David Rieff

David Rieff

David Rieff

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
July 13 1999 3:00 AM

David Rieff

Why does the intellectual conscience of the new world order contradict himself? Because he is large. He contains multitudes.

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While Los Angeles aims an occasional rhetorical jab at the left, Rieff's second book on Miami, The Exile, was an act of defiant apostasy, sympathetic to the Cuban émigrés' sufferings and aspirations, and contemptuous of the Castro regime. In the precincts of the American left that still dream of Fidel and Che in the Sierra Maestra, Rieff's book was greeted with murmurings of disapproval--the kind of murmurings that had greeted Sontag's famous Town Hall declaration of the moral equivalence of communism and fascism some years before.


In 1992, Rieff went to Europe to explore the transformation of its cultural geography by Third World immigration. He ended up, fatefully, in Sarajevo, just as the first details of the Bosnian genocide were becoming known. His experience in Bosnia awakened his conscience, and made his career.

The book that resulted, Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West, is an unrelenting indictment of the international community's inability--or unwillingness--to step in and stop the killing. It is an odd piece of reportage, with no interest in the evocation of place. This is post-traumatic journalism--repetitious, impatient, and emotionally raw. The Bosnians--in whose name Rieff brings his indictment against an indifferent world--function as a kind of abstraction. We see very little of their lives, and only rarely hear their voices. They are the Laotian busboy, only more like us. At the heart of the book is the claim that by treating a political cataclysm in strictly humanitarian terms, Western governments and the United Nations assured the destruction of a democratic, multicultural nation in the middle of Europe and abetted the cause of Serbian fascism. Those who protested NATO's action in Kosovo because it lacked a U.N. mandate should read Slaughterhouse to see what an earlier mandate produced: ethnic cleansing superintended by men in blue helmets.

Even though Kosovo was the West's attempt to compensate for the failures outlined in Slaughterhouse, as recently as last September Rieff opposed military action against Serbia in an op-ed, calling such intervention unwarranted because the sufferings of the Kosovars "pale in comparison" with the starvation of refugees in southern Sudan and Sierra Leone. "Unless one believes that the lives of Europeans are intrinsically more valuable than those of Africans, the humanitarian justification for military intervention is unsustainable," he wrote.

Does David Rieff contradict himself again? Has he already forgotten that Slaughterhouse castigates former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali for making a similar formulation, describing as "racist" the world's attention to Bosnia and disregard for the sufferings of the Third World? Didn't Boutros-Ghali earn Rieff's undying scorn when he told the besieged Sarajevans he could name 10 places in the world where things were worse?

But last autumn's dove became a hawk again this spring. Shortly after NATO's bombs stopped falling and Milosevic capitulated, Rieff assessed the lessons of Kosovo in a short Newsweek piece that made the case--from the safety of retrospect, naturally--for ground troops. The question of ground troops was not strategic, but moral. "Had the West been willing to unleash a ground war to secure its military, humanitarian and human-rights objectives," Rieff argued, "there would be more room for optimism." So much for southern Sudan.

Rieff's Newsweek piece did allow that, in spite of having "to fight a just war with one hand tied behind its back ... NATO actually succeeded to a greater extent than might have been predicted." "Might have been" is either disingenuous or overly modest, since Rieff himself had, almost from the start, pronounced NATO's action an unambiguous failure. In a cover story in the New Republic in May, Rieff painted a grim picture of "lost Kosovo." "The real question," Rieff insisted, "is whether the refugee emergency is going to be permanent ... or whether NATO actually intends to fight a war that will allow the refugees to return to Kosovo."

If that question has, for the moment at least, been answered, you won't hear it from David Rieff. Don't expect to see him marching in any victory parades. But don't look for him at any protest marches either. In the months ahead, you'll most likely find him in the pages of the opinion journals or across the table from Charlie Rose, heaping scorn on the U.S. government, NATO, the United Nations and, of course, the left, whoever they are. He will continue to lecture us on the importance of choosing sides, and of fighting to win. He will remain passionate, eloquent, and sure of himself. But I, for one, can't read him without hearing the strains of an old marching song from my own left-wing childhood. Which side are you on, David? Which side are you on?

A.O. Scott is a film critic at the New York Times.