In Other Words

A Fight to Protect

The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War By Conor Foley 256 pages, London: Verso, 2008 On June 28, 1992, French President François Mitterrand and Bernard Kouchner, the minister of state for humanitarian affairs, arrived by helicopter in the war-ravaged capital of Yugoslavia. It was a daring and dangerous bid to break the chokehold ...

The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War
By Conor Foley
256 pages, London: Verso, 2008

On June 28, 1992, French President François Mitterrand and Bernard Kouchner, the minister of state for humanitarian affairs, arrived by helicopter in the war-ravaged capital of Yugoslavia. It was a daring and dangerous bid to break the chokehold that Bosnian Serb militias were applying to Sarajevo’s Muslim population. And it worked: Mitterrand reached a deal with Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, to reopen the airport and to permit relief agencies to serve the city’s besieged citizens. The U.N. Security Council swiftly approved the dispatch of peacekeepers as a humanitarian protection force, and crucial supplies began flowing into the capital.

The helicopter ride was a high water mark for Mitterrand, for the adventurous Kouchner, and for the idea, still quite new at the time, of a politically engaged, rather than rigorously neutral, humanitarianism. But in retrospect, it’s also clear that the humanitarian corridor to Sarajevo sent the United Nations, and those it hoped to protect, down a disastrous path. Peacekeepers stood by helplessly while Serbian gunners in the hills mowed down Bosnian civilians. The peacekeepers became, quite literally, hostage to their own mission: Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was able to ward off a NATO attack by threatening to capture or kill the lightly armed blue helmets. And the Balkan calamity plunged toward the Götterdämmerung of Srebrenica.

Humanitarianism engagé sounds tremendously noble, not to mention very exciting, until you try it in practice. Conor Foley is a veteran of what he would say are too many such misbegotten missions. He has worked for the United Nations and for human rights and humanitarian organizations in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and post-tsunami Indonesia, among other places. The experiences left him quite chastened about the limits of foreign intervention, whether in the form of military action, nation-building, or emergency assistance — and quite critical of humanitarian heroes like Kouchner. In his provocative new book, The Thin Blue Line, Foley writes, "The broader lesson from a range of international interventions in recent years is that it will always be difficult to impose governance and assistance mechanisms from the outside."

Like the journalist David Rieff, author of A Bed for the Night, and the scholar Alex de Waal, Foley has come to view the history of humanitarian intervention as one long episode of hypocrisy and failure. Thus while "liberal interventionists" argue that the international community failed the people of Bosnia by offering a humanitarian response to what was, in fact, a military challenge, and has done so once again in Darfur, Foley advances the opposite argument. He claims, first, that humanitarian actors have made themselves the handmaiden — and the pretext — of military interventions; second, that by doing so, humanitarianism has sacrificed its precious neutral stance; and finally, that the sacrifice has been largely for naught, since external attempts to impose good governance or halt atrocities are likely to fail.

In his catalog of humanitarian interventions, Foley passes over those by non-Western states, such as India in what is now Bangladesh in 1971, or Vietnam’s in Cambodia in 1979, perhaps because they don’t implicate humanitarian actors or a specifically Western view of human rights (or perhaps because they more or less succeeded). Humanitarian intervention, for him, is a creature of Western activism, largely channeled through the United Nations, in the years immediately following the end of the Cold War. Thus he begins his history with the colossal and unprecedented U.S.-led mission to protect the humanitarian effort in Somalia.

Foley observes that agencies like CARE and Oxfam America, whose aid was being stolen and whose workers were being killed, pressed for a military force. These were the blithe and palmy days of interventionism — the new U.N. force was just then assembling in Bosnia — and few could have imagined the consequences of such a commitment. U.S. Army Rangers wound up chasing a murderous warlord through the streets of Mogadishu; the "Black Hawk Down" nightmare, in which the corpses of American soldiers were dragged through the dust, brought those consequences home to Americans all too brutally. Foley views the Somali intervention as an unmitigated debacle, not only for the country but for his own profession. In Somalia, he asserts, humanitarianism began to surrender to the logic of armed intervention.

Foley thinks that the appetite for intervention far exceeds the need. He contends that "there is no evidence" that the massacres of Kosovar civilians by Serbian forces in 1998 and early 1999 "were part of a systematic campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing.’" It was the NATO bombardment itself, he asserts, that caused the Serbs to drive great numbers of Kosovars from their homes and that resulted in the overwhelming portion of the deaths suffered during this period. He’s certainly right about the figures and the chronology, but even so peace-loving a figure as Kofi Annan believed that Milosevic planned a massive campaign of expulsion and favored a military response. And none of the Kosovars I met a few years later wished that NATO had held off.

Moreover, what is one to do when peaceful means really are unavailing? Humanitarian groups called loudly for intervention in Rwanda; and in that case, with Somalia fresh in memory, no one listened. Foley presumably wishes that the interventionists had succeeded, for he tells the familiar story of the United Nations’ failure to heed the desperate calls from Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian general who headed the small peacekeeping force there. But Foley doesn’t actually say that an intervention would have been justified — nor that "Rwanda never again" is a rallying cry worth raising.

Despite claims from the "anti-imperialist" left — which Foley does not countenance — states do not lightly send soldiers into battle to halt atrocities across the globe. Humanitarian interventions are waged in countries so far gone that all alternatives look bad and almost all consequences ugly. And yet we must choose. Foley’s suggestion that humanitarian organizations in Somalia should have sought to "re-empower traditional community leaders through dialogue," rather than beat the drums for military action, does not sound all that persuasive. And even that feckless engagement saved several hundred thousand lives. Foley also argues that both Kosovo and Bosnia remain ethnically riven and enfeebled states. That’s true; but it’s also true that the Balkans are no longer a war zone and that Serbia is a democracy, if a tenuous one. Is that so very bad an outcome?

In later chapters of The Thin Blue Line, Foley wrestles with the difficult question of how, or whether, humanitarian aid can be used to force political change. He offers hard wisdom distilled from years of experience. Humanitarians, he argues, should worry less about conformity to the supposedly universal principles and inalienable rights that preoccupy Westerners than they should about "building trust" among donors, the general public, and beneficiaries. And the best way to gain the trust of host countries, he notes, is to show respect for their sovereignty and their domestic capacity. Foley would not have us help less, but he would have us impose less. One of the few encouraging stories he tells concerns Mozambique, which weaned itself from dependence on foreign aid and inscribed in its disaster-preparedness report a determination to stop "running to international donors without first exhausting national capacities."

But we should ask ourselves whether international relations are now plagued by too little respect for sovereignty, or too much. Certainly if you were to ask the leaders of the Group of 77 at the United Nations or regional bodies such as the African Union (AU), the answer would be "too little," as it is for Foley. That’s why, for example, efforts to penalize Khartoum for unleashing a campaign of murder and ethnic cleansing in Darfur have largely come to naught; that’s why the AU is seeking to postpone by a year the war crimes indictment of Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court. These largely Western-inspired efforts are said to constitute an assault on Sudan’s sovereignty — as if the prerogatives and protections that belong to Sudan and its citizens had been transferred to Bashir and his regime. Are the sovereign rights of the peaceful Mozambiques of this world really so threatened that we should mount a campaign of deference that will serve as protective cover for the likes of Sudan, Zimbabwe, or Burma?

In 2005, the world’s heads of state, gathered at the U.N. General Assembly, adopted the doctrine of "the responsibility to protect," which stipulates that states have an obligation to protect their citizens from crimes against humanity and other mass atrocities, and that, should they be unable or unwilling to do so, other states incur that obligation. That responsibility, in the most extreme cases, includes military action. R2P, as the norm has come to be known, formalizes the principle, which lies at the heart of humanitarian intervention, that the right of people to be free from the worst forms of mistreatment supersedes the right of states to be free from external intervention. It is scarcely possible in the aftermath of Rwanda to argue otherwise, and so no one does directly. But the principle is under attack from the absolutists of sovereignty, a group that includes not just Iran and Venezuela but India and Egypt. And the war in Iraq has made it all too easy for the absolutists to claim that the United States and other Western countries will cite the moral imperative of R2P to intervene when and where they wish. Perhaps that’s a real danger, but what seems far likelier is that Iraq has poisoned the logic of humanitarian intervention for years to come. Anti-interventionists like Foley may take comfort in that thought; others, however, will rightly view it as a tragedy.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

A decade of Global Thinkers

A decade of Global Thinkers

The past year's 100 most influential thinkers and doers Read Now

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola