The collapse of the bipolar world order, and the profound crises of many post-colonial nation-states in the Middle East, the Balkans, Africa, Central America and Central Asia, have given rise to a range of conflicts and major humanitarian disasters that in turn have fueled a new debate in the US and elsewhere over military intervention. This debate cuts across once familiar political alignments, right and left, and has occupied the major journals of elite policy opinion as well as much of the left media.
This moment of flux should be an opportunity for progressives to influence the debate, but the left itself has not developed a consistent or persuasive approach that adapts the anti-imperialist dimension of independent left politics to the altered circumstances in which we find ourselves. Most of the discussions we have seen in left journals and newsletters have been vague and unsatisfactory: Some stress that great power interventions virtually by definition can serve only the self-aggrandizing economic or political interests of the intervening power; others seem oblivious to the global structures of power and privilege in which crises occur, as if such self-interest were an irrelevant anachronism. (A praiseworthy exception is the December-January issue of Boston Review.)
This special issue of Middle East Report examines intervention — coercive interference by one or more states toward another state — undertaken for humanitarian purposes, i.e., to save lives. (We will take up the other major intervention rationale of non-proliferation in future issues.) We have made a point to solicit the views of people who have had to wrestle in concrete ways with these questions of intervention, and to live with the consequences. There is not a uniformity to their analyses and prescriptions, and some aspects of the intervention debate are not addressed here at all, such as the evolving debate in the UN General Assembly, which reflects in part new thinking of “South” states usually on intervention’s receiving end. There are, though, some shared points of departure that we think begin to offer a framework for understanding the circumstances underlying crises as diverse as Somalia, Bosnia and Iraq.
One of these points of departure can be stated simply as a presumption against military intervention. This presumption does not rest, as it sometimes has in the past, on any principle of inviolable state sovereignty. Rather, it appreciates the extremely limited capacity of military intervention to cope with the underlying causes of a conflict or humanitarian disaster.
A second shared perspective is that humanitarian interventions are seldom the last resorts they claim to be (and should be). There is virtually no case where “all else has failed.” Intervening parties, in fact, have often been complicit in creating the humanitarian emergencies which intervention is now supposed to remedy.
A third and related point is that many of the interventions carried out, attempted or considered have had a primary purpose of preventing movements of oppressed and impoverished peoples across neighboring borders (Kurds into Turkey; Bosnians into Western Europe; Haitians into the US). Humanitarian intervention is thus often the consequence of inhumane immigration and refugee policies. More broadly, humanitarian intervention through the UN seems to have become the cheapest, albeit messy, way for wealthy countries to cope with the most bothersome humanitarian crises.
A fourth shared point is recognition that beneath the many abstractions of the debate are vastly unequal relations of power and privilege. The wealthy states decide whether, when, where and how to intervene, just as they decide to fund in the most miserly manner the UN’s new Department of Humanitarian Affairs, one of the “early warning” preventive mechanisms discussed here by Muhammad Sahnoun.
One could hardly find a better example of the arbitrary and unaccountable character of the intervention prerogative than the Clinton administration’s refusal to endorse, in the wake of the mosque massacre in Hebron, the Palestinian call for an international protection presence in the Occupied Territories. This arbitrariness born of solicitude for the Israeli state stands alongside an arbitrariness of neglect toward, for instance, Sudan (where recent outrages include the early February killing in Omdurman of at least 26 worshipers leaving the mosque of a dissident Islamist group).
The question of intervention remains at bottom a question of political solidarity. UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali correctly articulated the solidarity priorities of the Security Council when he characterized the spate of current interventions as “nothing less than an effort to preserve the foundations of the state system.” For the left, the stance we take in opposing or advocating particular interventions helps define the kind of internationalism we want to construct in what’s left of the 1990s.