Global Policy Forum

An Idea Paul Wolfowitz and Kofi Annan Can Agree On


By Michiko Kakutani

New York Times
March 29, 2005

The provocative title of David Rieff's provocative book "At the Point of a Gun" refers to "armed intervention in the name of democracy, human rights and humanitarian need," a phenomenon that the author says has won growing support from both the United States and Western Europe, despite the fallout from the war in Iraq and despite problems with other interventions in the 1990's. The idea has become so popular, he argues, that "it unites American neoconservatives and human rights activists, humanitarian relief groups and civilian planners in the Pentagon," individuals as different (and frequently at odds) as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general.

The problem, Mr. Rieff asserts, is that in places "from Somalia to Rwanda, Cambodia to Haiti and Congo to Bosnia," "the failure rate of these interventions spawned by the categorical imperatives of human rights and humanitarianism in altering the situation on the ground in any enduring way approaches 100 percent." Time and time again, he concludes, "our moral ambitions have been revealed as being far larger than our political, military or even cognitive means."

He does not address - and this is a significant omission (no doubt resulting from the timing of the book's publication) - recent developments in the Middle East, most notably the elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, the fall of Lebanon's pro-Syrian government and the highly provisional stirrings of democratic change in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

What makes Mr. Rieff's pessimism particularly interesting is that he began the 1990's in Sarajevo, a "convinced interventionist" himself. Given his Hobbesian view of the world as a place "governed by force," he then argued that the choice of alternatives "seemed to be between sitting by and doing nothing as a Rwandan genocide unfolded, or the Albanian Kosovars were forcibly displaced, or accepting the unpalatable fact that in the world as it is, the only other option was to call for the old imperial powers to do their old imperial thing - that is, however politically incorrect it might be, to wish for the Seventh Cavalry to ride to the rescue."

How Mr. Rieff's thinking changed over the last decade is one of the subjects of this book, and he proves to be brutally articulate about his own political and philosophical peregrinations. He is also very savvy about how the human rights movement (which came of age in opposition to the Vietnam War and American involvement in Central America in the 80's) was changed by the experience of Bosnia and came, however reluctantly, to an accommodation with the idea of American military power.

"In a sense," he writes, "what happened in the 1990's was that the American human rights movement simply moved, at least partially, from a Wilsonianism of moral suasion and law-based regimes to a Wilsonianism dependent on the use of military force, above all American military force." He adds that this development "was as much the product of despair as of any change in convictions": "U.N. peacekeeping demonstrably failed in the 1990's; it was a broken instrument, and one that was highly unlikely to be repaired," and international law (like the fledgling International Criminal Court) "was, to put it charitably, a work in progress." Since "no one seriously expected these instruments to prevent the next Rwanda," he says, that left one remaining option: American military power, which, activists reasoned, could be harnessed "to this noble cause of protecting the victims of genocide and mass slaughter, securing people's liberties, and spreading - call it what you will - open societies, democracy, liberal capitalism."

Unfortunately, the flip side of this development is never fully examined in these pages - that is, the embrace by neoconservatives and the current Bush administration of the idea of foreign intervention aimed at the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad. This is perhaps because "At the Point of a Gun" is a collection of essays written over the last decade - a collection that, like many anthologies, remains filled with gaps and repetitions, despite Mr. Rieff's efforts to tie things together in a cursory introduction. Indeed, the essays in this book turn out to be held together less by any overarching theme or idea than by the author's own sensibility: his shrewd suspicion of ideology and sentiment, his "vertebral anti-utopianism," his "lack of sympathy with either the left or its mirror image, neoconservatism." What made Mr. Rieff change his mind about armed intervention in the name of democracy and human rights? What persuaded him that what he thought was "a way of reducing human suffering" was actually "a recipe for a recapitulation in the 21st century of the horrors of 19th-century-colonialism" (whose moral justification, he reminds us, "was also humanitarianism, human rights and the rule of law")?

The short answer is: Iraq. The longer answer is that he came to see the limits of American unilateralism and the limits of American military power, as well as the dangers of what he calls a United States "seemingly bent on empire." He adds that the war in Iraq can be seen as "the final nail in the coffin of the dream of global citizenship," which began "more than half a century ago with the founding of the United Nations" - that the war made it clear that the post-9/11 world would not be based on consensus and collective security.

"I have changed my mind in the sense that I did not imagine Bosnia, or, had it happened, Rwanda, would become a template for the messianic dream of remaking the world in either the image of American democracy or of the legal utopias of international human rights law," he writes. "In other words, I imagined they would be exceptional acts, not the routine business of a hubristic altruism, maddened by a strange mix of ethical compulsion and national pride, and nourished by an overconfidence - that we will be successful in the first place, that we will know what to do with our success, that, unlike every empire that has preceded us, we will not be corrupted by that success."

The one hope articulated by Mr. Rieff in these gloomy pages is that the war in Iraq might spur a re-evaluation of what he sees as the current "hypermoralization of international political action" and provide "an opportunity to rethink realism" - a realism animated by the conviction that "while there are many wrongs that do indeed need to be righted, and many causes worth defending, not everything is possible, least of all, to paraphrase the slogan of the anti-globalization movement, 'another' world."

It's a hope unlikely to be realized soon, given President Bush's self-vindicating claims that in the wake of the Iraq invasion, a "thaw has begun" in the broader Middle East, and the assertion by some pundits that the so-called Bush doctrine is already bearing fruit. The reader only wishes that this intriguing but woefully incomplete book had examined such arguments and the question of just how premature they might be in light of less positive postwar developments like a continuing insurgency in Iraq, growing anti-American sentiment in the Arab world and the prospect that Al Qaeda has used the war to recruit more terrorists.

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