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
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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.