The War of the Liberals
Rieff's chief exemplar of the humanitarian left is Samantha Power, whom he takes to be "emblematic of the historic compromise between the human rights movement and the American empire." Her book "A Problem From Hell" is "a breviary for this new military humanism." In it she "has made the case for legal imperialism more elegantly and fastidiously than any other advocate on the American scene today."
According to Rieff, Power wraps herself in the "antiseptic sheets" of international law, not admitting that her ideals can be defended only if the American empire expands unilaterally, without excessive regard for international law. In his own words: "For activists to now, after a decade of calling for the US to unleash its power, lament the demise of multilateralism and regimes of international law is grotesque and unseemly." Here Rieff makes an interesting point: If you call for a war crimes tribunal you are implicitly calling for invasion and conquest, for there is no "Nuremberg-style justice without a Nuremberg-style military occupation." From this reasonable premise he concludes, more contentiously, that liberals who both advocate human rights and distrust the military imperialism of a conservative, arrogant and secretive Administration are morally incoherent. After all: "These human rights regimes will be imposed by force of arms or they will not be imposed at all, and it is disingenuous of a human rights movement that, wittingly or unwittingly over the course of the 1990s, set the moral table for the new imperial mood in America, to suddenly recoil from the Bush administration Captain Reynault-style because, shock, horror, they're unilateralist, Bible-thumping, gun-loving, anti-civil liberties reactionaries." Neoconservatives like Robert Kagan and Max Boot are much more clearheaded than Power, Rieff concludes. They sleep perfectly soundly after running with the hounds.
One might have thought that Rieff's attitude toward the humanitarian left would mellow as he became disenchanted with America's imperialist project. But that is not what we find here. He dissociates himself further from Kagan and Boot, of course. But in this collection, at least, he reserves his most biting criticisms, again, for Samantha Power, this time for her "hubristic altruism," which he interprets as an invitation to endless do-gooder wars. She wants to pledge America to righting the world's wrongs, he claims, but she does not realize that this unleashing of self-righteous violence will end up corrupting the would-be saviors of mankind. An uncompromising absolutist, she is "on the same millenarian kick as the administration," inadvertently corroborating the good-versus-evil simplicities that excited and misled Bush in his bungled response to 9/11. And arguments like hers, he suggests, have provided "a recipe for a recapitulation in the twenty-first century of the horrors of nineteen-century colonialism."
After lambasting the humanitarian left first for its legalism and then for its millenarianism, Rieff launches a third line of attack. He explains that Power, Michael Ignatieff, Aryeh Neier, Kenneth Roth and other human rights activists ended up objecting to the Iraq War only because of their East Coast snobbery. They would have favored the war, or supported it much longer, if Clinton had launched it, because their "real objections" to the invasion were "aesthetic rather than political." Bush is simply too uncouth to follow into battle, even against an appalling violator of human rights. Their antiwar sentiments, therefore, were mostly an expression of elitist bias and a "loathsome... narcissism of small differences." This passage may seem intemperate. But it illustrates the emotional depth of Rieff's alienation from the human rights community, whose imagined influence on US foreign policy he evidently regrets.
Why Rieff chooses to pick this particular fight remains obscure, however. He sometimes attacks human rights militants for willing the end without willing the means. They want to prevent genocide, but they do not feel comfortable handing a blank check to the US military, particularly under Bush's control, to fight oppression abroad. I suppose someone could clobber Power and the others with this sort of objection. But it cannot be Rieff, whose book is basically a defense of this very stance.
Rieff's scorn for "the vacillations of the humanitarian left" seems unbalanced, in truth, because he is such a flagrant vacillator himself. He criticizes action and nonaction, imperialism and anti-imperialism, hope and hopelessness, taking sides and neutrality, too much caution and too little caution. And he assumes these contrary stances simultaneously, not sequentially. He blames liberals for addressing effects, not causes, and at the same time advocates a modest approach to the world's woes, alleviating wrongs rather than righting them, which boils down to addressing effects rather than causes. With one eye trained on Rwanda and the other on Falluja, he can neither renounce nor embrace "the selective recolonization of the world." He identifies wholeheartedly with "the victims" and then feels sick when he sees how easily victims become perpetrators. He aims to be skeptical but not paralyzed, even though he recognizes that militant anti-utopianism will demoralize well-meaning reformers.
Although he excoriates the humanitarian left for its incapacity to make up its mind, Rieff cannot decide what he thinks about humanitarian intervention. He confesses it quite explicitly: "I am of two minds." He does not like the Iraq War, but he cannot bring himself to criticize those who called for military intervention in Bosnia and Rwanda on moral grounds. And even about Iraq, his stance is hard to pin down. In these pages [see "No Exit Strategy," August 1] he recently berated Larry Diamond and others for criticizing the execution of the war rather than denouncing the war itself. But in this book, composed earlier, he catalogues all the usual failures of execution, especially the unforgivable neglect of policing after the regime fell and the arrogant refusal to take advantage of available expertise, domestic and foreign, that could have improved the performance of the occupying power. The disaster was not fated. Opportunities were squandered. No serious planning was undertaken for the post-conflict phase. Thus, the calamity in Iraq is "a self-inflicted wound, a morass of our own making." In other words, under better management, things could have turned out much better than they did.