All Anti-Utopians Now

Reviewed by Clifford Orwin

At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention
by David Rieff
Simon and Schuster, 2005, 270 pages.

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or everything there is a season, a time and place under heaven. Under the liberal democratic heaven of the 1990s, the thing was humanitarian military intervention. It began in hand wringing, issued in brief claps of martial thunder, and (on the evidence of the present volume) has lapsed back into hand wringing. As was widely remarked at the time, humanitarian intervention was a highly anomalous practice. It mobilized some of the nicest, most peace-loving, war-hating people in the Western world on behalf of some nasty little wars waged on behalf of some nasty little peoples. David Rieff, author of the new book At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention, is a prime example; he ranked foremost among those whom Adam Wolfson, then-editor of The Public Interest, christened “humanitarian hawks.” By this, Wolfson meant hawks for humanitarian purposes only: While not even Will Rogers is likely to have claimed never to have met an army that he didn’t like, the humanitarian hawks had a fairly long history of never meeting one that they did. Bumper stickers proliferated on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but rare was the one that read, “Unleash the Dogs of War.”
Nor is Rieff just any old product of a quasi-pacifistic milieu. His mother was Susan Sontag, intellectual matriarch of the antiwar movement of the 1960s, and it is to her that this book is dedicated. A brilliant essayist and social critic, Sontag’s displeasure was terrible to behold. Fortunately for Rieff, her response to his saber rattling of the 1990s was not to wonder where he had gone wrong as a son (or she as a mother), but to jump in with both feet, and like her son she strongly supported humanitarian intervention in Bosnia.
Whatever else one may think about Rieff’s views, his stance on Bosnia was extremely persuasive. Bill Clinton had been right to run in 1992 on a platform of American intervention there, as he had been wrong to drag his feet once in office. In the meantime, of course, there was the Somalia fiasco, and enthusiasm for interventions was in short supply. Still, Bosnia wasn’t Somalia, and as the sequel would prove, effective intervention at a reasonable price was eminently feasible in this instance. It wasn’t mere sentimentality to insist that tolerating a genocide in Europe fifty years after the Holocaust was a disgrace to all the balky parties, American as well as European. It took the Rwandan genocide of 1994 (and a great deal else besides) to goad Clinton into action in the Balkans. By then, the most charitable thing that could be said was that even much too late was better than never: An early response could have preserved Bosnia’s original borders (and its viability as a state) while saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of Bosnian Muslims. The actual intervention, however, came much too late to do either.
Of the journalists who had agitated for American intervention in Bosnia, Rieff was among the most effective. A frequent visitor to Sarajevo, he conveyed eloquently the desperation of a city under siege, one that the Western powers took far too long to lift. His resulting book, Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (1996),was a powerful exposéof the duplicity of all the powers involved in the Balkan scandal, and of one conspicuous non-power, the United Nations. However low your opinion of the UN, it won’t have reached absolute zero unless you’ve read Rieff’s book. True, the UN labored under many disadvantages, not least the discord among the permanent members of the Security Council as to the exact task of the United Nations Protective Force deployed in Bosnia. In the end, the force succeeded—barely—in protecting itself and other humanitarian aid workers. It did not, however, protect Bosnian Muslims, not even in those “safe havens” where it had promised to do so.
In Slaughterhouse,Rieff powerfully expounded on the pitfalls of halfhearted intervention, arguing that the UN had actually collaborated with the Bosnian Serbs in their policy of massacre, mass rape, and ethnic cleansing. He showed that the very term “humanitarian military intervention” is a misnomer, and a far from innocent one. Traditionally, humanitarianism conceived of itself as impartial, which is to say, apolitical. What was required in Bosnia, however, was a political intervention that took clear sides. In the case of Bosnia, the banner of humanitarianism merely obfuscated shameful inaction. Thus, as the UN and the European powers practiced humanitarianism, the Bosnian Serbs practiced genocide; the two, Rieff insists, went hand in hand. Whomever the Serbs failed to kill, the UN fed; sometimes, however, it fed them just to keep them alive until the Serbs could kill them. At Srebrenica, it turned them over to be slaughtered.
Slaughterhouse was not a pro-American book. Although the more hawkish of Clinton’s advisers (Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke) emerged as heroes, Clinton’s policy (or lack thereof) earned Rieff’s harsh censure. Still, it was a pro-interventionist book, and the duplicity and discord of the European powers persuaded Rieff, as it did many others, that any effective intervention in the post-cold war world could be mounted only by the U.S.
In Rieff’s next book, however, he made both the case for intervention and, somewhat confusingly, the case against it. A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (2002) repeated the arguments of Slaughterhouse on the inadequacy of humanitarianism to confront political crises that cried out for military intervention. At the same time, looking back on all the interventions of the 1990s, the results seemed ambiguous at best. Often (as in Kosovo and in Central Africa) one simply empowered the victim to become the victimizer. Rieff’s argument here was both tortured and tortuous: He seemed to blame governments alike for ducking intervention and for taking it on, humanitarians alike for resisting intervention and for facilitating it.

Clifford Orwin is professor of political science and director of the program in political philosophy and international affairs at the University of Toronto. He is writing a book on the role of compassion in modern political thought and practice.

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