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First, Do No Harm

This is the most recent item in a debate about humanitarian intervention. Click here to read the previous contributions by Richard JustDavid RieffLeon Wieseltier, and Michael Kazin

In 1940, as the Wehrmacht marched into Paris, Simone Weil wrote in her journal, “[T]his is a great day for the people of Indochina.” The remark is generally greeted with horror, by respectable opinion in Western Europe and North America, anyway, and mocked as an emblematic instance of the European (and by extension, American) self-hatred that the French writer Pascal Bruckner had in mind in his book, The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism. At first glance, even allowing for the fact that Weil’s observation did not impede her from trying to volunteer to fight for the Free French against the Nazis, the scorn heaped upon her by writers like Bruckner seems warranted. Weil was indeed filled with self-hatred, and like the medieval Christian mystics fetishized suffering, writing in Gravity and Grace that it “saves existence.”

But there is a problem with such dismissals: As a matter of historical fact, Weil was also incontrovertibly right. The collapse of the French empire in Indochina made independence possible. Anyone doubting this need only look at the fact that when the Nazis were defeated one of the first things the French did was re-establish their rule, successfully demanding at the Potsdam Conference in 1945 the return of their possessions in Southeast Asia. This was not India, where to Churchill’s discomfiture, by the end of the 1930s, British elite opinion was increasingly coming to the view that independence was inevitable. To the contrary, when a French army under General Leclerc—the same General Leclerc who had been one of France’s great heroes in the fight against Nazism, and whose 2nd Armored Division had liberated Paris in 1944—arrived in Saigon in October, 1945, it was with the intention of definitively crushing the Vietnamese independence movement. It would take nine years of war, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and tens of thousands of French dead, and General Giap’s victory at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, for Vietnam to secure its independence. Had Simone Weil not starved herself to death (whether intentionally or unintentionally is not clear) in Kent in 1943, refusing the extra food she needed because it was more than the official ration for her fellow-citizens in Nazi-occupied France, she would have been within her rights to say that the victory over Nazism was a black day for the people of Indochina.

The questions raised by Weil’s almost obscene historical dispassion—and surely it is the most extreme argument against interest any philosopher has ever advanced, with the possible exception of Nietzsche’s atheism of the abyss—are anything but matters of historical curiosity. The world does not just look different depending on where you are from, what nation, people or tribe (or in many cases, gender) you belong to, your social class, or your faith or the lack of it, it is different. I have chosen to begin with Weil’s example because of its ferocity and the discomfort and unhappiness it must necessarily evoke (I certainly feel it). But the same could be said of practically every great historical conflict with global implications. If you are a Navajo, you would have to be insane not to feel differently about the establishment of the United States than, say, an Italian-American. If you are a South Asian with any historical memory at all, you are hard-pressed to accept the narrative of the conflict between Britain and Japan in World War II as one between good and evil.

This should be obvious. But when liberal internationalists speak about military interventions on human rights or humanitarian grounds, or even about democracy-building or promotion without any use of military means, it seems to me that they too often lose sight of this, or at least fail to take its implications sufficiently into account. One of the most important points Richard Just made in his recent strong, fair-minded, and passionate response on this site to my opposition to liberal interventionism as a matter of principle (rather than simply whether intervention is wise or warranted in a particular instance), is that opponents of interventions in Darfur, or Sierra Leone, or Kosovo, or Burma—obviously, examples abound in this charnel house we call a world—think they know better than the people who are victims of ethnic cleansing, mass atrocity crimes, or genocide. In a Darfuri refugee camp, he says, rightly in my view, people view military intervention to protect them as something devoutly to be wished for.

How can anti-interventionists pay so little heed to the views of the victims? It is a fair question. I would respond first as an American: I do not want my country to be the world’s policeman, even in the most humane sense of that word. It seems to me that assuming this role has been a disaster for the United States. As W. H. Seward said in his eulogy to John Quincy Adams, “democracies are prone to war, and war consumes them.” For make no mistake, these military interventions on humanitarian or human rights grounds are wars, not armed philanthropy. Sorry, the military-industrial complex is no myth. Our power to intervene in Darfur is inextricably linked to other elements of our hegemony, and to the militarization of our society and our economy. Like it or not, support for the former, no matter how high-minded, idealistic, and compassionate (unlike some, I have never doubted the moral sincerity of the liberal interventionists), entails the perpetuation of the latter.

I believe that it is at long last time for us to stand down, and that not to do so is the true existential threat to the American republic. But if we insist on leading, let us lead by example, not by the projection of power, whether hard or soft, just as John Quincy Adams suggested we do in his great Independence Day speech of 1821. In the tradition of Adams, I wish Egyptian, Iranian, Burmese, and, for that matter, Chinese democracy well, but I do not see why the United States has the duty to ‘promote’ it, except, again, by example. It is not so much that I question our good intentions as I do our wisdom. America is a remarkable country in many ways, but I would say that, historically, wisdom has not been our strong suit—and to intervene, above all militarily, without wisdom is a recipe for disaster.

That said, I agree with the liberal interventionists to this extent: There are indeed exceptional cases—limiting cases, to use the old Philosophy 101 term—where an intervention to stop mass killing is practicable and where one should not let a foolish consistency, in Emerson’s famous phrase, trump one’s humanity. Rwanda in 1994 is probably the most clear-cut example of this (I have always been extremely doubtful that the same can be said about Darfur, but that is a debate for another day.) But in my view, the presumption against intervention should be overwhelming, whereas for liberal interventionists, the idea that it is America’s duty to “further the cause of liberalism and human rights,” as Just puts it, inevitably loads the deck in favor of intervention, though not, of course, in every single instance, and by no means necessarily by military means. The liberal interventionists call is a call to the barricades of international justice. Bluntly put, it is a call I think the United States answers at its peril. That peril is called empire.

This time is different, liberal interventionists say. Cecil Rhodes may have said that imperialism was philanthropy plus 5 percent, and we may be citizens of countries with imperial histories (recent ones at that), and our countries may have created and still dominate the current international world order economically, politically, and in the case of the United States, militarily, but imperialism? What has that to do with liberal interventionism? History is bunk, as Henry Ford said, and Cecil Rhodes be damned: This time our intentions really are pure.

Can we really be so sure of our motives? Is the history of humanitarian intervention, which historically has always been justified on human rights and, at times, even public health terms not overwhelmingly one of great powers exerting what at its kindest must be called political hegemony? And is that really so irrelevant? Richard Just has argued in a review in this magazine of Mahmood Mamdani’s recent book on Darfur that the real imperialists are the dictators in Rangoon, Khartoum, or Kigali in the Hutu Power days, not the liberal interventionists. And Just’s point about the true character of these regimes is essential, and, in my view, unarguable.

Where he goes wrong, I think, and badly wrong at that, is in deriving from this the belief that this somehow means the interventionists aren’t also imperialists. The justification for this view is that the victims themselves want us to respond; they want our protection. But which victims? In my earlier column, I tried to make two points: that today’s victims are often yesterday’s or tomorrow’s victimizers; and that, in any case, to speak of victims and victimizers is to leech people of their agency, and their history.

Rwanda, where, in point of fact, I agree with Just that an outside military intervention in 1994 to stop the genocide should have taken place, is a case in point. When I say, with regard to Rwanda, that today’s victims are tomorrow’s victimizers, I am not talking about the fact that when his army defeated and expelled the Hutu power genocidaires, President Kagame established a dictatorship. I imagine most liberal interventionists with any familiarity with the Great Lakes region of Africa would concede the point. What I am talking about is that the new Rwandan government—the government of, yes, the victims—promptly went on to foment a war for resources in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that has led to the deaths of many more people than perished in Rwanda in the genocide (though these were overwhelmingly due to the destruction of infrastructure—medical first and foremost—rather than deaths in combat or massacre of civilians). About this, when you meet with them, the Rwandan officials who rightly claim the moral credit for having halted the genocide of their own people when the world stood by and watched are either blandly indifferent or frankly contemptuous.

If liberal interventionists were consistent, they would have been demanding an intervention against the Kagame regime as it laid waste to Congo with at least as much fervor as it did when it demanded an intervention to stop the genocide of the Rwandan Tutsis, or as many have been demanding with regard to Sudan. It is true that it would be impossible to intervene everywhere. In some places—Tibet, say, or Chechnya—it is impracticable. By contrast, a Congo intervention in the late-'90s was technically feasible. But unlike Rwanda, or Kosovo, or Darfur, Congo did not engage the liberal interventionists politically. And that is what liberal interventionists never seem willing to face.

Intervention is taking a side. It is a political act. Yes it is important to speak of victims. But it is anything but morally dispositive, and no one should fall for the mainstream humanitarian claptrap (the International Committee of the Red Cross and the French section of Doctors Without Borders are honorable exceptions to this tendency) that we outsiders are just seeking to help the victims, and have no other agendas. Bernard Kouchner and the French doctors in Biafra did humanitarian work, but they supported Biafran secession, not just ‘the victims.’ What the U.S. government today wants the aid agencies to do in Afghanistan is contribute to the defeat of the Taliban; it’s hearts and minds redux, nothing less, nothing more, even if the best American aid workers themselves are privately appalled by the situation in which they find themselves. And many of the Darfur activists—Gerard Prunier and Eric Reeves come to mind—were admirably transparent about their support for regime change in Khartoum.

The liberal internationalists say that, difficult though it may be, it is our duty to try to help the victims, and to further democracy and to stand up for human rights. To do anything else is to turn our backs on those who most need our intervention, which is unconscionable. As Richard Just puts it, we must at least try to respond when “severely oppressed people tell us they want our help,” rather than, as he holds anti-interventionists like me would prefer to do, delivering lectures about their “failure to appreciate the odds of unintended consequences or the possibility that they themselves might become ‘tomorrow’s victimizers.’” But it is not a question of lectures but of limits. After Kosovo, after Iraq, after Afghanistan, and, yes, after Darfur, we should recognize just how faulty is our understanding of these places where we would intervene.

Yes, many people in these places want us to intervene (though many people do not—something interventionists rarely acknowledge when they gild their appeals with the moral authority of local wishes). And yes, it also is important to understand what people want from us. But this understanding should not, in and of itself, make intervention a moral imperative.

To come back to Simone Weil’s point, salvation for one group of people can be damnation for another. Is the de facto Kurdish state we secured by overthrowing Saddam worth the de facto ethnic cleansing of the Christian minority and the Yazidis who enjoyed Saddam’s protection and are now the victims of the Kurds and the Shia government in Baghdad? I am not wise enough to say. It depends on whether you’re a Christian or a Kurd, I suppose. But whatever else it is, despite what liberal interventionists say, the moral calculus in Iraq was not clear-cut, and, as a general matter, absolute distinctions between victims and victimizers rarely reflect realities on the ground. Again, of course there should be limiting cases. To exclude them would indeed be immoral. But in the words of the Hippocratic Oath, “First Do No Harm.”

And what has turned me into an anti-interventionist, beyond the moral and economic carnage I believe the American empire has wreaked on the American Republic, that is, is my sense that the interventions of the past two decades have at the very least done as much harm as good, and probably much more. ‘In dreams begin responsibilities,’ wrote Delmore Schwartz. But in my view, it is our democratic dreams themselves that are irresponsible.

David Rieff is the author of eight books including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.

This is the most recent item in a debate about humanitarian intervention. Click here to read the previous contributions by Richard JustDavid RieffLeon Wieseltier, and Michael Kazin