Friday, November 11, 2011

Obituaries for humanitarian intervention may be premature (David Rieff vs. Norman Geras)

There is an old saying to the effect that a cynic is often a disillusioned idealist. In this spirit, the humane but disillusioned David Rieff has for some time been a bitter critic of the whole idea of "humanitarian intervention" and the related principle of an international "responsibility to protect" victims of genocide and other mass atrocities. In 2007 (as Norman Geras reminds us), Rieff wrote an obituary for humanitarian intervention that seemed all too plausible at the time. The disastrous aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war, he argued, had discredited the idea "for at least a generation". Some highlights:
Whatever one thinks of him, in international affairs [Tony] Blair was a leader of consequence. Indeed, he can be plausibly described as being chiefly responsible for formulating and successfully propagating the doctrine of "humanitarian intervention." That idea captured the imagination of much of the elite of the developed world over the course of the 1990's, and provided the moral rationale for the principal western military interventions of the post-cold war period, from Bosnia to Iraq.

Given how catastrophic the invasion of Iraq has turned out to be, it is hard even to remember when interventions on moral grounds - whether to thwart a dictator, as in the case of the Balkan wars, or to put an end to anarchic cruelty, as in the case of British intervention in Sierra Leone - seemed like a great advance in international affairs. No longer would the powerful sit by idly while butchers like Slobodan Milosevic or Foday Sankoh slaughtered their own people.
It's worth interjecting a few brief remarks here. Many people seem to believe, like Rieff, that the idea of "interventions on moral grounds", with the limits that implies on absolute notions of state sovereignty, is a very recent innovation, dating from barely the day before yesterday. But as the work of Gary Bass, Chaim Kaufmann and others has demonstrated, this impression is incorrect. For better or worse, the origins of modern humanitarian intervention, both in principle and in practice, go back to the early 19th century. And 19th-century humanitarian interventionism played a major role in helping to produce, among other notable results, the independence of Greece and the suppression of the international slave trade. It may be a bad idea, but it's not quite as new as Rieff thinks.

Furthermore, even in terms of recent history, it strikes me as a bit of an overstatement to single out Tony Blair as having been "chiefly responsible" for "formulating and successfully propagating" this doctrine that Rieff finds so pernicious. But there's no question that he played a significant role, so we can leave that issue to one side.
Today, humanitarian intervention has become a dirty word for many of the same people who once believed in it. Only American neoconservatives, understandably grateful for his championing of the Iraq war and his ability to argue for it coherently and eloquently (unlike President Bush, who was and is unable to do either), are sorry to see Blair go.
That bit about "only American neoconservatives" is a standard cliché, but even when he wrote it, David Rieff himself must have known that his statement was, to say the least, overstated. It's clear that people in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, for example, also don't share Rieff's assessment of Tony Blair and of humanitarian intervention. But be that as it may ...
But what may be lost is how many people did believe.

Blair still does. In a recent interview, he replied to the question of the core of his foreign policy with two words: "liberal interventionism." The world may have moved on, chastened by the realisation that interveners, even when intervening in the name of human rights, can be as barbaric as tin pot dictators. But Blair, it seems, is not to be moved. [....]

Blair is the last interventionist. Neither his successor, Gordon Brown, nor George Bush's successor, whoever he or she turns out to be, will be able to mount another intervention similar to that in Kosovo, let alone Iraq. [....] By putting liberal interventionism at the heart of his foreign policy, Tony Blair has made it radioactive - a political non-starter for at least a generation.
=> Well, as Norm points out, "It turned out to be a very short generation." In the wake of the recent NATO-led intervention in Libya, which (so far) most Libyans and many westerners consider to have been pretty successful, that blanket prediction looks like a case of wishful thinking.

However, Rieff and others are now making the same kind of prediction about the unintended consequences of the Libyan intervention. Once again, Rieff argues (and/or hopes) that this experience has effectively discredited the doctrine of humanitarian intervention—though this time he sounds a bit less certain and less sweeping than he did in 2007:
At first glance, the intervention in Libya looks like a textbook case of how the new U.N. doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was supposed to work. The doctrine’s supporters had hoped that it would codify the obligations of outside powers to intervene — through nonmilitary means whenever possible, but with lethal force if necessary — when a tyrannical regime threatens to slaughter its own people. [....]

But a far more qualified reaction may be in order. For one thing, it’s unclear whether the fall of Qaddafi will usher in a better or democratic government in Libya; so far the revolutions of the Arab Spring have not been promising on that front. For another thing, unlike earlier versions of humanitarian intervention, R2P was about protecting civilians, and emphatically not about regime change. The Security Council resolutions that authorized an R2P-based intervention to protect Benghazi did not authorize outside powers to provide air support for the subsequent rebellion against Qaddafi. And it is almost certain that without that support he would not have been overthrown. [....]

As a result, everywhere outside Western Europe and North America, R2P is losing what little ethical credibility it ever commanded.[....] Clearly, no R2P-based, Libya-like interventions will get sanction from the U.N. in the foreseeable future.

One would never know it from all the victory talk in the West, but instead of strengthening R2P as a new global norm, the NATO intervention in Libya may well serve as its high water mark.
Perhaps. Rieff's analysis is worth reading, and it raises some issues worth considering. But I agree with Norman Geras that some key elements of his argument are questionable or misleading. And this new obituary for humanitarian intervention and R2P may, once again, turn out to be premature.

(That may depend, in part, on what actually happens in Libya now. But I also suspect that the next instance of full-scale genocide—which, alas, is bound to occur sometime—will revive feelings of discomfort about simply letting it happen.)

=> Meanwhile, I will just endorse Norm's skeptical response to Rieff's latest obituary. Among other things:
I have said often before on this blog, and will now say again, that protecting a people from the regime which rules over it sometimes requires dispatching the regime altogether, once it passes a certain level of criminality.
There is no inherent contradiction here—quite the contrary.

And I think Norman Geras is right to suggest that Rieff and others like him have (at best) only begun to face up to the moral costs of simply dismissing the principle of a "responsibility to protect":
Rieff shouldn't be so quick to write R2P off as a global norm while he has nothing better with which to replace it.
You can read the rest here.

—Jeff Weintraub

Next-day update: As a follow-up, here is a brief exchange with one correspondent, which I share with that person's permission.
Once again, you've put together an important and interesting issue. I understand David's doubts, though I worry that disillusion can spawn passivity. I haven't followed his work as closely as I should have, but what does he propose to do instead?
That's the right question. I can't pretend to have read everything David Rieff has written on this subject in the past decade or so, but I think I've read a fair amount of it (a typical statement is here). And I think Norman Geras's last point has him dead to rights. As far as I can tell, Rieff's generalized assault on "humanitarianism" in all its contemporary forms is purely negative, and he has not really offered any substantive alternative to inaction in the face of mass atrocity (along with strict adherence to Westphalian-style state sovereignty).

What makes that absence especially significant is that Rieff has been one of the most thoughtful and eloquent proponents of this futilitarian critique. The perspective informing his arguments seems to be fairly pure conservative pessimism, combined with a crudely reductionistic tendency to lump together all appeals to morality in international affairs and treat them as simply rhetorical fig-leafs for imperialism-as-usual. There are grains of truth in both those positions (more than grains, in some cases) ... but by itself this perspective is one-sided, distorting, and (in my opinion) morally unacceptable. The dilemmas are real and intractable, sure, but it seems to me that an approach like Rieff's just evades those dilemmas rather than constructively facing up to them.