George W. Bush
George W. Bush; drawing by David Levine


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.”

That same panel, however, is very clear about what the United Nations has nonetheless achieved. Its greatest success has been to convince democrats and tyrants alike of the need to at least appear legitimate by securing or invoking UN approval as a fig leaf for their actions. The presence today of UN peacekeepers throughout the world—from Bosnia to Abkhazia to East Timor—may have the occasional perverse and paradoxical outcome, as Rieff and others gloomily document; but their absence, or their presence in insufficient numbers or with an inadequate mandate, is almost always catastrophic. Where the writ of the UN cannot run—because a powerful illiberal state won’t brook any interference in its domestic affairs (as in Chechnya, or among the Uighur people of western China)—bad things happen. All in all, the record of the UN is not so reprehensible. As the High-level Panel concludes:

We found that the UN has been much more effective in addressing the major threats to peace and security than it is given credit for.

The sixteen UN panelists who reason thus are not a bunch of starry-eyed humanitarian lefties. They include four former prime ministers, the president of the highly respected International Crisis Group (Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister), a retired British envoy to the UN, and General Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first President Bush. For a UN committee their conclusions are refreshingly hardheaded and thus carry unusual weight. And what they conclude is this. There is today a “yearning for an international system governed by the rule of law.” Such an international system can only work if it is backed by “deployable military resources,” and only the member-states of the United Nations can furnish their organization, its agencies, and their employees with those resources. If they persist in failing to do so, it will quickly become apparent, as it did in the mid-Nineties, that the “UN had exchanged the shackles of the cold war for the straitjacket of Member State complacency and Great Power indifference.”

At the same time, the international system as we now know it cannot survive if those separate member-states choose instead to deploy their resources unilaterally. In practice there is only one UN member-state that is in a position to do this, serially and on a worldwide scale, and the UN panelists make it clear what they think about that:

In a world full of perceived potential threats,8 the risk to the global order and the norm of non-intervention on which it continues to be based is simply too great for the legality of unilateral preventive action, as distinct from collectively endorsed action, to be accepted.

The “we” in my question about future interventions, in other words, can only be the international community of nations. But Kofi Annan’s High-level Panel is under no misapprehensions regarding the facts of international life:

If there is to be a new security consensus, it must start with the understanding that the front-line actors in dealing with all the threats we face, new and old, continue to be individual sovereign States.


And so we come full circle to my starting point. There are lots of individual sovereign states. But only one of them, the United States of America, has both the will and the means to back international armed intervention and help deliver it. This has been obvious for some time, of course. But far from being grounds for international anxiety it was for many a source of reassurance. Not only did the US appear to share the humanitarian and democratic purposes of the various agencies and alliances it had helped set in place in 1945, but it was governed by a political class that saw the advan-tage of exercising a degree of self-restraint, believing with Harry Truman that

we all have to recognize—no matter how great our strength—that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please.9

Great powers, of course, are not philanthropists. The US never ceased to pursue the national interest as successive administrations understood it. But for ten years following the end of the cold war the US and the “international community” appeared, however fortuitously, to share a common set of interests and objectives; indeed, American military preponderance fueled all manner of liberal dreams for global improvement. Hence the enthusiasms and hopes of the Nineties—and hence, too, the angry disillusion today. For the US of President George W. Bush most decidedly does not share the interests and objectives of the international community. Many in that community would say that this is because the United States itself has changed in unprecedented and quite frightening ways. Andrew Bacevich would agree with them.

Bacevich is a graduate of West Point, a Vietnam veteran, and a conservative Catholic who now directs the study of international relations at Boston University. He has thus earned the right to a hearing even in circles typically immune to criticism. What he writes should give them pause. His argument is complex, resting on a close account of changes in the US military since Vietnam, on the militarization of strategic political thinking, and on the role of the military in American culture. But his conclusion is clear. The United States, he writes, is becoming not just a militarized state but a military society: a country where armed power is the measure of national greatness, and war, or planning for war, is the exemplary (and only) common project.

Why does the US Department of Defense currently maintain 725 official US military bases outside the country and 969 at home (not to mention numerous secret bases)? Why does the US spend more on “defense” than all the rest of the world put together? After all, it has no present or likely enemies of the kind who could be intimidated or defeated by “star wars” missile defense or bunker-busting “nukes.” And yet this country is obsessed with war: rumors of war, images of war, “preemptive” war, “preventive” war, “surgical” war, “prophylactic” war, “permanent” war. As President Bush explained at a news conference on April 13, 2004, “This country must go on the offense and stay on the offense.”

Among democracies, only in America do soldiers and other uniformed servicemen figure ubiquitously in political photo ops and popular movies. Only in America do civilians eagerly buy expensive military service vehicles for suburban shopping runs. In a country no longer supreme in most other fields of human endeavor, war and warriors have become the last, enduring symbols of American dominance and the American way of life. “In war, it seemed,” writes Bacevich, “lay America’s true comparative advantage.”

Bacevich is good on the intellectual roots of the cult of therapeutic aggression—citing among others the inimitable Norman Podhoretz (America has an international mission and must never “come home”). He also summarizes the realist case for war—rooted in what will become the country’s increasingly desperate struggle to control the fuel supply. The United States consumes 25 percent of all the oil produced in the world every year but has proven reserves of its own amounting to less than 2 percent of the global total. This struggle Bacevich calls World War IV: the contest for supremacy in strategic, energy-rich regions like the Middle East and Central Asia.10 It began at the end of the Seventies, long before the formal conclusion of “World War III” (i.e., the cold war).

In this setting today’s “Global War on Terror” is one battle, perhaps just a sideshow, among the potentially limitless number of battles that the US will be called upon (or will call upon itself) to fight. These battles will all be won because the US has a monopoly of the most advanced weaponry—and they may be acceptable to the American people because, in Bacevich’s view, that same weaponry, air power especially, has given war “aesthetic respectability” once again. But the war itself has no foreseeable end.

As a former soldier, Bacevich is much troubled by the consequent militarization of American foreign relations, and by the debauching of his country’s traditional martial values in wars of conquest and occupation. And it is clear that he has little tolerance for Washington’s ideologically driven overseas adventures: the uncertain benefits for the foreign recipients are far outweighed by the moral costs to the US itself.11 For Bacevich’s deepest concern lies closer to home. In a militarized society the range of acceptable opinion inevitably shrinks. Opposition to the “commander in chief” is swiftly characterized as lèse-majesté; criticism becomes betrayal. No nation, as Madison wrote in 1795 and Bacevich recalls approvingly, can “preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”12 “Full-spectrum dominance” begins as a Pentagon cliché and ends as an executive project.

Although I think Bacevich is right to see war as the heart of the matter, there is more to the current US political climate than just the cult of arms. The unrepublican veneration of our presidential “leader” has made it uniquely difficult for Americans to see their country’s behavior as others see it. The latest report from Amnesty International—which says nothing that the rest of the world doesn’t already know or believe but which has been denied and ridiculed by President Bush—is a case in point. The United States “renders” (i.e., kidnaps and hands over) targeted suspects to third-party states for interrogation and torture beyond the reach of US law and the press. The countries to whom we outsource this task include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria (!), Pakistan—and Uzbekistan. Where outsourcing is impractical, we import qualified interrogators from abroad: in September 2002 a visiting Chinese “delegation” was invited to participate in the “interrogation” of ethnic Uighur detainees held at Guantánamo.

At the US’s own interrogation centers and prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay, at least twenty-seven “suspects” have been killed in custody. This number does not include extrajudicial, extraterritorial “targeted assassinations”: a practice inaugurated by Benito Mussolini with the murder of the Rosselli brothers in Normandy in 1937, pursued with vigor by Israel, and now adopted by the Bush administration. The Amnesty report lists sixty alleged incarceration and interrogation practices routinely employed at US detention centers, Guantánamo in particular. These include immersion in cold water to simulate drowning, forced shaving of facial and body hair, electric shocks to body parts, humiliation (e.g., being urinated upon), sex-ual taunting, the mocking of religious belief, suspension from shackles, physical exertion to the point of exhaus-tion (e.g., rock-carrying), and mock execution.

Any and all of these practices will be familiar to students of Eastern Europe in the Fifties or Latin America in the Seventies and Eighties—including the reported presence of “medical personnel.” But American interrogators have also innovated. One technique has been forcibly to wrap suspects—and their Korans—in Israeli flags: a generous gesture to our only unconditional ally, but calculated to ensure that a new generation of Muslims worldwide will identify the two countries as one and hate them equally.

All of these practices—and many, many others routinely employed at Guantánamo, at Kandahar and Bagram in Afghanistan, at al-Qaim, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere in Iraq—are in breach of the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention against Torture, to both of which the US is a signatory (in January 2002, even the British Secret Intelligence Service warned its personnel in Afghanistan not to take part in the “inhumane or degrading treatment” of prisoners that was practiced by their US allies, lest they incur criminal liability).13

The same practices are also in breach of US law. The “legal black hole” in which these things go on is formed by the breathtakingly cynical claim that since they are being done to foreign nationals on territory over which the US lacks ultimate sovereignty (for these purposes we readily acknowledge Cuba’s ownership of Guantánamo Bay), neither American law nor American courts have any jurisdiction. The 70,000 detainees currently held outside the US may be kept incarcerated and incommunicado for as long as the Global War on Terror is fought—which could be decades.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this grim story is the undisguised contempt with which the Bush administration responds to criticism. In part this is because criticism itself has become so uncommon. With rare exceptions—notably the admirable Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker—the American press has signally failed to understand, much less confront, the threat posed by this administration. Bullied into acquiescence, newspapers and television in the US have allowed the executive power to ignore the law and abuse human rights free of scrutiny or challenge. Far from defying an over-mighty government, investigative journalists were actively complicit before the Iraq war in spreading reports of weapons of mass destruction. Pundits and commentators bayed for war and sneered—as they continue to sneer—at foreign critics or dissenting allies. Amnesty International and other foreign human rights groups are now doing the work of domestic media grown supine and subservient.

Small wonder, then, that the administration and its servants treat the public (including the legislature) with such disdain. At the Senate hearings in January 2005 prior to his appointment as US attorney general, Alberto Gonzales painstakingly explained to the assembled senators that since the international Convention against Torture is subordinate to US law, the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution applies only to the states and not the federal government, and the Fifth Amendment doesn’t apply to foreigners detained abroad, the US has no legal obligations regarding “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment with respect to aliens overseas.” Lesser breeds without the Law….

In March 2005 the US National Defense Strategy openly stated that “our strength as a nation state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes, and terrorism.” At least that makes clear who and what we regard as our enemies. Yet Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could declare in the very same month, on March 14, 2005, that “too few in the world…know of the value we place on international institutions and the rule of law.” Indeed.


Historians and pundits who leap aboard the bandwagon of American Empire have forgotten a little too quickly that for an empire to be born, a republic has first to die. In the longer run no country can expect to behave imperially—brutally, contemptuously, illegally—abroad while preserving republican values at home. For it is a mistake to suppose that institutions alone will save a republic from the abuses of power to which empire inevitably leads. It is not institutions that make or break republics, it is men. And in the United States today, the men (and women) of the country’s political class have failed. Congress appears helpless to impede the concentration of power in the executive branch; indeed, with few exceptions it has contributed actively and even enthusiastically to the process.

The judiciary is little better.14 The “loyal opposition” is altogether too loyal. Indeed there seems little to be hoped from the Democratic Party. Terrified to be accused of transgressing the consensus on “order” and “security,” its leaders now strive to emulate and even outdo Republicans in their aggressive stances. Senator Hillary Clinton, the party’s likely candidate for the 2008 presidential elections, was last seen ostentatiously prostrating herself before the assembled ranks of the America-Israel Political Action Committee.15

At the outer edges of the US imperium, in Bratislava or Tiflis, the dream of republican America still lives on, like the fading light from a distant, dying star. But even there the shadows of doubt are growing. Amnesty International cites several cases of detainees who “just could not believe Americans could act this way.” Those are exactly the words said to me by an Albanian friend in Macedonia—and Macedonian Albanians have good reason to count themselves among this country’s best friends and unconditional admirers. In Madrid a very senior and rather conservative Spanish diplomat recently put it thus:

We grew up under Franco with a dream of America. That dream encouraged us to imagine and later to build a different, better Spain. All dreams must fade—but not all dreams must become nightmares. We Spanish know a little about political nightmares. What is happening to America? How do you explain Guantánamo?16

The American people have a touching faith in the invulnerability of their republic. It would not occur to most of them even to contemplate the possibility that their country might fall into the hands of a meretricious oligarchy; that, as Andrew Bacevich puts it, their political “system is fundamentally corrupt and functions in ways inconsistent with the spirit of genuine democracy.” But the twentieth century has taught most other peoples in the world to be less cocksure. And when foreigners look across the oceans at the US today, what they see is far from reassuring.

For there is a precedent in modern Western history for a country whose leader exploits national humiliation and fear to restrict public freedoms; for a government that makes permanent war as a tool of state policy and arranges for the torture of its political enemies; for a ruling class that pursues divisive social goals under the guise of national “values”; for a culture that asserts its unique destiny and superiority and that worships military prowess; for a political system in which the dominant party manipulates procedural rules and threatens to change the law in order to get its own way; where journalists are intimidated into confessing their errors and made to do public penance. Europeans in particular have experienced such a regime in the recent past and they have a word for it. That word is not “democracy.”

One implication of the shadow falling across the American republic is that the brief era of consensual international intervention is already closing. This has nothing to do with the contradictions or paradoxes of humanitarian undertakings. It is the con- sequence of the discrediting of the United States. Hard as it may be for Americans to grasp, much of the world no longer sees the US as a force for good. It does the wrong things and has the wrong friends. During the cold war, to be sure, the US also supported many unsavory regimes. But back then there was a certain logic to its choices: Washington propped up anti-Communist dictators in pursuit of an anti-Communist cold war: raison d’état. Today we align ourselves with the world’s most brutal, terrorizing tyrants in a war ostensibly against brutal terror and tyranny. We are peddling a simulacrum of democracy from an armored truck at fifty miles per hour and calling it freedom. This is a step too far. The world is losing faith in America.

That, as David Rieff would be the first to acknowledge, is not good news. For there is a fundamental truth at the core of the neocon case: the well-being of the United States of America is of inestimable importance to the health of the whole world. If the US hollows out, and becomes a vast military shell without democratic soul or substance, no good can come of it. Only the US can do the world’s heavy humanitarian lifting (often quite literally). We have already seen what happens when Washington merely drags its feet, as it did in Rwanda and is doing over Darfur today. If the US ceases to be credible as a force for good, the world will not come to a stop. Others will still protest and undertake good works in the hope of American support. But the world will become that much safer for tyrants and crooks—at home and abroad.

For the US isn’t credible today: its reputation and standing are at their lowest point in history and will not soon recover. And there is no substitute on the horizon: the Europeans will not rise to the challenge. The bleak outcome of the recent referendums in France and the Netherlands seems likely to have eliminated the European Union as an effective international political actor for some years to come. The cold war is indeed behind us, but so too is the post–cold war moment of hope. The international anarchy so painstakingly averted by two generations of enlightened American statesmen may soon engulf us again. President Bush sees “freedom” on the march. I wish I shared his optimism. I see a bad moon rising.

—June 15, 2005

This Issue

July 14, 2005