A Muffled Trumpet

U.S. and the hypocrisy of intervention

The Progressive magazine, November 1999


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 the world."

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 into servitude.

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 slaughter.

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" areas.

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," he writes.

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

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