You can pretty much guess where this is heading. Millions of Zimbabweans will either die or wind up in refugee camps, where they will be cared for by an array of well-meaning humanitarian aid agencies, such as the Red Cross and CARE, none of them capable of preventing violence. The international community will feel ashamed at having allowed genocide to fall upon Africa yet again–having sworn “never again” after the Rwandan massacres of 1994–and will attempt to salve its conscience by generously funding the inevitable humanitarian efforts. And Mugabe, his political opponents conveniently stuck in refugee camps, will have achieved what he set out to do in the first place.

David Rieff is no stranger to such perversities. In the past decade, he has traveled to the most troubled regions of the globe, from the Balkans to Afghanistan. But the emotional pole-vaulting–landing in one zone of crisis only to leap off to the next–has left him with a nagging sense of guilt. And he is just as troubled about the ambiguous role that humanitarian institutions play in the world. Whether it’s the work of Oxfam in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, which helped to prop up the murderous Mengistu government; or Mdecins Sans Frontires, which was created to fight a genocide in Biafra that may not have been taking place; or humanitarian aide to Bosnia in the early 1990s, which became an alibi for the West’s inaction, the record of humanitarianism is not as unblemished as it might seem. In his new book, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, Rieff wonders: When is intervention justified? To what extent are humanitarian agencies pawns of the governments they are trying to assist–or whose horrors they seek to minimize?

Rieff has produced something very far removed from the many arid studies of NGOs produced by industrious Ph.D. students over recent years. Elegiac in tone, A Bed for the Night is closer to a meditation than a closely argued text. Surveying the history of humanitarian action and its recent failures in Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, Rieff asks whether humanitarianism has reached a moral and intellectual terminus. Hard experience has led Rieff to the conviction that the efforts of humanitarian organizations to help battered populations rest far too heavily upon a simplistic, sentimental refusal to face facts. He quotes Mary B. Anderson, an influential American thinker on relief, as noting that aid “provided in conflict settings can feed into and exacerbate the conflicts that cause the suffering it is meant to alleviate.”In recent years, relief organizations have attempted to go beyond their traditional mandate of alleviating suffering to the weightier task of preventing it. This puts aid agencies like Oxfam, which are supposed to be neutral parties, in the uncomfortable position of having to lobby governments and the United Nations for funds and even military action. Rieff finds this disquieting. “Can an ideal based on both universal values and unbending neutrality be politicized successfully?” he asks. “The price for such a transformation would seem to be very high–perhaps too high.”

So gloomy is Rieff’s view that he sees the rot at the creation. The moral obligation of the fortunate to help the afflicted was a mainstay of Enlightenment thought from the very beginning. Jean-Jacques Rousseau considered it to be among the “natural feelings.” Adam Smith saw it as “inherent.” But Rieff is quick to note that humanitarianism, at least in the 19th century, went hand-in-hand with colonialism and oppression. According to Rieff, “the missionaries’ dedication to succoring the sick, the wounded, and the poor, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, their commitment to eradicating slavery in Africa, were also justification first for conquest and then for imperial domination.”

If humanitarianism was a kind of ideology of uplift in the 19th century, Rieff believes it is just as insidious today. He detects nothing less than a surrogate religion to replace the failed faith of Marxism among secular, Western adherents of Enlightenment thought. “How,” Rieff asks, “in less than thirty years, could an ethos that, for all its grandeur and moral ambition, was initially realistic enough to understand that it could aspire to do little more than alleviate suffering have become the principal vehicle for the moral hopes of so many in the West?”

The answer, Rieff suggests, is that humanitarianism may be less about the recipients than the donors. He describes a kind of checkbook interventionism, wherein Western nations salve their uneasy consciences by throwing a few dollars at slick, well-equipped NGOs. But while the NGOs wage ineffectual holding actions against famine, disease, and dislocation, the donors move on, never to think more deeply about what kinds of regimes create these emergencies or whether the West can do anything about the underlying diseases. Thus, while boosters of the new humanitarianism herald a “revolution of moral concern,” Rieff fears that the vaunted “modern conscience” is little more than a way for the West to “delegate its guilt and its anxiety to the designated consciences of the world of relief, development, and human rights.”

What Rieff skates over, however, is that the terms of engagement that applied in the early to mid-1990s, when he first started reporting from crisis zones like Bosnia, have largely been jettisoned. Of course, there are humanitarian crises that the United States and its European allies are doing their best to ignore. The United States is neither intervening nor even pressuring South Africa to stop Mugabe. But war in the Balkans largely discredited the idea that humanitarian action can be a surrogate for military power. In Kosovo, it was concentrated bombing–not food drops–that defeated the Serbs. Kosovars have enjoyed free elections and an uneasy truce that, for all its faults, has held. So Rieff’s apprehensions about humanitarianism serving as fig leaf for the major powers to do nothing seems misplaced. The real danger is that neither takes place.

Rieff’s anger at the votaries of a new world order may also lead him a bit astray. He denounces Bernard Kouchner, for instance, who was appointed by Kofi Annan to run the U.N. protectorate installed following the Serb withdrawal from Kosovo. At the time, Kouchner babbled that “we have to forge a new ideal for European and world youth based on a constant rejection of wars, a strong-hearted world democracy.” Intervention, Kouchner said, “can be summed up quite simply . . . Auschwitz never again, Pol Pot never again, Kosovo and Rwanda atrocities never more.” This stuff is easy to ridicule. But Rieff is so busy whacking Kouchner that he gives short shrift to the decent job the United Nations is doing in Kosovo.

For that matter, Rieff himself is conflicted about the actual effectiveness of aid agencies. On the one hand, he is wearied, after 10 years of following relief works, to see how little change has taken place. On the other hand, he rightly admires the efforts of aid workers: “There is nothing small or insufficient about what they do, except, that is, in the tragic human sense that all effort is insufficient, all glory transient, all solutions inadequate to the challenge, all aid insufficient to the need.” To Rieff, the thought police in Orwell’s 1984 got it right: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face–forever.”

But perhaps Orwell was–dare one say it?–wrong. The world is slowly becoming a better place, and at least part of that improvement can be traced to the role that humanitarian agencies have come to occupy in foreign policy. No longer can State Department officials blithely dismiss famines and massacres taking place abroad as immaterial to American interests. Even the classic realpolitik definition of stability is undergoing a profound change, at least in the eyes of policymakers. Whether it’s Afghanistan or debating how to rebuild a postwar Iraq, the dominant argument today is that abandoning a nation to internal strife is more dangerous to America than remaining aloof. It’s hard to see how humanitarian agencies themselves can remain wholly detached from the political environment in which they’re operating, or whether they even should. They may well be burdened with “Western” notions of enlightenment and progress. But what, ultimately, is so bad about that?

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Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.