Iraq was not Rwanda: how difficult is that to grasp?


1:14 am - October 9th 2009

by Conor Foley    


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Norm is usually quite sharp and succinct in comments, but his post here is on the wordy side.

Norm said in his first post that he used the terms ‘liberal intervention’ and ‘humanitarian intervention’ interchangeably. I pointed out they are quite obviously not the same thing, but those who had set out to confuse them (unintentionally or not) had damaged the cause of humanitarianism.

In his latest post Norm argues that the two terms ‘overlap’ which I agree with; but that was not his original statement. Oranges and apples are not interchangeable things and nor are cats and dogs – although both can be categorised together under different and more general terms. There is a certain ‘overlap’ between the actions involved in stroking a child and the actions involved in slapping one, but there are also good reasons why we distinguish between them as well.

My post noted that while the term ‘humanitarian intervention’ has a fairly widely understood meaning, based in international law, the term ‘liberal intervention’ is less well-defined and seems to be used by different people at different times to mean different things.

I noted that the meaning which Norm himself gave to the term seemed to have varied on occasions and described that – perhaps cruelly – as a ‘flip-flop.’ Norm has not replied to any of the substance of that argument, but has instead accused me of describing his views as ‘arbitrary’ or ‘eccentric’, which I don’t.

The rest of Norm’s post really only amounts to him saying that other people have also linked the concepts of liberal and humanitarian intervention together – which was my original point.

Aid workers and human rights practitioners are most aware of this because we see many horrific humanitarian crises close-up and we know how much damage this linkage and muddle has caused. This is not an abstract academic debate as anyone who has been following the situation in Sri Lanka should know. Gareth Evans, the former head of the International Crisis Group, and chief architect of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine has referred to Blair as a ‘false friend’ of the concept on the same grounds.

Norm starts his post with the following sentence:

It’s a simple logical point, the very simplest: if you say that a certain doctrine – call it ‘liberal interventionism’ – should be dumped in the nearest skip, and if you also believe that military intervention to stop genocide is, in certain circumstances, a justified policy, it better not be the case that the doctrine of liberal interventionism includes the proposition that military intervention to stop genocide is, in certain circumstances, a justified policy.

Unfortunately, for Norm he then goes onto to quote Jonathan Powell who rather demolishes the rest of his argument.

The British government has used the doctrine of humanitarian intervention to justify military action in other countries on two occasions that I am aware of: in 1991 for the safe havens in Northern Iraq and in 1999 for NATO’s action in Kosovo. However, it did not use this argument to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003 because, as Powell put it, ‘the lawyers said there was no legal basis for proceeding on those grounds’.

Powell’s article is billed as ‘an impassioned defence of liberal interventionism’, which it certainly is. But he does not use the term ‘humanitarian intervention’ in this context because he knows that they can’t be used interchangeably.

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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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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Foreign affairs ,Realpolitik

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Reader comments


Just to note that Norm’s “simple logical point” is completely incorrect.

2. organic cheeseboard

did he ever actually teach logic? that’s really poor stuff.

I think Norm really, honestly doesn’t understand that waving the Great Waggy Finger of Tut-Tut at people while simultaneously deploying the Chewbacca defence is just crap strategy. I mean, it’s condescending and fairly insulting as well, but the weirdest part is surely that he’s obviously not much arsed whether any LibCon readers are convinced by his argument.

I can also detect traces of the famous Kamm’s Gimlet rhetorical technique in action there, now that I come to think of it – I think Norm will fight you to the grave on this point, regardless of how many innocent bystanders have to die of boredom as collateral damage.

In short Conor, you’re onto a loser here. Trying to get Norm to admit to a logical or (heaven forfend!) moral error is like trying to convince a blue whale to swim head-first up its own arse.

(On your wider point, it’s been obvious for years that Norm’s versions of “liberal” and “humanitarian intervention” are not only interchangeable, but are also synonymous with “whatever Norm says they mean today”. Funnily enough, the Professor himself doesn’t see it that way, but chacun a son gout).

‘The British government has used the doctrine of humanitarian intervention to justify military action in other countries on two occasions that I am aware of: in 1991 for the safe havens in Northern Iraq and in 1999 for NATO’s action in Kosovo.’

The language of humanitarian intervention was much used in parliament (by both parties) about the 2000 intervention in Sierra Leone. See http://www.wsws.org/articles/2000/may2000/sier-m12.shtml

Thanks Paul for the link. It is an interesting summary of what happened there.

Sierra Leone would not qualify as a ‘humanitarian intervention’ because British forces were there at the invitation of the legtimate government and in support of a UN-authorized operation. It is still interesting to be reminded of some of the legal discussions that obviously went on about their mandate and ‘mission creep’, etc. though. I remember some of the discussions with Clare Short and Robin Cook’s office at the time.

Sorry to be droning on about this issue for so long (I am still planning another post on it). But I think it is important to explain what a train-wreck Labour’s foreign policy became under Blair (and how many of my friends and colleagues got killed as a result). Norm is actually doing us a favour by setting this out in such detail.

Sierra Leone would not qualify as a ‘humanitarian intervention’ because British forces were there at the invitation of the legtimate government and in support of a UN-authorized operation.

I think that’s a bit of a legalistic distinction: so was Iraq, for 99% of the duration of the fighting, including all the high-casualty period when western public perception shifted form ‘successful’ to ‘failed’. And so is Afghanistan, where success is hardly guaranteed. After all, the Russian ‘invasion’ of Afghanistan was impeccably legal in those terms, but hardly ended well for anyone involved.

I think the relevant point is that success or failure is mainly based on military factors, at least for a wide enough definition of military. So you can’t really coherently use military failures to make a legal point.

I know you would place Afghanistan and Sierra Leone in one bucket, and Iraq and Kosovo in another. But I don’t think splitting things up that way is either useful or persuasive.

Soru: I think that if you want to discuss military interventions in the round then you have to look at them holistically. If you want to categorise them according to certain criteria, though, then you have to spell out what criteria you are using.

Iraq and Afghanistan can (broadly) be put into one category – which is where there was a military intervention on political/strategic grounds (Iraq’s supposed possession of WMD and its certain possession of large amounts of oil and Afghanistan as the base of Al Qaeda who carried out the 9/11 attacks). The two can also be distinguished from one another in a wide variety of ways; one of which being that the invasion of Iraq was illegal, while the intervention in Afghanistan was perfectly lawful.

Sierra Leone and Kosovo can also be categorised together as interventions which were primarily motivated by the perceived humanitarian situation in the countries at the time. They can also be distinguished from one another on the issue of the legality, which in the case of Sierra Leone is very clear, but is much less so in the case of Kosovo. A case can be made that Kosovo was justified by the doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and people who want to make that case need to argue that it passed the generally accepted criteria which are held to justify them (threshold of violence, exhaustion of other options, right authorising body, reasonable grounds for thinking that it would make things better rather than worse, etc.)

That leads into a whole other discussion about the practicalities of interventions: mandates, resources, political context, etc. Most of my book on humanitarian interventionism focusses on those points and it is also something that I have written a lot about for the Guardian and elsewhere. However, if Norm wants to pick a fight with me about my supposed ‘confusion’ on the subject of legal authority for interventions or claim that I am failing to acknowledge his ‘simple logical point’ about why he has mixed up his terminology, then I am happy to debate this with him at quite considerable length.

Conor: I pretty much agree with you on that. What I disagree with is the people who are agreeing with you…

Most of them seem to be thinking very differently, much more along the lines of splitting things up into the two options:

1. deploy UK forces abroad where they get shot at.
2. don’t

I think that’s the reality you are going to have to deal with if you want to claim the backing of the public mood for your views. Which is where this discussion started.

Logic would appear to have been one of the casualties of the invasion of Iraq.

Soru: can you be more precise about who you’re referring to?

Soru: yes, I think the invasion of Iraq (and the basic failure of the mission to Afghanistan) have seriously weakened British public support for future military interventions abroad. I find that frustrating because I can think of certain circumstances where such interventions might indeed be justifiable on humanitarian grounds. I think that is part of the legacy that supporters of the invasion have to live with. My original comment was an agreement with the factual basis of Jonathan Friedland’s assessment of the mood within the British Labour party – followed by my own reflections on how this had come about.

For some reason Norm took this as a personal affront (admittedly some of the comments beneath my post criticised him) although my point was a more general one about why those who supported the notion of ‘liberal intervention’ seemed incapable of engaging in the real arguments about real-life situations. I had been thinking in fairly general terms about the series of speeches that Blair gave on the subject (where he deliberately tried to confuse the issues), the vary bad discussion of them by much of the mainstream media (Nick Cohen, obviously, but more serious commenters like Timothy Garton Ash, etc.) and the way that the Save Darfur Coalition had campaigned on that particular crisis.

What I find strange about Norm, Nick Cohen and the more brainless idiots at Harry’s Place is the curious combination of condescension and invective with which they put forward their arguments and yet how ill-informed and removed they are from the actual issues.

Norm has co-authored a manifesto calling for the reform of international law governing humanitarian interventions and yet he clearly is not on top of the legal discussion about its basic terms.

Nick advocates sending troops and aid workers into conflict situations and regularly denounces those who urge caution in particular circumstances (Darfur and Burma come to mind) as ‘not caring enough’ about the suffering of civilians (in fact he accused the organisation that I was working for in Uganda as being ‘complicit in mass murder’ and said that reconstruction workers were not taking a sufficient number of risks with their own lives in Afghanistan).

Harry’s Place has at least one above the line contributor, Habibi, who thinks that it is funny to make jokes about aid workers being attacked in Afghanistan (this particular aid worker as it happens). Presumably these are intelligent and aware people, but I just can’t understand why they don’t see (or care) how offensive they are being and why they are so widely and generally hated.

If there is anything about “liberal” that is not simultaneously humanitarian, then is liberal something we can justify wanting anything to do with?

If they’re not the same thing, then I want a humanitarian conspiracy, not a liberal one.

Conor

I’m more interested in what you have to say in subsequent posts about how best humanitarian intervention of the type you provide can ‘interface’ with military intervention (if at all) than I am about Norm’s intellectual failings.

Perhaps we need simply to back away from the current terminology, if it confuses issues, and especially if it legitimises in any way what we used to call realpolitik/geopolitical interventions, get back to the basic tenets of what any intervention of any kind might be for e.g. saving lives and providing basic needs, and then working out how to do it best.

Perhaps we might then call it simply ‘ethical foreign policy’. Oh no, hold on…..

Thanks Paul: I agree that the nuts and bolts is more interesting – I just wish that we could bury the confusion that the invention of this constantly shifting term ‘liberal intervention’ has caused. For what it is worth, my most recent thoughts on Afghanistan are here in a piece that I did for Crooked Timber

http://crookedtimber.org/2009/08/27/afghanistan/

The seminar I refer to was organised by Viva Rio and I wrote a couple of pieces for the Guardian Cif about it at the time. The links to that are fairly easy to find.

I think the discussion has really moved on to regionalism and south-south cooperation, which is very much in vogue in diplomatic circles right now, but does actually make a lot of sense. If I can find a link to a piece that Norm wrote about this I will post it up.

If there is anything about “liberal” that is not simultaneously humanitarian, then is liberal something we can justify wanting anything to do with?

Reasonable working definitions:

humanitarian intervention: successful if the humanitarian situation improves (e.g. measured death rate goes down: lot of devil in this detail).

liberal intervention: successful if those most affected consent (e.g. by voting in a government that asks for military support: devils lurk here too).

They naturally tend to overlap, but there are definitely cases that are one and not the other, both in justification and outcome.

The interesting fact about Iraq is of all the possible grounds it could be evaluated on (including economic and security), the liberal one was the one least heard beforehand in justification, and the only criteria on which it isn’t a clear failure.

Soru: yes the ICRC are very good on this. Because they are mandated by international law (the Geneva conventions) they are very clear about what they will and will do and will and will not say. Michael Ignatieff was very critical of their failure to speak out more forcefully on women’s rights during the Taliban era in Afghanistan and there are lots of interesting debates to be had on that issue.

It is a rather different discussion to the issue of miltary interventions on humanitarian or liberal grounds, but it does affect the distribution of aid in certain circumstances.

A humanitarian would presumably say ‘I will remain absolutely politically neutral in order to save lives’ while a liberal would say ‘I am motivated by certain values which I will do my upmost to promote’. You can be both a liberal and humanitarian at the same time (I consider myself to be one), but there are conditions in which you will sometimes need to choose between the two concepts. Prof Mary Anderson has written a lot about this. I discuss one situation in Afghanistan where we faced a dilemma about women’s rights, which Michael Williams picked up on here

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/oct/26/humanrights-internationalaidanddevelopment

Norm and some others give their characteristically-reasoned responses below

http://www.robshorrock.me.uk/archive/2008/10/

http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2008/10/human-rights-and-upper-middle-class-preferences.html

Thanks for all those links, Conor. I’ll have a look.

Declaration of interest: my wife worked in the Tanzanian border camps in the aftermath of the genocide (I was doing development stuff further south) and we pretty obviously feel pretty strongly about the way millions of lives were wasted).

Just for completeness, here’s my exploratory views on a) Sri Lanka http://www.bickerstafferecord.org.uk/?p=1097 b) DRC Congo http://www.bickerstafferecord.org.uk/?p=326 in both of which I argue (somewhat tentatively) for massively increased resources to regional authorities/powers e.g to Tanzania.

Good luck to you.

Billy. It is stupid comments like that which give some grist to the mill of Normblog and Harry’s Place. Normally, I don’t bother to respond because it is just not worth the effort.

There are diamonds in Sierra Leone and there was a conflict there (in fact the conflict was partly about the diamonds) which resulted in a British military intervention (to support both the democratic government and the UN mission).

If you have got any evidence that Cherie Blair has any financial interest in this put it forward, otherwise you just sound like one of those swivel-eyed conspiracy loons who stalk me at Cif going on about ‘Pipelineistan’.

@ Conor…

have you read paul bermans ‘Terror and Liberalism’, a book which has had a big influence on nick cohens (and the rest of the ‘pro-lib left’ i.e. harrys place, norm geras et al…) views on H. intervention

you can find a critical review by ian bruma below;

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/16211


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  3. poligeek

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  4. John Brissenden

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  5. Liberal Conspiracy

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  6. irene rukerebuka

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  7. poligeek

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  9. John Brissenden

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