A Muffled Trumpet
U.S. and the hypocrisy of intervention
The Progressive magazine, November
When Bill Clinton went before the United
Nations on September 21, he sounded a muffled trumpet. Two days
before, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had urged the Security
Council to act more swiftly to stop civil wars and prevent slaughters
around the globe. When Clinton got to the podium, he tried to
have it two ways. He made pains to downplay the power of the world
community: "Promising too much can be as cruel as caring
too little." But he also sought out the moral high ground:
"When we are faced with deliberate organized campaigns to
murder whole peoples, or expel them from their land, the care
of victims is important, but not enough. We should work to end
the violence." He added: "Simply because we have different
interests in different parts of the world, does not mean we can
be indifferent to the destruction of innocents in any part of
Clinton's comments, along with the varied
interventions by the United States in Kosovo and East Timor, raise
serious questions not only about the hypocrisy of U.S. policy
but also about the advisability of humanitarian interventions
in general. When, if ever, should progressives support such interventions?
For any informed citizen of the world,
Clinton's claim not to be "indifferent to the destruction
of innocents" should sound obscene. U.S. policy toward Iraq,
for instance, cannot possibly be any more callous. The Clinton
Administration insists that the Security Council keep imposing
economic sanctions that have killed more than 500,000 Iraqi children
and continue to take a toll of several thousand more per month.
And, as Zachary Fink reported last month in these pages, U.S.
planes continue to bomb Iraqi civilians with the utmost indifference.
U.S. policy toward the Kurds is also suffused
with indifference. The Turkish government-a NATO member and big
U.S. ally-has waged a nasty war against the Kurds over the last
fifteen years that has cost 30,000 lives and created more than
a million refugees. Yet the United States has not attempted to
stop this war, nor has it called on the United Nations to intervene.
Instead, the United States has sent billions of dollars in aid,
training, and military equipment to Ankara.
"Indifference" is too gentle
a word to describe U.S. policy toward Colombia. The Colombian
government has been at war with guerrillas for thirty years, and
that fighting has cost the lives of tens of thousands of civilians.
Finally a Colombian president, Andres Pastrana, sits down to negotiate
with the guerrillas, and what does the United States do? It pulls
the rug out from under him. The Clinton Administration has made
it clear, in no uncertain terms, that Pastrana should get tougher
with the guerrillas, and it is preparing to send a blank check
to the Colombian military to do the job.
Or take the U.S. reaction to the civil
war in the Sudan. Here, "indifference" may be exactly
the right word. In the last fifteen years, 1.9 million people
have died in this civil war, the vast majority being civilians.
More than four million have become refugees. And the Sudanese
government has implemented a policy of actual slavery, where thousands
of women and children are captured from rebel areas and forced
The Clinton Administration has, shall
we say, a selective conscience.
When it talks about moral concern, you
need to look below the surface. In Kosovo, for instance, it highlighted
the human rights abuses committed by the Serbs-which, while ghastly,
were not even in the Sudanese league. But what really kept the
policymakers awake at night was the prospect of NATO's irrelevance
and the impending loss of U.S. influence in Europe.
In East Timor, the Clinton Administration
was in a delicate situation. The international movement for East
Timor's liberation had brought the issue to the fore, and the
U.N. had scheduled a historic election. So when the Indonesian
military and its affiliated militias obliged with the savagery
that they are known for-all in front of the cameras-the Administration
didn't know what to do. For thirty-four years, Indonesia, with
one of the worst human rights records in the world, has been a
chief U.S. ally in Asia. Its economy plays a pivotal role in the
region, and U.S. companies have billions of dollars in investments
there. Clinton couldn't very well say it was time to bomb Jakarta,
though he didn't hesitate to say that about Belgrade or Baghdad.
In this instance, the words coming out of Washington were uncharacteristically
humble ones. We're going to do what we do best communications
and logistics, said Madeleine Albright.
So while other nations clamored for U.N.
peacekeepers, and some, like Australia, began to outfit their
troops, the United States conspicuously took a back seat.
Here at The Progressive we were glad to
see those Australian peacekeepers enter East Timor. The liberation
movement in that country had called for them, and they appear
to be halting most of the horrors and hastening the day of freedom.
We cannot cheer the presence of those peacekeepers and, at the
same time, deny the legitimacy of interventions.
Nor can we deplore the mass slaughter
in Rwanda in 1994 without coming to the conclusion, as both Annan
and Clinton belatedly have, that an armed intervention was justified
in that instance. One U.N. official in Rwanda said that if he
had only had 5,000 troops, he could have prevented the deaths
of more than 500,000 people.
It is indefensible to stand by and do
nothing when you have the means at your disposal to prevent mass
Nativists like Pat Buchanan don't want
the United States to get involved in humanitarian crises abroad
because they value American lives more than the lives of others.
And pundits of realpolitik like Charles Krauthammer and Thomas
Friedman caution against diluting America's strength by intervening
in "non-vital" areas.
Neither of those views can withstand moral
scrutiny. If every human being is of equal worth, we cannot turn
our eyes from the suffering of those who live in "non-vital"
Humanitarian interventions must be run
by the United Nations. No single country-especially not the United
States-has impartiality, much less a corner on virtue. Bilateral
actions, as when Clinton calls up his eager sidekick, Tony Blair,
for some sporting violence in Iraq, do not cut it. Nor do the
interventions by an alliance of states, as in the case of NATO's
bombing of Yugoslavia. These actions violated international law,
which states clearly that the only times one country can attack
another is when it is itself under attack, about to be attacked,
or has the approval of the U.N. Security Council.
Annan himself asked in his September speech:
"Is there not a danger of such interventions undermining
the imperfect, yet resilient, security system created after the
Second World War, and of setting dangerous precedents for future
interventions without a clear criterion to decide who might invoke
these precedents and in what circumstances?"
The United States has a tawdry history
of using the United Nations when it serves American purposes,
and disregarding it at other times. This is no way to build a
system of international peace, justice, and security.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros
Boutros Ghali had it right when he proposed back in 1992 that
the United Nations have combat-ready troops at its disposal for
international emergencies. Boutros Ghali's proposal, however,
raised hackles from the Pentagon, which did not like the idea
of U.S. troops under foreign command. But if the United States
is to be a member of the international community, it must behave
like one. And it is in U.S. interests, both moral and practical,
not to have wars raging out of control all around the world.
But before endorsing interventions hither
and yon, several large doses of caution are in order.
First, as Noam Chomsky notes in his latest
book, The New Military Humanism (Common Courage, 1999), aggressive
powers often use the term "humanitarian intervention"
as a cloak to justify the most grotesque actions.
"If we had records, we might find
that Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun professed humanitarian motives,"
Second, there is no guarantee that a U.N.-sanctioned
operation would not be manipulated by the United States, which
exercises disproportionate influence. In the days leading up to
the Persian Gulf war, for instance, the United States was able
to use all of its diplomatic and economic strength to prevail
upon the members of the U.N. Security Council to go along with
the attack on Iraq.
Third, other U.N. Security Council members,
especially Russia and China, have their own humanitarian problems:
Chechnya and Tibet, respectively, for starters. Given the realities
of international power politics, it's impossible for the United
Nations to intervene in those countries without risking a global
catastrophe. Still, this is a galling inconsistency.
Fourth, humanitarian interventions can
take a terrible toll. In Somalia, as Chomsky notes, "the
number of lives saved by the 'humanitarian intervention' is estimated
by the U.S. Refugee Policy Group at 10,000-25,000; even the lower
figure may be an overestimate." On the other side of the
ledger, Chomsky cites a comment by Charles William Maynes, then
the editor of Foreign Policy: "'CIA officials privately conceded
that the U.S. military may have killed from 7,000 to 10,000 Somalis."'
Finally, before an international humanitarian
intervention is justified, all other options for solving the problem
must be exhausted. This was a crucial error in the Iraq war of
1991, as it was in Kosovo this year.
As U.S. citizens, we have a primary obligation
to make sure that our government is acting morally in the world.
It is not. This mocks any U.S. commitment to humanitarian interventions
abroad. One of the primary challenges for progressives today is
to publicize the harm that the U.S. government is doing overseas,
and to organize to stop it.
To some extent, grassroots activism is
already beginning to work.
On Iraq, for instance, public opinion
finally appears to be shifting away from sanctions. In September,
The Chicago Tribune, hardly a bastion of left-wingers, published
an editorial denouncing the continued policy of sanctions. This
editorial stance is due, in no small part, to the courageous work
of Voices in The Wilderness, the anti-sanctions group based in
Chicago. It brought the issue to the fore by sending delegations
to Baghdad, organizing nationwide protests, and doing the prosaic
things like leafleting in the Loop.
We will need to redouble our efforts on
Iraq and on Colombia in the months ahead to prevent further "destruction
of innocents." Otherwise, the United Nations could make a
credible case to intervene against Washington.
US and Third World