The case for intervention
By Ian Williams
The viciously witty American singer Tom Lehrer once referred to a Christian
Scientist who was opposed to all surgery but could consider a pragmatic
exception as acute appendicitis gnawed at his bowels. And the situation in
Darfur, Sudan, should look like that for many people who have overreacted to
the Iraq invasion.
Being "for" or "against" intervention in the abstract is, frankly, silly. It is
like being for or against surgery. You can oppose punitive amputation of limbs,
be dubious about procedures that do more for profits than patients, but still
be all in favor of operations that have clearly beneficial results, while still
invoking the Hippocratic principle, "Above all do no harm."
However, we can be sure that, faced with the question of genocide in Sudan, far
too many pundits and polemicists on both left and right try to polarize such
serious and complicated questions into binary, for-or-against positions and
derive false syllogisms. "You approved intervention in Kosovo, so you must have
supported the war in Vietnam, and so how can you oppose intervention in Iraq?"
Of course, when China opposes humanitarian intervention it sees Tibet and
Taiwan, and the Russians think Chechnya, but it is difficult to put such
specific exceptions in a resolution.
Those women being raped, the men and women being killed in Sudan may
understandably wonder what all that has to do with their agonies.
The effect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the whole drift of
international humanitarian law since then, has been to establish that
individuals have sovereignty, as well as states. But who decides?
There have always been such problems with humanitarian intervention as a
concept. Nazi Germany invoked it to cover the invasion of Czechoslovakia since
it alleged, with some justice perhaps, that ethnic Germans there were not being
favorably treated. Even imperial Japan invoked Western colonialism as an excuse
for "liberating" Asia.
To prevent such partisan invocation of humanitarianism to justify military
aggression, the Canadian-convened international commission on the
"Responsibility to Protect" three years ago suggested a set of precautionary
principles, which the participants summarized, self-explanatorily, as:
Right intention, that there should not be any hidden agenda.
Last resort, that all other means have been tried.
Proportional means, that you do not destroy the village to save it.
Reasonable prospects, that you have a clear plan and are not just pottering
around to show you are doing something.
Right authority - by which last they meant United Nations authorization.
You will note that the Iraq intervention failed on all counts on this
The sad truth is that thousands of people in Darfur have died, and many more
probably will and at least in part, because of George W Bush's and Tony Blair's
failed adventure in Iraq. Two of the states militarily and logistically best
equipped to intervene in Sudan have in effect ruled themselves out even as
effective advocates of a rescue mission.
It is easy to understand the fears of those who worry where "humanitarian"
interventions end and crusades start since the Bush/Blair excuse machine tried
to blur just such distinctions. Their desperate retrospective humanitarian
excuses for the Iraq invasion were an inverted diplomatic version of "crying
wolf". They shouted "lambs" and behaved like wolves. Who will now believe them
if they shout the same slogans for Sudan?
It is clear that the Sudanese government controls the murderous militia around
Darfur and is every bit as culpable as Slobodan Milosevic was or the
paramilitary murder gangs in the Balkans. But the Sudanese regime learned its
lesson from Milosevic. Express concern. Offer to let in aid workers, and then
impose conditions. If you are in doubt, agree to talk but give the UN the
On the positive side, the world has also learned from Milosevic and from
Rwanda. UN secretary general Kofi Annan and others at the UN are pushing hard
and testing Khartoum's word, progressively stripping away the excuses.
However, even if you accept the need for intervention of some kind in Sudan,
whom would you trust to do it? To continue the medical metaphor, would you call
on Jack the Ripper to carry out the operation? He was by all accounts an expert
anatomist, and had an impressive set of instruments: but both his motivation
and his post-operative care left something to be desired.
For most of the world, Bush has about the same credibility in the healing arts
as the old London-fog night prowler. Not only has the invasion of Iraq raised
the barrier against any serious international consensus for action in Sudan,
too vigorous a push by the US for it would probably stiffen resistance.
One can indeed despair of the Arab world's tolerance for its own rulers'
barbarities. But we have to admit that after the war on Iraq, the treatment of
prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the US's total protection for Israeli
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's pogroms in Gaza, and the xenophobic anti-Muslim
and anti-Arab outbursts in the US, it is hardly surprising that many
governments and their people across the world will cut some slack for any Arab
regime in the face of US "concern" at its behavior.
In the case of Sudan, in particular, there is also former US president Bill
Clinton's botched destruction of the pharmaceuticals factory that demonstrated,
long before September 11, 2001, and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that
"military intelligence" is often an oxymoron.
We often, quite rightly, call the US to account for its expedient abuse of
principles, and there are indeed very solid reasons, from Central America to
East Timor and Iraq, why we should examine very critically any intervention
that the US even hints at. It is indeed a good rule of thumb to doubt
Washington's intentions, but sometimes finer measurements, and indeed nuances,
are called for.
In this case, Iraq notwithstanding, US Secretary of State Colin Powell does
indeed have a point, even if one could suspect that some of the US lobby groups
pushing for action are more zealous in the case of Sudan than they would be if
they could not characterize the perpetrators as "Arabs".
On the other hand, sadly, there is no shortage of countries that will support a
rogue state for reasons of shortsighted or expedient "national interest".
Security Council members Algeria and Pakistan, as representatives of Arab and
Muslim states, not to mention their own state interests and domestic politics,
would find it almost impossible to agree to US-led action against an Arab
League member such as Sudan.
We should not be reassured just because some of the members opposing action
against Sudan also opposed the war in Iraq. France springs to mind, as the
patron of the former Rwandan regime, protector almost up to last moment of the
Serbian ethnic cleansers in Bosnia, the defender of Morocco's occupation and
repression in Western Sahara - and even if former French foreign minister (now
Interior Minister) Dominique de Villepin did make an excellent case against
attacking Iraq - previously a thoroughly expedient defender of French oil
interests in Iraq. As we said, China and Russia all too often try to armor
their domestic behavior behind a cloak of sovereign principle.
As a result of this objective alliance of the expediently supportive and the
expediently opposed, it is sadly almost inconceivable that the Security Council
or the General Assembly would authorize the robust military operation that
would be necessary - or perhaps more usefully, the credible threat of a
military operations, which in many such cases, from the Balkans to Rwanda, is
all that it would have taken to preempt genocide.
Instead, the US's draft resolution is a tokenistic one reminiscent of the worst
days of the Bosnian tragedy in that it pretends to be doing something, but in
reality does nothing. It would mandate sanctions and travel restrictions
against a motley paramilitary band of Sudanese brigands and militia who are
unlikely to have many cosmopolitan world travelers in their ranks. One cannot
help suspecting a gesture designed to cover the Bush administration's backside
against the "if Iraq, why not Sudan" argument that is denting its already
shredded ethical credibility.
So the question of support or opposition for intervention is a genuine
quandary, but it is surely important that we do not let people die in Sudan
just so we can feel vindicated in our stand against interventions. A credible
threat of intervention has to be made soon - but kept within those
The United Nations itself is not designed to conduct robust operations that
could involve serious fighting, which is why it often "franchises" them.
Ideally, the Arab League should act, but it will not. The African Union has
made a start, but it is hopelessly under-resourced, and similar regional
operations in Sierra Leone and Liberia were much-mitigated successes.
It would be good if some of the stronger Asian powers, even if it involved
North Atlantic Treaty Organization and US backup, could get involved, but
Pakistan being Muslim - and India not being Muslim - could complicate that.
Indeed, Japan and South Korea, not having any dog in the fight at all, as
former US secretary of state James Baker once put it, would be ethically
preferable, if their militaries were up to it.
Failing that, perhaps in this case, this is a matter on which the European
Union could be given the blue-flag franchise, and especially Germany, whose
clean credentials on the Iraq war clear it of the Crusader connotations.
But one thing is very clear: the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia
and other active "coalition" partners should stay in the background, at best
offering logistics and funding and the most discreet diplomatic support. And in
a few years, maybe they will emerge from probation as good global citizens and
be listened to once again.
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