A Solution From Hell
The perils of humanitarian intervention.
The following essay is excerpted from the latest issue of n+1 magazine. It is available online only in Slate. To read the complete version, click here to purchase n+1 in print.
The current age is uncommonly preoccupied with human rights. The story of how we got here can be traced from various points, whether from the Enlightenment and its great American spokesman Thomas Jefferson, or from the interventions and non-interventions following the European upheavals of 1848, or from the founding of the United Nations after World War II and the Holocaust, or from 1977, the year when post-'60s dismay, Jimmy Carter, and the Cold War intersected to place a commitment to "human rights" at the center of Western consciousness. Whichever way, for whatever reason, or for half a dozen reasons, human rights have at least rhetorically come to the fore of American and European foreign policy, with the result that it is now possible for the U.S. to wage war for humanitarian purposes in campaigns that seem otherwise irrelevant to the national interest. In this telling of the story of the "rights revolution," as the philosopher and Iraq war proponent Michael Ignatieff has called it, the end of the Cold War has opened up new vistas for the enforcement of human rights across the globe.
There is another way to tell the story, however. In this telling, the march of rights took a wrong turn as early as 1948, when the U.N. adopted its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The U.N. Charter had established state sovereignty as the basis for international law. This meant that weaker states would be protected against stronger states by the international community—and for all its flaws, the U.N. was instrumental in helping postwar, post-colonial states get on their feet. At the same time, the Universal Declaration promoted the principle of human rights in general, independent of sovereignty. Writing in the wake of World War II and the founding of the U.N., Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism echoed Edmund Burke's famous critique of the French revolutionaries' Declaration of the Rights of Man. "The calamity of the rightless," wrote Arendt, "is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion—formulas which were designed to solve problems within given communities—but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever. Their plight is not that they are not equal before the law, but that no law exists for them." Surveying the history of refugees and other stateless people over the prior 30 years, Arendt found that "not only did the loss of national rights in all instances entail the loss of human rights; the restoration of human rights, as the recent example of the State of Israel proves, has been achieved so far only through the restoration of national rights." There could be no rights without belonging to a sovereign jurisdiction; the U.N., by enshrining sovereignty on the one hand and "universal rights" on the other, had tried to solve the problems revealed in the interwar period, but ended up simply restating them.
The contradiction in the U.N. founding documents between inviolable human rights and inviolable state sovereignty remained essentially obscured throughout the Cold War, when neither the Americans nor the Soviets could seriously claim to believe in either. Even when the U.S. championed human rights under Carter, it retained its priorities: Forced to choose between socialists (or just serious land reformers) and human rights abusers, the U.S. always sided with the abusers. Suddenly in 1991, the choice became unnecessary. You no longer had to decide between leftists and rightists, since everywhere you looked there were only capitalists. And by the end of the Cold War, aerial weapons systems had advanced to the point where the military could conduct basically gratuitous wars, with little risk to soldiers' lives, at comparatively low cost—and without raining explosives indiscriminately on foreign populations. The new precision-guided weaponry offered the hope of truly distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys, as long as they stayed far enough apart.
In the '90s, the language of human rights came into its own. The people of Kuwait, when a U.S.-led, U.N.-approved coalition drove Iraq out of their country, were the citizens of a sovereign state invaded by Saddam Hussein—but not so the Iraqi Kurds, who were Saddam's own citizens when he invaded their lands. Nevertheless the U.S., Britain, and France established a no-fly zone to protect the Iraqi Kurds from their internationally recognized head of state. Likewise, the Tutsis of Rwanda and the Albanians in Yugoslav Kosovo were victims of the state in which they lived, and their rights, insofar as they had any, could only be defended by an international community. In one case those rights were defended, in the other they were not. What were the U.S.'s principles, and what was its practice, when it came to human rights? Neither seemed clear, and the debate about them was equally confusing and confused.
The only people who seemed consistent about intervention were too far right or left to get much of a hearing. Throughout the 1990s, the right opposed intervention from a "realist" perspective, arguing that it was not in the national interest to go on humanitarian adventures abroad. The left, which was in the process of forming a powerful movement against the "structural adjustment" policies of the giant international financial institutions, and also promoting a humane globalization (carelessly labeled "anti-globalization" by the mainstream press), opposed the interventions on anti-imperialist grounds. In the end, neither view had much effect, as a strong hawkish core emerged: Bob Dole, the Republican leader in the Senate and 1996 presidential candidate, was a strong proponent of intervention in Bosnia; so too, eventually, was Bill Clinton. Among respectable pundits, the right-leaning hawks were neoconservative, the left-leaning hawks neoliberal. If there was a real distinction it was in their attitudes toward international institutions like the U.N. Neoconservatives loathed the U.N.; neoliberals liked it. But it was the Kosovo intervention, which most egregiously circumvented international institutions (in the name of a good cause), that was the final Clinton intervention. Thus at the end of the '90s neoconservatives and neoliberals had reached the same place, disdainful of seeking "multilateral" permission for their wars.
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Photograph of medics looking after an injured man in Libya by Tristan Pfund/AFP/Getty Images.