Normblog’s verbal flip-flops

3:10 pm - October 3rd 2009

by Conor Foley    

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When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’

Alice in Wonderland

In a post here a couple of days ago I noted that the term ‘liberal intervention’ had been discredited due to its association with Tony Blair’s disastrous foreign policy adventures and that humanitarian aid workers were amongst its sharpest critics. This was because we objected to the perversion of the long-established principle that military interventions on humanitarian grounds could be justified, as a last resort during humanitarian crises – in Rwanda for example – for regime-changes invasions like Iraq. In a reply entitled ‘liberals confused about intervention’, Norm states that I myself tend to use the terms ‘liberal intervention’ and ‘humanitarian intervention’ interchangeably’ .

I suppose I could just thank Norm for illustrating my point so succinctly, but since the two terms are so obviously not the same, it does beg obvious questions like ‘so why do you that then?’ or ‘so what do you think that they actually mean?

The doctrine of humanitarian intervention is a long-established concept in international law.

It has been very rigorously debated down the years and has a settled meaning – intervention in an ongoing humanitarian crisis in order to try and save lives. The term ‘liberal intervention’ was used by Blair to justify the invasion of Iraq and is generally understood to mean regime-change interventions on human rights grounds. If Norm is using the two terms inter-changeably then he must be defining one or the other of them differently to everyone else. So which is it?

As anyone who has been following the debates over R2P at the UN General Assembly knows, the doctrine of humanitarian intervention is very controversial (and supporters of R2P are consciously trying to distance themselves from it). The legal reasons for the controversy were once laid out in a Foreign Office memo which said, the best case that can be made in support of humanitarian intervention is that it cannot be said to be unambiguously illegal . . . But the overwhelming majority of contemporary legal opinion comes down against [it] . . . the case against making humanitarian intervention an exception to the principle of non-intervention is that its doubtful benefits would be outweighed by its costs in terms of respect for international law. However, the Foreign Office has also argued that there are ‘extreme circumstances [in which] a state can intervene in another state for humanitarian reasons’ and that it could be justified as ‘an exceptional measure on grounds of overwhelming humanitarian necessity.’ Most international lawyers, aid workers, diplomats and human rights practitioners would accept that these legal opinions frame the parameters of serious debate about it.

In a lecture delivered here two years ago, however, Norm stated that the current threshold for humanitarian interventions is too high. He argued for a new definition in which an invasion of another country could be justified reached in one of two sets of circumstances:

(a) Where a state is on the point of committing (or permitting), or is actually committing (or permitting), or has recently committed (or permitted) massacres and other atrocities against its own population of genocidal, or tendentially genocidal, scope.
(b) Where, even short of this, a state commits, supports or overlooks murders, tortures and other extreme brutalities or deprivations such as to result in a regular flow of thousands upon thousands of victims.

Now we can argue about how serious this is as a contribution to the debate (the second paragraph, for example, could be cited as legal justification for invading Brazil!), but it is clearly not the generally accepted definition of what constitutes a humanitarian intervention. Norm co-authored the Euston Manifesto which called for a reform of international law in this area, and so it would seem reasonable to conclude that he is arguing for a different definition of the term ‘humanitarian intervention’ to the accepted one.

In his more recent post, however, he makes a quite different point. Now he says if the doctrine of liberal intervention is now dumped, are we to say that intervention to halt a genocide . . . is something we can no longer contemplate? He reinforces this point by clarifying that the intervention would be justified solely to stop a genocide in progress and not to hold the perpetrators of one accountable for their actions (in contrast to his argument two years ago where it would be legitimate to invade a country where atrocities had been ‘recently committed’). So here we have a very different, and much narrower, definition of when an intervention might be legally justified to his earlier one. In other words he has re-defined liberal intervention so that it fits the generally accepted humanitarian concept.

He then claims that ‘The main reasons those who want to dump the doctrine [liberal intervention] have and give for dumping it may be summed up in a word: Iraq. And yet most of them don’t actually think the Iraq war was a liberal intervention.’ But, again, that is obviously not true. Everyone from Blair downwards repeatedly stated that this invasion was a liberal intervention, just not a humanitarian one (hence the need to reform international law and Norm’s own proposed new definition).

I am genuinely not sure where this leaves Norm’s arguments and – by extension – I am not sure if there is anything left of the political project associated with it. A year ago I noted that Timothy Garton Ash had formally abandoned his belief in liberal interventionism (or rather subtly re-branded it to mean something completely different). I think that we can now add Norm to the list of repentant former devotees to this discredited doctrine.

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About the author
Conor Foley is a regular contributor and humanitarian aid worker who has worked for a variety of organisations including Liberty, Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He currently lives and works in Brazil and is a research fellow at the Human Rights Law Centre at the University of Nottingham. His books include Combating Torture: a manual for judges and prosecutors and A Guide to Property Law in Afghanistan. Also at: Guardian CIF
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Reader comments

1. Luis Enrique

I’m confused by second to last para.

Norm says: “those who want to dump the doctrine [liberal intervention]… don’t actually think the Iraq war was a liberal intervention.”

You say: “that is obviously not true. Everyone from Blair downwards …”

But Blair is not one of those who want to dump the doctrine. Can you clarify?

2. Conor Foley

Blair repeatedly referred to the invasion as forming part of his doctrine of liberal intervention (see his interview with TGA when he stepped down from office). The doctrine became discredited because the invasion went so badly wrong (and for other reasons which I have discussed elsewhere).

more later

3. Luis Enrique

Right, yes … but how does that relate to the point I’m making @2? You are correct that Blair and others cite Iraq as a liberal intervention, but Norm was saying “those who want to dump the doctrine” tend not to believe it was a (bungled) liberal intervention but something with other motives (oil, geopolitics, whatever). See what I’m getting at? I just think you’ve misread him on this smal point, is all.

4. Luis Enrique

fwiw, far as I can see (and I am not a scholar of international law) you make a good and important point that Norm is using terms in a different way to the international legal institutions, and you’re points about why these institutions resists the eliding the two terms, in the way that Norm does, are interesting and constitute (potentially) potent arguments that Norm’s formulation and support of liberal intervention are mistaken.

Is not part of the problem that the UN was set up to prevent war between sovereign nations and not to prevent the large scale killing of people by their governments? China and Russia has no interest in supporting humanitarian intervention because the cummunist governments have killed tens of millions of their own people and both consider ethnic minorities to be a potential threat to the the stability of the nation.

Liberal Inteventionism means, to paraphrase The Encyclopedia of Decency, never having to say you’re sorry.

Luis: sorry I was juggling a laptop and crying baby earlier so it was difficult to concentrate.

The invasion of Iraq was claimed by Blair and others as a liberal intervention. That is the term he used to define it and it is a widely accepted definition. There may well be people who don’t accept this term, but off the top of my head I can’t think of any. There are lots of people who don’t accept that it was a humanitarian intervention (including me) and that is the basic problem with running the two terms together. Iraq in 2003 was not Rwanda in 1994.

What Blair argued that while the narrow legal justification for the invasion was Iraq’s supposed possession of WMD’s in defiance of UN resolutions, a case could also be made for it on the basis of Saddam’s appalling human rights record (when the supposed WMD’s turned out to be non-existent this argument took on a bit more force because they removed any legal justification for the invasion that may previously have existed). Blair spelled this out in a series of speeches – which are generally accepted to be the basis of the liberal interventionist thesis.

In these speeches he also explicitly criticised international law for defining the circumstances in which one state could invade another too narrowly. These grounds are generally accepted to be the two exceptions permitted by the UN Charter (self-defence and with UNSC authorisation) and the ‘doctrine of humanitarian intervention’ about which there remains much discussion.

Blair accepted that there was not an ongoing humanitarian crisis in Iraq at the time of the invasion and so it could not be justified on that basis. His argument was that another norm needed to be developed, which is generally referred to as liberal intervention. David Miliband subsequently picked up that theme in his ‘civilian surges for democracy’ speech – where he praised the neocons and said that future invasions to democratize countries could potentially be undertaken without UN approval.

Norman Geras has, through the Euston Manifesto and some of his speeches, made some similar arguments. Fine, these are interesting arguments to have. I also think that international law should be refined and developed. But these discussions are taking place. You can read about them in the debates about R2P and the policy briefings and academic papers that are being published by the score and the seminars and conferences that are being organised around the world by governments, UN agencies, NGOs, think-tanks, etc.

What I don’t understand is why Norm makes so little references to these actual debates or engages with the actual arguments that are being put forward – rather then hammering away at the (fairly demented) propositions of the British ultra-left. Does he really thinks that the governments of India and Brazil, for example, are taking their line on this from the British SWP?

8. Luis Enrique

ah …. I think I’m getting there (on this narrow point)

Norm is saying most people who want to dump the doctrine of “liberal intervention” do not believe Iraq was actually a liberal intervention, in the the sense of being motivated by concern for the welfare of Iraqis (which is how Norm uses the term). His point being that if you don’t think Iraq was motivated by welfare concerns, you can’t use it to show we shouldn’t intervene on welfare grounds.

You are saying most people who want to dump the doctrine of “liberal intervention” do believe Iraq was a liberal intervention, in the sense of being an example of the doctrine of liberal intervention as espoused by Blair and others. In which case it’s perfectly OK to use it as evidence against the doctrine of liberal intervention as espoused by Blair and others.

sorry for being slow and then spelling things out a painful length. Yes, both Norm and Blair are talking about another norm, with a broader remit than humanitarian intervention, in the sense you and, I gather, most institutions use the term.

I’m afraid I’m not familiar enough with Norm’s output to know whether he fails to engage with the ongoing arguments about these matters within international institutions (I only check his blog periodically), but I see that he hasn’t in the post under discussion.

In Norm’s defense, I think using the terms in the way he chooses to use them (which he’s pretty unambiguous about, your criticisms of his usage notwithstanding) I think all his was doing was … well, as I write in this comment on t’other thread. I think with what you write in this post, you are both talking past each other somewhat.

9. Chris Baldwin

I’m not a liberal, but I wonder how some liberals can stomach the term “liberal intervention”. This basically means “liberal war”, after all. Now, I’m no pacifist and I accept that war can be necessary in a very small number of cases, but I wouldn’t want to associate my ideology with it. As I understand it, liberalism is supposed to be about peace and order and rational, enlightened administration of society. It’s certainly not about war – surely it’s about avoiding war whenever possible. As a socialist, I might some day argue for the necessity of such and such a military action, but I wouldn’t demean socialism by labelling it a “socialist war”. Socialism is supposed to be about peace, justice, freedom and equality – war isn’t part of it.

The previous post is not by me. A troll has obviously decided to stalk me.

I guess I should take it as compliment.

11. douglas clark

Luis @ 9,

You seem to me to overintellectualise or summat. Norm is just wrong.

You are saying most people who want to dump the doctrine of “liberal intervention” do believe Iraq was a liberal intervention, in the sense of being an example of the doctrine of liberal intervention as espoused by Blair and others. In which case it’s perfectly OK to use it as evidence against the doctrine of liberal intervention as espoused by Blair and others.

The point of any interventionism is not that it should be liberal, it is that it should be for the common good. It seems clear to me that the invasion of Iraq didn’t meet that criteria. So it is not reasonable for Blair or Bush to use it as an arguement. They are merely using a reasonable doctrine for their own purposes. Which stinks to high heaven. Frankly, neither Blair nor Bush can ever again be trusted on the issue of moral interventionism, and they have set the bar so high that no-one else is going to find it very easy to straddle it. In fact, they aren’t.

I think these fuckpots have destroyed any reasonable case for intervention, or at least set it back twenty years, A lot of people will suffer as a consequence of their idiocy. That is no legacy worth having.

12. Luis Enrique


It wouldn’t surprise me if I was, but I think I am just trying to understand precisely what two different people, Norm and Conor, are saying. You say “Norm is just wrong” but about what? In general, or in his assertion that most people who want to dump the doctrine of liberal intervention also believe that Iraq was not motivated by liberal concerns? You then go on to make some observations that look reasonable in their own right, but they are not related to the passage you cite from me, which was just trying to clear up the difference between Norm and Conor on one very specific point.

Luis: I will try and write something longer about R2P later in the week (I am going to a seminar in Rio today and will be away for a few days).

The doctrine of humanitarian interventions is a legal concept. It has emerged and been debated down the years and continues to cause controversy amongst scholars. It was there before the words ‘liberal intervention’ were ever coined and will live on after them. Should there be another Rwanda-type situation in the future in which the government of another country feels compelled to intervene without UN authorisation that will be the legal grounds on which they will do so. Norm is quite simply wrong on this point, if he thinks that the ditching of the concept of ‘liberal intervention’ will make any difference. Douglas is, however, right that the actions of Bush and Blair in Iraq have made future interventions on humanitarian grounds much less likely – and that is one of the moral consequences that its supporters should also address.

I wrote a piece, here, a couple of weeks ago about the only time I was involved in a campaign where we came close to calling for such an intervention

The separate debate is the R2P one – which is about whether and how to develop a new normative framework about interventions and the conditions surrounding when or how they can be authorised. I will come back to that later

Wow, look at Norm go – these awful boorish liberal boys getting off on their rich sarcasm.

This coming hot on the heels of the last post in which he ascribed the view that “killers should just be allowed to get on with [genocide]” to enormous swathes of the people who almost certainly believe nothing of the kind.

“This coming hot on the heels of the last post in which he ascribed the view that “killers should just be allowed to get on with [genocide]” to enormous swathes of the people who almost certainly believe nothing of the kind.”

Yes, Decent Norm’s blog content tends to oscillate between petulant sarcasm and longer, windier self-justificatory posts like this one where he takes the petulant sarcasm of others as symptomatic of their lack of seriousness.

Prof. Norm was the main writer of a manifesto that said that international law should be changed so that countries like Iraq could be invaded without getting UNSC backing. However it would seem that he doesn’t understand the important difference between liberal interventionism and humanitarian interventionism, and he doesn’t seem to understand the debates that have been taking place since the 1990s about this kind of issue.

I am hardly surprised. Much that was said in favour of the invasion of Iraq was based on lists of talking points: the people saying them had no depth of understanding and couldn’t answer supplementary questions. Unfortunately however a lot of politics is like that now.

What a load of pedantic yet sophist bollocks, Conor…

You know very well that “humanitarian intervention” has no definition in International law with the exception of acts of “Genocide” – which is supposed to be binding to all member nations, not just those who choose to intervene.

As you also know, it has so far proved impossible for the UNSC to unanimously agree on a single instance of “Genocide” since the Holocaust. Thus have the International community stood by and watched Pol Pot murder millions (only stopped by the illegal “intervention” of Communist Vietnam!); Idi Amin in Uganda (stopped by illegal intervention of Tanzania); Saddam Hussein and the Kurds/Marsh Arabs (slowed by war with Iran, frustrated by International coalition worried about regional stability and oil, STOPPED by “illegal” intervention of US and UK and allies);

And in the 90’s we had Yugoslavia and Rwanda. And Somalia. Oh… And Haiti… and, late on, East Timor… And Sierra Leone! None of them defined as Humanitarian Inteventions under international Law – but by the end of the decade, after Rwanda, Interventions being made nonetheless… Sierra Leone, East Timor notable not only for their success but, more importantly, their relative anonymity: these Interventions were carried out simply because they should be – there was little or no Real-politik self interest motivating them.

These Interventions were what defined the concept of “Liberal Intervention” – and the context was, of course, the carnage in Rwanda and Bosnia during the 90’s, when it was supposed to be the “End of History”…

All of which was long before Iraq, before Afghanistan, before 9/11 – and probably best described in Tony Blair’s 1999 speech in Chicago. Which I presume you’ve seen/read?

There is a difference between Liberal Intervention and your legal definition of Humanitarian Intervention and it’s a crucial one: Your “Humaniarian Intervention” ends the moment enough balance is restored that one side cannot completely extinguish the other. Liberal Intervention, however, is underpinned by a commitment to the institutions and security that allow the people of said nation to have some say/influence in the future of their own sovereign nation.

After all, what is the point of intervening on behalf of the people without ensuring that the people are free to choose their future? Much easier to let them all kill each other viz Congo/Liberia etc…

But you know all this. You know very well that Norm’s right to point out that the dumping of “liberal Intervention” effectively means “We’re not getting involved in nothing…” You’re just ignoring it.

Or maybe it’s you who is in denial? Maybe you simply cannot acknowledge that your “legal” Humanitarian Intervention is a fantasy. An ideal that will never be tested for the same reasons it HAS never been tested: no one will ever agree on what constitues an outrage and even if they did, one could never be sure that Intervention will make things better in the long-term. It’s a comfort-blanket you seem to cling to, simply to justify and explain these lofty denunciations of Liberal Interventionism…

Neither Iraq or Adghanistan were Liberal Interventions in concept or initial practice. They were driven by US National Security interests – some of which were shared by the Western world. But both EVOLVED into Liberal Interventions (badly excuted) – a simple fact easily grasped when you look at, say, Iraq’s constitution… THIS is in effect the debate at the moment. Westerners no longer want to support the majority of Afghan people who support the liberal Intervention.

And it’s a GOOD thing that these wars evolved into Liberal Interventions. The alternative is rather horrible. Isn’t it? Installing puppets? Wait for them to be torn down? Carpet bomb the militant camps? The US could have gone the easy option both times. Instead, at huge cost, with zero short term profit and little long term guarantees, the US has presided over the first multi-party, multi-ethnic, Arab democracy – the most “free” nation in the entire region apart from Israel. A Shia nation, in power and democratic, – Any wonder the Iranian people are taking to the streets?

You say Blair used Liberal Intervention to justify the Iraq war. What sophistry! He was always clear about the legal casus belli (WMD, UN resolutions) for war, and how Humanitarian grounds had no legal basis. Blair’s constant reiteration of the doctrine of Liberal Intervention was pressurising the US who had no such docrtine and had, in the past, ridiculed it.

You behave now as if it were Liberal Interventionism that laid the frame work for war?

As I wrote on the thread below – In the absence of Liberal Interventionism what remains? Nothing but invisible drones raining down destruction from above; a population doomed to perpetual war with each other and great powers on the other side of the world.

You chose to ignore that point and attack me in a paranoid and very grand manner..

Get this straight, Conor. I have the highest respect for you and what you do. Your commitment to Human Rights and to Humanity is without question: not merely by your words but by your ACTIONS.

However, for whatever reasons, you’ve decided that your real enemies are those who believe in mostly the same things you do, who want the same things you do. It’s bizarre and perverse that you should be at odds with Norm Geras and DavidT. It’s as though you hold Liberal Interventionism responsible for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the subsequent mistakes and horrors – when you know very well that the US could just as easily have handed control to the Northern alliance or some Iraqi Puppet and never bothered once their immediate National Security interests were satisfied.

Look at Sunny, who regularly campaigns for the Nato mission in Afghanisan on the basis that the Taliban are horrific and will inevitably destabilise South Asia. Liberal Interventionism, no? Or what?

You’re very touchy about being characterised as someone who would ignore Genocide etc… Fair enough… I’ve seen the shit you’ve copped on Harry’s Place.

However, it cuts both ways. You want to hold Liberal Interventionists responsible for the carnage of the Taliban and Sunni “resistance” in Iraq.

C’est la meme chose…

Phomesy: your first substantive paragraph is simply wrong.

You are mixing up the legal provisions of the Genocide Convention with the doctrine of humanitarian intervention and the ongoing discussions about R2P. They are three quite separate issues and the fact that you (and Norm) keep running them together is why you have such problems understanding this debate.

The doctrine of humanitarian intervention has indeed been evoked many times by one country when invading another – and you cover some of the debates that have taken place around it (you could add in the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991 and the Russian military action in Georgia last year). If you want to have a more rounded discussion about it you also need to cover the debates about the crime of aggression currently taking place within the ICC working group in the run-up to the review conference next year. I will probably write something about that in the next couple of weeks.

The term which has no definition in international law is liberal intervention which seems to mean whatever whoever is using it wants it to mean at that particular time. What my article observes is that Norm has used it in very different ways at very different times.

You are using it here to say that it means that after country A has invaded country B it should stick around and do the reconstruction work. If that is how you want to define it, fair enough, but it is more usually debated in reference to the initial justification for the invasion itself. That is the bit where I have an issue with Norm and David, which is because they supported the invasion of Iraq and I was opposed to it.

My orginal post noted that the term had become discredited because of its association with the failed foreign policy of Blair and that humanitarians were keen to see the back of it because it had confused the debate which we would like to see continued about humanitarian interventions, the crime of aggression and R2P. Even if the debate on R2P goes nowhere (which is looking increasingly likely) the other two grounds in which military intervention can still be legally justified (self-defence and UN Chapter VII authorisation) will still remain so the type of operations which you mention are will continue in the future. There are now more UNSC authorised interventions taking place in the world than ever before and the US invasion of Afghanistan was perfectly legally justified in response to the armed attack it suffered on 11 September. Norm is simply wrong if he thinks that the discrediting of the notion of liberal intervention changes any of this.

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