Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Just Causes

Christopher Hitchens writes a good review of Gary J. Bass's book Freedom's Battle in Foreign Affairs. The Hitchens piece is subtitled "The case for Humanitarian Intervention," so given that I've pretty much posited that "humanitarian intervention" is an oxymoron at this point, it was an interesting read.

Much of Bass's book and Hitchens's case dwells on the 19th century, with which I am less familiar. However, regarding the 20th and 21st, Hitchens writes of the US's constant shuffling on the issue:

"avoiding one humanitarian commitment by implictly adopting other ones. These days, this happens every time someone who wants to leave, say, a Saddam Hussein alone is rash enough to wonder out loud what should be done about Darfur, Myanmar, Tibet, or Zimbabwe."

Of course, that's not a problem on this page, where I've argued that military or coercive action should be taken in none of the above cases (and been proven largely correct by events in most of them, I feel). Disagree with me if you like, but at least I'm consistent.

Ultimately, though, I feel Hitchens in his piece falls prey to the same issues that bedevil interventionists everywhere: failing to appreciate internal conflicts or abuses vs. external ones, autocracies vs. aggressors, dreadfully run states vs. true international threats, and inevitable ethnonationalist/tribal turf wars vs. truly preventable instances of heinous crimes against humanity. The issue is not whether we should use American power to defend free states against aggressors: that is hopefully beyond dispute. But the question of whether we should "seek monsters to destroy" and interfere in the internal workings of states whose governments we don't like is as relevant a question today as it was in 1823, when we had virtualy no projective power to seek monsters out anyway. Now that we have the power, it's still a fair question as to whether, how, and when we should use it. On the questions of internal sovereign states like Myanmar and Zimbabwe, Hitchens fails to convince me that anything called "humanitarian intervention" will make these countries, or the world at large, a better place, or that it's worth the cost. Hitchens quotes Bass: "The value of stability is that it saves lives." Given the destabilizing impact of so-called humanitarian intervention in Iraq, such an observation should be a death knell for the more hairbrained schemes of the early 21st century (delivering food aid at gunpoint to Burma comes to mind). In this context, lamenting the West's unwillingness to prevent Tsarist Russia's annexation of Poland in the mid-18th century, as Hitchens and Bass do, is not particularly relevant to the current debate anymore, if it ever was.

In short, sovereignty once again carries the day. Nice try, though, Mr. Hitchens. More compelling than most.

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