From Sarajevo to Baghdad

Though Rieff’s book consists of previously published essays, this is no tedious exercise in rehashing the past. Rieff has produced a vivid, if sometimes inadvertent, depiction of the agonies and internal contradictions of liberalism. The result is a kind of running warfare between Rieff I and Rieff II over the merits of intervention.

As Rieff acknowledges, his endorsement of intervention in the 1990s was based upon the conviction that it is immoral for the United States to remain idle in the face of genocide. In the aftermath of Kosovo, he says, it was clear that “there will be many more Kosovos in the coming decades…. Better to grasp the nettle and accept that liberal imperialism may be the best we are going to do in these callous and sentimental times.” But his certainty apparently melted as the Iraq war turned into a protracted occupation. In fact, in his essay “The Specter of Imperialism,” Rieff lays primary blame for what he considers the indiscriminate use of U.S. firepower abroad not at the feet of the neoconservatives, but on the humanitarian left. For example, he questions Samantha Powers’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Problem from Hell, condemning her for a faith in a series of good outcomes from a single foray into this benign imperialism. Powers, according to Rieff, has a wishful rather than realistic approach to foreign policy that unwittingly resembles the Bush administration’s. This is laying things on a little thick. While Powers has maintained that the track record of the United States consists of finding reasons not to intervene, she never called for toppling Saddam Hussein. Indeed, the Bush administration maintained that it was necessary to attack Iraq, not on humanitarian grounds, but because it allegedly posed a dire and imminent threat to the United States. Absent the fear of weapons of mass destruction, it’s doubtful that Congress would have endorsed the war.

But Rieff doesn’t stop here. He goes on to excoriate the entire human rights community, which he thinks maintains a naive belief that it is possible to impose Nuremberg-style justice without Nuremberg-style military occupations of the countries where war criminals live. Rieff will have none of this. As Rieff II, he observes, “These human rights regimes will be imposed by force of arms or they will not be imposed at all, and it is disingenuous of a human rights movement that, wittingly or unwittingly over the course of the 1990s, set the moral table for the new imperial mood in America, to suddenly recoil from the Bush administration’s Captain Reynault-style because, shock, horror, they’re unilateralist, Bible-thumping, gun-loving, anti-civil liberties reactionaries.”

But if human rights is now the official ideology of the American empire–with the neocons as its premier exegetes but the left as its author–Rieff gives the neocons credit for at least having the courage of their convictions in calling for imperialism. The true frauds, he thinks, are the deracinated, parliament-of-man types at Human Rights Watch who act as though their aims can be achieved bloodlessly. Rieff would like to be able to endorse the case for a liberal empire, but what terrifies him is the almost inevitable slide, as he sees it, from liberation to occupation, from altruism to barbarism, that occurs when the United States tries to remake a country like Iraq.

How persuasive is Rieff’s account? Rieff scores many telling points about the naivet of the human rights community. But his contention that there will be “many more Kosovos” in the future left me doubtful. Rieff seems to be captive to the conflicts of the 1990s, seeing in them an augury of the future rather than a remnant of Europe’s past. But stepping back from Rieff’s gloom, it could reasonably be argued that these ethnic conflicts have largely exhausted themselves. Meanwhile, ongoing ethnic struggles, such as that of Chechnya, could easily have been avoided with negotiated settlements. Even the battles and mass murder in Africa could be seen more as the fallout of colonization than a sign of endless warfare.

Then there is the case of Iraq, which is not anything like Kosovo. Yet Rieff somewhat contradictorily assumes that Iraq is the template for future intervention and that its maladroit execution thoroughly discredits the entire notion of humanitarian military action. But as Rieff himself admits, Iraq was not really about humanitarian intervention, or at least it wasn’t packaged that way. Instead, the administration grossly inflated the threat of weapons of mass destruction in order to scare Congress and the public into endorsing an invasion. Only retroactively has the plight of the Kurds and Shiites, which did trouble administration figures like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, been dusted off as the rationale for toppling Hussein. Rieff’s uneasiness about intervention is understandable, but his logic is twisted in knots and he ends up wanting to have it both ways. On one hand, he approves of coming to the rescue in Kosovo; on the other, he doesn’t want the United States plunging into Darfur. But if the United States can help or work together with allies, why shouldn’t it try to alleviate the plight of the suffering? It’s just as simplistic to say that Iraq wholly taints intervention as it is to say that Kosovo wholly justifies it.

In the aftermath of Iraq, Rieff seems to have become as tortured as Goethe’s Faust complaining that there are “two souls in my breast.” Rieff I wants to charge ahead and stop genocide; Rieff II believes it’s counterproductive, or at least too morally ambiguous to support. The most likely cause of this floundering is that considerations of U.S. national interest never intrude upon his meditations. But security interests must play a role; Clinton entered the Bosnian conflict because the damage to NATO’s credibility was becoming impossible to overlook as the Serbs held U.N. peacekeepers hostage and made a mockery of European protestations that they could handle the crisis by themselves.

Nor does Rieff convincingly back his claim that the liberal left is culpable for the invasion of Iraq. Sure, human rights organizations pointed to atrocities against the Kurds and other abuses perpetrated by Saddam’s security services. But they also do the same in a variety of other countries, including Tibet. No one is arguing for a U.S.-led invasion of Tibet because events in that corner of the world don’t really impinge on U.S. security interests. What Rieff might have argued is that, after two successful interventions in the Balkans, liberals became rather complacent about supporting a war of liberation in Iraq. But even in Iraq, Rieff simply dismisses the invasion rather than assessing what price is worth paying to liberate and occupy a foreign country.

In his current fit of despondency, Rieff skates over these questions and problems. Without some standard for intervention, however, it’s inevitable that Rieff will lurch back and forth, arbitrarily selecting which military intervention he backs. As emotionally satisfying as it may be to lament the state of the world, it’s no way to create a liberal foreign policy that plausibly challenges Bush’s vision of a democratic crusade.

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Jacob Heilbrunn

Jacob Heilbrunn, a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, is the editor of the National Interest and the author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.