There is a great deal of debate, not least in both the real and the virtual pages of this magazine, about what the United States should do to further global justice—to use a word that, unlike democracy and human rights, both of which have lost much of their original force by dint of their ideological instrumentalization over the past twenty years, has retained its dignity and its coherence. My friend Leon Wieseltier put the interventionist case impeccably when he wrote that he still believed “in the power, and the obligation, of the United States to advance the cause of freedom in the world,” adding that he was not prepared to surrender the tradition of liberal internationalism to a loathing of George Bush, or, more broadly to what he views as the mistaken belief that the cause of freedom is principally to be advanced by military means.
I am no longer a believer in this tradition (crucial though it is, it is a separate question as to whether U.S. interventionism mainly derives from it). It was not Iraq in 2003 that led to my own apostasy from it. For I agree entirely with Leon that one could have honorably opposed going to war against Saddam Hussein without deriving a general lesson from the particular case. Rather, it was Kosovo in 1999—an intervention that most opponents of the Iraq war this side of Chomsky on the left or Buchanan on the right still defend—that convinced me that, when all was said and done, we knew too little about the places in which we thought we had a duty to intervene to assume the mantle of advancing, as, indeed, we believed we were doing, the cause of freedom.
Kosovo was not Bosnia, where inter-ethnic comity—at least in the cities—was no myth. Kosovo was always a zero sum game, and so no one should have been surprised when what took place there was not the instauration of freedom but the wresting of power from the Serb minority and transferring it to the Kosovar majority, which then promptly, while NATO watched and did virtually nothing, ethnically cleansed most of the Serbs from the province and chucked out the vast majority of the Roma as well. In other words, in stopping and rolling back the ethnic cleansers from the minority, we cleared the pitch for the ethnic cleansers of the majority.
I wish Kosovo were an exceptional case. But it is not. At the very best, the record of these interventions based on humanitarian or human rights concerns is mixed. The American intervention in Iraq secured a de facto Kurdish state, unseated Sunni political domination and sounded the death-knell for Christianity in Iraq, since the reality is that it was Saddam who protected the Iraqi Christians. Neither they nor the Yazidis can expect any such indulgence from the Shi’a, or from the Kurds for that matter. Are we Americans really wise enough to weigh the costs and the benefits of such interventions? My own view is that history shows that we are not, and because we are not climbing down from our plinth would be anything but immorality or dereliction.
Take Darfur, which is often thought of by activists as the intervention that should have happened had Washington taken its obligations to freedom seriously. Leave aside the fact that, even if you believe a genocide did take place in Darfur, it is generally thought to have ended several years before the rise of Save Darfur and other activist groups (as Saddam’s Anfal campaign against the Kurds ended long before the Bush administration began mobilizing for war). Imagine we had intervened in 2005 or 2006, as the activists were demanding. Then what? In all likelihood, we would have needed either to force regime change in Khartoum or establish an open-ended protectorate in Darfur, or, more likely, both. It is one thing to love justice, and to want there to be more of it in the world, and quite another to imagine that your own country—which like most countries is a volatile mixture of virtue and vice—has the wisdom to be its global midwife, even when it has the power to take on the role.
Part of the problem, I think, is that when we speak of democracy or human rights, the mental map that we conjure up is the binary one of oppressor and oppressed, victim and victimizer, into which we Americans can insert ourselves as vindicator (again, I am talking about national self-conceptions and, in this context, taking the claim at face value). But this account simply does not conform to the sad reality that today’s oppressed are quite often yesterday’s oppressors, and today’s victims tomorrow’s victimizers. Rwanda is a good example of both phenomena. And if history is not a progressive narrative, but rather, as I believe it to be, something more akin to a Mobius Strip, then liberal interventionism, with its Lincolnesque moral ambitions writ global—‘As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,’ and all that—has failure inscribed on its DNA.
I am not only talking about democracy at the point of a gun, though of course it offers the most egregious examples of this kind of moral over-reach. In Egypt, for example, the Mubarak tyranny does a bad job of protecting the Copts, but would more democracy, which in practical terms means the victory of the Brotherhood, not worsen the situation of Egyptian Christians? To say this is emphatically not to argue that the United States or the European Union should side with Mubarak, pere et fils, but rather that in Egypt, as in most places in the world, democracy is not necessarily an unalloyed good and—this, for me, is the central point—justice is not within Washington’s gift. No, this is not the world American idealism would choose to live in if it could choose, as during the age of American preponderance now ending as we follow other insolvent empires into relative decline, it imagined it could. And perhaps the interventionists are right, and I am wrong, and that world would be a better and more decent one. But mourn the fact, or, as I do, welcome it, if that world ever existed, it is gone for good.
David Rieff is the author of eight books including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.