Sunday, January 15, 2006

Janus Faced on Intervention?

When recounting how the U.S. arrived in the sands of Iraq, it's important to remember that it is not only the Republican party that believes in the morality of intervention. David Rieff makes that essential point today -- I've made it in print here as well -- in the NYTs Magazine today.
The fact that political debate over the U.S. intervention in Iraq breaks down largely along party lines, with Republicans generally in favor and Democrats skeptical or opposed, has tended to obscure the fact that American interventionism has historically been a bipartisan impulse. Indeed, far less separates the parties than it might seem from the current polarized discourse in Washington. For all their scruples about the Iraq adventure, few Democrats question the idea that it is right for the United States to "promote" democracy in the world, by force if necessary. It could hardly be otherwise. As George W. Bush has pointed out, nation-building was a principal foreign-policy cornerstone of the Clinton administration.
Remember Clinton okayed a humanitarian war in Kosovo to stop Orthodox Serbs from massacring Muslim ethnic Albanians without UN Security Council approval. No matter whether you agree or disagree with his move, NATO's " virtual war" in Kosovo was technically illegal according to international law. Importantly though, it was retroactively regarded as legitimate by the Kosovo Commission and the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). The latter commission -- along with other humanitarian warriors -- created the norm of the responsibility to protect, whereby a state that is unwilling or unable to protect its population from large scale loss of life or ethnic cleansing can trigger an intervention by the international community to secure the unprotected. However manipulative the U.S. intervention in Iraq was, it is this latest trend, created mostly by liberals and human rights activists, that the Bush Administration has exploited.

And while Rieff, who used to be a humanitarian warrior, believes intervention is closely akin to 19th century colonialism and should almost never be utilized, I must admit the notion of inviolable state sovereignty strikes me as an artificial construct that coverups the most nefarious acts of internal aggression possible. A world in which sovereignty is sancrosact is not one in which I want to live. The question then though is: Who will protect weaker countries from the depradations of the strong when a pretext for intervention can always be found?

This ambiguity has led a noble notion to be trampled as the U.S. has used it to try and secure its strategic goals in the Middle East when other rationales -- WMD and Iraqi involvement in 9/11 -- have proven false. Tragically, this adventure has blown back in the Bush Administration's face as foreign jihadists do indeed carry out the worst and most sophisticated attacks against U.S. personnel and interests in Iraq now. Al-Qaeda has never seen a failed state it didn't want to infest and the U.S. gave it the most strategic locale possible to make its new home in after Afghanistan.

Whether or not U.S. intervention in Iraq will invalidate the norm of international intervention to protect innocents from their own governments cannot yet be determined. But as Darfur shows, it hasn't helped any.