America will defend human rights successfully only when its own key interests are threatened
by Philip Bobbitt
Published June 7, 2003 in The Guardian.
Reprinted with the author's permission
The other night I had the misfortune to be a guest on a radio phone-in, discussing US/UK intervention in Iraq.
The host was thoughtful and intelligent, the newsreader was a beautiful young woman bound I would suppose for a more visual medium, my fellow guest was a distinguished biographer — the misfortune was in the telephone calls themselves. All were hostile questions directed towards me, as a target of opportunity for persons distressed with American policy over the past half-century.
Among the many angry callers, one man asked, voice laden with sarcasm, whether I didn't think that oil had "something" to do with America's plan to invade Iraq, to which I rather too earnestly replied, "Well, I certainly hope so." For it is only when great powers can find an intersection between their own strategic interests – which include their economic interests and the material well-being of their peoples – and humanitarian and human rights concerns, that these states will act with any chance of success in addressing those concerns. Let me give two examples.
Last week the UN security council authorised France to lead a 1,400-strong armed force to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where local militias backed by six different African countries have been at war for more than four years. During this period more than 1 million lives have been lost. But the great powers have done virtually nothing save, in 1999, to dispatch 712 lightly armed soldiers to guard UN property and escort humanitarian aid.
Even the new French mandate only runs until September, when the French-led force is to be replaced by a weaker Bangladeshi contingent. The humanitarian concerns are overwhelming; the armed opposition slight. Why has nothing, even now, been done? It is because states are unwilling to send their young to be killed without a strategic as well as a humanitarian rationale.
Eight years ago, 400 lightly armed Dutch peacekeepers stood by while more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys, seized from a UN-denominated "safe area", were massacred at Srebrenica. Only after this atrocity, with all that it revealed about the UN as a security instrument, did Nato step in and bring about an end to the conflict.
The case was finally made in Washington that the US could not claim leadership in the North Atlantic Council while deferring to its European allies as an excuse for non-intervention; that is, a strategic rationale was made available by the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis.
It is a familiar charge that US/UK interest in the welfare of Iraqis has become the new justification for intervention there because weapons of mass destruction have not been found and thus Saddam never posed an imminent security threat that might otherwise have justified the coalition attack.
In fact, charges of hypocrisy plagued the coalition from the outset because it was plain that the west's interest in prising Iraqi oil out of Saddam's hands was at least as important a motivation to the US/UK as making the benefits of that oil pay for ordinary Iraqis.
In my view, it was Saddam's great wealth, derived from oil revenues and put in service of his relentless pursuit of WMD, that made his removal so imperative. He was rich, aggressive and repressive to a degree remarkable even for the Middle East. Other states are just as rich, but have benign geopolitical agendas; Saddam had the unique distinction of organising the first seizure and annexation of a member state of the UN since its founding.
Other states are just as vicious and intoxicated with dreams of regional domination, but they are not as rich. Even under sanctions, Saddam was able to skim off billions of dollars in illicit revenue. (In the current era a state that seeks nuclear weapons need not develop its own; such weapons can just be purchased.) Other states repress their own citizens, but few states have the wealth to create a state apparatus that can systematically wreak human rights violations on the scale of Saddam's regime and not risk revolution.
So Iraq's oil wealth cannot have been irrelevant. Why would critics of the war demand that it be so? Why do we expect states never to have multiple motives when most of us wouldn't marry – wouldn't even buy a car – without a complicated calculus of many, sometimes conflicting values?
This demand – that a state's motives be purely self-sacrificing or are otherwise discreditable – reflects expectations that are so unrealistic as to be counterproductive to humanitarian goals. Instead, we should be devising doctrines – I once proposed one for President Clinton's administration – that clearly state how the intersection of strategic interests, measured on a global scale, with humanitarian interests can move states in the right direction.
The doctrine had three elements. The US would intervene when the threat to our vital strategic interests was overwhelming and imminent; or when significant strategic interests and humanitarian concerns coincided; or, when a vital strategic interest was absent, humanitarian concerns were high and strategic risks were low. It was this third element that proved hardest to bring to the policy table.
Such a doctrine would justify intervention in Haiti (where the US did act) and Rwanda (where we regrettably did not) on the basis of humanitarian concerns; and in Bosnia and Afghanistan where we had both strategic and humanitarian reasons for action.
In Iraq, application of this doctrine turned on two questions: are significant American strategic interests in the region imperilled by the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iraq – which would enable Iraq to deter any state that opposed its regional ambitions – such that pre-emptive action was necessary before these weapons were deployed?
And could the US and its allies assure the Iraqi people a more prosperous and freer future after such intervention, knowing that war would kill innocent persons and ravage the Iraqi infrastructure? That is, the issue turned on the intersection of strategic and humanitarian issues.
These are difficult questions and we may differ among ourselves as to the right answers. But one purpose of doctrine is to propose the right questions. Another purpose is to allow legal criteria by which the action of states can be judged on neutral, general principles. If such a doctrine amounted to no more than carte blanche for the use of force whenever it struck an American administration as useful, then it would lead to a loss of legitimacy and predictability, two qualities international law and American policy are much in need of just now.
But if, on the other hand, such a doctrine served as the basis on which "strategic interests" were defined in terms of collective goods – goods such as coalition building for humanitarian intervention, extending deterrence and defensive systems to prevent nuclear proliferation, and devising global regimes that protect health and the environment – then the resulting precedents might lay the basis for the new international law that a post-September 11 strategic environment requires.
I will not speculate as to why some former Labour ministers, and some Tory spokesmen, after a dazzling military campaign by British and American forces and the stomach-churning discoveries of mass Iraqi execution sites, are trying to belabour the Blair government with charges of hypocrisy, even suggesting that the prime minister lied about his motives for intervention. Their motives, too, are doubtless mixed. But I do insist for the future that we do not demand a single motive for states when they intervene. And I draw this lesson from the past.
Perhaps the most selfless international intervention by a major power in the 20th century was US entry into the first world war. The Kaiserreich did not threaten US interests, and there were no markets to be gained, resources to be commandeered or territory to be annexed. The president had just been re-elected on the campaign slogan "He kept us out of war". Woodrow Wilson and his aide, Colonel House, studiedly moved the US into war to achieve the benign objectives of the famous "14 points" (much to the dismay of their allies).
The ultimate consequence of all this high-mindedness, however, was the scuttling of the 14 points by the victorious European states at Versailles, the rejection of American participation in the League of Nations by the US Senate, the defeat of the Democratic party in the 1920 elections and the American isolationism of the ensuing decades. In the absence of a strategic imperative, Wilson's magnanimous instincts could not underpin a long-term policy.
Doubtless an American withdrawal from the world seems as attractive to many in Europe as it seems unlikely. They have already forgotten George Bush's 2000 campaign for the presidency that rejected "nation-building" and promised to walk away from the framework agreement with North Korea and the Middle East peace process – all of which struck a chord with US voters. It took September 11 to force a reality check on these ideas, but they are never far below the surface.
Those who favour humanitarian interventions must bear this in mind: without mixed motives, without American participation, such interventions will bear the stamp of Srebrenica and Ituri, not Kabul or Baghdad. The best way of persuading governments to risk the lives of their armed forces for humanitarian goals is to establish a strategic nexus. Partly this will mean redefining what constitutes a strategic interest; partly it will mean not playing this absurd game of pretence that a state, or its leaders, can have one and only one value in mind when contemplating intervention.
— Philip Bobbitt holds the Walker centennial chair in law at the University of Texas. He is the author of The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (Penguin)