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[casi] Iraq has wrecked our case for humanitarian wars,3604,1016573,00.html

Iraq has wrecked our case for humanitarian wars

The US neo-cons have broken the Kosovo liberal
intervention consensus

David Clark

Tuesday August 12, 2003
The Guardian (London)

At a superficial level, the split in the British left
over Iraq reflects a long-standing divide between
those who, in certain circumstances, are prepared to
regard war as a legitimate instrument of policy and
those who have often come close to opposing it in
principle. With rare exceptions, the latter group has
always formed the minority, and on this reading the
current row will peter out, leaving the Labour party
largely unaffected.

In fact, something altogether more serious has
occurred. For the first time, a significant section of
the mainstream left has been forced into open defiance
of its leadership over a decision to go to war. Many
of these, typified by the resigning ministers Robin
Cook and John Denham, were committed humanitarian
interventionists who had supported the war in Kosovo.
Pitted against them were many of their former allies,
using many of the arguments they had developed
together. It is the split within this camp that
threatens to have the most enduring consequences.

Before September 11, there was substantial agreement
between them about the principles that ought to
underpin a progressive foreign policy. There was
consensus on the need to move beyond narrow realism by
accepting wider humanitarian obligations as part of a
responsible global citizenship. There was a belief
that it was time to act on the promises contained in
the universal declaration of human rights. And there
was a willingness to use military force, in extremis,
to achieve these objectives.

Moving from rhetoric to reality would have radical
implications for the state system as it had been
historically conceived. If individuals as well as
states had rights in international law there could be
no place for the absolute inviolability of state
sovereignty as a bar to the enforcement of those
rights. What had been invented as a means of
protecting weak states from the predatory
interventions of stronger rivals had instead become a
licence for despotic governments to brutalise and
oppress their citizens with impunity.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia into state-sponsored
ethnic violence during the 1990s acted as a spur to
this debate and convinced most of the mainstream left
of the need for a new doctrine of humanitarian
intervention to prevent the large-scale abuse of human
rights. But the machinery of the international
community proved unequal to the task. By the time the
"ethnic cleansing" had spread to Kosovo, the call for
action in the security council had run up against an
immovable Russian veto. The intervention that followed
therefore took place without formal authorisation.

The rights and wrongs of this have been hotly debated,
but the interventionists were at one in maintaining
that the values of the UN charter should be upheld
even if it meant bypassing its institutions, and they
were right to do so. Those who opposed them indulged
in a form of procedural fetishism by which a
discredited veto system was considered more important
than the prevention of crimes against humanity. They
also relied on a static interpretation of
international law that ignored its tendency to evolve
in accordance with custom and practice.

The international system must be capable of adapting
in situations where those seeking to act against the
worst human rights violators find themselves
unreasonably constrained by the existing rules of
diplomacy. That does not mean that humanitarianism
should be allowed to degenerate into a free-for-all of
subjective judgements backed by the principle of
raison d'état . There is a need for what the
Canadian-sponsored international commission on
intervention and state sovereignty (ICISS) has called
"threshold and precautionary criteria" to impose
limits on the right to intervene.

It is here that the humanitarian interventionists
divided over Iraq. Those who supported the war often
cited the ICISS report, The Responsibility to Protect,
in their defence, but their case failed even to
approximate the criteria it sets out. The requirements
of "just cause" and "last resort" demand large-scale
human suffering that cannot be averted by other means.
The Iraqi regime was certainly vile, and had the case
for intervention been made when Saddam Hussein was
gassing his own people it would have been a strong one
indeed. But there was no immediate crisis to be
averted in 2003.

The criterion of "right authority" requires, in the
absence of a UN mandate, an overwhelming degree of
international support. The coalition that invaded Iraq
didn't even amount to the "quasi-totality" of Nato.

But it is, perhaps, the stipulation of "right
intention" that the pro-war interventionists have been
most reckless in discarding, not because their own
motives were questionable, but because of their
alliance with US neo-conservatism. The
neo-conservative approach to military intervention was
set out with admirable clarity by Paul Wolfowitz in
his infamous 1992 defence policy guidance paper:
"While the US cannot become the world's 'policeman',
by assuming responsibility for righting every wrong,
we will retain the pre-eminent responsibility for
addressing selectively those wrongs which threaten not
only our interests, but those of our allies or

The gap here could scarcely be wider. Humanitarian
interventionists aspire to a world order based on the
universal and disinterested pursuit of justice.
Neo-conservatives are motivated by the selective and
self-interested pursuit of their own geopolitical
goals. This rapaciously ideological project starts
from the proposition that the American social and
economic mode represents the ideal form to which all
other forms must ultimately comply. In what the
neo-cons call this "distinctly American
internationalism", US national interests and the
interests of humanity are indivisible. It remains to
be seen what happens when this assumption collides
with the reality of an Iraq determined to make choices
that conflict with the White House.

As long as US power remains in the hands of the
Republican right, it will be impossible to build a
consensus on the left behind the idea that it can be a
power for good. Those who continue to insist that it
can, risk discrediting the concept of humanitarian
intervention and thereby render impossible the task of
mobilising the international community to act in the
future. Indeed, the backlash has already started. At
last month's conference on progressive governance, the
assembled leaders rejected the section of Blair's
draft communique supporting the principle that the
responsibility to protect trumps state sovereignty.

The problem is this: the interventionists who
supported the Iraq war want those of us who didn't to
believe that George Bush is a "useful idiot" in the
realisation of Blair's humanitarian global vision. We
can only see truth in the opposite conclusion.

· David Clark is a former Foreign Office special

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