Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Humanitarianism went to war

Conor Foley's new book, The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War, comes highly recommended. The author has been obliged to debate the oleaginous Oliver Kamm in the course of promoting his book, so I am doing my part to reduce the necessity of such an indignity. Foley does a number of things fairly effectively: first, he debunks 'humanitarian intervention' as an ideology from its origins in the Biafran War (there is some useful detail covering Bernard Kouchner's early ascent here, though he is much more generous to Kouchner than I would be); secondly, he demonstrates conclusively that key examples of such 'intervention' were far from humanitarian in effect (he leaves the question of intent or strategy largely unexamined), for example the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999; thirdly, he shows how the regnant discourse of a 'Responsibility To Protect' that emerged principally during the Balkans Wars provided much of the legal and moral cover for the invasion of Iraq - indeed, a consistent theme is just how much of the present barbarity was prepared in the decade of vicarious militarism that was the 1990s.

One of the strongest chapters in the book is the discussion of the Kosovo war. Foley takes the time to examine the context in which the KLA emerged, outlines some of their provocative conduct, shows with the help of some personal experience how they were active in ethnically cleansing Serb and Roma in the immediate aftermath of the war, and how their successors have been engaged in murdering members of both groups for years afterward. He nicely dissects Clare Short's post-hoc rationalising scheme for the war, and shows - with the assistance of the Campbell diaries - that even Blair, the most belligerent of the warmongers, was himself doubtful about what the bombing was supposed to achieve. Those doubts were obviously suppressed by the time Blair made his Chicago speech, adumbrating a new doctrine of interventionism, which explicitly bracketed Milosevic and Saddam Hussein as the main threats to global peace. Rigorously citing figures and context, he debunks the claim that the war prevented a genocide, showing that what was actually exacerbated by the intervention was an insurgency by an extremely dubious gang of 'Greater Albanian' nationalists, and a counterinsurgency by the Serbian military. The chapter closes with a quote from Tony Blair in 2001, bragging about the success of an intervention that had made a humanitarian crisis into a catastrophe, savouring the prospect of "one of the great dictators of the last century" ending up on trial, and citing it as a precedent for future action.

The overarching story of Foley's is a part-biographical one in which he observes up close how humanitarian organisations, traditionally committed to the politically neutral delivery of aid, end up as often unwitting auxiliaries to war-making states. One of the recurring themes is the way in which human rights and humanitarianism merged, particularly as left-wing politics subsided, into what he calls 'political humanitarianism'. He notes, for example, that Amnesty International today has over a million members, far higher than the Labour Party. Its advocacy on any particular issue can galvanise substantial constituencies and, even where it does not call for military action, it can provide the moral and intellectual case for such action with an authority that governments compromised by their own bloody actions cannot. Rony Brauman, the former head of Médecins Sans Frontières, makes the argument in my book (you know the one I mean) that this merger of the two trends is a dangerous one. The reason is that when supposedly neutral humanitarian agencies delivering relief end up calling for the enforcement of human rights standards, and then in turn become dependent on those making war, they become co-belligerents. The trust that they require from all sides in order to be able to deliver aid is ruined if they are seen as accessory to one party in a conflict. Further, in order to elicit support, they can all too often end up disseminating misleading or exaggerated information about a given conflict, which can feed into the propaganda for war or produce calls for solutions that are at best counterproductive. In this connection, Foley has been particularly scathing about the calls for military intervention into Darfur from advocacy groups like Save Darfur.

The trouble that 'political humanitarians' faced was that their criticisms of various governments were always blunted to the extent that they refused to take a clear position themselves on what might be done in a given circumstance. So, MSF can demand action on Kosovo, but without saying what that might entail, they exposed their urgent appeals to ridicule. And so, in a way that Alex de Waal and others have related previously, 'political humanitarians' - quietly at first, but with increasing openness - began to mandate military action as a necessary supplement to their own campaigns. The obvious question that occurs to an outsider is this: why should humanitarians, even those with a commitment to basic human rights standards, have the answers to the world's problems? How do they come to be the arbiters of just political action? Foley provides a very good sense from the inside of how it felt to be trying to bring about humanitarian outcomes, and how compelling the appeal to military force is when relief workers are trying to deliver people from terrifying physical danger and feel compromised by the bureaucratic structures, legalism and neutralism under which they are obliged to work. But he also shows how arguments for war on humanitarian bases came to be alibis for obvious, outright aggression - as when the Blairite inner circle appealled to international humanitarian norms to justify the invasion of Iraq. Behind all the moral and political arguments foregrounded by this discussion, of course, are immense historical, political and geographical facts which intersect in the fate of the 20th Century Left. (More on which can be found in my own book - you know the one I mean).

Foley is by no means a radical anti-imperialist. He is himself a humanitarian worker with extensive background experience in various 'theatres' from northern Iraq to Afghanistan. Nor is he necessarily opposed to all such ventures - he is just far more sceptical about the arguments supporting them than most of his liberal cohorts have been. And if a solution emerges from this book clearly, it is that the UN must be strengthened and reformed, and that multilateral policies should be engaged instead of unilateral ones. Foley doesn't take seriously the criticism that this refulgent Victorian humanitarianism is implicated in a renascent imperialism - in fact, it has to be said that his handling of these arguments is embarrassingly slight. While Foley is expertly equipped to deal with legalistic arguments about war, there is a basic failure to engage with theory on other levels: those of geopolitics and geoeconomics. To that extent, he seems to grapple with the arguments at their weakest - for example, he dismisses the idea that the invasion of Afghanistan was for the purpose of securing an oil pipeline dominated by Western energy concerns, as if this exhausted the anti-imperialist critique of that invasion. In general, it seems that unless there is some direct economic kickback, then there is no strategic interest involved - although we have just been through a dangerous Georgian spectacle in which the strategic ramifications of US action in Yugoslavia and southern Asia came increasingly to the fore. Similarly, he offers some shockingly blase justifications for the most controversial components of the failed Rambouillet Accords. Of the notorious clause admitting NATO personnel uninhibited access throughout the whole FRY, he dismissively refers to this as a normal part of UN peacekeeping: if this was so, why was it insisted on in the early negotiations phase and dropped in the final Ahtisaari-Chyrnomirdin-negotiated agreement that concluded the war? If it was so essential, why drop it? If inessential, why allow the negotiations to fail partially on account of it? Of the 'free market' clause, he says that Kosovo was going through a process of privatization and some stipulation had to be made about future property arrangements. One would not know that privatization in the former Yugoslavia was a deeply controversial matter, and that the process was itself implicated in the break-up of the country. A reading of Susan Woodward's Balkan Tragedy would have helped here. (More on this in my own book - you know the one I mean). I could go on in this vein, but it would seem to be beside the point, as well unduly diluting the force of my earlier recommendation. Foley is trying to get to grips with how humanitarianism has in different ways been usurped, side-tracked, co-opted and diverted into the blind alley of Western militarism. To that extent, you are unlikely to get a more honest appraisal of how utterly mendacious our governments have been in casting their recent interventions as humanitarian.