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A group of Bengalis in the countryside

Never have humanitarian interventionists been more visible in public life. Never have they been more embattled. In September, the martial drum beat had hardly faded from the air when the president’s foreign policy triumvirate—John Kerry, Samantha Power and Susan Rice—learned that they would be denied their splendid little strike against Syria. The public was against it. Congress was poised to vote it down. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff thought it was dangerous. It took the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, to concoct a way out of the impasse. Suddenly, Obama, Putin and Assad were tiptoeing around the vaunted “red line,” back toward a political settlement. There followed a spectacle of soul-searching among the humanitarians, which took the form of denial, doubling down and despair. Power claimed that everything was still going according to plan: “Threat of US action finally brought Russia to the table,” she confided to the world in a tweet. In The New York Times, Michael Ignatieff reminded liberals of their duty to support humanitarian interventions, even if they had been lied to about them in the past. From his corner at The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier threw in the towel. “Comrades, we have lost,” he sighed. “The only achievement of the Obama administration in the Syrian crisis so far has been to eliminate the humanitarian motive from American foreign policy.”

The Blood Telegram
Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide.
By Gary Bass.
Buy this book

A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh.
By Srinath Raghavan.
Buy this book

About the Author

Thomas Meaney
Thomas Meaney, a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia University, is co-editor of The Utopian.

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This was self-pity dressed up as insight. Humanitarian interventions are not about to perish from the earth, but their backers are experiencing an acute crisis of confidence. The humanitarian style of argument, which typically includes a link to a gruesome YouTube video, a litany of past horrors (Rwanda, Srebrenica, Darfur) and a map with a pinpointed target, is no longer as self-evidently persuasive as it once was. Humanitarians were very effective in building their case in the 1990s, when many of them witnessed atrocities firsthand in Bosnia, Kosovo and beyond. Their cause went on to enjoy some apparent successes (Sierra Leone in 2000; Liberia in 2003). More impressive, the interventionists survived a string of failures—in Haiti, Somalia and Iraq. But they have learned curiously little from their day in the sun. They are still fighting intellectual battles that they won twenty years ago, when their principal antagonists were, on the right, foreign policy “realists” who believed the national interest always trumps humanitarian concerns, and on the left, anti-colonialists who saw every humanitarian intervention as a cover for imperial interests. The realists not only lost out to the humanitarians on policy, but their rhetoric was also co-opted. It’s now commonplace to hear humanitarian interventions justified on the basis of “national security” or “long-term US interest” or even—as John Kerry, of all people, recently reminded us—“credibility in the world.” As for the anti-colonialists, they may still make plenty of noise, but their views have never been more blinkered. Only an anti-imperialist trapped in amber could believe that the recent French intervention in Mali, explicitly requested by the government in Bamako, was a neocolonial adventure, or that a US strike against Bashar al-Assad would culminate in Marines hoisting the Stars and Stripes over Mount Qasioun.

No, the most active resistance our humanitarians face today comes not from realists or anti-colonialists, but from a newly articulate breed of pragmatists who often agree with humanitarians about their ends but disagree about their means. Call them Hippocratic humanitarians. Their arguments are marked less by moralism than by political calculation; less by a priori principles than by a consideration of the foreseeable consequences of action; less by a “responsibility to protect” than by a responsibility not to do more harm. The humanitarian impulse has not vanished from American foreign policy—rather, it has split into two camps. Members of those camps disagree about whether or not to arm and train the Syrian rebels, or whether or not Assad must go. The president, who contains multitudes, vacillates between the two sides. Hippocratic humanitarians may not always triumph—or even deserve to triumph—over their interventionist peers, but in the current international climate, their reasoning has carried the day.

* * *

The Princeton politics professor Gary Bass has a strong claim for being the house historian of humanitarian interventionism. This post was formerly filled by Power, whose “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (2002) remains the most popular account of America’s sins of omission when it comes to stopping civil wars, mass slaughter and genocide around the world. In Power’s universe, you are either a voice in the wilderness crying “Genocide!” (Raphael Lemkin, William Proxmire, George McGovern) or a morally inert bystander. Bass, who was Power’s colleague at The Economist when both reported on the Kosovo war, took a marginally more subtle approach in his own history of humanitarianism, Freedom’s Battle (2008). His aim was not only to indict American inaction in the past, but to highlight a noble tradition of humanitarianism to which we could subscribe, stretching back at least to Byron’s and Gladstone’s attempts in the nineteenth century to rescue Greek nationalists and Bulgarian Christians from their Ottoman oppressors. Bass did not deny that British imperial interests vied with humanitarian motives, but he argued that it was possible to isolate those interests from some genuinely positive effects. As a work of history, Freedom’s Battle displayed the limits of aggressively reinstating moralism in our understanding of the past [see Samuel Moyn, “Spectacular Wrongs,” October 13, 2008]. Bass’s consistent reliance on moral judgments in lieu of causal understanding only added to the burdens of his false rhetoric. But as a historical justification for taking action in the present, Freedom’s Battle was catnip for interventionists. Christopher Hitchens, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Ignatieff and Power all lavished it with praise.

Bass’s new book, The Blood Telegram, might at first appear to wander far afield from the usual humanitarian haunts. It tells the story of the murderous campaign by the Pakistani military dictatorship to hold onto its eastern Bengali-speaking province after the country’s first democratic elections in December 1970, when the party from the more populous region of East Pakistan swept the polls and was about to gain a parliamentary majority. The victor, Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League in Dhaka, campaigned on promises of making East Pakistan more autonomous, which meant determining its own trade terms and currency as well as raising its own militia. All of this was too much for the regime in Karachi. Gen. Agha Yahya Khan’s junta and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party balked at being ruled by East Pakistani upstarts. When the citizens of Dhaka staged a mass strike in protest, Yahya dispatched troops to put down the revolt in what became known as Operation Searchlight. Within a year, the Pakistani military had killed hundreds of thousands of its fellow citizens, jailed the Awami leadership, and driven upward of 10 million people, mostly Hindu Bengalis, over the border into India. Faced with one of the greatest refugee crises in world history, Indira Gandhi responded at first by backing the Bengali rebels, the Mukti Bahini, in a drawn-out guerrilla war. In December 1971, the war became conventional when India provoked and easily destroyed Pakistani forces, established Bangladesh as an independent nation-state, and definitively reconfigured the politics of South Asia.

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