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The War of the Liberals | The Nation

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The War of the Liberals

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That David Rieff, too, aims to explore the relation between idealism and power is evident from his very title. But he is a more widely traveled observer of reality than Berman. Having spent years studying what he once called "the political instrumentalization of humanitarianism," Rieff is well poised to help us understand how, in the Iraq War, human rights talk lent an illusory aura of legitimacy to an initially dubious and ultimately ruinous military adventure.

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Stephen Holmes
Stephen Holmes teaches at the New York University School of Law. His most recent book is The Matador's Cape: America's...

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The first half of At the Point of a Gun consists of articles written over the past dozen years about genocide, sundry failings of the UN, Rwanda, Kosovo and liberal imperialism. The second half, to which the first is merely a prelude, is devoted to Iraq. Rieff appends a brief comment to each essay, informing us how his views have or have not evolved in the interim. Although Rieff "began the decade in Sarajevo a convinced interventionist," today he is "no longer an interventionist," having returned from Iraq with grave "doubts about the entire project of humanitarian intervention."

Back in the 1990s Rieff denounced in scorching language "a left that would prefer to see genocide in Bosnia and the mass deportation of the Kosovars rather than strengthen, however marginally, the hegemony of the United States." This accusation was meant to shame liberals into shedding their Vietnam-era distrust of US military actions abroad. At this period, then, Rieff was "at least partly of Wolfowitz's party," favoring "a recolonization of part of the world." He wrote that "liberal imperialism may be the best we are going to do in these callous and sentimental times," adding that "the real task" was not to destroy but rather to "humanize this new imperial order" and to correct its excesses where possible.

Rieff's tenderness, a decade back, for American hegemony arose from the perceived absence of feasible alternatives. Who, if not the United States, could take effective action during humanitarian crises? Certainly not the pitiful UN--a "broken instrument" and "little more than a waste of hope," as he put it. Passivity, servility, conformism, complacency, cowardice and indolence made a mockery of the UN's implicit claim to be "the bureaucratic arm of the world's transcendental values." The Secretariat, because of "its wish not to raise problems, which the Permanent Five prefer to ignore," stood by and watched massacres unfold without even making an effort to publicize or mobilize a response to the horror.

Contributing little to world peace and security, the UN has failed to live up to the hopes of its founders. The best that can be said for it is that it remains "the world's leading humanitarian relief organization," a kind of giant Red Cross. Absent US backing, the UN is unable to enforce the most basic human rights norms. It was almost inevitable, therefore, that the UN would become "a de facto colonial office to US power." As a result, Rieff "could see no other alternative to western military power." He therefore argued, quite forcefully, that "the deployment of US power is to be preferred to the alternatives on offer."

And today? Faced with the "appalling and degrading" conditions in postwar Iraq, where things were "worse than anything I was able to write about it," Rieff has felt compelled to reconsider his advocacy of US-led humanitarian intervention. What he discovered on his visits to Iraq was a collapsed state, not a liberated country. Those who fervently embrace American power, it turns out, are also condemning people to death. Rieff shifts his emphasis, therefore, from the complicity of noninterventionists to the complicity of interventionists. He begins to write persuasively about "the responsibility one has in advocating war when one will have little or no responsibility or say in how it is waged." Idealists who trumpeted a purely humanitarian case for invading Iraq should have known that their benevolent motives were not sufficient to trigger the war and were not going to govern the way the war and the occupation unfolded.

Rieff's analysis is appealing in many ways. But it, too, has a few critical shortcomings. Some of his most debatable claims appear in a chapter titled "The Specter of Imperialism: The Marriage of the Human Rights Left and the New Imperialist Right." Here he argues that "human rights has become, however inconsistently applied, the official ideology of the American empire--something conservatives have understood, even if most activists themselves have not." In the cold war, admittedly, "the American human rights movement collaborated intimately with Washington in its activism within the Soviet empire." But is human rights now, or has it ever been, the ideology of American empire?

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