Tuesday, August 21, 2007

humanitarian intervention after Iraq

Readers of this weblog will know that I was deeply hostile to the invasion of Iraq, that I remain staunchly opposed to its conduct, and that I foresee that the eventual US defeat in Iraq will herald a reconfiguration of global forces on a scale not seen since the US defeat in Vietnam. However, it would be a mistake to equate my opposition to the war in Iraq with an opposition to militarily intervene in the affairs of another country. One of the outcomes of the disastrous US/UK intervention in Iraq has been that it has once again forced people such as myself, who are basically pacifists, to clearly elaborate when and where there is a need for military intervention by the international community.

That the international community has an obligation to intervene in cases of humanitarian catastrophes was brought home to me during the Balkan Wars. Raised on stories of World War II, and deeply doubting Gandhi's believe that non-violence could have defeated fascism, these wars I found deeply debilitating on a personal level: genocidal conflict was raging in Europe, once again, less than 2 days away by car, and yet there seemed to be nothing that could be done to either stop it or indeed contain its spread. I will never forget asking John Loxley in 1992 what he thought should be done; he was, as ever, extremely clear: 'I think Thatcher is right; we need to bomb the hell out of them'. At the time, I was opposed to international intervention in the Balkan Wars, and yet it is true that the wars continued, ferociously, until the US started dropping bombs on the Serbs. Once that happened, the Serbian government, the sponsor and orchestrator of the Balkan Wars, quickly embraced negotiation, and the Dayton Accords were the result.

Long before the invasion of Iraq the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, made a speech in Chicago in which he asked a question that is of critical importance in the early 21st century: what are 'the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people's conflicts'? He went on, correctly, to stress that 'acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter'. I have believed this for a very long time indeed; it was the principal reason that I supported the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia that overthrew the Khmer Rouges. While the international community stood head to shoulder with a genocidal government that killed a third of its own population, the Vietnamese were totally ostracized for an act that saved, probably, hundreds of thousands of lives. Further back, when Milton Obote returned to power in Uganda following the ouster of Idi Amin, things started to go bad very quickly. I will never forget Tanzania intervening to overthrow Obote as a way of stopping a descent into what could have became a genocidal conflagration. I have clearly witnessed times when their is a need to citizens to support a military intervention by their government in the affairs of a sovereign state. Genocide is the starkest example; who does not want international forces in Darfur to stop the killing?

Elements within the international community have supported the need for humanitarian military intervention since the 1980s, when the then French President, Francois Mitterand, enunciated a concept that he labeled 'the right to intervene'. The problem was that this right was never codified or ratified internationally, and no one really knows when it does and does not apply.

It clearly did not apply, however, to Iraq, for many reasons. The military coup that brought the Baath Party to power in the first place was heavily promoted by the CIA. When Saddam Hussein seized control of the Baath Party there was nary a whimper from the West; indeed, when he invaded Iran in 1979 Hussein was seen to be the front line in halting the spread of the Islamic Republic, and he was rewarded by being heavily armed by the West to continue a war that he started, and which cost millions their lives. Just prior to his invasion of Kuwait he was still receiving senior Western politicians, including, for example, the then-British foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, who came bearing arms and ammunition for a dictator that had killed his own people as well as citizens of the West. Hussein was thus very much a creation of the West: it supported him, it armed him, and it allowed him to wage war against his own people without challenging his actions.

What changed after the invasion of Kuwait was that Hussein was quickly turned into an enemy. However, rather than punishing the regime, it was the people of Iraq who were punished by more than a decade of sanctions that probably killed upwards of half a million children. Little wonder, then, that the US and the UK face such hostility in Basra and Baghdad: first, the West supported a dictator that mercilessly killed his own people; then, we by-passed the dictator to kill his people ourselves. Then we get rid of the dictator and send the military in, with the result that hundreds of thousands more people lose their lives. The West has been deeply involved in the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Iraq. And we are still doing it...

No, the war in Iraq cannot be justified. However, this does not mean that the idea of the need for humanitarian military intervention is totally discredited. What is required is a clear mandate from the international community, in the form of clear approval from the United Nations (flawed as that institution might be); a clear mandate for the UN force going in; a political strategy to remove the genocidal regime that is in place; an economic strategy to sustain livelihoods torn asunder by conflict; and an exit strategy. It requires proper resourcing, and not the begging bowl mentality that facilitated the genocide in Rwanda and the carnage in the Congo.

Unfortunately, these conditions are unlikely to find much international support after the war in Iraq comes to its logical conclusion, which is a deepening of the ongoing civil war. One casualty of Bush's war has been a strengthening of a retreat into isolationism, particularly in the US but also in the UK; and such a retreat bodes ill for the millions of people who continue to live in fear of their government.

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