Military intervention in other societies for humanitarian reasons has become a western moral and political preoccupation as a result of the war in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda. The failure of any western country to do much about either has haunted us.
Since the invasion of Iraq, the humanitarian justification has retroactively been made the justification for American policy there and offered as the basis for policy in the future. Humanitarian intervention is to be turned into a positive (even preemptive) program for doing good internationally.
From an effort simply to halt an evil, it becomes a program for creating new realities. The importance of the difference between the two modes of action seems badly underestimated.
Getting rid of Saddam Hussein, or Slobodan Milosevic, or any other despot, is a practical problem. It can be done with finite resources and at a certain cost, if you are prepared to pay the cost.
In Bosnia and Rwanda, the United States and Europe were not, at least until they were forced to act. Since then, there has been intense debate about humanitarian intervention, politically interested or otherwise, and about the role of peacekeepers for whom there is no peace to keep, and armed peacemaking - as in Kosovo, where it is not working very well, or Somalia, where the peacemakers were ejected, or in Iraq now, where American ex-warmakers, become peacemakers, confront nationalist and sectarian resistance they don't know how to deal with.
The Iraq invasion was originally rationalized as disarming a despotic and aggressive regime, allegedly in possession of mass destruction weapons. When the weapons weren't found, Washington and London said it was a humanitarian intervention. They said that Saddam Hussein's had been a pitiless despotism that deserved to be destroyed, and its overturn retroactively justified the war.
Americans and others now say that America "cannot be allowed to fail" in Iraq. The Financial Times recently said that Washington and the West Europeans must reconstruct their damaged alliance and first bring about a "just solution in Israel-Palestine." This may be good advice, but it also is irrelevant advice.
As in the case of Washington policy paralysis with respect to Israel and Palestine, failure in Iraq may be built into the situation. The Financial Times says the United States and Europe must "ensure Iraqis become free to choose their own future." This logically means that Iraq must be free to choose a future without American bases, or without a U.S. political and economic presence, or even choose to an Islamist government. Iraq's freedom thus might easily prove incompatible with Washington's definition of American national interest.
Making democracy is creation, an excursion into a future of unlimited and for that reason uncontrollable possibilities. To "make" Iraq free - or the Greater Middle East free, for that matter - means an effort to control human behavior. It rests on the progressive illusion that the people in these places want, or will want, the same things Americans or Europeans want.
This is not true. You have only to look at the Israelis and the Palestinians. They already belong to the "benevolent empire" of the world's sole superpower, and look at what has happened to them. Neither wants what the other wants, nor what America wants, and they have been killing one another since 1948 (and before) to demonstrate it.
American failure is a perfectly possible outcome in Iraq - as in Afghanistan - just as failure was the outcome in Somalia, Vietnam and Cambodia. Given the political forces and circumstances in each of those places, failure was the inevitable outcome.
William Pfaff's latest book is "Fear, Anger and Failure: A Chronicle of the Bush Administration's War on Terror, from the Attacks of September 11, 2001 to Defeat in Baghdad in 2003."
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