Madeleine Davies

Some thoughts on intervention (after reading A Problem from Hell)

In Uncategorized on October 12, 2014 at 7:59 pm

After Justin Welby spoke in favour of airstrikes in Iraq in the House of Lords last month (“there is justification for the use of armed force on humanitarian grounds”) there were various tweets from Christians along the lines of “but Jesus said to love your enemies”.

By nature, I think, I’m not a pacifist. I wonder whether I’m unusual among my generation in being pro-intervention, given that the defining conflict of our lifetime is probably the Iraq War of 2003.

I was not one of the one million who marched to oppose this war on 15 February 2003. When, later, I read Saturday, the Ian McEwan novel set on that day, I identified strongly with Henry Perowne, the protagonist, who, observing the procession, feels disturbed by its “celebratory nature”. He cannot feel, as the marchers appear to, that he has “an exclusive hold on moral discernment”. At one point, he considers that, “All across Europe, and throughout the world, people are gathering to express their preference for peace and torture”.

Perowne’s reticence is, in part, personal: he has treated a victim of Saddam Hussein’s torture facilities: an exiled Iraqi professor, Miri Taleb. “It’s only terror that holds the nation together, the whole system runs on fear, and no one knows how to stop it,” Taleb tells him. “Now the Americans are coming, perhaps for bad reasons. But Saddam and the Ba’athists will go.”

It is not that Perowne is in favour of the war. Rather, he is struck by ambivalence “as a form of vertigo, of dizzy indecision”. His concerns are prescient (McEwan was writing two years after the invasion). He worries that “the invasion or the occupation will be a mess”.

Today, the “mess” of the occupation haunts foreign policy. Both David Cameron and Barack Obama have felt the need to reassure their publics that combating ISIS will not entail a repeat of the previous invasion of Iraq. There will be no troops on the ground, they promise.

I understand this anxiety. Among those in favour of “humanitarian intervention” there are those who have expressed a dangerous contempt for the concept of an exit strategy. Writing in New Republic in 1999, during the Kosovo crisis, the magazine’s literary editor Leon Wieseltier, suggested that “the antithesis of exit strategy is courage”.

The doctrine of exit strategy, he argued, “fundamentally misunderstands the nature of war . . .  We cannot completely predict or completely determine the outcome of our best endeavors, though our ignorance of their outcome does not make them less necessary or less just. No great deed, private or public, has ever been undertaken in a bliss of certainty.”

Watch No End in Sight, Charles Ferguson’s 2007 documentary about the occupation in Iraq, and it’s hard to agree with this dismissal. It’s a devastating account of the arrogance of those who master-minded the occupation, delivered largely through the testimony of those tasked with rebuilding in its wake, whose expertise was ignored, side-lined and silenced. For me, the most poignant moment depicts Donald Rumsfeld joshing with reporters about the theft of a few “vases”, in juxtaposition with a tearful curator describing the destruction of the country’s national museum. The oil ministry was the only site protected from the looting, the narrator explains. “That was probably the day we lost the Iraqis”, an American interviewee reflects.

The documentary also gives voice to those with reservations about the wisdom of the “De-Baathification” process and the disbanding of an army of half a million men. Reservations which, today, sound more like a terrible prophecy, fatally ignored. “If you happened to be a military-aged Iraqi in an area of operation of the American military there was a good chance you were going to be arrested or interned as a suspected insurgent” recalls Gerald Burke, Advisor to Iraq Ministry of Interior for the U.S. Occupation authority.

There are good reasons to shy away from another intervention in Iraq. And yet, I tend to agree with Wieseltier when he warns that “in our determination not to fight the last war, we must not pretend that it was the last war”. I worry that those who flinch from force are, as Samantha Power puts it in A Problem From Hell, “extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil. Ahead of the killings, they assume rational actors will not inflict seemingly gratuitous violence.”

Perhaps we are all products of particular conflicts. Wieseltier is the son of Holocaust survivors. Today, Power is the US ambassador to the UN, but her philosophy was forged in the former Yugoslavia, where she filed reports, aged 23, documenting the massacre of Bosnian Muslims. When she returned to the US, chilled by the apparent torpor of her beloved adopted country (her parents moved from Ireland when she was 9), she enrolled in law school with ambitions of prosecuting war criminal in the Hague. Instead, she spent six years investigating the United States’ historic responses to genocide – research which would eventually be turned into A Problem From Hell, her Pulitzer-prize-winning book. She launched the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard then became a foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama. She may be the ultimate example of nominative determinism.

Problem was published on the eve of the 2003 Iraq war, which Power opposed. It was a best-seller. It is said that President Bush read a summary of Power’s chapter on Rwanda and wrote in the margins: ‘NOT ON MY WATCH’. The book details some of the darkest days of the past century, from the Armenian genocide of 1915 to the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsi in Rwanda (“the fastest, most efficient killing spree of the 20th century”) and the horrors perpetrated by Milošević  in the former Yugoslavia. Power’s conclusion is that, in each case, the US failed to do enough. The classic arguments of those who oppose taking action (futility, perversity and jeopardy) are, she argues, not to be taken at face-value. The truth, she suggests, is that the US Government has failed to show moral leadership. “No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence,” she writes. “It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.”

Intervention does not necessarily mean military force, in Power’s book. She gives powerful examples of Washington’s failure to dispose itself of a range of other tools, including public condemnation, economic sanctions, and technological intervention and shows how this reluctance often has its roots in domestic calculations. For example, In 1989, a year after his gas attacks on the Kurds, the Bush administration actually increased its agricultural credits to Saddam Hussein’s regime, taking them above $1 billion, enabling him to purchase American farm products.

Among the damning bits of research she unearths is a quote by Susan Rice, then a member of the National Security Council, during the Rwandan genocide, asking “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November election?”

Since publication, Problem has, of course, been scrutinised and criticised. In a rebuttal entitled A Solution from Hell, published in Journal of Genocide Research in 2010, Stephen Wertheim, a student at Columbia, accused Power of providing “no extended counterfactual scenarios that explained how an intervention would have unfolded and weighed potential harms against benefits.” He concluded that “True idealists harbour no particular fear of standing idly by”. Writing in the London Review of Books, Stephen Holmes placed Power among the “1990s advocates of humanitarian intervention” who have “helped rescue from the ashes of Vietnam the ideal of America as a global policeman, undaunted by other countries’ borders, defending civilisation against the forces of ‘evil’”.

He writes: “By denouncing the US primarily for standing idly by when atrocity abroad occurs, they have helped repopularise the idea of America as a potentially benign imperial power. They have breathed new life into old messianic fantasies. And they have suggested strongly that America is shirking its moral responsibility when it refuses to venture abroad in search of monsters to destroy. By focusing predominantly on grievous harms caused by American inaction, finally, they have obscured public memory of grievous harms caused by American action.”

I think time has shown this to be an unfair characterisation of Power. She opposed the 2003 Iraq war, later describing it as “the worst strategic blunder in the history of US foreign policy” and spoke in favour of “embedding U.S. power in an international system and demonstrating humility”. In 2007, as an adviser to Barack Obama, she argued that American foreign policy had been “broken by people who supported the Iraq War, opposed talking to our adversaries, failed to finish the job with Al Qaeda, and alienated the world with our belligerence.”

Nevertheless, she remains one of the most compelling critics of inaction I have come across. As a journalist, I think Problem asks important questions of journalists. While Power cites examples of journalists who have sought to warn of impending atrocities, she also explains how protocol can delay or limit what is published:

“Because the perpetrators of genocide are careful to deny observers access to their crime scenes, journalists must rely on the eyewitness or secondhand accounts of refugees who manage to escape. Reporters trained to authenticate their stories by visiting or confirming with multiple sources thus tend initially to shy away from publishing refugee accounts. When they do print them, they routinely add caveats and disclaimers”.

This caution is “warranted” she suggests, but “gave those inclined to look away further excuse for doing so”. By waiting for the full story to emerge people delay intervention until it is too late, she suggests. In 1977, Noam Chomsky accused journalists who claimed that the Khmer Rouge were perpetrating atrocities of third- and forth-hand sourcing.

What must it be like to escape killing fields, bear witness to what you’ve seen, only to be met with scepticism? Even when filed, “alarming reports of atrocities are typically met with scepticism”, Power argues. I recognise this tendency in myself. We are fortunate, in comparison to those writing in the 1970s, to have more experienced, more fully-resourced human rights organisations, including Amnesty and Human Rights Watch.

I’d recommend Problem to anyone, but particularly to those who have grown up in the shadow of the 2003 occupation. It’s a timely reminder of the potential consequences of “standing idly by”.















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