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Woodrow Wilson, R.I.P.

The folly of humanitarian military intervention

In recent years, the doctrine of humanitarian military intervention has become especially controversial. Under Bill Clinton, the United States participated in several missions of that type, most notably in the Balkans. Proponents insist that those ventures were legally and morally justified and that the outcomes were generally positive. Critics counter with equal vehemence that humanitarian interventions bear more than a passing resemblance to old-style imperialism, that they often make problems worse rather than better, and that they entangle the United States in murky disputes that have little or no connection to the nation's legitimate security interests.

Wilson's Ghost, by former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and Brown University political scientist James G. Blight, and Waging Modern War, by former NATO supreme commander Gen. Wesley K. Clark, present impassioned cases for an activist U.S. policy in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson. According to this view, the United States has a both moral and strategic interest in taking vigorous action, including the use of military force, to prevent egregious human-rights abuses and to prevent small conflicts from mushrooming into more serious wars. The result, the authors contend, would be a more stable and peaceful world.

Wilson's Ghost provides the more wide-ranging coverage, and makes the more nuanced, conditional case for intervention. McNamara and Blight concede that Wilson's emphasis on "national self-determination" helped unleash one of the more disruptive forces in international affairs during the 20th century. Nevertheless, they insist that Wilson's principal vision--of collective international action to repel aggression--was sound and could have spared humanity the century's subsequent mass slaughters. They believe that the failure to achieve Wilson's vision was an immense tragedy, but they contend that the United States and the rest of the international community have an opportunity to rectify that mistake and realize his dream in the 21st century.

McNamara and Blight argue that the reduction of human carnage throughout the world should be a central objective of U.S. foreign policy. To advance that goal, they present a number of specific proposals, which they tout as new initiatives. In reality, most of the proposals are hoary liberal interventionist panaceas. For example, the authors argue that the United States should undertake military actions only as part of multilateral coalitions--preferably those blessed by the United Nations. The UN itself should be restructured (that is, strengthened) so that it would be more effective in initiating and managing humanitarian interventions. More vigorous efforts should be made to define, deter, and punish war crimes--including a permanent international criminal court. All of these schemes have been around for decades. (McNamara and Blight even trot out the oldest of left-wing peace-movement panaceas: the abolition of nuclear weapons.)

Despite the stale quality of many of the arguments in Wilson's Ghost, the authors do make a few worthwhile observations. For example, they emphasize that a failure to integrate Russia and China into cooperative relations with the other major powers would greatly increase the danger of catastrophic war. And in marked contrast to most other members of the American foreign policy establishment, they acknowledge that U.S. policy is contributing to the alienation of those two countries. They note, for example, that Washington's push for the eastward expansion of NATO has led to a deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations. Most other writers on that topic seem blissfully oblivious to the connection between those two developments. McNamara and Blight justifiably find the state of America's overall relations with Russia and China worrisome. "Russia and China have entered the 21st century full of mistrust of the United States, suspicious that the United States seeks worldwide hegemony to which even the other Great Power s (as the Russians and Chinese regard themselves) are expected to knuckle under."

Yet even on that issue, McNamara and Blight minimize an important point. One of the developments that has most agitated Russia and China is the proliferation of U.S.-led humanitarian military interventions. Those are precisely the kind of missions that the authors would have Washington undertake to an even greater extent. And their emphasis on multilateralism, unless the UN is regarded as the sole legitimate mechanism, would not resolve that problem. Kosovo, after all, was a multilateral (NATO) intervention, and yet it was vehemently opposed by Russia and China.

The central defect in Wilson's Ghost, though, is the naivete of its major proposals. Among the most unrealistic of these is the author's support for the abolition of nuclear weapons. A world in which two countries (India and Pakistan) have recently joined the nuclear-weapons club is not going to renounce such weapons anytime soon. Indeed, the trend appears to be toward more proliferation, not less.

The authors' other proposals are scarcely more practical. Moreover, even if they were enacted, many of them would have pernicious effects. The emphasis on undertaking only multilateral interventions is especially wrongheaded. Under the McNamara-Blight approach, the United States would be precluded from taking unilateral action in a case where its legitimate security interests were at risk, while it would be drawn into innumerable disputes that had nothing to do with those interests merely to fulfill abstract obligations to the "international community."

The authors do acknowledge that not all conflicts are amenable to solution through outside intervention, and they warn of potential "moral blind alleys." Nevertheless, their logic would result in a hyperactivist policy with considerable U.S. risk exposure. The American republic was not created so that would-be architects of global peace could sacrifice the blood and treasure of the American people on crusades around the world. That fundamental moral point seems to elude McNamara and Blight.

The doctrine articulated in Wilson's Ghost inevitably leads to the conflicts illustrated in Gen. Wesley Claric's Waging Modern War. In this long, rambling, and tedious book, we get Clark's account of the NATO military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. As NATO's commander, Clark directed the 1999 air war against Yugoslavia that was intended to compel that country to relinquish control over its restive, predominantly Albanian province of Kosovo. Earlier, he had been the lead military negotiator for the Dayton Accords that ended the civil war in Bosnia.

The book is irritating on numerous levels. Clark has written it in a "chatty" style replete with lengthy purported quotes from conversations he held with a multitude of U.S. and European military leaders and politicians. Assuming the general was not tape-recording all of his conversations, the accuracy of such "quotes"--reconstructed months after the actual events--is obviously open to question. Since such passages are frequently used to show the wisdom of Wesley Clark and the intellectual limitations of those people (including some in the Pentagon) who had misgivings about the course charted by Clark and his boss in the White House, the validity of that literary device is especially suspect.

But Clark's handling of the substantive issues is worse. His version of the extraordinarily complex politics accompanying the breakup of Yugoslavia is so oversimplified as to verge on caricature. Clark sees Serb nationalism, and especially Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, as the root of all the violence in the Balkans. One gets little or no sense of the often nefarious role played by nationalists in other ethnic groups. But Serb nationalism was merely one factor among many in the tragedy. The underlying problem is pervasive ethnic group-identity politics combined with a zero-sum-game mentality. The Serbs were hardly alone in pursuing the goal of establishing a larger, ethnically pure state.

Clark's exceedingly brief treatment of the latter episode illustrates the extent of his intellectual blinders. "The KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] was formally disbanded, but the hard feelings from the war lingered on. Some of the Albanians retained their weapons and a thirst for revenge." Attributing the systematic ethnic cleansing of Kosovo's non-Albanian inhabitants (including Gypsies, Montenegrins, Bulgarians, and Jews, as well as Serbs) to "hard feelings" and a "thirst for revenge" is historical revisionism at its worst. It ignores a mountain of evidence that the KLA, from its inception in the mid-1990s, has had as its primary goal the creation of an ethnically pure Greater Albania. Thanks to NATO's military intervention, it is well on its way to achieving that objective. According to UN statistics, nearly a quarter of a million refugees--some two-thirds of Kosovo's prewar non-Albanian population--have fled the province, and most of the remainder are in a handful of heavily guarded enclaves.

All three factions in Bosnia--Muslims, Croats, and Serbs--practiced ethnic cleansing whenever they had the power to do so, and the Albanian nationalists in Kosovo have been busily expelling non-Albanians right under NATO's institutional nose.

Yet Clark has no doubt that the war was justified and that the outcome was, on the whole, beneficial. He shows little patience with those critics who point out that the Belgrade regime's large-scale expulsion of Albanian Kosovars did not commence until NATO launched its air war. Clark sneers at such reasoning, "as though NATO should have taken into account the potential Serb reaction to the air strikes, even if the Serb reaction was illegal and immoral." That, he contends, "was a little like blaming policemen carrying arms for the fact that criminals use guns." His rebuttal is pure sophistry. It is hardly unreasonable to expect that, if NATO was intent on intervening in an already volatile civil war, the Alliance should have considered the possibility that its actions might make matters even worse.

The most troubling aspect of Waging Modern War is the author's smug advocacy of what he and other proponents of humanitarian military intervention term "coercive diplomacy." Clark praises the Kosovo operation as an example of that form of warfare. "What we fought in the Kosovo campaign was a limited war; limited means--limited objectives. It was coercive diplomacy, the use of armed forces to impose the political will of the NATO nations...." In the most fundamental sense, that trivializes warfare. The violence and destruction of war--especially the loss of life--is bad enough even when the cause is compelling and the use of force cannot be avoided. It is much worse when the cause is meager and other options are readily available. "Coercive diplomacy" is merely a euphemism for waging unjustified wars.

There is little doubt that Clark hopes that the United States and its NATO allies will engage in coercive diplomacy in the future. Indeed, his principal complaint is that the Alliance waited too long to act in the cases of Bosnia and Kosovo. He asserts that "the key lesson must be that nations and alliances should move early to deal with crises while they are still ambiguous and can be dealt with more easily, for delay raises both the costs and the risks. Early action is the objective to which statesmen and military leaders should aspire."

On that point, Clark is clearly in agreement with McNamara and Blight. The underlying assumption of both Wilson's Ghost and Waging Modern War is that early intervention by the United States and other "peace loving" nations will stifle embryonic conflicts and thereby make the world a safer and more peaceful place. It is an appealing but ultimately faulty assumption. Bitter quarrels and armed conflicts have always been a regrettable part of the international landscape. In the post--Cold War decade alone, there have been literally dozens of bloody struggles in various parts of the world. The causes of those disputes are typically complex and intractable. If the United States insists on interfering in such conflicts, it will risk incurring perpetual war in the name of trying to secure perpetual peace.

America can and should avoid going down that path. America is likely to become involved in war only when the U.S. government chooses to become involved. But in a democratic republic, government has a fiduciary responsibility not to risk the lives of its citizens except for compelling reasons. And contrary to the authors of Wilson's Ghost and Waging Modern War, attempting to prevent parochial conflicts in remote regions of the world does not constitute a compelling reason.

Indeed, their blueprint for humanitarian intervention and coercive diplomacy reflects what the Nobel Laureate economist F.A. Hayek aptly described as a "fatal conceit." In economics, the fatal conceit takes the form of government economic planning--the belief that legions of bureaucrats can control a dynamic, ever-changing economy. In foreign policy, the fatal conceit is the belief that well-meaning governments can micromanage complex disputes and impose absolute order on a fractious international system.

The foreign policy version is worse than its economic counterpart. True, the latter leads to stagnant economies and material suffering. But the former produces new wars and exacerbates existing ones. If America is to enjoy an era of peace in the 21st century and not be dragged into an endless array of irrelevant conflicts, it is imperative that the fatal conceit embodied in Wilson's Ghost and Waging Modern War be emphatically rejected.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author or editor of many books on international affairs, including, most recently, NATO Enters the 21st Century (Frank (ass & Co.).
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Title Annotation:2 new books
Author:Carpenter, Ted Galen
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2001
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