power would put it, under its banner. The search around the globe for genocides to eradicate is the ultimate rights perversion, for it reduces human rights to the right not to be brutally murdered in a particular way that fits the definition of genocide given in the Genocide Convention. This cannot be anyone's idea of a robust human rights. If human rights are to be reclaimed they need first of all to be restored to the realm of politics. Not the realm of morality, which is always and ever a discussion of good versus evil, but politics, a discussion and argument over competing legitimate aims—e.g., the aim of honoring sovereignty and not waging war, versus the aim of protecting the defenseless and ensuring their rights. Morally, it would clearly be better to be a democracy liberated by George W. Bush than a tyranny under Saddam Hussein. Politically, it may be better to bide your time under Saddam than be plunged into a civil war that will kill 100,000 or twice that many. A political rather than moral discussion of human rights might even lead us to acknowledge that a mass murderer like Muammar Qaddafi or George W. Bush has a legitimate constituency whose rights must also be kept in mind.

Meantime the historical record grows long enough for us to ask: Has there ever been a truly successful, truly humanitarian humanitarian intervention? Not of the Vietnamese in Cambodia, who deposed the Khmer Rouge for their own reasons (the Khmer kept crossing the border, and also murdered their entire Vietnamese population), and then replaced them with Hun Sen, who has been ruling Cambodia with an iron fist for more than 30 years. Not the Indian intervention in Bangladesh, under whose cover the Indian government arrested all student protesters in India. And not NATO in Kosovo, which, while it stopped Milosevic and ensured the safety of Kosovo, could not make it a viable state (it is now a failing state likely to be swallowed by Albania), and also led to the ethnic cleansing of the Serb population. Too bad for the Serbs, to be sure; but the creation of a safe space for the expulsion of a civilian population cannot be what anyone had in mind when they launched the planes. That there has never been a successful humanitarian intervention does not mean that there cannot be one in the future. But the evidence is piling up.

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