I’m always suspicious of blanket arguments, even—as with David Rieff’s recent post on liberal interventionism—when made by a writer whom I greatly admire. In a nutshell, Rieff has no use for American interventions (either military or non-military) on behalf of idealistic ends. We don’t know enough about the places where we intervene to do so intelligently, he argues; as a result, we end up doing more harm than good or simply empowering one group at the expense of another.
But just as it would be unpersuasive to say that America should intervene aggressively in all circumstances to promote liberalism or human rights, it’s also not very persuasive to say that America should never intervene in any such circumstance. The fact is that different situations call for different responses, because circumstances vary so wildly. There is no catchall formula for deciding where or how the United States can further the cause of liberalism and human rights. I would argue for evaluating these situations on a pragmatic, case-by-case basis, rather than extrapolating from one to all.
Rieff cites Egypt as an example where the United States might be better off leaving an illiberal ruler in charge rather than meddling on behalf of pro-democracy forces—because any move toward democracy might empower the even less liberal Muslim Brotherhood. But this is cherry-picking. What about Iran, where the radicals are already in charge and the (very popular) dissidents have given every indication that they have more moderate, liberal, and decent aspirations for their country? What about Burma, where the last popular vote (albeit two decades ago) led to the election of the admirable Aung San Suu Kyi? In these places, and others, shouldn’t the United States be offering dissidents whatever diplomatic and logistical help it possibly can? Just because promoting democracy could lead to thorny complications in Egypt hardly means it’s doomed to backfire everywhere.
Rieff also sets the bar for judging interventions too high. He argues that the intervention in Kosovo was a failure because it led to undesirable outcomes—namely, it allowed the Kosovars to commit crimes against the vanquished Serbs. But the appropriate question to ask is not whether an intervention (military or non-military) leads to a good outcome; it is whether the outcome ends up being significantly better than the likely alternative. Rieff knows far more about the Balkans than I do, but is he really arguing that the result would have been better or even, on balance, equivalent if we had not intervened, first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo?
Similarly, Rieff counters those of us who called for intervention in Darfur by noting that it would have culminated either in the overthrow of the Sudanese regime or the establishment of a protectorate in Darfur. Either of these outcomes would have been problematic, of course, though I think the latter would have been less problematic—and more likely. The question is, would this have been worse than the actual outcome: hundreds of thousands dead and about three million people living in camps? It’s not a cut-and-dried case, partly because, as Rieff notes, some (though far from all) of these deaths took place before we in the West were aware of them. Still, huge numbers of people died after the genocide came to our attention—after, that is, we might have done something about it. If you think that such deaths, plus the displacement of millions, ought to weigh heavily in any kind of moral calculus, then you have to at least consider the possibility that intervention would have, on balance, led to a more decent outcome than abstention.
Further, one of Rieff’s core objections is that, far from serving any moral purpose, interventions just tip the balance of power toward one group at the expense of the other. Well, sometimes that’s necessary—as when one group wields its power to inflict horrible depredations on another. In Rwanda, for instance, Rieff says that “today’s oppressed are quite often yesterday’s oppressors, and today’s victims tomorrow’s victimizers.” I share what I take to be Rieff’s concerns about the current Tutsi-led regime of Paul Kagame. But while Kagame may not be a democrat, you simply can’t compare his crimes to those of the Hutu regime he replaced—which murdered 800,000 people in the course of three months. Let’s say we had intervened in 1994, and, in the course of doing so, tipped the balance of power in favor of the Tutsis, allowing them to win the war—and halt the killing—a month or two earlier than they actually did. This would probably have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Shifting the balance of power in an ethnic conflict isn’t always a terrible thing—even when, as in Rwanda, the “good guys” turn out to be less than perfect over the long haul.
Finally, I’m always struck by how little weight advocates of non-intervention seem to give to the opinions of the people who would be most affected by such interventions—as if they don’t trust the oppressed and victimized to judge for themselves what is in their best interest. Sometimes people do not want our help; sometimes they do. And it seems to me this ought to be a key criterion in deciding whether we offer such help. One small example is currently on my mind, only because last weekend I happened to watch a remarkable documentary called Burma VJ. The film chronicles the work of the Democratic Voice of Burma, a courageous group of Burmese journalists who report on conditions inside that totalitarian state. After learning about an incident during the 2007 uprising in which government agents have beaten a group of monks, one Burmese reporter says, “Don’t worry. The whole world is going to know about it.” Implicit in this statement is the conviction that such knowledge matters. The reporter does not go on to explain what kind of response he thinks this information might spur. I doubt he expected a military response. But it seems clear that he expected something.
Rieff is undoubtedly right that our tools in such situations are limited, but they’re hardly non-existent. In Burma, for instance, we should probably be placing more diplomatic pressure on India and China to withdraw their support for the regime. And in extreme situations, like genocides, our military remains capable of, at minimum, making it costly for governments to engage in mass murder—as we did in Kosovo. But whatever response we choose, when severely oppressed people tell us that they want our help, I don’t think any of us would be—or should be—willing to look them in the eye and deliver a lecture about their failure to appreciate, say, the odds of unintended consequences or the possibility that they themselves might become “tomorrow’s victimizers.”
Richard Just is executive editor of The New Republic.