WAR AND PEACE SEPTEMBER 4, 2013
In a piece titled 'A Solution From Hell,' the editors of n+1, playing off the title of Samantha Power's A Problem From Hell, take a long look at the history of humanitarian intervention, and decide that it has never been done successfully. The piece is somewhat of a historical survey, and it ends as follows:
Meantime the historical record grows long enough for us to ask: Has there ever been a truly successful, truly humanitarian humanitarian intervention? Not of the Vietnamese in Cambodia, who deposed the Khmer Rouge for their own reasons (the Khmer kept crossing the border, and also murdered their entire Vietnamese population), and then replaced them with Hun Sen, who has been ruling Cambodia with an iron fist for more than thirty years. Not the Indian intervention in Bangladesh, under whose cover the Indian government arrested all student protesters in India. And not NATO in Kosovo, which, while it stopped Milosevic and ensured the safety of Kosovo, could not make it a viable state (it is now a failing state likely to be swallowed by Albania), and also led to the ethnic cleansing of the Serb population. Too bad for the Serbs, to be sure; but the creation of a safe space for the expulsion of a civilian population cannot be what anyone had in mind when they launched the planes. That there has never been a successful humanitarian intervention does not mean that there cannot be one in the future. But the evidence is piling up.
I, for one, am certain that the people freed from concentration camps in 1945 begged to continue living under the Nazis once they heard that America had entered the war with mixed motives. But even so, the editors seem awfully hung up on intent. Under this standard, would any war in human history have been worth the cost? Certainly not World War II, which saw, along with that mixed bag of motives, the terrible loss of civilian life, and cruel behavior by the winning side in places like Dresden.
As for the magazine's own examples, Kosovo doesn't qualify because of several bad consequences of the war, and Cambodia fails the test because it is run by thugs (even if they are not homicidal maniacs). I did appreciate the criticism of Indian intervention in what was then East Pakistan, because some arrested students is clearly on par with ending a genocide and allowing for the birth of Bangladesh. (Incidentally, I have no idea what they are referring to in regards to the arrested students. I think they confused the genocide in Bangladesh with India's undemocratic "Emergency" measures, which occurred later in the decade.) Anyway, there is real solipsism in analysis like this, as if what really counts are the thoughts in the head of the people intervening rather than the reality on the ground.
Here is their description of the war in Iraq:
If human rights are to be reclaimed they need first of all to be restored to the realm of politics. Not the realm of morality, which is always and ever a discussion of good versus evil, but politics, a discussion and argument over competing legitimate aims—e.g., the aim of honoring sovereignty and not waging war, versus the aim of protecting the defenseless and ensuring their rights. Morally, it would clearly be better to be a democracy liberated by George Bush than a tyranny under Saddam Hussein. Politically, it may be better to bide your time under Saddam than be plunged into a civil war that will kill 100,000 or twice that many.
Quite the contrary: The best argument against the Iraq war is a moral one. The conflict killed hundreds of thousands of people and led to horrible atrocities. It is not necessarily better to be in a "liberated" country if you are dead. (The current government, moreover, doesn't seem interested in any variety of liberty.) One gets the sense, however, that if Iraq was currently more peaceful than Norway the authors would still think the war was a disaster.
Perhaps the n+1 team, as the next step on the road to a morally pure world, can write an editorial calling for charitable contributions that are made with self-interested motives to be declared illegal. In the meantime, they should admit that what they are advocating is pacifism, and either defend that philosophy on its merits, or leave the rest of us in peace.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.