What Iraq Has Taught Us About Humanitarian Intervention
Posted by Suzanne Nossel
There's an important debate underway on America Abroad about where the liberal internationalist consensus for humanitarian intervention stands after Iraq (see Anne-Marie Slaughter's latest post for a partial summary). The gist is an argument over whether, as David Rieff claims, after Iraq, humanitarian intervention can no longer be distinguished from self-interested, imperialistic interventions done under the guise of promoting human rights and ousting despots. Back in the Spring of 2004 (actually, the Summer of 2003, in light of FA's pub cycle) I fretted that exactly this would happen, writing in Foreign Affairs that:
After September 11, conservatives adopted the trappings of liberal internationalism, entangling the rhetoric of human rights and democracy in a strategy of aggressive unilateralism. But the militant imperiousness of the Bush administration is fundamentally inconsistent with the ideals they claim to invoke. To reinvent liberal internationalism for the twenty-first century, progressives must wrest it back from Republican policymakers who have misapplied it.
Shadi Hamid has touched on similar issues in posts immediately below. There's much I agree with in responses to Rieff from Slaughter, Bruce Jentleson, Ivo Daalder and John Ikenberry, including the essential point that Iraq was emphatically not a humanitarian intervention. It doesn't even qualify as the hard case that might make bad law. But that said, Iraq has taught us key lessons that can and must guide future thinking on humanitarian intervention, mostly raising the bar for when we should intervene and how we need to do it. I list 10 of them. Look forward to additions, subtractions and comments.
1. Principle Motivation Must be Perceived as Humanitarian - I disagree strongly with Rieff that humanitarian intervention has already been discredited beyond salvation. But after a few more Iraqs, that likely would be true. No matter the stated reasons for intervention, audiences in the affected country and at home will judge motives for themselves. Humanitarian intervention will normally implicate some strategic US interest, writ broadly. But any whiff of narrower self-interest (especially involving economic or domestic political considerations) can foul the air completely. James Baker's observation that we had no dog in the fight in Bosnia may, ironically, have helped legitimize our interventions in Bosnia and later in Kosovo.
2. While it Need Not Necessarily Derive from Any Single Source, Legitimacy is Essential - Anne-Marie Slaughter and Ivo Daalder illuminate how the US operation in Kosovo, though without UN imprimatur, had the effect of "pushing" international law to provide broader license for similar interventions, culminating in this Fall's adoption of a UN "responsibility to protect" (a duty that, unaccountably, has not been invoked in Darfur). Rather than fixating exclusively on a single form of sanction (UN Security Council, for example), advocates of humanitarian intervention will need to ensure they can credibly claim some source of legitimacy (for example, from a regional organization).
3. Humanitarian intervention is war - Rieff is right to emphasize this, particular since the point was forgotten by those (outside the Administration) who favored war in Iraq on humanitarian grounds. Many expected a quick, clean conflict and thought that if a brutal tyrant like Saddam could be ousted relatively bloodlessly well, then, why not? Iraq is a reminder of the risks that make going to war a momentous decision: loss of American lives, loss of foreign lives, physical dislocations, social and psychological disruptions, regional destabilization and risk of unpredictable horribles. While we rightly rue our failure to act in Rwanda, we perhaps don't think enough about what the never-fought "Rwanda War" (and subsequent occupation?) might have been like.
4. Humanitarian intervention is more than just war - Those of us who believe that humanitarian intervention needs to be among the options available to US policymakers face a major challenge in bringing US capabilities to carry out the non-military aspects of intervention (stabilization, state-building, socio-economic reconstruction, etc.) up to the standards applied to our conventional military operations (counter-terrorism, unfortunately, excluded). See here for more.
5. Intervenor Bears Strict Liability for Anything That Goes Wrong - The reasons the operation in Iraq has gone so badly wrong have everything to do with the fact that this was not a humanitarian intervention: if the US's motives weren't at issue, we wouldn't face the kind of insurgency we do. But Iraq has nonetheless taught a sobering lesson about the responsibility an intervenor shoulders, fairly or not. We should never again intervene without a serious examination of the worst-case scenario consequences and how to deal with them.
6. Negligent Intervention May be Worse than No Intervention - Until Iraq, it never dawned on most of us that the US was capable of an operation as poorly planned and executed as the aftermath of the Iraq intervention. But we know now. A hard-headed assessment of preparedness and capabilities is essential to any future humanitarian intervention debate.
7. When We Go at it Alone, We'd Better Understand Why - Many progressives subscribe to the mantra "with others where possible, alone where necessary." When it comes to humanitarian intervention, we need to answer honestly why we're alone. If its because of the rest of the world's biases, indifference, cowardice or helplessness, fine. If its because we haven't proffered a rationale convincing enough to rally others, because they suspect our motives, or because they believe that measures short of intervention might work, we need to look hard at whether to go ahead. Analyzing this objectively will be tough.
8. Humanitarian Intervention Represents a Preventive Policy Failure - Given the emphasis that we progressives place on diplomacy, alliances, multilateral institutions, and fostering democracy and the rule of law, humanitarian intervention should only arise as a need once our best efforts on all these fronts have failed. That notion may seem obvious, but truly embracing it means rejecting humanitarian intervention"ism" as a major pillar of progressive foreign policy (an pillar that wins favor partly because it allows liberals to demonstrate that they don't shy away from force). John Ikenberry makes a similar point.
9. Putting Values into Action Abroad Invites Scrutiny at Home - This is one of the most dangerous aspects of the neo-conservative hijacking of progressive priorities like human rights and the rule of law. The abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have tainted the way these concepts are understood abroad, and we will spend years undoing that damage.
10. Today's Interventions Will Both Dictate and Circumscribe Tomorrow's - What we used to think of as "Vietnam Syndrome" has turned out to be an eerie pendulum that swings from one era's mistakes of action (Vietnam, Somalia) into the next's errors of omission (Rwanda, Bosnia), and then back again (Iraq) and again (Darfur). The challenge of us defenders of humanitarian intervention is to take the last 30 years of experience and build from it a vector of progress (Anne-Marie Slaughter's faith) rather than than a bloody cycle of repetition (Rieff's fear).