Humanitarian, All Too Humanitarian

Humanitarian, All Too Humanitarian

Masses of people driven from their homes, murdered, maimed, raped, sent into panicked flight.


Masses of people driven from their homes, murdered, maimed, raped, sent into panicked flight. Towns and villages burned to the ground, their inhabitants slaughtered and heaped in unmarked graves. From the Turkish massacre of Armenians to the evening news from Kosovo, these are indelible images of what the poet Elizabeth Bishop called “our worst century so far.”

I know a lot of liberals, good people, some of them dear friends, who support the NATO bombing of Serbia–more than favored the Gulf War, which was by no means as unpopular as you might have expected, given that its purpose was to restore a feudal monarchy. Of the people I know who oppose the bombing, some favor ground troops instead: “We” (that is, soldiers, other people, not ourselves) should march on Belgrade, depose Milosevic and cure Serbians of their “war psychosis” through a firm but beneficent occupation like that which remade Germany and Japan after World War II. In the press, Blaine Harden, Thomas Friedman and Daniel Goldhagen have made versions of this argument. In the New York Times Magazine, Susan Sontag argued that the war is just and passionately denounces the lukewarm Europeans, but at the same time she also says that the war’s goals–“stop the genocide. Return all refugees to their homes”–are “not going to happen.” If that’s true, why are we in Kosovo? Surely not to make a useless gesture?

I think Milosevic is an evil dictator who, along with Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman, has destroyed the former Yugoslavia. I can’t believe some of the stuff flying around the Internet portraying Serbia as some sort of socialist state, valiantly waving the red flag at the imperialist West. It’s the flip side of the standard journalistic view of “the Serbs” as nationalistic demons, still smarting over fourteenth-century defeats. But if, as Sontag rightly worries, Milosevic doesn’t care how many civilians are killed, and if, as seems to be generally agreed, the bombing is only increasing his hold on power, isn’t the NATO bombing worse than futile–isn’t it counterproductive? The Gulf War was also popularly thought to be about “getting” an evil dictator, whose position was never seriously threatened by the war and who is still in control, despite sanctions that have destroyed Iraq’s economy and caused the deaths of thousands upon thousands of ordinary people through disease and malnutrition–despite, indeed, ongoing US bombings, which now and then rate a short paragraph on a slow news day. What’s humanitarian about any of that?

When I suggest that the United States rides to the (theoretical) rescue in a capricious fashion–strictly hands off in Rwanda and Chechnya, for example–and that this fitful attention to supposedly universal human rights should arouse suspicion, I’m answered with quips: That was then, this is now. Two wrongs don’t make a right. But how likely is it that the United States has suddenly awakened to moral realities of which it was ignorant when it was supporting the Mobutu regime in Zaire, financing the contras in Nicaragua, supporting the Khmer Rouge’s claim to be the rightful government of Cambodia, backing Indonesia’s brutal occupation of East Timor, arming the Afghan mujahedeen and, through Pakistan, the Taliban? People argue that Kosovo has a geopolitical importance that Rwanda (or Uganda or Sierra Leone) lacks, and maybe that’s true, although it works against the humanitarian argument, which it is often cited to strengthen, and it makes America’s Somalian intervention even more bewildering. But if you look at our government’s role in places where it does claim an interest–Central and South America, for example–it’s not a very humanitarian story. In March President Clinton formally apologized for the CIA’s participation in the genocide of 200,000 Mayan peasants and other extreme human rights abuses committed by the Guatemalan government from 1960 to 1996. That’s a lot of burned villages, a lot of unmarked graves.

The humanitarian warriors argue that the end of the cold war has initiated a new era, in which the United States, a k a NATO or “the West,” can–must–enforce a new international standard of decency. That (contras, death squads, dictators, kleptocrats) was then; this (democracy, human rights, respect for borders) is now. This strikes me as a fantasy. The realpolitik considerations may have changed with the fall of the Berlin wall, but realpolitik still explains why we support the Kurds in Iraq but not in Turkey, boycott Cuba but not China, bomb Sudan and Afghanistan to ferret out Osama bin Laden but not to prevent the Sudanese government from conducting a nightmarish war against the non-Islamic south, or to keep the Taliban from instituting perhaps the most repressive and backward regime in the entire world. How can one take seriously the Clinton Administration’s humanitarian claims when the United States refuses to sign the anti-landmine treaty, continues to make and sell mines and is using cluster bombs in Serbia? The end of the cold war has not meant that the United States has finally undertaken the rebuilding of Vietnam promised by Kissinger, or discharged its moral debt to Laos, a country upon which it dropped more bombs than were dropped on Germany in all of World War II, or to Cambodia, for whose ongoing wretchedness we bear a great deal of blame. It hasn’t even meant that Nicaragua received the development dollars we hinted would flow its way if the Sandinistas were voted out.

As for the Kosovar Albanians? Humanitarian bombing might have sounded high-minded and clever, but it’s been even more of a disaster for them than for the Serbs. Given how events are turning out, it would have made more sense to skip the war and invite them to come here and drive taxis. That’s what the lucky ones will end up doing anyway.

* * *

Littleton and Kosovo: Only connect… “An essay in which Eric Harris portrayed himself as a shotgun shell prompted the same teacher to have a…talk with his father, Wayne Harris. Once the teacher learned that Mr. Harris was a retired Air Force officer and that his son hoped to enlist in the military, she concluded that the essay was consistent with his future career aspirations.
      —New York Times, May 11

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