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The New World Order

Guantánamo and Beyond: The Continuing Pursuit of Unchecked Executive Power

by Amnesty International
Report on the United States
May 2005, 164 pp. (available at www.amnesty.org)


Those of us who opposed America’s invasion of Iraq from the outset can take no comfort from its catastrophic consequences. On the contrary: we should now be asking ourselves some decidedly uncomfortable questions. The first concerns the propriety of “preventive” military intervention. If the Iraq war is wrong—“the wrong war at the wrong time”1—why, then, was the 1999 US-led war on Serbia right? That war, after all, also lacked the imprimatur of UN Security Council approval. It too was an unauthorized and uninvited attack on a sovereign state—undertaken on “preventive” grounds—that caused many civilian casualties and aroused bitter resentment against the Americans who carried it out.

The apparent difference—and the reason so many of us cheered when the US and its allies went into Kosovo—was that Slobodan Milosevic had begun a campaign against the Albanian majority of Serbia’s Kosovo province that had all the hallmarks of a prelude to genocide. So not only was the US on the right side but it was intervening in real time—its actions might actually prevent a major crime. With the shameful memory of Bosnia and Rwanda in the very recent past, the likely consequences of inaction seemed obvious and far outweighed the risks of intervention. Today the Bush administration—lacking “weapons of mass destruction” to justify its rush to arms—offers “bringing freedom to Iraq” almost as an afterthought. But saving the Kosovar Albanians was what the 1999 war was all about from the start.

And yet it isn’t so simple. Saddam Hussein (like Milosevic) was a standing threat to many of his subjects: not just in the days when he was massacring Kurds and Shiites while we stood by and watched, but to the very end. Those of us who favor humanitarian interventions in principle—not because they flatter our good intentions but because they do good or prevent ill—could not coherently be sorry to see Saddam overthrown. Those of us who object to the unilateral exercise of raw power should recall that ten years ago we would have been delighted to see someone—anyone—intervene unilaterally to save the Rwandan Tutsis. And those of us who, correctly in my view, point to the perverse consequences of even the best-intentioned meddling in other countries’ affairs have not always applied that insight in cases where we longed to see the meddling begin.

David Rieff has nothing to offer by way of a solution to these quandaries—the dominant tone of his latest book is one of disabused despair. But the new collection of his recent essays and reports performs the salutary function of reminding us just how troubling such dilemmas can be. For many years Rieff was a prominent advocate of wholesale humanitarian intervention—not merely as a band-aid on the world’s wounds but because, like Paul Wolfowitz among others, he earnestly believed in the desirability and possibility of bringing democratic change to places where it was needed. He includes in this collection some earlier essays that movingly pressed the case for Western intervention: in Africa, the Balkans, and elsewhere. Now, as Rieff concedes in afterthoughts appended to those same essays, he’s not so sure.

Things go wrong, and not just in Iraq. International law—like the UN itself—was conceived in a world of sovereign states, a world where wars broke out between countries, peace was duly brokered among states, and a major concern of the post–World War II settlement was to guarantee the inviolability of borders and sovereignty. Today’s wars typically happen within states. The distinctions between peace-making and peacekeeping—between intervention, assistance, and coercion—are unclear, as are the rights of the conflicting parties and the circumstances under which foreign agencies may resort to force. In this confusing new world, well-meaning Western diplomats and observers have sometimes proven unable to distinguish between warring states—operating under conventional diplomatic norms—and locally powerful criminal tyrants, such as the leaders of Sudan. Negotiation with the latter all too often amounts to collaboration and even complicity.

As for the United Nations (“that toothless old scold,” in Rieff’s words), not only is it helpless to prevent criminal behavior, but by its obsession with remaining “impartial” and protecting its own people it can sometimes abet and facilitate mass murder. At Srebrenica, in July 1995, four hundred Dutch UN soldiers stood politely aside to let Ratko Mladic and his Bosnian Serb irregulars massacre seven thousand Muslim men and boys conveniently gathered together under United Nations protection in a “safe” area. This may be an extreme case—but it is in just such extreme circumstances that international agencies of all kinds, however benign their intentions, can hardly avoid compromising themselves, especially when the great powers on the Security Council refuse to authorize adequate armed support. When private charities and the UN’s own high commissioner for refugees help transport, settle, house, and feed forcibly displaced peoples—whether in the south Balkans or the eastern Congo or the Middle East—are they furnishing desperately needed aid or facilitating someone else’s project of ethnic cleansing? All too often the answer is: both.

Rieff goes further. Most humanitarian agencies, public and private, are by definition geared to addressing emergencies. In a crisis their priorities are to provide immediate assistance (and protect their own people); they have little time or inclination for long-term problem-solving or political calculation. As a consequence they are vulnerable to exploitation: by the victims (Rieff is particularly sour about the KLA—Kosovo Liberation Army—which he used to admire but which now seems to him always to have been disposed to violence and bent upon the forced displacement of the remaining Serbs of Kosovo—indeed, little better than their Serbian counterparts); but above all by the major powers to whom such humanitarian entities are in practice subcontracted and whose cooperation they need.

To the extent that humanitarians thus provide cover for legally ambiguous armed intervention and its inevitable shortcomings they diminish their own reputation and moral credibility without always achieving their goals. The UN in particular risks becoming, according to Rieff, a “de facto colonial office to US power”; cleaning up after American invasions and “used like a piece of fancy Kleenex…as usual,” in the disabused description of one UN official in Iraq whom Rieff quotes approvingly. This may seem a little harsh. From bitter experience, after all, welfare agencies in dangerous places know that keeping on the right side of the occupying power, or a corrupt local chieftain or policeman—at whatever short-term cost to their credibility—is the only way to stay on the spot and thus do any good at all.

Rieff’s disillusioned tone can thus take on a cynical edge—“the imperial dreams of American neoconservatives like [Max] Boot or [Robert] Kagan make so much more sense than the vacillations of the humanitarian left.” And his essays betray evidence of some haste, both in their original drafting and subsequent republication: in Kosovo, we learn, “the West was finally hoist on the petard of its own lip service to the categorical imperative of human rights.” Moreover, little of what Rieff has to say about the perverse effects of well-intentioned involvement in other peoples’ affairs will come as news to many readers. But there was a time when Rieff would have accepted such unpleasant side effects as the better part of liberal valor: “Our choice at the millenium,” he wrote a few years ago, “seems to boil down to imperialism or barbarism.” In the aftermath of Iraq, however, things look different and he ruefully concedes that “I did not realize the extent to which imperialism is or at least can always become barbarism.”2

Rieff is not against humanitarian intervention today. But he now thinks we should pragmatically engage each case on its merits and without illusion: above all without illusion about how much genuine change we can ever hope to effect and at what price.3 He still believes “we” should have intervened sooner in Bosnia and that “we” are collectively responsible for allowing a genocide in Rwanda. How, then, are “we” to decide in the future when to stand aside and when to act? And who is this “we” with the responsibility and capacity to avert such catastrophes? The “international community”—which in practice means the United Nations and its various relief agencies and peacekeeping forces? Rieff, a disappointed lover, is decidedly scornful of the UN—“it is only in the African context that a derelict institution like the United Nations, understood by those who know it well as a supine organization, could be viewed as a power center”—but he has nothing better to offer.

Derelict”? “Supine”? Rieff’s contempt is widely shared. One prominent human rights lawyer who worked with the UN in Africa blames the organization—and its present secretary-general, Kofi Annan—for “capitulating to evil” there.4 Neoconservatives have long since dismissed the UN as an irrelevance: “The United Nations is guarantor of nothing. Except in a formal sense, it can hardly be said to exist.”5 The Bush administration has deliberately nominated as its next ambassador to the UN a man who holds the institution in contempt. A recent “High-level Panel” appointed by the UN’s own secretary-general acknowledges the organization’s mismanagement of post-conflict operations and its record of poor coordination, improvident expenditure, and wasteful interagency competition. The panel explicitly describes the UN’s own notorious Commission on Human Rights as suffering from what it politely terms “a legitimacy deficit.”

The fundamental problem with the United Nations, however, is neither inefficiency nor corruption nor a shortage of “legitimacy.” It is weakness. The UN has no power to initiate international interventions without the unanimous approval of the Security Council, whose five permanent members all hold a veto—and, in the case of the US at least, have never hesitated to wield it. For a long time the UN was constrained by the stalemate of the cold war, confined to grand-sounding “resolutions.” Since 1990, however, the UN and its agencies have acquired an enhanced role and a special sort of international legitimacy as the world’s peacemakers, peace-builders, and peacekeepers—to the point (unimaginable a few decades ago) that for hundreds of millions of people worldwide, the propriety of the American invasion of Iraq hinged upon Washington’s success or failure in getting the support of a second Security Council resolution.6

As the High-level Panel points out, the “collectively authorized use of force may not be the rule today, but it is no longer an exception.” But this points to a second weakness. In a world where the violation by governments of their own subjects’ rights has become the leading motive for armed intervention, the UN Charter’s emphasis upon the inviolability of sovereign states presents a conundrum. Offsetting the rights of individuals against the prerogatives of states is hardly a new challenge (it was a particular preoccupation of Dag Hammarskjøld, the UN’s secretary-general between 1953 and 19617 ), but the UN still has few resources, legal or logistical, with which to meet it. Above all, it has no army or armed police of its own. It has thus preferred to shy away from confrontations requiring the use of force, leading its own panel to conclude that “the biggest source of inefficiency in our collective security institutions has simply been an unwillingness to get serious about preventing deadly violence.”

  1. 1

    Tony Judt, “The Wrong War at the Wrong Time,” The New York Times, October 20, 2002.

  2. 2

    For a recent summary of our achievements in Iraq, see, e.g., Zvi Bar’el, “Why Isn’t Iraq Getting on Its Feet?,” Haaretz, June 3, 2005. The author concludes that “the full extent of the institutionalized corruption under American rule, and now under the rule of the new Iraqi government, may never be known. Investigators are not going out into the field to scrutinize data because it would mean risking their lives, and the ministers in the new Iraqi government have been appointing cronies to ensure loyalty.”

  3. 3

    That is also the message of The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing Inter-national Humanitarianism (Princeton University Press, 2004), by David Kennedy, an international lawyer at Harvard. Kennedy accuses international humanitarians—lawyers, doctors, relief agencies, election observers, and the like—of fetishizing their own structures and routines. They are too readily tempted, he suggests, into idealizing (and idolizing) their own work, with the result that they ignore or downplay both the frequently perverse outcomes of their efforts—furnishing cover for dictators and others with agendas of their own—and alternative, more radical solutions and policies that fall outside their remit.

  4. 4

    Kenneth Cain, “How Many More Must Die Before Kofi Quits?” The Observer (London), April 3, 2005. That the UN did indeed capitulate to evil in Rwanda is beyond doubt—see Roméo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (Carroll and Graf, 2004), and the review by Guy Lawson in The New York Review, May 26, 2005. But Kofi Annan and his UN colleagues are by no means uniquely to blame—there is more than enough responsibility to go around, in Brussels, Paris, and Washington.

  5. 5

    Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 70, p. 25, quoted in Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism, p. 84.

  6. 6

    Something the US could not secure unless it accepted the UN inspectors’ recommendation and allowed inspections to continue, which the Bush administration firmly refused to do.

  7. 7

    See, e.g., Kennedy, The Dark Sides of Virtue, p. 258.

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