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.

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.

Medics look after an injured man on board a MedEvac boat. Click to expand image.
Medics look after an injured man on board a MedEvac boat leaving Libya 

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.

Perhaps the liberals would soon have returned to their more traditional interest in international institutions; perhaps the conservatives would have gotten out of the human rights business altogether; perhaps not. In any case the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 altered—or scrambled—people's thinking. The next American war was an unusual operation: a mission to overthrow a government (the Taliban) that almost nobody recognized as legitimate, in order to deprive a belligerent non-state actor (al-Qaida) of a staging ground. Realists on the left—few remained on the right—argued for a narrowly defined police action to root out al-Qaida. Supporters of all-out war, soon the only respectable position, invoked the liberation of Afghan women as a bonus legitimation. And a year and a half later came Iraq. The war was sold to the public under many pretexts, but for liberal hawks the dominant reason to invade was Saddam Hussein's former crimes (and potential future crimes) against his people. There was no question that from a humanitarian perspective a world without Saddam would be a better world. And we were going to take him out.

In retrospect, it's easy to see that the argument over humanitarian intervention that should have taken place in the years after Kosovo was replaced and muddled by an argument over the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war. In 2000–01, a high-powered international commission convened to discuss what the international community should do in the event of a human rights crisis in a failing state; one of their recommendations was that the concept of "humanitarian intervention" be scrapped, as being needlessly prejudicial (like "pro-life"), and replaced with the more capacious, less necessarily violent "responsibility to protect." The group's report was humane and intelligent, though not without problems; it was also presented before the U.N. Security Council in December 2001, at which point it had been "OBE," as they say in Washington—overtaken by events. The same happened with Samantha Power's "A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, the summa theologica of liberal interventionist historiography, which was published in 2002. The book immediately became part of the debate over Iraq, with George W. Bush famously scribbling NOMW ("not on my watch") in a memo outlining its arguments. Not long after, he launched Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The argument over pre-emptive war was decided, resoundingly, against, though not because Stephen Holmes wrote essays in the London Review of Books or Jacques Rancière contributed an elegant elaboration of Hannah Arendt's argument about rights in the South Atlantic Quarterly (subscription required). The argument was decided by the 126,000 or so Iraqis killed during the U.S. invasion and in the civil war that followed. No one will be invading a terrible but stable regime to hang its leader anytime soon; at least we won't. Now, in 2011, we are bringing the troops gradually home from Afghanistan and Iraq, the results mixed. Neither war was waged for human rights, and it seems clear that humanitarianism shouldn't have been part of the discussion, not in the way it was. How humanitarian is it to unleash one civil war and reignite another?

In Libya, we find ourselves faced with a more classic, '90s-style intervention. The background could not be more stark: A courageous rebellion against a brutal and unbalanced 40-year dictatorship was inspired by the nearby uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Unlike the dictators of those countries, Muammar Qaddafi gave no thought to stepping down. The rebels armed themselves and began to march toward Tripoli, capturing several towns on the way. They carried Kalashnikovs and RPGs. Qaddafi's days were numbered! But his army had jets, and tanks, and heavy artillery. Once it began a counteroffensive, the rebels proved powerless. They retreated and retreated, until Qaddafi's forces reached the outskirts of Benghazi, the largest city in the Libyan east and the heart of the rebellion. Qaddafi took to the radio. "It's over," he told the rebels. "We are coming tonight. Prepare yourselves. We will find you in your closets. We will show no mercy and no pity." People on the ground began to predict the massacre of Benghazi. They even used the word genocide, if only to disclaim it: "Not a slaughter amounting to genocide," clarified the New York Review of Books, "but almost certainly a bloodbath." (And what was the exact word these exquisite splitters of hairs had in mind for the killing resulting from NATO bombardment?) TheNew Yorker's understated Jon Lee Anderson was in Benghazi as Qaddafi's army approached. He had been watching the hapless rebels for weeks, growing increasingly alarmed at their inadequate arms and training. Now artillery could be heard on the edge of town; in the city's lone functioning Internet cafe the young people updated their Facebook profiles. Social media weren't going to help them now. "The war was finally coming to Benghazi," Anderson wrote.

And then it didn't. NATO jets swooped in, forcing Qaddafi's army back. Benghazi was saved. Nor was it a unilateral mission. The Arab League had sought the intervention; none other than Lebanon, home of Hezbollah (still furious at Qaddafi for the "disappearing" of a Lebanese Shiite chief in the late '70s), sponsored the resolution in the U.N. Security Council. The White House had the finesse to "lead from behind," as they put it. And the rebels, having taken several cities in the first weeks of the uprising, had established what international law calls "belligerent rights"—they were a force that could claim some legitimacy both inside and outside the country. Many of the arguments that should have given pause to American policymakers before the Iraq war, and to some extent during the Kosovo bombing, were moot here. This intervention was U.N.-approved, and seemed to emerge from a genuine concern for the casualties that would have ensued had Qaddafi's forces been allowed to proceed into Benghazi. (A more realpolitik consideration was to place the U.S., belatedly, on the side of the Arab Spring; we would be less resented as the old enabler of Mubarak if we were also the newfoe of Qaddafi.) Ryan Lizza's New Yorker article describing the days leading up to Obama's decision for war singled out Samantha Power, senior director for multilateral affairs on Obama's National Security Council, as one of the motors for the intervention. America was finally choosing values over money.

And yet somehow it gave one a toothache—like the toothache Vronsky had at the end of Anna Karenina, when he went off to Belgrade to humanitarianly aid the Orthodox Christians in their uprising against the Turks. Wars waged by the U.S. are inevitably imperialist; that is part of the toothache. But are they also irredeemably so? Can the local good—the protection of these people or that city—never outweigh the global problem that human rights are, at best, invoked inconsistently and hypocritically, and at worst to excuse any and every war? Humanitarian warfare, clearly bad in principle, often looks good from the standpoint of a particular people at a particular moment, when they are threatened with death. And so the temperamental opponent of intervention can come to feel that while in general he opposes this kind of thing, well, in this case he guesses he supports it—and in that case too, and the next one. He can come to feel like somebody who has principles only for the sake of suspending them. This was the real cause of the toothache—it was déjà vu all over again. In general, you reject humanitarian war—but have you ever met one you didn't initially like? For liberals or leftists who neither automatically support nor automatically oppose all interventions, the Libya war has prompted something paradoxical: mixed feelings in especially pure form. Here the humanitarian motive for intervening has seemed more genuine and decisive than in any prior case. And the chances of doing real good looked favorable. Yet we've got to stop doing these things!

What has been the result? NATO almost immediately expanded the concept of "civilian protection" granted in the U.N. resolution to include regime change—what safety could there be for the rebels if Qaddafi stayed in power? Again, it was hard to argue: Qaddafi was a maniac and a murderer. But Qaddafi held on. One of his residences was bombed, killing a son and several grandchildren, and still he held on. The rebels, while increasing in number and confidence, did not suddenly transform themselves into a well-armed, well-trained fighting force, and militarily a stalemate ensued. Here we were again: An idea that on the face of it was reasonable, and in a certain way "humane," was leading to further deaths, further damage to a country's infrastructure, and a political situation in which the rebels, emboldened by the NATO jets (and, eventually, attack helicopters), refused to negotiate until Qaddafi was gone. Meanwhile the International Criminal Court, the pride and joy of the liberal interventionists, filed suit against Qaddafi for crimes against humanity, thereby putting him beyond the pale. How could you negotiate with someone with nothing to lose? So a nonmilitary solution to a conflict that, Obama said, would be a matter of "days, not weeks," is, as of this writing, further away than ever, even after five months of bombing.

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.

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.

n+1 is a thrice-yearly magazine of politics, literature, and culture.