Revolution from Above

United States Military
United States Military; drawing by David Levine

Call it the Kosovo Syndrome. In 1999, many liberals cheered when NATO planes were dispatched to bomb Belgrade in an effort to stop Serbs from “cleansing” Kosovo. Military intervention, led by the United States, was seen by some critics as a bullying infringement of the sovereign rights of Serbia. Yet this action saved hundreds of thousands of Albanian Kosovars from being driven from their homes, raped, tortured, and, in many cases, murdered. The bombing campaign was promoted as the first humanitarian war, the perfect example of liberal interventionism. In April of that same year, Kofi Annan stated in Geneva that human rights stood above the rights of governments.

Ironically, in the light of more recent events, the principles of “liberal intervention,” or the “right to intervene” to stop mass murder and persecution, were developed in Paris in the 1980s, by Mario Bettati, a professor of international public law, and popularized by a French politician, Bernard Kouchner, who was one of the founders of Médecins sans Frontières. This is how Kouchner described his enthusiasm for liberal intervention with military force: “The day will come, we are convinced of it, when we are going to be able to say to a dictator: ‘Mr. Dictator we are going to stop you preventively from oppressing, torturing and exterminating your ethnic minorities.'”

In fact, Kouchner, and others, had been pleading for intervention before, in Croatia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Haiti, and Somalia. When it came, however, it was usually too late. Many people, especially left-leaning liberals, had felt squeamish about US bombers or Marines going into other countries anyway, however noble the intentions. For it smacked of US imperialism, and brought back memories of Vietnam. But Kosovo, or even before that, Bosnia, changed many minds (though not yet that of George W. Bush, who promised in his election campaign to adopt a more “humble” foreign policy). They were the precedents that made it easier for liberals and indeed leftists to lend their support to even more elaborate war plans, hatched by neo-conservative hawks circling around the younger Bush’s Pentagon, in the name of liberating the Middle East.

Paul Berman counts himself among them. But his views are more radical than Kouchner’s, whose liberal interventionism is about saving minorities from death and persecution, not about spreading revolution. In a recent issue of The New Republic, Berman declared his support for the war against Iraq by quoting the Gettysburg Address. Battling Saddam Hussein, he said, was like liberating the slaves of the Southern states. More than that, Abraham Lincoln, in Berman’s perhaps over-romantic take on his great American hero, was bent on liberating the world. This was quite unlike the namby-pamby Europeans today who, Berman writes,

cannot conceive or accept the notion of liberal democracy as a revolutionary project for universal liberation, they cannot imagine how to be liberal democrats and wield power at the same time. They…

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