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Nov. 5, 2008

Vol. 109, No. 4


Never again?

As Gary Bass shows, debates over humanitarian intervention aren’t new

By Christopher Shea ’91
Published in the November 5, 2008, issue

Joseph Adolphe

(This is a corrected version of an article that appeared in the Nov. 5, 2008, issue of PAW.) 
Ninety or so juniors looked down
at Gary Bass as he took the podium in Dodds Auditorium, in Robertson Hall, on a Monday in September. His job, following some quick remarks from Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, was to welcome the latest class of “Woody Woo tools,” as he warmly referred to them, into the fraternity of hard-core wonkdom.

“This is your building, this is your house, this is your architectural monstrosity,” he said of Princeton’s policy fortress. Bass’ light touch and his relative youth — he’s 39 — are two reasons Slaughter tapped him to be the faculty chairman for the undergraduate program. “We really like having you here,” he said. “It livens the place up. Left to our own devices, we are all pretty dreary.”

But the droll, blue-suited associate professor also made some serious points. He suggested, for instance, that the eager students ought to remember the role of luck in their lives: However hard they’d worked, whatever they’d overcome, they’d been born into circumstances where they could flourish. “There is, in fact, somebody who is just as smart, just as talented as you, who is right now contracting malaria somewhere in Zambia or who is sitting in a refugee camp in Darfur,” Bass said, without mawkishness. “There is some obligation — not an unlimited obligation, but some obligation — to give something back.”

Bass’ new book, Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention, is about obligation, too — but at the level of states, not individuals. With it, Bass, whose previous book explored the history of war-crimes tribunals, wades into one of the most contentious debates in foreign-policy circles: When should the United States use military might to protect threatened civilians abroad?

It’s been observed that “Never again,” the pledge uttered in the wake of the Holocaust, has been interpreted with cruel narrowness by Western diplomats fearful of the costs of intervention: Never again will the world permit a genocide against the Jews in the middle of Europe. But other states, other peoples? In Rwanda, members of the Hutu tribe killed some 800,000 Tutsis in 1994, as Western diplomats fled. The Khmer Rouge killed 2 million Cambodians before Vietnam intervened to unseat Pol Pot’s regime in 1979; U.S. officials protested the Communist intervention more than the mass murder.

Always a contentious issue, humanitarian intervention is an area in which ideological labels have been scrambled. After the Cold War ended, and Yugoslavia began to fracture, it was mostly liberals — so-called humanitarian hawks — who led the charge for intervention to protect civilian populations, first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo. The United States, European powers, and the United Nations dithered as Serbian thugs slaughtered 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica (some 200,000 civilians overall died in the conflict), but the Clinton administration was finally roused, brokering a peace deal in 1995 and, with the U.N., enforcing it.

During the debate over Bosnia, foreign-policy “realists” — who believe that humanitarian intervention can cause more problems than it solves — ultimately lost the argument. But it was with the bombing of Serbian sites in 1999, conducted to protect the Kosovar Albanians, that the realists went apoplectic. Unlike independent Bosnia, Kosovo still was a province of Serbia, and President Clinton acted without congressional approval. In response, Henry Kissinger decried the “abrupt abandonment of the concept of national sovereignty” and “the advent of a new style of foreign policy driven by domestic politics and the invocation of universal moralistic slogans.”

Condoleezza Rice wrote a now-famous piece for Foreign Affairs in 2000 arguing that the United States had sent its military on too many humanitarian adventures, and that — cue irony — the U.S. Army ought not to be involved in nation-building. Sept. 11 and the Iraq war upended that philosophy. While the Bush administration seldom framed the war as a humanitarian intervention, others did. In a glowing review of Freedom’s Battle in the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs, the acerbic journalist Christopher Hitchens writes that a fatal contradiction occurs “every time someone who wants to leave, say, a Saddam Hussein alone is rash enough to wonder out loud what should be done about Darfur.” Disillusioned by the Iraq war, many leftists now sound a lot like realists, wary of “going abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” in John Quincy Adams’ words.

Enter Bass, who argues that
humanitarian intervention was around long before Bill Clinton. To shed light on our current situation, he offers three chief instances from the 1800s in which European powers debated ferociously about whether to intervene to stop horrific massacres — and in two cases, did so. The first is the support in the 1820s of British “philhellenes” for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. The philhellenes — the most glamorous of whom was the poet Lord Byron — were appalled by atrocities committed by Turks against the Greeks. The episode ended with British ships joining with French and Russian vessels to smash a Turkish fleet, in the Battle of Navarino.

The second case is France’s incursion into Syria, in 1860–61, to curb bloody clashes between Christian Maronites and Druze (who practice a variant of Islam). And the third is the great debate in England, in the 1870s, between William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, over whether to intervene against the Ottomans after thousands of Bulgarians were killed in a town called Batak. The liberal Gladstone, a former prime minister, roared out of political semiretirement to ignite a national fury with a pamphlet titled “The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East,” which cataloged “unutterably vile” atrocities and argued that “human sympathy refuses to be confined by the rules ... of international law.” Gladstone lost the argument, but in 1880 he toppled Disraeli’s government, in part because he could paint Disraeli as heartless during the Bulgarian affair.

“Rediscovering this long history,” Bass writes, “levels the playing field in present-day debates between human-rights advocates and more conservative realists, rather than leaving realists dominant as the exponents of traditional statecraft.” Sovereignty, he says, was not nearly as sacred in the 19th century as Kissinger and his intellectual allies make it out to be. And Bass argues that the interventions he explores were not simply imperial bids for power. Indeed, Britain, in Greece, worked directly against its imperial interests by fighting the Ottoman Empire, Bass suggests. The English viewed the Ottomans as offering a crucial counterweight against Russia; anything that hurt the Ottomans helped Moscow.

In an enthusiastic review of the book in Slate, Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, places her friend Bass squarely in the humanitarian hawk camp. Indeed, he does sound hawkish at times. “In proper historical context,” he writes, “all liberals are asking is for the United States, the E.U., and the other major democracies to shoulder as much responsibility as Britain did as long ago as 1827.” Yet in an interview in his office in Bendheim Hall, Bass sounds more cautious than that label might imply.

“I think humanitarian intervention is a necessary evil,” he says. “There are going to be extreme cases in which nothing but military force is going to stop a genocide. But it is not something that you jump into without thinking about the consequences.” He then rattles off, realist-style, the risks of intervention — “that by seeming to take a side, you encourage that side to become more belligerent, that you spark great-power rivalries, that you stir up local resentments, that you try to impose yourself as a governing authority over people that you don’t really understand, that you can actually bring great powers into direct conflict. Those are all genuine risks, and people who want to wave the flag for the human-rights movement have to take those into account.”

Gary Jonathan Bass was born in Boston but grew up in Toronto, where he attended public school before moving on to Harvard, remaining there for his graduate studies. Canadians have a tradition of arguing that human rights should play a part in foreign policy, but at Har-vard, he says, “I was at first a totally cynical realist. It was all about power politics.

“Sophomore year I took a course on ethics in foreign affairs from Stanley Hoffmann,” he says, “and I realized I was wrong about everything.”

Like Bass, Hoffmann — an éminence grise in European political studies — comes from a humanistic tradition in political science that is fading as more and more scholars take up game theory and other mathematical imports from economics. Hoffmann recalls, “There was this young man in the course who would come up to me after every class to object to this or that — particularly if the subject was Israel.” On that issue, they did not share the same views: Hoffmann remembers that he was skeptical of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians while his student found him too skeptical, “but I thought this was an extraordinary young man.” Bass ended up asking Hoffmann to supervise his thesis, which was on French policy toward the Middle East.

Between college and graduate school, Bass spent a year at The New Republic and flirted with journalism as a profession, reporting for The Economist. But he stayed on the academic path. The Bosnian war was raging, the West was vacillating, and Bass was in search of a fresh way to write about the moral issues at stake. “By 1994, it wasn’t news that the Clinton administration was letting Bosnians die,” Bass points out. “But it was news that there was a war-crimes tribunal, a quite weak and underfunded one, and that raised lots of its own issues. Why were the same Western countries that were so enthusiastic about Nuremberg now pretty indifferent about prosecuting war crimes in the former Yugoslavia?”

He wrote a dissertation that later grew into Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals. The book traced the development of such tribunals from Napoleon’s imprisonment on St. Helena, through debates over whether and how to try German leaders after World War I, on to Nuremberg and The Hague. War-crimes tribunals had a decidedly mixed legacy, Bass concluded: Despite the claims of some advocates, the threat of prosecution appeared not to discourage atrocities. Nevertheless, they had value in laying down standards of acceptable behavior and providing an undeniable record of atrocities.

“Until Gary wrote this book,” says Jack Snyder, a professor of political science at Columbia, “the subject was really in the hands of activists who wanted to promote international criminal trials. He opened the path to those of us who wanted to write on the subject of an explanatory, causal, social-science perspective.” In his own writings, Snyder is more pessimistic than Bass about the value of such tribunals. Surveys that Snyder helped conduct of Serbian attitudes toward war-criminal prosecutions, for example, suggest that Serbs who favor tribunals do so not because they believe they are fair or just (they don’t), but because they represent the price Serbia must pay to get aid from Western Europe. Snyder doubts the trials are doing much to spread moral ideals.

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