Picking a Good Fight


By Robert D. Kaplan, Edward Luttwak, David Rieff, and Benjamin Schwarz

6 April 2000 ATLANTIC

Introduction, Cullen Murphy

Almost exactly one year ago, on the night of March 24, 1999, NATO aircraft initiated the eleven-week campaign of bombardment that ultimately persuaded the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, to withdraw his armed forces from the Serbian province of Kosovo. NATO‘s attacks were routinely described at the time as representing by far the most substantial military action in Europe since the end of the Second World War. They came in response to the ever-worsening oppression of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population by Serbian police, paramilitary, and regular army forces — in response, that is, to what was seen as a humanitarian catastrophe, one that was likewise described as being without parallel in Europe since the end of the Second World War.

In waging war over the deteriorating situation in Kosovo, NATO leaders showed themselves willing to disregard Serbian sovereignty and to dismiss Serbian claims that the Kosovo situation was purely an “internal” matter. NATO leaders also showed themselves willing to gamble that their actions would prove effectual — not only in a narrow military sense (the removal of Serb military and police forces) but also in the larger sense of social stability (the suppression of ancient ethnic enmities in the province, if not the building of a multi-ethnic society). A military victory was achieved, despite the expectations of many, and despite the campaign’s aroma of inadvertance — “They just shut their eyes and hoped,” the military analyst John Keegan has observed. The broader mission, which was compounded by the need to resettle the half million Albanians the Serbs pushed from the country once the war began, continues to be pursued, in large measure by the thousands of NATO troops currently deployed as peacekeepers in Kosovo.

In the April issue of The Atlantic Monthly three contributors assess several aspects of the situation in the Balkans one year after NATO intervened on behalf of the Albanian Kosovars, and four years after the Dayton Accords brought an uneasy peace to another part of the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia. The three articles are subsumed under the umbrella rubric “After the Wars.” But if anything is clear in the aftermath of the most recent Balkan wars, it is that the very word “after” may be the most inconclusive and open-ended word in foreign policy. “After” has a way of never quite seeming to arrive, or to arrive strangely leached of meaning. Indeed, anniversary articles with titles like “After Kosovo” are not so much about “after” as they are about “ongoing” — an ongoing NATO presence that may need to be increased; ongoing ethnic hatred; ongoing murder and mayhem. To this list of “ongoing” issues must be added an ongoing debate over when and how — or, indeed, whether — armed intervention for humanitarian purposes makes moral and practical sense.

After Somalia, after Haiti, after Bosnia, after Rwanda, after Kosovo, after East Timor, after Chechnya — after all these widely varying instances of action or inaction, does “humanitarian intervention” have a future? And how do we ensure that humanitarian intervention, if and when it occurs, does not bring about more harm than good?

Round One

Robert D. Kaplan

Does humanitarian intervention have a future?

Yes, under certain circumstances: if the atrocity is overwhelming in scope, is seemingly preventable without causing an intervening army to be embroiled in a messy, civil conflict (especially under crowded, urban conditions), and is tied to some defensible motive of strategy or national interest. I admit, these are onerous conditions, but I don’t think there would be public support otherwise. Somalia proved that moral reasons by themselves are enough to get troops dispatched to a place, but the moment they start taking casualties, some kind of self-interested motive must be succinctly conveyed to the public or else support will evaporate. Haiti did not test that truth. Bosnia and Kosovo hopefully won’t.

In Nigeria at the moment, there is chronic ethnic violence tied to democratization that has unleashed not only personal freedoms but also destructive group freedoms. Were that violence to spin out of control, how would the U.S. intervene to stop grave human-rights abuses in a highly complex and urbanized society of more than 100 million people? I don’t know. The same holds true in Indonesia, where democratization in June, 1999, led to killings in East Timor in September, 1999. The very democratizations we champion may create more human-rights catastrophes that, because of their very complexity, will be hard to stop, unless we plan to occupy many places.

However, as should be obvious, my definition of what constitutes acceptable conditions for intervention is far too narrow, given the kinds of emergencies we are likely to face. So what is the answer? I believe that the only solution is for the U.S. to take the lead in organizing a true global constabulary force that would be an outgrowth of NATO rather than the United Nations, and would be credible because the member countries would for cultural and historical reasons implicitly trust each other sufficiently to share sensitive intelligence data. A global constabulary force composed of the Western powers and, perhaps, Japan, South Korea, and so on — pick your own countries — would, of course, not solve the problem of all humanitarian catastrophes: since interventions do not end the moment atrocities stop, it would still constitute a big and risky step to send in troops. Nevertheless, the existence of such a force would certainly widen the scope for interventions in places where an overarching national interest could not be proved — like Rwanda. (I think a case could have been made that there was an overarching and naked national interest for early intervention in Bosnia, had the Bush and Clinton Administrations had the intellectual discipline to make it.)

A global constabulary force for humanitarian interventions would serve America’s self-interest for the following reason that I believe has gone unnoticed. The problem with proving “national interest” or “self-interest” is that by the time you have proved it, it is often too late to act without suffering severe loss of life. This is a variation of the old argument — true, as it happens — that you must act with 20 percent of the evidence because by the time there is, say, 40 percent, then it is already too late to do anything. Therefore, if we only intervened after a national interest was more-or-less proven, then we would almost never intervene — and then, here or there, a great threat would arise because of our general unwillingness ever to display our power, forcing us at great cost to finally prove how strong we really are. The Japanese conquered China’s Shantung Peninsula in 1919, but we did nothing because a national interest could not be proven. We still did nothing in 1932, when they invaded Manchuria, again because the national-interest argument was still tenuous. But had we had the leeway to intervene in those “humanitarian” emergencies, perhaps we would not have had to fight World War Two in the Pacific. Power is not power unless it is periodically and lethally used as a demonstration not just of the power itself, but of the will to use it.

Therefore, a global constabulary force that would act for humanitarian reasons in places where a self-interest for the U.S. could not be proven would, in fact, contribute to America’s self-interest by making less likely the growth of a larger and rising adversary. It would also allow us to project our power more cheaply through an organization consisting of allies whom we implicitly trust.

What are lessons from the record of the Clinton Administration?

We may be entering a new world of geo-economics amid globalization, but foreign policies are ultimately judged by how leaders handle old-fashioned crises. Clinton in his first-term dealings with the Balkans and Iraq showed he simply did not relish the projection of power — a mistake. Clinton was not a realist: he needed to idealize a region and its history in order to take action. He had to believe that the Balkans had a history of good ethnic relations, that Haiti had a democratic tradition, etc., before he could act. But a President must act with no illusions about the character of the local people he is trying to help. It is only in the grimmest human landscapes, after all, that intervention is required in the first place. A President must act out of necessity (strategic and moral), not out of sympathy. Foreign policy is not a branch of Holocaust studies. Nevertheless, we can learn from the history of World War Two — specifically, from the unimpeded rise of Nazi Germany and fascist Japan — to forge new institutions that can deal with similar threats. For what is characterized as “humanitarian” this year may be “strategic” the next.

Edward Luttwak

“Intervention” and “aggression” are differently loaded words for the same thing: a deliberate military attack on a sovereign power that initiates a war. A successful outcome always depends on a conjunction of military success at the level of theater strategy (i.e., more than just tactical or operational victories) and political success in reaching a post-combat equilibrium. That political success may, in turn, be achieved by effective domination and/or the acceptance of the military outcome by all those who might challenge it, be they other powers, the local population, or even one’s own political community. Without political success, any military victory is only a bout of fighting that may merely inaugurate further warfare, leaving the outcome undetermined.
Failure has an infinity of forms, ranging from the inability of Mussolini’s army to win battles, to Hitler’s inability to translate any number of splendid operational-level victories into a theater-level victory over Russia (or before that into a negotiated equilibrium with Great Britain), to the French failure in Algeria, where decisive military victory over the FLN was repudiated by Charles de Gaulle, who did not want France to remain an old-fashioned colonial power.

Success, by contrast, has only one form: the conjunction of military and political success. Except in trivial cases, both require real sacrifice and real efforts, perhaps very strenuous. They, in turn, require a real incentive, perhaps a compelling incentive, arising from a perception that proportionately important interests will be served by success or damaged by failure. That such perceptions may not impress us as realistic in retrospect is irrelevant. European colonial conquests, for example, reflected at least elite convictions that colonies were essential attributes of power and wealth. Accordingly, colonial wars were fought with much energy, occasional military setbacks were overcome, and a post-conquest equilibrium was assured by establishing colonial governments intended to rule forever.

By definition, humanitarian interventions are perceived as disinterested. Therefore they do not evoke strenuous efforts. Afghanistan and Sudan, for example, are humanitarian catastrophes, but intervention is ruled out because their sheer size, inland location, and lack of infrastructures would require elaborate and costly logistic preparations as well as large-scale operations. Rwanda was a much easier case, if the aim were only to stop the genocide, but intervention was ruled out because nothing could be done by bombing; success would instead have required European or U.S. combat troops actually willing to kill the killers. Other cases, such as Sierra Leone or, for that matter, Angola and Zaire/Congo, are ruled out because it is obvious from the start that conquest would have to be followed by indefinite colonial rule, owing to the proven inability of the inhabitants to operate governments that are not ipso facto human-rights violations. More generally, in sub-Saharan Africa, Kofi Annan’s call for intervention whenever and wherever “massive” human-rights violations are taking place is not practicable in the absence of willing colonial powers. Still other cases are ruled out because the violators of human rights are Great Powers, notably the Russian Federation (in Chechnya, for now) and China (in Tibet and Xinjiang).

It follows that disinterested humanitarian interventions must also be highly arbitrary, with the loss of national rights in one place (Kosovo) privileged over the loss in another of all civil rights (Afghanistan), the loss of limbs (Sierra Leone), outright slavery (Sudan), or even genocide (Rwanda). Such glaring inconsistency further weakens public support for interventions already lacking the impulse of perceived interests. Hence only zero-casualty military operations are acceptable, whether they involve bombing from very safe altitudes, as in Kosovo (only feasible if there are relevant high-contrast/high-value targets), or the dispatch of symbolic troops, in the standard UN manner, who will not fight to defend civilians under attack, and sometimes not even themselves (in Sierra Leone, most recently, ECOMOG troops sent to disarm rebels instead allowed themselves to be disarmed by small bands of teenagers; but this is only the latest expression of the phenomenon of multinational troop degradation often witnessed in Somalia, Bosnia, etc.).

Zero-casualty troop insertions usually fail, but zero-casualty bombing was eventually successful in Kosovo. Yet it seems unlikely that this success will ever be repeated, because Serbia is unique among human-rights violators: sufficiently developed to be hurt by bombing, with a government sufficiently democratic to respond to the resulting civilian deprivations, and not strong enough to be immune from military attack. In any case, strenuous efforts are still needed to establish a post-war equilibrium by appropriate diplomatic, political, security, and economic action. Otherwise the outcome is not peace but only congealed war, as in Bosnia, where war-interruption was not followed by effective peace-making, or anarchic dis-equilibrium, as in Kosovo. There the increasingly helpless UN protectorate has not enough funds to govern, not enough police to maintain order, and only a mass of very costly, pampered troops that would not fight before, and will not patrol now — even complaining when asked to contain riots. In the meantime, Kosovo’s civil society is not only harried by pervasive crime but also depleted by a plague of NGOs, whose highly self-interested disinterestedness has turned teachers, administrators, doctors, and plumbers alike into cooks, cleaners, waiters, drivers, and interpreters for those self-appointed saviors of humanity — the new NGO colonialists.

David Rieff

I would like to think more generally about this question before getting down to cases — Kosovo, East Timor, etc. Does humanitarian intervention have a future? It does, both for better and for worse, and my own view is that a debate that does not acknowledge this fact is the foreign-policy equivalent of whistling past the graveyard. It may be that the U.S. would be better off with a foreign policy based on realpolitik, or, better still, on the kind of modest, “lead by example” idea of a George Kennan, but this is not going to happen. Such modesty, or realism, or pessimism — call it what you will — is out of sync with the American temper, which is grounded in the faith that there are no problems without solutions and few if any challenges where it is better (or even acceptable) to do nothing rather than something. In this sense, as in so many others, President Clinton is very much the representative man of the American millennium, and when we talk of humanitarian intervention we would do well to recall the signature phrase of his presidency — “I still believe in a place called Hope.”
Historically, the United States has never been a country where foreign-policy initiatives were undertaken only on sound calculations of national interest, and it is not going to become one in the twenty-first century. Nor is there any reason to expect that the country’s deep bias in favor of some species of moralizing in foreign policy — call it Wilsonian, internationalist, or just sentimental — will ever be blunted, whatever the fantasies of the Buchananites on one side and what remains of the left on the other that, at long last, the pendulum is finally swinging back toward a different dispensation.

The peculiar centrality of the idea of humanitarian intervention in the post-Cold War period derives from the fact that other moralizing rationales no longer seem compelling. For all the vaunted religiosity of the U.S., only a secular justification is likely to win universal acceptance. For half a century the secular religion of U.S. policy makers was anti-communism; now it is human rights and humanitarianism. There should be nothing particularly surprising about this. What would be astonishing would be if, in this age of economic globalization (one of whose epiphenomena is that one can watch people die in real time on CNN), some new moral warrant had not been devised.

This is not simply a question of somehow putting one over on the public, or invoking humanitarianism to conceal other, occluded agendas. Our policy makers are not Roman centurions. They cannot simply advance the economic or military interests of the United States and, in doing so, think well enough of themselves to continue. On the contrary, they must believe that not only are they opening markets for GE but that they are opening minds, building democracy, furthering the cause of human rights, and upholding certain minimal humanitarian norms.

In other words, humanitarian intervention is part of a new world system that is coming into being. It can be argued that it is the “damage control” aspect of that system. And while the assault on national sovereignty that such intervention represents may seem very radical, in fact it is of a piece with the far more profound assault on sovereignty contained in the neo-liberal project of economic globalization. That there is much to be said both for humanitarian intervention and against it appears obvious to me, and doubtless we will go on to argue about that. But the salient point, it seems to me, is that this explains why it is here to stay, and why in an important sense criticizing the idea of humanitarian intervention, or exposing its inconsistencies and hypocrisies — real as they are — is beside the point. The real question is where this new doctrine will lead us, and whether there is any way of influencing its development.

Benjamin Schwarz

Although this roundtable addresses wider issues, I’d like to devote my first turn to questioning some of Cullen Murphy’s introductory remarks on the background of the Kosovo conflict. It is true that the situation in Kosovo before NATO’s bombing was “routinely described” as one in which Yugoslav security forces were responsible for a “humanitarian catastrophe … without parallel in Europe since the end of the Second World War.” But this description is a serious distortion. I know that some proponents of intervention like to pooh-pooh “ancient ethnic enmities,” but the immediate cause of the violence that prompted the U.S. and NATO to step in was the irreconcilable goals of the province’s two hostile ethnic groups.

Before NATO’s bombing Kosovo was embroiled in a brutal civil war in which the Belgrade government sought to suppress a guerilla insurgency that had assasinated Yugoslav civilian and military officials and the guerrillas sought to provoke Belgrade’s thuggish reprisals to attract the West to intervene on their behalf. The Milosovic government might eventually have accepted partition, which might have restored a semblance of peace. But instead of pursuing that diplomatic solution, the Clinton Administration cynically offered Belgrade terms that would have both nullified Yugoslav control of Kosovo and granted NATO the right to station troops anywhere in Yugoslavia — conditions Yugoslavia was bound to refuse. The U.S. and its allies then took this refusal as their pretext for intervention.

President Clinton defended the bombing as a way to stop the Serbs from committing genocide in Kosovo. But, in fact, in fifteen months of bitter warfare between the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and Yugoslav forces before the start of NATO’s bombing, approximately 1800 civilians — mostly ethnic Albanians but also Serbs — had been killed in the fighting. This does not constitute genocide. (There were also about 20,000 refugees, but these were not victims of “ethnic cleansing.” Rather, they were fleeing the fighting between the KLA and the Yugoslav Army.) The Yugoslav security forces’ brutal operations had been directed at rooting out the KLA, not at expelling Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population. Ironically, the U.S.-led NATO bombing precipitated the very “humanitarian catastrophe” the Administration claimed it was intervening to halt. Not until several days after the bombing campaign began did Belgrade turn from conducting a counterinsurgency against the KLA to uprooting the province’s ethnic Albanian population.

Once the bombing was underway, Yugoslav forces caused a serious refugee problem by expelling hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. But the Administration deliberately exaggerated the scale of the humanitarian crisis by playing the genocide card. President Clinton’s assertion during the war that the Yugoslavs slaughtered “tens of thousands” have proved false. To date, forensic specialists working under UN auspices have exhumed 2,108 bodies. It is far from certain that all of these victims perished as a result of Yugoslav atrocities.

Although NATO stopped its air campaign when Belgrade agreed to withdraw its troops from Kosovo last June, the war in the province itself hasn’t ended. Despite the presence of U.S. and NATO peacekeepers, once Yugoslav forces left Kosovo the KLA began a systematic campaign of terror — in fact, ethnic cleansing — against the province’s Serbian and Gypsy populations that continues unabated. Moreover, across the border from Kosovo, in Serbia proper, the KLA — as part of its effort to carve out a “Greater Albania” — is waging guerilla war in the Persevo valley region, which is populated largely by ethnic Albanians. In a disturbing replay of the events leading to the NATO intervention, the KLA is attempting to provoke a violent Serb response in the hope that NATO again will be drawn into war, and that this time NATO will do the KLA the favor of finishing off the Milosevic regime. The Clinton Administration has already been played for a sucker by the KLA — we didn’t pick a good fight in Kosovo, we picked the KLA’s fight. It remains to be seen whether Washington will be manipulated again.

Although Cullen correctly reports that proponents of intervention justified NATO’s response by asserting that the Yugoslav actions in Kosovo were “without parallel” in postwar Europe, the crucial point is that there are, in fact, plenty of parallels. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tells us that the solution to ethnic conflict is multi-ethnic tolerance, but policymakers should learn that, lamentably, the most stable and lasting solution to ethnic conflicts has been ethnic cleansing and partition. Take the case of our NATO allies, Poland and the Czech Republic. Those countries are today far more stable and more likely to remain democratic than they would otherwise be, because after the Second World War they committed ethnic cleansing: they forcibly expelled their German minorities — a population numbering some 14 million. (To put the deaths in Kosovo in perspective, one and a half million died in the expulsions from Poland and Czechoslavakia.) And although Albright claims Bosnia is becoming a multi-ethnic state, the truth is that the war there ended with Bosnia’s de facto partition into separate Serb, Muslim, and Croat entities, and an uneasy peace prevails there only because the three groups continue to live apart. Similarly, the conflict between Serbia and Croatia ended in 1995 only when the Croatian army (with the tacit blessing of the United States) expelled more than 200,000 of Croatia’s Serbs.

Enforcing acceptable behavior in foreign lands is a burden best not taken up. The moral argument for intervention is cast in terms of universally applicable principles. But plainly Washington picks and chooses its humanitarian interventions, inserting itself in some conflicts and ignoring others in which the humanitarian reasons to act are at least as compelling (after all, if an exceedingly repressive military campaign against an armed national liberation insurgency and its civilian supporters is enough to prompt Washington to intervene, why haven’t U.S. planes bombed our ally Turkey?). This leaves the U.S. open to the charge that it uses humanitarian concerns as a pretext for military interventions undertaken for other reasons. And finally, by defining “instability” and internecine bloodshed as threats in and of themselves, the United States will perforce adopt a posture approximating paranoia in a chaotic world.

Round Two

Robert D. Kaplan

I find the contributions by Edward N. Luttwak, David Rieff, and Benjamin Schwarz extremely sharp and insightful. Regarding Luttwak’s hardboiled essay: I agree with his points that aggression and intervention are the same; and that intervention in such places as Sierra Leone and Rwanda is really colonialism by another name. What many people forget is that the weaker the institutions in a given place, the more ruthless the occupier will have to be if he is to create even a tenuous stability. Our bloody firefights in Somalia were integrally connected with the fact that there were no institutions there in the first place, so violence ruled. However, I do not agree wholly with his point that humanitarian interventions are perceived by the intervening forces as disinterested. As Luttwak says earlier on, incentives for intervention do not have to be logical or even realistic, as long as they fire the passions of the soldiers. In certain circumstances, I can easily imagine American soldiers fighting fiercely for non-strategic reasons, even if those reasons are labeled “disinterested” by outside analysts. Indeed, I have met special-forces people who crave interventions for any number of reasons — promotions, for instance. As our military becomes increasingly professional and divorced from the passions of the public as a whole, it may — may — be that action itself will constitute an incentive for quite a few soldiers. But Luttwak’s best point is that because of its level of economic development Serbia, perhaps unlike our future adversaries, was susceptible to high-altitude bombing. Indeed, I personally witnessed the Russians bomb Afghanistan literally into the Stone Age for a decade. Yet, the mujahidin kept fighting because, except for their canvas tents, they had little infrastructure worth bombing in the first place.
Schwarz’s background analysis of the former Yugoslavia points out a number of useful, unpleasant truths that the illuminati prefer to forget. However, I prefer to disagree with his conclusion that enforcing acceptable behavior abroad is a burden best not taken up. Here is why: At the time of the Kosovo bombing, I was traveling around the Caucasus, where I asked everyone I met what they thought of the NATO air campaign. They were not concerned with the clumsy and ill-thought-out policy of the Clinton Administration that precipitated the air war, nor the ill-thought-out campaign itself. But they were mightily impressed with the fact that the U.S. would just, well, bomb civilian cities. Our prestige rose significantly in the Caucasus simply because we demonstrated our ability to act ruthlessly and bloodily. Where institutions are weak — the situation in much of the world — people respect force. The very exercise of power in and of itself often sets limits on what our potential adversaries elsewhere in the world are willing to do to challenge us. Human groups react to each other the same way individuals do — based on previous behavior. If we never intervened anywhere except on the basis of the narrowest definition of national interest, I am convinced that we would be challenged in a terrible way eventually. Throughout history, hegemony has often been a benign and efficient form of maintaining a semblance of peace in the world — and better hegemony based on our values than somebody else’s.

Rieff’s essay is particularly stimulating. His point about how human rights arose as a cause naturally and organically because of the combined effects of economic globalization and the end of the Cold War is quite fresh and insightful. I also agree with him that the very fact that we argue about humanitarian intervention constitutes more proof that such issues are here to stay. However, let me respectfully disagree with his assertion that Americans — being Americans — simply are not motivated by realpolitik. That may have been true until recently. After all, even Kissinger accepts that while, in his opinion, Wilson was wrong, an American leader must nevertheless use Wilsonian arguments with the public (see Kissinger’s Diplomacy). But I believe that American idealism has largely been a function of the luxury of geographic safety provided by two oceans. As distances are shortened by technology, and the world becomes uncomfortably closer, our foreign-policy inclinations will gradually become more European in tone — as the Mideast, for example, becomes as close to us as the Hapsburg Empire was to France. Indeed, in addition to the Somalia experience that I mentioned in the first round of this exchange, there is polling data that shows this shift in American attitudes. If Americans are so altruistic in foreign policy, how come opinion polls showed such tenuous support for our intervention in Bosnia despite media revelations of war crimes? Moreover, despite the horrific stories of Serb atrocities coming out of Kosovo, Clinton — whose political instincts are undeniably sharp — instinctively knew that the public would not tolerate ground casualties on the basis of moral arguments alone. I have found that the public, like pundits, like to talk in idealistic, often sanctimonious terms, but what actually motivates people may be far more complex.

Edward Luttwak

Lenin once accused Trotsky of being “administrative minded” for interrupting a lofty discussion of Bolshevik war aims with prosaic remarks about the acute limitations of the Red Army. Evidently I am just as narrow-minded because I do not see much point in the discussion of desirable ends when the means are so restricted. At present, and so long as the “post-heroic” rules apply, the armed forces of the United States and other advanced, low birth-rate countries are not available for combat operations except insofar as they can be conducted without casualties. That may not apply to all conceivable situations, but it is certainly true of disinterested humanitarian interventions. The ever-bellicose British and residually martial French may accept as many as twelve or thirteen combat deaths while the Dutch or Italians might call off an intervention after just one (the Belgians famously withdrew their “paracommandos” from Rwanda as the genocide was starting when eleven were killed), but the difference is of no consequence because all those numbers are below the minimum threshhold of military utility. As for the United States, the Kosovo record should be sufficient.
On February 20, 2000, a detachment of 350 U.S. Army troops joined in the search for weapons in the Serbian part of Mitrovica. The Americans were pelted with bottles and stones but none required medical attention. General Henry H. Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then wrote to General Wesley K. Clark, NATO Supreme Commander, to tell him that U.S. troops should no longer be employed outside their sector in southern Kosovo. Earlier, during the 1999 Kosovo war itself, as the bombing campaign continued with no sign that Milosevic would surrender, Shelton enjoined Clark to stop speculating about the possible participation of U.S. troops in ground combat to liberate Kosovo. To insure against the possibility that the Clinton Administration might reverse its own opposition to a ground war, the Joint Chiefs then established that it would require six months of prior logistic preparations.

Earlier still, when Serb police and militia with armored vehicles started to expel Albanian villagers, General Clark requested authorization to employ twenty-four U.S. Army anti-armor Apache helicopters in Kosovo. The Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed Clark’s request, arguing that the Apaches were too vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire (the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Charles C. Krulak, later spoke of “white crosses” in explaining his opposition). On April 3, 1999, the tenth day of the war, Clark was finally authorized to send the Apaches from their German base to Albania, but not to employ them in combat without further authorization. But the U.S. Army then determined that the twenty-four Apaches, though supposedly kept at very high readiness, were in fact “unready” to deploy. It was not until April 26 — the thirty-third day of the war — that the Apaches reached Albania. To protect and support them, the U.S. Army sent a total of 6,200 troops with 26,000 tons of equipment — including fourteen battle tanks, forty-two infantry fighting vehicles, and twenty-seven Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters for airmobile troops and for search and rescue — carried in 550 flights by C-17 heavy transports at a cost of $480 million. But no combat missions were flown. The U.S. Army had decided that the crews needed more night training, and in any case it would not accept target tasking from the U.S. Air Force. The Army insisted on using its own scout helicopters, except that it would not send them to scout targets because they might be shot down. When the Kosovo war ended, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had still not authorized General Clark to send the Apaches into combat.

The Albanian terror campaign against Serb and Roma civilians started as soon as the Serb forces withdrew. General Clark and the British Kosovo Force Commander therefore urged NATO forces to deploy as quickly as possible, and to patrol intensively to stop the mayhem. British troops maximized control of their sector by patrolling on foot in half squads by day and by night. But the U.S. Joint Chiefs insisted that the first priority was to ensure the protection and comfort of the U.S. garrison. While $36 million was being spent to erect the defenses and comfort facilities of Camp Bonesteel (complete with two PX stores, fast-food cafeterias, etc.), U.S. troops were only sent out on patrol in large detachments mounted on vehicles, which remained on the main roads. Albanian ethnic cleansing was virtually unopposed in the U.S. sector, in which no Serbs or Roma now remain.

French patrol practices at first resembled those of the British. Once the French realized that the other NATO forces were avoiding effort and risk, they too stopped their intensive patrols. The phenomenon of “multi-national troop degradation” had set in.

The refusal of soldiers to act as such leaves two other possibilities: remote bombardment by elaborately protected manned aircraft and/or cruise missiles; and the employment of “regional” forces, now very popular with academic commentators. As to the former, the Kosovo war itself proves that it can be effective, albeit only in unique circumstances: an enemy sufficiently developed to offer targets worth bombing, and sufficiently democratic to respond to the inconvenience thereby inflicted on civilians at large, yet sufficiently primitive and authoritarian to become the target of a humanitarian bombing campaign. In most cases, from the Taliban’s Afghanistan to Kabila’s ex-Zaire, there are no high-contrast (i.e., identifiable), high-value, and relevant targets, as there were none in Rwanda or Sierra Leone. The routine precision of modern air bombardment is therefore ineffectual for the purposes of humanitarian interventions, unless we would wish to bomb the Russian Federation over Chechnya or China over Tibet.

As for “regional” forces, it is remarkable that this solution is still being advocated in the wake of the Sierra Leone and Liberia debacles. West African ECOMOG troops alternated between private and organized thievery on behalf of Nigerian traders, while rigorously abstaining from any attempt to protect civilian victims of massacre, mutilation, and rape; much more recently, West African troops expensively assisted by U.S. funds allowed themselves to be disarmed without a fight in Sierra Leone where their mission is to disarm rebels. Earlier, during the prolonged tragedy of Bosnia, the world was exposed to a prolonged education in the meaning of “post-heroic” by the behavior of almost all troop contingents in UN service, which did little or nothing to protect civilians while engaging in every possible form of misconduct, from black-market trafficking to cowardly passivity in the face of mass murder.

Given these means, or rather the lack of them, it seems useless to debate the proper aims and limits of humanitarian interventions.

David Rieff

Tempted as I am to use my turn in the second round to defend Cullen Murphy’s account of what took place in Kosovo against Benjamin Schwarz’s reprise of the Belgrade Ministry of Information’s greatest hits, I will not tax the readers’ patience by prolonging a debate that — given that we disagree on almost every question of fact (never mind interpretation) — is bound to generate more heat than light. Instead, I would like to make the argument that while all the participants in this debate, including Schwarz, are on absolutely solid ground when they point out the intellectual and moral deficiencies and the operational risks and poor practical prospects of humanitarian military interventions, their focus on these points is based on a faulty assumption. Policy makers have not embraced the doctrine of a muscular humanitarianism because they believe it to be efficient; and, in private at least, they are quite prepared to concede the moral inconsistencies Schwarz rightly anatomizes. These drawbacks, however, weigh little when balanced against the ways in which humanitarian intervention brilliantly fulfills certain essential requirements of Western policy makers and much of the military establishment (particularly in Western Europe), not to mention the public at large, at this particular point in our history.

To understand this, it is important to widen the frame and think not just about the nature of war or power, as it has traditionally been understood, let alone the requirements of foreign policy in any conventional sense, but about the public mood in these millennial times. This period of unparalleled comfort in the West, when most people live better than their ancestors ever did, is also a period of unparalleled hypocrisy and sentimentality. A statement like, say, “the poor will always be with us,” is simply not one that could pass the lips of any of our political leaders, whether of the so-called right or the so-called left. It is too defeatist, downbeat, cynical, real; call it what you will. And the apparent victory of euphemism and wishful thinking in our public culture has influenced our views about the rest of the world as well. A society united by a godlike view of its own potential and a godlike disdain for any conception of limitation is hardly likely to be tempted by the somber conclusion that it does not have the ability to affect the sufferings of others.

I do not understand why Edward Luttwak writes so contemptuously of the aid workers, except, perhaps, to buttress his carefully cultivated reputation as a tough guy. “A plague of NGOs.” I doubt anyone who has spent any time in a refugee camp would find that his views have any relevance. Where Luttwak’s point and mine might abut, however, is in the fact that the prestige of humanitarianism has become so great, particularly in Europe, that the NGOs are now an extremely potent pressure group egging their governments on toward actions of the type that NATO undertook in Kosovo or the Australians undertook in East Timor. But again, it is important to see this rise of humanitarianism in its proper context, which is as a kind of secular religion — a “revolution of concern,” to borrow Michael Ignatieff’s adulatory phrase. Humanitarianism, human rights: these have become the moral lodestars under which secular, well-intended people — the constituencies of Clinton, Blair, Schroder, and Jospin — organize their moral imaginations.

From my point of view, there is little use in complaining about this, or pointing out the struts, the guide wires, and the painted backdrops. I don’t particularly approve, whatever that may mean, of nationalism; neither Edward Luttwak nor Benjamin Schwarz particularly approves of humanitarianism. But it has become part of the Zeitgeist, like or not. We are incapable of looking at our televisions, seeing some horror in some distant place, and saying, in effect, “Sorry, there’s nothing we can do.” Perhaps we should; perhaps Schwarz is right that this, of all burdens, is one that great powers like the United States should not take up. But in an age when politicians are incapable of speaking hard truths, the sentimental road is always going to be the one we travel down.

Yes, it may be utter hubris to believe that we can help. But it seems like utter callousness to insist that we can’t help, particularly since, in the short term, such help often is effective. The humanitarian intervention in eastern Zaire in 1994 saved many thousands of lives and cost the U.S. and its allies little or nothing. Should we have said, “Sorry, those Hutu refugees must die,” when we had the means, and, for once, the political will to act? I do not see what cause — moral, ethical, or geostrategic — is advanced by such cruelty. In French law, it is a crime not to intervene when someone has been hit by a car or is otherwise in danger. In this age of CNN, translating what the French call the duty of interference to places like Rwanda, or Kosovo, or East Timor, seems, intuitively, the only right thing to do. Blame it on poor old Marshall McLuhan, or economic globalization, or post-modernity; just don’t imagine it can be wished away.

And, lest we forget, humanitarian intervention has its rewards. In truth, after all, it is only going to be undertaken in places where the outcome is fairly certain and the risks fairly low — like Kosovo or East Timor — or through surrogates, as in Sierra Leone, where even defeat will not have all that many repercussions. Anyone fearing some humanitarian “over-reach,” some Icarus-like act of folly, has only to look for reassurance at the utter failure of Western leaders even to denounce the slaughter in Grozny, let alone talk of humanitarian intervention or war-crimes tribunals for Putin and his gang of murderers. And while it is all very well for policy analysts to worry about inconsistency, in fact the public’s attention span is fairly short and its appetite for good deeds fairly limited. The occasional intervention should do. And for Western European militaries, in particular, the prospect of peacekeeping deployments and humanitarian interventions has been a godsend. Otherwise, they might see their budgets even more radically scaled-back.

So here, in short, is an idea — humanitarian intervention — that both answers the real moral qualms and anxieties of vast numbers of people in the West and allows the elites and policy makers to protect their own vested interests while permitting them to rationalize away globalization’s undermining of the nation state as a victory for human rights and humanitarian solidarity. Of course it has triumphed.

Benjamin Schwarz

I apologize in for giving Edward Luttwak such short shrift, but this is because I agree with everything he says. On the other hand, I disagree with most of Robert Kaplan’s and David Rieff’s arguments — it seems I usually differ on foreign policy with those with whom I concur on almost every other topic. I do think Kaplan is completely right in saying Washington should recognize that its crusade for a global democratic makeover is often antithetical to its efforts to stanch ethnic, nationalist, and separatist violence. Democracy, which permits, indeed encourages, competition for power and benefits among contesting groups, actually exacerbates internal tensions and conflicts.

I also agree with Kaplan’s assessment of the stringent criteria that have to be met before the American public can be induced to support a humanitarian intervention. But I don’t see why these same criteria wouldn’t constrain U.S. participation in the international constabulary force he advocates. Kaplan says that this force should be “an outgrowth of NATO” and perhaps of America’s East Asian alliances. But this introduces all the collective-action problems that have plagued these alliances for decades. To be sure, Washington has always maintained that these are “partnerships,” and it has always wanted its partners to share more of the burden — i.e., money, and if it comes to it, blood. But Washington, now more than ever, says that America must be the global leader (after all, for more than fifty years one of the basic purposes of U.S. global strategy has been to ensure that Germany and Japan not emerge as truly independent great powers). This means that Washington wants to stick its “partners” with more expenses while really granting them no greater authority or autonomy. Our “partners” have never cottoned to this notion, and have consistently — and reasonably — held that if the United States is going to lead, it’s going to have to pay the costs and incur the risks that accompany leadership. Washington isn’t keen to see, say, Berlin and Tokyo, develop the world-wide “power projection” capabilities that an international gendarmerie would require, and neither the Germans nor the Japanese are eager to supply the bodies — and body bags — for the U.S. Navy and Air Force to shuttle around the globe. So, the constabulary force Kaplan recommends would — like the multilateral forces that fought in the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf wars — really be a U.S.-led force and would hence be subject to the same constraints that Congress and the American public impose on U.S. humanitarian intervention today.

Kaplan’s position that America, as part of an international force, should intervene rather indiscriminately because we can’t usually determine whether, in fact, national interests are at stake seems to be an argument for intervening everywhere because “here and there” we might actually succeed in countering a real threat. This is a pretty inefficient strategy and is a recipe for overextension. Better to have a discriminating foreign policy and only intervene when our (albeit sometimes difficult to define) vital interests are challenged; the costs and dangers of profligate intervention are greater than the dangers posed by a parsimonious foreign policy. I certainly agree that the United States must be wary of “a larger and rising adversary,” but Kaplan seems to confuse states that do unpleasant things with states that threaten, or might eventually threaten, the U.S. Throughout the nineteenth century Great Britain was among the very few humanitarian and democratic states. That didn’t make London — whose forces burned down the White House, after all — any less of a threat to America. Conversely, Slobodan Milosevic is a very bad man, but neither he nor Rwanda’s Hutus have the intention or the wherewithal to march on Paris, let alone attack Washington.

I wouldn’t draw the same lesson Kaplan does from the “unimpeded rise” of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. I infer that he would have advocated intervention against those states in the 1930s strictly for humanitarian reasons to obviate the need for later intervention on the grounds of national interest. But again he’s mixing apples and oranges. The state with by far the most monstrous humanitarian record in the 1930s was, of course, the Soviet Union (Stalin claimed probably 50 million victims, and as many people were killed in the Ukrainian terror famine alone as in the Holocaust of the 1940s). Should we have invaded Russia in, say, 1936? If we had, who would have helped us defeat those terrible Axis powers nine years later? Finally, Kaplan’s statement that “power is not power unless it is … used as a demonstration … of the will to use it” seems to me, in the context of a discussion of humanitarian intervention, to boil down to the proposition that the United States must show a willingness to intervene in places that don’t matter strategically to prove our readiness to intervene in places that do — a proposition that proved disastrous in Vietnam, among other places. The whole notion that the United States should intervene to prove its credibility and to deter future atrocities or acts of aggression should be laid to rest. Just as Milosevic wasn’t deterred by U.S. action against Iraq, Saddam Hussein wasn’t deterred by U.S. action in Panama. Nor was Manuel Noriega deterred by U.S. action in Grenada, Lebanon, and Vietnam; nor Ho Chi Minh by U.S. action against North Korea; nor Kim Il Sung and Stalin by U.S. action against Adolf Hitler. An obsession with credibility will doom the United States to a string of military interventions in strategically peripheral regions.

David Rieff’s point that humanitarian intervention is linked with “the neo-liberal project of economic globalization” is characteristically insightful, and I hope he develops it further. His argument about “the American temper” and humanitarian intervention I find intriguingly contradictory. Like most internationalists, Rieff asserts that, even if a realpolitik/isolationist strategy were correct, the American public would never tolerate it, since Americans have some “deep bias toward some species of moralizing in foreign policy.” Call me a fantasizing Buchananite, but I just don’t see it. Take our founding state papers: What could be less sentimental or moralistic than Washington’s Farewell Address, the Federalist (see, especially, Number 6), and John Quincy Adams’s Fourth of July Address (“go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy”)? Where and who are all these Americans urging humanitarian intervention? Of course, the public can be manipulated by the internationalist-oriented media (CNN and the network-news broadcasts sounded to me like NATO propaganda organs during the Kosovo intervention) and by whatever administration is in power (Senator Vandenberg’s advice to Dean Acheson was to sell a globalist foreign policy by “scaring hell out of the American people”). And, to be sure, there have always been minority groups — Latvians, Cubans, Albanians — pushing for this or that intervention. But I’ve never seen a really sizeable portion of the U.S. population demanding humanitarian intervention. After all, any people who could have essentially ignored Stalin’s depredations and the butchery over the past fifty years in India, Biafra, Indonesia, Nigeria, the Congo, Chad, Sudan, Tibet, Colombia, New Guinea, and Cambodia, to name just a few of the killing fields, can’t be said to demand a moralistic foreign policy or to wince at the stark glare of realpolitik.

Foreign-policy mandarins always rub their hands eagerly whenever they mention CNN, saying “the public will demand that we [they mean the U.S. military, to which their sons and daughters don’t belong] respond.” But in reality most Americans look at CNN in horror, mutter “something should be done,” and then, unconsciously and self-servingly calculate what could be done — and how much blood and treasure they’re willing to sacrifice to do it. They then do what non-vegetarians do when told about slaughterhouses — squirm and put the subject out of their minds. Congress knows the bottom line: senators and representatives are almost certainly not going to be turned out of office for failing to push for a humanitarian intervention, but they almost certainly will be if they support an intervention that goes badly wrong.

Rieff gives a bit too much away when he says that humanitarian intervention is now central to foreign-policy discussions because “other moralizing rationales no longer seem compelling” and that humanitarian intervention sprang from the fact that “some new moral warrant” had to be “devised.” Rationales for what? Devised for what purpose? Rieff says that “this is not simply a question of putting one over on the public,” although his terms do suggest that there is a good bit of deception going on. Sure, as he points out, policy makers and foreign-policy intellectuals want to feel that when they talk about the need for American moral “leadership,” and when they advocate a breathtakingly new and ambitious role for the United States, that they are advancing grandiose principles rather than merely seeking to advance U.S. interests — the former role, after all, flatters their image of themselves. To understand why humanitarian intervention is being pushed on to an uninterested nation’s agenda, readers should turn to the historian Ronald Steel, who reminds us in Temptations of a Superpower that humanitarian intervention is “particularly appealing to those in charge of orchestrating foreign policy. Through their lenses the nation’s domestic arrangements often seem to be an annoying distraction from the heady work of running the world. The long decades of the Cold War have bred three generations of strategists — military, political, and economic — whose focus starts at the water’s edge.”

Round Three

Robert D. Kaplan

My differences with David Rieff are incidental and of degrees; those with Benjamin Schwarz a bit more substantial. I’ll start with Rieff.

Rieff suggests a parallel between failing to help at an accident scene and failing to help in a humanitarian emergency. In this age of CNN, he says, the duty of interference seems intuitively right. But an individual’s moral responsibility and a state’s are not comparable. That is because individuals live under a social compact in a state of law, at least in civilized societies, whereas the world of nation-states operates under the more primitive law of nature — despite the existence of international institutions. States periodically take the law into their own hands, and violently so, if they feel it is in their interest — not only rogue states, but ours too — while individuals cannot take the law into their own hands without severe penalty. Thus, while a Judeo-Christian code of morality operates for individuals, states are free of such constraints and can act according to a more ancient formulation of self-interest. Machiavelli, Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, and other philosophers have all written about the different moral codes that separate states and individuals. States, in short, are not bound by Christian ethics. Their very clandestine services are evidence of the need of states to operate outside the law — if not of their own societies, then the law of others.

Rieff observes that moral intervention brilliantly captures both the good will and the hypocrisy of affluent Western publics. One could say the same thing about appeasement, which brilliantly captured the mood of Western publics in the decades following a war (World War one) that killed 8.5 million troops for no discernible reason. Of course, Rieff is merely bringing this to our attention. Bold leadership counters the public mood, and leads it toward places the public would not go on its own.

Rieff says humanitarian over-reach is not an issue, citing as an example the West’s inaction over Russia’s slaughter of the Chechens. I am not so sure. Russia was an easy call: nuclear weapons and so on meant it was simply not in our self-interest to intervene there. But we successfully helped Hutu refugees, and the chance of getting embroiled in a conflict elsewhere that begins as a purely moral exercise remains real.

In sum, while I generally accept Rieff’s notion that “no humanitarian relief” is simply impractical in our age, I disagree — based on my own experience traveling around America, etc. — that the public is quite so enamored of a humanitarian foreign policy as he implies.

Schwarz stretches my point on a global constabulary force in order to invalidate it. I never said that it would, or should, lead to indiscriminate interventions, but merely that it would widen the berth for them sufficiently to keep us engaged more than we normally might be. The pay-off for our victory in the Cold War should be that we — not Russia, China, or the UN — shape the international institutions of the future. And because we are fewer than 300 million in a world of six billion, we will need such institutions to magnify our power at a reasonable cost. One does not have to believe that foreign policy need be driven by humanitarian concerns merely to accept the logic of an out-of-area NATO-style force such as I have proposed.

Regarding Schwarz’s point on Stalin: Stalin did not forcibly invade another territory to the degree that Japan and Germany did in the 1930s, so my point about Japan remains valid.

Finally, I disagree with Schwarz that our involvement in Vietnam, Iraq, Kosovo, etc., carried no benefits: the fact that those interventions did not deter everybody around the world does not mean that they did not deter somebody, or indeed many people. Nixon may have prevented Soviet-Syrian aggression in Jordan in 1970 because of his ruthlessness in Vietnam. It’s hard to imagine George McGovern, having recently staged a precipitous withdrawl from Vietnam, getting Syrian tanks to reverse themselves by, in effect, merely lifting his eyebrow — as Nixon successfully did!

Schwarz is correct that an obsession with credibility will doom us. But, as I said above, the state of the world is the state of nature, and those who periodically prove their ability to act ruthlessly will incur benefits. Because we can’t intervene everywhere or even in most places, some sort of international force made up of our allies — and our allies only — is needed to intervene more practically than we do now. We would run such a force like a CEO runs a company: neither as a dictator nor as a democrat, but through executive intent, constantly forging consensus.

The inconsistencies noted by Schwarz in his analysis of the ex-Yugoslavia are implicitly acknowledged by Rieff (even though Rieff has substantial differences with Schwarz’s account). Yet foreign policy can never be wholly consistent. If it were, it would be too constrained to be effective, and too predictable to contain any element of surprise — something that is also necessary in a state of nature.

Edward Luttwak provides a blunt, useful, and meticulous description of the public’s inability to accept casualties. However, rather than make the debate on humanitarian intervention obsolete, I think it does the opposite: it makes it necessary. The fact is that we are in Kosovo, and we got there through a moral argument. The fact is that many people take seriously the notion that the international community should have done something about Rwanda. I will repeat my statement regarding Somalia from the first round because I think it bears repeating: the record thus far suggests that humanitarian concerns will periodically be enough to get American troops to a place, but once they start taking casualties, or even taking real risks on the ground, a national-interest argument is necessary or the public may demand their return. Post-industrial societies just don’t like casualties — another reason that we should never go it alone (that is, without a coalition) except for reasons of naked self-interest.

Edward Luttwak

In focusing on the issue of military intervention, I gave short shrift to the role of humanitarian-assistance NGOs. They are indeed very important nowadays. Some 350 descended on Kosovo after the Serbian withdrawal. Although their origins and specialties are so different, they have one thing in common: to survive and grow institutionally (and some are exceedingly entrepreneurial) they must attract contributions, and for that they must attract media attention. It is not enough for them to provide help, they must be seen to be providing help.
That is why humanitarian-assistance NGOs do not quietly settle down to operate in Bangladesh or India, either of which could comfortably absorb all their resources, and in each of which there is more acute human distress than in ten Kosovos. NGOs go where the TV cameras are. Natural disasters are unsatisfactory — even if very serious, they only receive media attention in their most dramatic opening phase; after that, the cameras and the press depart. Humanitarian-assistance NGOs therefore converge on the scene of armed conflicts, or as near to them as the press itself is allowed.

By thus introducing themselves into the realm of strategy, they become subject to its paradoxical logic, which overturns commonsense linear logic. Just as victory becomes defeat once it passes a culminating point of success, each action contains the seeds of its own reversal beyond a certain point. War too destroys itself by exhausting or destroying the material and moral resources that sustain it — unless outsiders intervene to halt the process (e.g., by imposed cease-fires that allow reconstitution) or to offset its consequences, thus prolonging war.

In Somalia, NGOs did many things to help many people, but simply by paying warlords to protect them, and feeding their warriors, they themselves sustained the fighting whose consequences they were trying to mitigate. In Somalia, NGOs were, in effect, the leading export industry for the warlords, whose hard-currency earnings from NGO protection fees directly fueled the war by paying for ammunition imports. Once the TV cameras departed, so did most NGOs. Since then the fighting in Somalia has notably waned.

In Goma, in Eastern Zaire as it then was, NGOs crowded in to help the Hutus fleeing Rwanda. Instead of dispersing in the immensity of the Congo as many previous Rwandan emigrants had done for a century, the Hutus remained where they were being fed, necessarily under the control of their defeated genocidal leaders. Very soon, NGO-fed warriors started raiding Rwanda each night to kill more Tutsis.

More generally, NGOs interrupt and freeze the dispersal of the defeated into local or remote resettlement, a key pre-condition for the transition from war to peace. If today’s NGOs had existed in Europe’s past, its lands would now be filled with giant refugee camps for the descendants of Sudeten Germans of 1945 vintage, stranded Gallo-Romans and Visigoths of the fifth century AD, and countless peoples in between, all still inflamed by the resentment of defeat that refugee-camp life keeps intact for generations (as in UNWRA’s camps where third and fourth generation Palestinians now predominate), all still under revanchist leaders that equate resettlement with treason.

In Kosovo, where NGOs moved in with the NATO troops after the war was over, they could only inflict incidental damage, but that too was and is serious. Each of the 350-odd NGOs hired interpreters, drivers, assistants, etc., paying huge salaries by local standards. Imagine what would happen if hundreds of Martian NGOs came to Washington, D.C., and started paying million-dollar salaries to anyone who knows a foreign language, or can claim organizational skills. Hospitals, schools, utilities, etc., would promptly shut down for lack of skilled personnel. That is exactly what happened in Kosovo, blocking the recovery of its civil society.

NGOs attract praise, much devotion, and generous funding because of their good intentions. But good intentions unguided by a responsible sense of ultimate consequences merely randomize outcomes — unless conflict is underway, when good intentions often result in perverse outcomes.

David Rieff

If we take the idea of humanitarian intervention at face value, and base the discussion on, say, Tony Blair’s assertion during the Kosovo bombing campaign that, in effect, insisted this was the first of many wars the West would fight in defense of its values rather than its interests, or Kofi Annan’s grotesque and dangerous suggestion at the opening of the 54th General Assembly that what was needed was humanitarian intervention applied consistently throughout the world, then I share Edward Luttwak’s exasperated sense that the endeavor is largely useless. But the salient point when we talk about humanitarian intervention is that the ostensible is often not the real.
From their very different perspectives, Robert Kaplan, Edward Luttwak, and Benjamin Schwarz have all pointed out the ways in which the ethos of humanitarian intervention is both dysfunctional and doomed to failure. I disagree in some important respects, particularly with Edward Luttwak’s inaccurate and reductive description of the Nigerian “peacekeeping” operations in West Africa, which manages to omit the central point that as long as the Nigerians were being paid (courtesy of the U.S. government) they were quite effective in dampening the conflict. It was only when they stopped being paid that they became one more faction in the conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia. I was there, and saw the change.

If Luttwak is not careful, he really will give hard-headedness a bad name. I share his revulsion toward the sentimentality and wishful-thinking of the age. But the hard-boiled approach often blurs reality just as comprehensively.

As someone who wrote an entire book denouncing the conduct of the UN forces in Bosnia, I have no wish to defend their conduct now. But it is naive in the extreme of Luttwak to describe that conduct as simply a paradigmatic case of the nature of post-heroic warfare. The reality was otherwise. In fact, the cowardice of UN forces faced by the Serbs was due to their carrying out the mission they had been assigned by the British and the French — which was to contain the conflict inside Bosnia. In this sense, the tactics (letting the Serbs get away, quite literally, with mass murder) and the goal (containing the conflict while a dishonorable peace of the graveyard was negotiated) were perfectly in sync. That the UN stood by, toadying to the last, and gave what remained of its threadbare moral warrant to the affair, disgraced the UN — but that was a sub-plot, not the main theme.

Luttwak was a soldier, and perhaps his indignation derives from this fact. But while he is always stimulating, his categorical assertions that peacekeeping deployments and humanitarian deployments can never be effective should not be taken seriously. General Romeo Dallaire, who commanded the UN force in Rwanda at the time of the genocide, insists that with 5,000 men he could have stopped the evil in its tracks. Why is Luttwak so sure that this able and experienced officer was wrong and — sitting in Washington reading intelligence reports and looking dyspeptically out toward Africa — that he is right? I would not be so certain, were I in his place.

But even if it turns out to be true that many humanitarian interventions will not work because of the military problems they pose (see Luttwak’s point about the lack of high-value targets in places like ex-Zaire), the political challenges they present (on what side, one wanted to ask Kofi Annan, should there be an intervention in Angola, which is basically a war of the oil companies’ surrogates versus the diamond companies’ surrogates?), or the lack of willingness on the part of the public to support any costly intervention (here, I agree with Benjamin Schwarz; the complaints he lays at my door in this regard are, to put it charitably, misaddressed), none of this addresses either the real purpose or function humanitarian intervention plays in our political life.

A planner trying to devise a sensible system for humanitarian intervention might well be drawn to some version of an international constabulary force, whether it is the one Brian Urquhart outlined some years ago with the UN at its core or Robert Kaplan’s lucid prescription in this exchange. But the prestige and centrality of the idea of humanitarian intervention do not derive from such practical considerations. The fact that it is so easy for us to poke holes in the doctrine should give us pause, not lead us to pat ourselves on the back. It should, at the very least, make us wonder where humanitarian intervention fits in and why it has become (along with human rights) a central rhetorical plank of so-called Third Way politics in the West.

The answer, I would submit, is that far from being some hobby-horse of Wilsonian internationalists — or an elite conspiracy, complete with hidden agendas and the press as an unindicted co-conspirator (Schwarz’s sentences on this subject are, I’m sorry to say, Buchananite, the worst things by him I have ever read, and his implication that I have a personal hidden agenda that I “give away” in this exchange is contemptible in the extreme) — humanitarian intervention is important because it is central to the post-Cold War West’s moral conception of itself. Without Christianity, without anti-communism, there is a moral and ideological vacuum crying out to be filled.

Again, the issue is not Kissinger (or Ronald Steel for that matter) versus Woodrow Wilson. No modern democratic state can garner the allegiance of its citizens on foreign-policy questions without some virtuous master narrative. This is why the same forces are at play in France, with its very different foreign-policy tradition, as in the supposedly Wilsonian United States. And in this context what is important about humanitarian intervention is an idea, rather than a practice. So I will close by saying that those who oppose the doctrine should not console themselves with the thought that by refuting its practical applications they have accomplished much of anything.

Benjamin Schwarz

Edward Luttwak is right about the U.S. military’s reluctance to shed its blood in Kosovo and other sites of humanitarian intervention. But I’ve always thought that the Joint Chiefs’ reluctance (although they’re clearly not supposed to be making this sort of political judgment) was rooted in its conviction that the American military’s charge is to defend the United States, not to be a global social worker, and that the stakes involved in places like Kosovo aren’t (to paraphrase Bismarck) worth the bones of a single U.S. infantryman — a conviction the military shares with the U.S. public.
I agree with nearly all the points Robert Kaplan raises in his astute response. He’s right that military interventions, even if they don’t require occupation, perforce demand brutal means. As someone who has written penetratingly about Joseph Conrad, Kaplan can appreciate the moral hazards in the savage wars of peace that many clamor are America’s duty to wage. If we choose to be morality’s avenging angel in places like Kosovo, we may at first be pleased to see ourselves, like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, as “an emissary of pity and progress.” But as warriors for right, faced with those we have demonized, we may well succumb to Kurtz’s conclusions as well: “Exterminate the brutes.”

Those calling for crusades in the Balkans and elsewhere forget that something perhaps necessary, but nonetheless terrible, happens to nations when they make war. They become ruthless. The U.S. public’s response to the war in Vietnam is a good example. In 1968, when opposition to that conflict turned fierce all across the country, the number of Americans who favored ending the war by escalating it — even to the point of invading North Vietnam, a move widely seen as likely to risk war with China and the Soviet Union — exceeded, by a majority of five-to-three, the number favoring complete withdrawal. Pollsters described public reaction to American soldiers committing mass murder and rape at My Lai in 1969 as “at best bland.” Far from feeling moral outrage, a disturbing number of Americans were crying for blood. More recently, although there was initially little public enthusiasm for the Gulf War, once it became clear that a ground war was imminent, fully half the public favored using tactical nuclear weapons against Iraq.

War is at best a defensive necessity; it is never a civilizing exercise. Even — or perhaps especially — a war in the name of morality brutalizes all. Fortunately, we managed to avoid our worst excesses in Vietnam and Desert Storm. During Vietnam, America’s political leadership, sensitive to the apocalyptic dangers of unlimited conflict, held back the dogs of war. The Gulf War was less restrained, since there was no fear of inciting a superpower confrontation, but it was mercifully short.
Vietnam and the Gulf War were fought for the same ostensible purposes that impel humanitarian intervention today: to punish aggression and to ensure a just and peaceful world order. But these laudable, if abstract, ends justified the most atrocious means. Notoriously, in Vietnam, villages were “saved” by being destroyed and our “pacification” campaign created 5 million refugees. In the Gulf, international law was preserved — and a virtually bloodless victory for the U.S. purchased — by America’s “antiseptic” air war, a campaign described by a UN report as “near apocalyptic.” Given an enemy to hate, a righteous cause, and fear for its men and women in uniform, America — like any country — will treat military operations not as a delicate and limited means to bring about a more moral world, but as a blunt instrument to inflict pain.

President Clinton is always talking about America’s moral force as born of this country’s “founding ideals.” But he should remember that America’s founders warned us not to go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy” for fear of the monster we might create at home.

Kaplan’s arguments about the importance of demonstrating “our ability to act ruthlessly and bloodily” remind me of policymakers’ arguments during the Vietnam War. Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton encapsulated this thinking in an important, classified memorandum to Robert McNamara on the verge of the U.S. ground commitment in 1965. The real stakes for America in Vietnam, he asserted, were “70% to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor), 20% to keep South Vietnam (and the adjacent) territory from Chinese hands, 10% to permit the people of South Vietnam to enjoy a better, freer way of life.” He went on to argue,”It is essential — however badly South East Asia may go over the next 1-3 years — that U.S. emerge as a ‘good doctor.’ We must have kept promises, been tough, taken risks, gotten bloodied and hurt the enemy very badly. We must avoid harmful appearances which will affect judgments by, and provide pretexts to, other nations regarding how the U.S. will behave in future cases….” This kind of logic can get us into a lot of trouble. Now, I agree that once the United States militarily intervenes, it’s vital for a variety of reasons that it not pussyfoot around; but this imperative supports the argument that America intervene very discriminately, and only when its vital interests are threatened. In Vietnam, a geopolitically peripheral region, fifty thousand American dead was a huge price to pay to demonstrate Washington’s toughness, and it never occurred to policymakers that whatever the United States gained by establishing the steadfastness of its commitments, it lost by an erosion of confidence in its judgment. To put Kaplan’s argument into perspective, no one doubts that the People’s Republic of China will act “ruthlessly and bloodily” to protect its interests, but Beijing has never felt the need to intervene in situations in which its interests aren’t at stake to buttress its tough-guy image.

Again, I agree with Kaplan and disagree with David Rieff about the American public’s supposed demands for intervention: the public is much more “realist” than its truculently self-righteous Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, a woman with an appalling lack of knowledge and interest in her adopted country. And, of course, Rieff and I disagree about Kosovo, but I wish he wouldn’t suggest that because I oppose the Clinton Administration’s policies I’m in league with Milosevic. After all, Jiri Dienstbier, one-time foreign minister of the former Czechoslovakia, said in his report to the UN Commission on Human Rights that NATO should admit that its bombing of Yugoslavia was a mistake that only succeeded in destroying Kosovo and the Yugoslav economy and that NATO should now send in ground forces to battle extremist Albanians and restore the ethnic balance in Kosovo. (He also said that U.S. officials in the region generally share his view, but were constrained by Albright and the Administration.) Surely Rieff wouldn’t argue that Dienstbier — and anyone else who doesn’t toe the Rieffian line on the Balkans — is merely an instrument of the thuggish regime in Belgrade.


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