NYPLAn 1877 cartoon depicting William Gladstone

The most troubling fact about international politics in the nineteenth century is not that moral appeals to save suffering humanity were absent but that they were commonplace. The British, who led the international campaign to end the slave trade, and then slavery, abused that credential by tirelessly citing their national moral superiority as a justification for imperial rule–including invasion and expansion. The crimes of savage peoples and backward states had to be stopped, and the British–self-styled agents of humane values–were the ones to do it. "Nations which are still barbarous," even liberal John Stuart Mill explained, "have not got beyond the period during which it is likely to be for their benefit that they should be conquered and held in subjection by foreigners." Among many other expressions of enlightened humanitarianism, such rhetoric justified numerous "small wars" in the hinterlands, where the civilizing constraints on armed conflict that Europeans had developed for their contests were neither suspended nor disobeyed because they did not apply in the first place. As Lytton Strachey might have put it, the history of Victorian humanitarianism will never be written: we know too much about it.

Gary Bass thinks otherwise. In Freedom's Battle, he claims that the European nineteenth century is a precious and neglected resource for anyone who wants to champion human rights in contemporary politics, especially when atrocities take place in distant lands, provided that the suffering is accurately depicted by a free and disinterested press and armed intervention is the only alternative to standing idly by while evildoers slaughter the innocent. Bass recovers a few early cases of humanitarian intervention he considers legitimate in order to supply today's humanitarians with a noble tradition that can be invoked to defend themselves against conservative realists, leftist anti-imperialists and academic nitpickers who doubt the virtues of "humanitarian intervention."

To his credit, Bass is aware of the long and sordid history in the West, going back to the European discovery of the New World and intensifying in the nineteenth century, of false claims to care about foreign evil and human suffering–and co-optations of true claims to false ends. Surveying the decidedly mixed history of intervention a century ago in the first English-language treatise on the subject, Ellery Stowell admitted that only a few invocations of humanity passed the straight-face test, since they typically featured high-minded rhetoric masking low-minded imperialism. "In this polite age," he wrote, "conquest is usually effected [through] war proclaimed to have been undertaken in defense of international law rights." The most notorious humanitarian imperialist of the polite age, probably, was King Leopold of Belgium, who took the gift of the Congo from the great powers, promising to eliminate vile slavery and bring civilization, then turned the country into his private extraction ranch and a nest of untold cruelty. Bass knows that Victorian humanitarianism often exported to foreign lands the savagery it purported to be banishing from them. He simply asks the reader to bracket such contradictions at the outset and see if anything noble is left to be salvaged; he wants us to acknowledge the generally tainted nature of nineteenth-century humanitarianism and move on. "There were some important episodes even in a horribly imperialistic age," he writes. "There were, and are, real universalists."

The cornerstones of Bass's argument are accounts of British outrage about Ottoman repression in Greece in the 1820s and in Bulgaria in the 1870s. Bass's main protagonists are Lord Byron and William Gladstone, cast as a selfless activist and a selfless politician, respectively. Byron agitated for Greek freedom fighters under the Muslim yoke, which became especially oppressive in a bloodbath on the island of Chios. Besides exciting an enthusiastic international fan club by relaying the Greek cries for help ("For foreign arms and aid they fondly sigh," he wrote in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage), Byron traveled to war and died a Romantic hero's death. Fifty years later, and out of office after a lost election, Gladstone staged what turned into a political comeback by drafting a heated denunciation of the savage Ottoman repression of Bulgarian nationalists and then pressuring Britain's conservative government to stop it, ultimately riding popular emotion all the way to a second term as prime minister. In both cases, intervention eventually led to local independence, at least for a while. Bass complements these British set pieces with accounts of the French expedition to Syria in the 1860s to save Christians from local depredations and Ottoman misrule, and international concern about the oppression of Armenians, once again at Ottoman hands, during the lead-up to World War I, when it became genocide.

Bass's accounts of these events are well crafted, tacked down by vivid turns of phrase plucked from the prose of eminent Victorians. One of the most revealing of his rhetorical devices is to make the Ottoman massacres sound a lot like the Holocaust, though the former were, in the nineteenth century, more "ordinary" counterinsurgencies against territorially based bids for secession–themselves violent in their methods–in which the West took sides. Bass amusingly names the repression of the Greeks "A Problem from Hellas," a riff on the title of Samantha Power's well-known book about genocide, "A Problem From Hell", and he makes sure to convey that people at the time thought "immediate and total annihilation" was occurring, and that there was a grim plan "to extirpate systematically a whole community." He even finds Gladstone proclaiming, "Never again."

The "atrocitarian" cause may touch our hearts, but can cherry-picked cases really win over our minds about nineteenth-century do-goodery? It's a question worth asking, since Bass, after admitting he has bracketed much evidence that contradicts his heroic presentation of these episodes, goes on to champion them anyway. And whatever evidence of impure motives or mixed causes he does introduce, he excuses. Of course the Victorians were arrogant, Bass readily admits, and given their imperial consciousness, it may be that they wanted to soften their hegemony with some humanitarianism. But establishing hegemony through political influence, culture and markets is different from running an empire, he explains, and once in a while Europeans forswore formal rule. The most remarkable feature of Freedom's Battle is that its author is constantly apologizing for the very heroes he claims he can surgically extract from the compromising circumstances of their times. In a pamphlet denouncing the Bulgarian atrocities, Gladstone offered a farrago of Christianity and racism, Bass records. These facts make Gladstone's words "an unlikely kind of Magna Carta for the human rights movement," he concedes, but he treats it as one all the same, as if writing history were about skimming the dross off the parts you like.

Some vital roots of humanitarianism are left unexcavated in Freedom's Battle, and they reach back to the Protestant revolution of sentiment in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The revolution began when Protestant divines started to emphasize the importance of good works and the feelings of pity on which they were based. The idea was that while the project of reforming the world in a Christian spirit could not directly compel God to elect you, it would prepare Christian communities for salvation and demonstrate to God their eligibility for it. The key ingredient of this revolution was sympathy, the capacity to identify with the suffering of others, which enabled charitable practices to be built on an interior emotional and spiritual foundation.

In eighteenth-century Britain, this revolution sparked an explosion of compassion in intellectual circles and popular culture. Partly secularized in the so-called sentimentalist philosophy of David Hume and Adam Smith and in the sentimental novels of Samuel Richardson and Laurence Sterne, the new emotional code became an established fixture among European and even American elites by the turn of the nineteenth century. "Nature hath implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct, in short, which prompts us irresistibly to feel and to succor their distresses," Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to Thomas Law in 1814. Bill Clinton was not the first president of the United States to feel your pain.

Bass associates such modern fellow-feeling with liberal solidarity, but the proposition is dubious, unless liberalism is defined in a historically careful way. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, sympathy was usually a manifestation not of egalitarian solidarity with downtrodden strangers but of noblesse oblige. As the literary historian Lynn Festa has shown, humanitarianism established in the imagination powerful hierarchical relationships between the compassionate and the suffering, and worked in tandem with imperial and market expansion. There is more than a trace of these origins in Bass's suggestion that atrocities basically happen elsewhere, and in distant lands, with the result that great powers (which is to say, advanced countries) will never lose their assigned role of guarding against the ever threatening scandal of barbarity. "Massacres turn out to be the regular way of the world," Bass writes. Bloodbaths occurred in "remote places like Greece and Bulgaria" a century ago, and they crop up in "some far-off corner of the globe" today. If you printed it on a bumper sticker, the slogan would be: Stop the Violence–Over There.

As it became a political ethos, guiding a vast array of private activities as well as state action (sometimes military), sentimental humanitarianism fell prey to four interlocking syndromes. First, sentimentalism promoted a culture of sensationalism. "The roots of British interventionism lay in Printing-House Square," Bass says. True, but so did the roots of a lot of other things. As activists churned out stories and pictures of suffering for their middle-class publics, they invited the charge that their daily accounts of outrage abroad merely excited readers instead of goading them to action. Sometimes the inundation of the public sphere with narratives and pictures of corporal violence had quite counterintuitive results: one of the first diagnosed sadists in history was a man who found the humanitarian depiction of tortured slaves sexually exciting.

Accentuating the positive, Bass contends that there is a lawlike correlation–at least in a liberal state–between press coverage, meaningful compassion and beneficent intervention. Remarkably, Bass sidesteps the important debate about the effects of the representation of suffering in words and pictures; he doesn't grapple at all with the question of whether the daily repetition of sensationalist content can cause "compassion fatigue." Bass's case studies inadvertently illustrate that journalistic coverage of humanitarian crises abroad may have trafficked in self-congratulatory rhetoric and racist stereotypes, but he doesn't account for these shortcomings in his highly idealized portrait of the media. To do so would have wrecked his hypothesis that free states with a free press are by nature well positioned to promote humanity abroad.

The second syndrome is that humanitarians have been drawn in by the spectacle of blood, with the structural causes of the violence, and the consequences of intervention, exciting less emotion. Humanitarianism has not opposed suffering universally; most often, it has fastened on extravagant bodily violation and pain. Again, the Christian roots of modern pity–with Jesus' Passion setting the terms of emotional identification–are clear here. For this reason, torture, slavery, atrocity and (more recently) rape have gotten humanitarian attention. Then as now, humanitarianism ended up revealing explosive spectacles of suffering at the price of concealing their political, social and cultural conditions, including Western involvement in it. Vivid imagery beamed from far away–like stories sent by telegraph in an earlier era–leaves the misleading impression that you aren't already there. Victorians weren't troubled by such dilemmas because they assumed that peoples of other cultures, or colors, were simply prone to inhumanity. We are not Victorians, yet Bass seems uninterested in why the "way of the world," with all its inequalities in suffering, was the way it was–and why it is the way it is. All of Bass's showcase episodes are more the prisoner of this syndrome than they are analyses of it: they begin with sketchy political background, then turn to the main event of "the massacre" in order to reach the point of necessary aid.

Third, sentimentalism was profoundly selective, not just in the kinds of problems it targeted but also in the types of people who deserved pity. Sometimes concern about distant atrocities screened out the suffering of those closer to home. In a chapter of Bleak House called "Telescopic Philanthropy," Charles Dickens writes about a prim humanitarian named Mrs. Jellyby, who decries distant suffering to the skies while remaining oblivious to the family chaos under her roof. Similarly, when premier humanitarian Florence Nightingale broke the hearts of the British with her appeal to help suffering soldiers during the Crimean War (at least, those on their side), a skeptic asked, "If the veil had been lifted up here [in London] from the last two months of cholera and the whole truth had been told about the sufferings of the poor in their ill-provided dwellings a picture far more harrowing even than that from Constantinople might easily have been drawn. But cui bono?" Of course, helping one person always involves ignoring another, but neither in humanitarianism until recently nor in Bass's book is the itinerary to the latest massacre compared with the road not taken.

Even within the domain of foreign policy and high politics, humanitarian identification happened selectively, as Bass can't help but show. Though all of his case studies are about Christians beset by Muslims (and Druse, in the case of Syria), Bass circles round in the end to implying that there was no tight correlation between Christianity and compassion during the nineteenth century. His argument loses its moorings, however, as he struggles with the impossible (and self-imposed) mission of bracketing Gladstone's Christian vision of the world order. Given the considerable evidence his book provides that the Christian identity of the victims mattered to humanitarians, the few other cases Bass can cite are the proverbial exceptions that confirm the rule. He insists that the cause of British identification with the Greeks was not their Christianity but some sense of connection between the Greek origins of Western civilization and the present Greek cause, as if this argument made the identification less selective. By and large, atrocities in the nineteenth century were other people's atrocities. This makes it an odd period to get excited about. In the end it is confusing why Bass takes Victorian solicitude for humanity so seriously when his book proves Victorians never saw humanity beyond the fringes of Europe–except, of course, when they proclaimed the need to bring European civilization there.

Finally, sentimentalist politics–including humanitarian intervention–can be profoundly myopic. No one can doubt that it speaks well of humanitarian activists in a post-Holocaust era that they call for the defense of the innocent abroad against outrageous treatment. Usually, however, Western statesmen who advocate for intervention to combat atrocity are embroiled in a more complicated game, as Bass often stresses. In the nineteenth century, the game was the famous "Eastern question," and its prize, not always formal, of course, was control of the Ottoman borderlands. Often, things are more complex on the ground, even when (as in Darfur today) local struggle is so lopsided that counterinsurgency slides into genocide. Sentimentalism, which teaches you to see "humanity," often obscures a knottier politics of nationality or ethnicity. It has become a regular occurrence that after powerful outsiders intervene to restrain killing, the victims typically angle not for universal rights but for local power grabs. Indeed, in an important long dispatch from Kosovo published in July in the London Review of Books, Jeremy Harding suggests that the diminishment of the West's sentimental investment in Kosovo, combined with local dynamics and festering grievances, have practically guaranteed that political parochialism, along with economic stagnation, poverty and graft, will prevail there. Bass's case studies show that the plight of the suffering couldn't be separated from overarching imperial rivalries and awakening national sentiments, but tellingly, his stories tail off after the atrocity is put down. In sum, humanitarian myopia screens out a lot of local dynamics from a crisis, the better to wade into it with heartfelt compassion but deplorable ignorance.

None of these syndromes seem real when you are in their grip. Humanitarians are often tempted–Bass certainly is–to believe that anyone doubtful about their politics is simply lazy or immoral. He claims that liberals are the only ones who really care about the suffering, and that progressives who worry about the global ramifications of humanitarian causes as well as the local dynamics of an intervention and its potential political impact end up closely resembling conservatives who argue for noninterventionist restraint. "Realism," Bass writes, "aligns with radical leftism." But critics and skeptics who highlight the shortcomings of humanitarianism may have more suffering, not less, in their sights.

As a history written after the fall of Communism, Bass's tale neglects perhaps the most important point about humanitarianism, which is that there have been many alternative versions of it. Through the twentieth century, indeed, it was not liberal but leftist humanitarianism that appealed to the "wretched of the earth," who have typically been suspicious of Western "solidarity," and for good reason. But my point is not that what the suffering have desired is obviously more plausible. It is the more disquieting possibility that humanitarianism, while universal in its rhetoric, has always turned out to be a specific political project in practice. If this interferes with the search for a glorious tradition, perhaps the search makes no sense. All the same, nineteenth-century history teaches that many people desired a version of humanitarianism beyond the form they knew.

And we should sympathize, for we have not even begun to think about how to save compassion from its perversions. Ultimately, the deep past provides little guidance in thinking about how to reform humanitarianism, except for the all-important starting point of its syndromes. For his part, Bass brackets and qualifies suspect motives in order to make the balance sheet work out, and he is comfortable with a humanitarianism that was and remains the creature of great-power politics, with all that entails. Moralizing the great powers, as Bass wants to do, risks glamorizing them. If humanitarian moralizing does not go further, and simply accepts the way of the world that makes humanitarianism necessary, then it is bound to be unconvincing: a spoonful of idealistic sugar will not make the medicine of power go down.

But perhaps it is wrong to read Freedom's Battle as a study of the nineteenth century, since a closer look suggests it is really about the last decade of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first. Like Samantha Power, Bass started out his career as a journalist activated, after the rise of Holocaust memory, by the outbreak of atrocities in the Balkans in the 1990s. He is now a trained political scientist, and he is officially concerned with combating what in his discipline is called realism, with Benjamin Disraeli, Gladstone's nemesis, taking the place of Henry Kissinger. But the animating spirit of Bass's book is not so much any professional agenda as it is the desire to vindicate the model of moral engagement of its author's youth–and of a whole generation. The model is one in which, when idealistic activism succeeds, The New Republic begs for defense of the suffering, and Bill Clinton (eventually) responds. As an apologia pro vita sua, Bass's book is intended to vindicate those who burn with moral passion and believe that they selflessly want only to protect innocents from slaughter, even to the point that they need to pressure a powerful state to bring itself (and its armies) to bear. Humanitarians "just want to resist atrocity," Bass maintains.

Only six years ago, more than a few liberal hawks were impressed enough by that model to invoke it as a rationale for invading Iraq and destroying Saddam's rape rooms and torture chambers (to use the rhetoric of the day). Some humanitarian defenders of the Iraq aggression, having soiled their reputations by mistakenly depicting it as "freedom's battle," have simply apologized–as Michael Ignatieff did in 2007 in an embarrassingly vacuous piece in The New York Times Magazine. Bass's position is that he was never fooled into believing Iraq counted as a humanitarian cause. "The promotion of human rights was a side benefit," he explains. ("It weighed more heavily in the minds of some of the war's backers," he admits.) In other words, Bass insists that if you choose your humanitarian causes wisely, and really mean to help, there won't be anything to be sorry about.

You will, of course, have to tread carefully, and Bass claims that the nineteenth century is helpful here, too, for policy wonks boning up for the next humanitarian mission. It shows, he claims, "how the practice of humanitarian intervention can be managed." Briefly, you only think about intervening when you know you won't ignite a tinderbox; then you make sure to forge a multilateral consensus and do everything you can to avoid the appearance of ulterior motives; finally, you get out as soon as possible.

The first part of the prescription involves a healthy incorporation of realism, leading to the paradoxical consequence that Bass advocates intervention only for those victims whose executioners are not powerful enough to repel or complicate a humanitarian mission, or who are not protected by those powerful enough to do so. Bass shies away from proclaiming the "responsibility to protect," which seemed, a few short years ago, to be the emerging norm of the humanitarian ethos; here he illustrates, once again, that he advocates a moralist's tweak to great-power cynicism rather than a full-scale alternative to it. The clearest example of the prescription's multilateral element is Bass's case study of the French-initiated intervention in Syria in 1860: Maronite Christians joined a civil war against their Druse neighbors; the Ottomans, who sided with the Druse (many Muslims joined in the killing), failed to put the lid back on the crisis. When the French public went berserk, demanding intervention after local Christians and their missionaries died, the British stayed calm. With their greater liberalism and freer press, Bass explains, the British could see this conflict in more evenhanded terms. But after some hesitation, the British did play a role, especially in the diplomacy of the intervention, and they prevented the French from treating the cause of humanity as a pretext for a land grab.

As interesting as the case is, it feels like instrumental history. It's not just that Bass's other cases don't work as well. During the 1990s, when Samantha Power and others treated multilateralism as a recipe for inaction, the implication was that the United States might need to act alone, without the sanction of the UN, to stop atrocities, a view Power codified in 2003 in "A Problem From Hell". Power's recent biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, Chasing the Flame, now extols multilateralism as a device of legitimacy. Bass's history reflects this learning, with the nineteenth century presented as an era when the great powers struck the right balance between multilateral consent and unilateral leadership. But one is left with the question of why history matters if the lessons you call on it to teach simply affirm the policy wisdom you actually reached by living through disaster.

What has clearly survived the Iraq debacle is belief not just in anyone's leadership but in the United States' especially. When Bass surveys American history, he exempts the country from the purely European practice of pursuing empire in the name of humanity. He even labels the tail end of the late nineteenth century, when the United States began nibbling at Spain's old imperial possessions (much the way Europeans had done with the Ottoman fringes), a "period of imperial temptation" only. Is this remotely plausible? Either way, it's clear that Americans have shown themselves since that time to be quick studies in Victorian rhetoric: "We unsheathed the sword…in the name of humanity," as Senator (and future President) Warren Harding described the Cuban invasion of 1898 in retrospect, "and we gave proof to the world at that time of an unselfish nation." In his chapters on the United States, however, Bass chooses to fault the country only with the sin of inaction, saddled as it was by politicians, from John Quincy Adams to Woodrow Wilson, who failed to act on the humanitarian solidarity that the country's constitutional liberalism and free press should have required, at least according to Bass's theory.

Even if you think the problem is inaction, you have to treat the risks of calls for humanitarian intervention as seriously as you do the complacency you allege in those who do not sign up. It's misleading to reduce the ethos of humanitarian intervention to the mission in Iraq, but that does not mean they were entirely unrelated. Echoing a point made by Stephen Holmes in these pages (see "The War of the Liberals," November 14, 2005), Bass points out that Saddam would have been taken down even if many humanitarians had not joined the call for blood–which they certainly did. Even so, their support contributed to the public legitimacy of America's war at a crucial moment, and for a depressingly long time. As much as humanitarian collusion in the Iraq debacle, the use of compassion as a language of international politics, which exploded during the 1990s, is in dire need of re-examination. You may protest that you meant well when you unsheathed the sword. But the sword is double-edged, never more so than when someone who lacks your good intentions gets to swing it.