How Humanitarian Intervention Failed the World

Conor Foley has a message for the international community: Humanitarian interventions rarely work. His recent book promoting that thesis, The Thin Blue Line, was reviewed by James Traub in Foreign Policy’s November/December 2008 issue. In this interview, Foley talks about Iraq, Darfur, and the conundrum of humanitarian reform.

Foreign Policy: During your career, you have worked with humanitarian organizations in countries around the world. Do you remember when you started to become skeptical of humanitarian intervention? What happened? Describe what this experience was like.

Conor Foley: This is a complicated legal subject, and it is not possible to say: This is the view. Intervention is not necessarily a good or a bad thing.

I suppose the thesis of the book is that humanitarian interventions virtually never resolve humanitarian crises. It is like using plaster in open-heart surgery. And the attempt to portray [humanitarian interventions] as a panacea is damaging because it is just not true that they work. Over the last 20 years, there are very few that have worked and where you now see democracy.

FP: You have noted that you believe the Iraq war had a negative impact on the idea of humanitarian intervention? What went wrong?

CF: What damaged [the idea of humanitarian intervention] were two things. First, that Tony Blair tried to justify [the war] as humanitarian intervention, which it never was. Blair did manage to confuse a lot of people, and he made people suspicious of intervention elsewhere. Second was the failure of the intervention to pan out as supporters expected — and many supporters did think that the people of Iraq would welcome them as liberators. When that didn’t happen, it led to a huge amount of cynicism and despair. The war also tied up a vast number of soldiers and money; so when crises elsewhere, like Darfur, occurred, their hands were tied.

FP: What would be the ideal response in Darfur, if our hands werent so tied town?

CF: I would ask for more support for the [African Union-United Nations] mission, which needs air support. There has been a lack of political will to support intervention. Part of the reason for this is that, ideologically, [intervention] has been so demonized by the liberals [who believe that] the U.N. is all but incompetent. The people who should have been campaigning for [the U.N.] are campaigning against it. You have numerous journalists and politicians who want the U.N. to fail just to validate their criticisms.

FP: It seems like you’re not opposed to intervention in principle, then. Can you imagine a successful humanitarian intervention?

CF: Successful interventions tend to be those that are supported by the U.N. Security Council, those that are properly financed, have proper goals, and those where interveners understand their mandate. That doesnt mean necessarily that the intervention will be a success: 1991 in Somalia was the first example where there was a failure, and it made the West very reluctant to respond to other [crises].

FP: You are working on contributing to another book, this time writing about innovations in humanitarian aid. What does this mean, and how would it help to make intervention more effective?

CF: [Aid innovation] means looking at the practicalities of how the aid gets delivered. How do you get a system of justice up and running in Afghanistan, for example? How are courts dealing with their caseloads, backlogs? That is going to do much more to restore the system of government than the big prestige things. A couple weeks ago, Britain delivered a hydroelectric turbine to Afghanistan, but it wont make any difference to the Afghan people. I would be surprised if they even got the thing operating. It’s just sitting there for the Taliban to attack.

FP: You mentioned that there is a better chance of intervention working when it is multilateral. What are the pitfalls of working through organizations like the African Union and the United Nations? Do you get a watered-down reaction, design by committee?

CF: Obviously not just with regional organizations, but also at a U.N. level, things do get watered down. Bureaucracy is unwieldy, but that is the reality if you like the multilateralism. I dont think we have a choice about it.

FP: Can you think of a successful example of humanitarian intervention that we could use as an example moving forward?

CF: There is peace in much of the world where there wasnt 10 to 15 years ago. The extent to which thats been achieved by international versus local peace processes is debatable. In Aceh in Indonesia, there was the Finnish-led intervention. They went in and Indonesia agreed to talk; then they reformed the system and were out in a year and a half. It was a locally driven process.

On the opposite side, you see Liberia and Sierra Leone, where there was the largest U.N.-mandated peacekeeping forces, and they have restored democracy and have put some of their leading perpetrators of war crimes on trial.

Finally, there was Northern Ireland. U.S. intervention in the peace process was particularly helpful at critical junctures. Both George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton helped to get sides at the table and helped to build trust. I think thats something most Irish people would see as a positive achievement.

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