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At the Point of a Gun

Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention

About The Book

Veteran journalist David Rieff’s essays draw a searing portrait of what happens when the grandiose schemes of policymakers and human rights activists go horribly wrong in the field.

Writing for publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to The Nation to France’s Le Monde, David Rieff witnessed firsthand most of the armed interventions since the Cold War waged by the West or the United Nations in the name of human rights and democratization. In this timely collection of his most illuminating articles, Rieff, one of our leading experts on the subject, reassesses some of his own judgments about the use of military might to solve the world’s most pressing humanitarian problems.

At the Point of a Gun raises critical questions we cannot ignore in this era of gunboat democracy. When, if ever, is it appropriate to intervene militarily in the domestic affairs of other nations? Are human rights and humanitarian concerns legitimate reasons for intervening, or is the assault on sovereignty a flag of convenience for the recolonization of part of the world? And, above all, can democracy be imposed through the barrel of an M16? This is not an optimistic report, but the questions Rieff raises are of the essence as the United States grapples with the harsh consequences of what it has wrought on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq.



The logic of the present moment, we are told by American policymakers across the political spectrum from George W. Bush to John Kerry and from an equally broad range of policy analysts from advocates of "hard" American power such as Robert Kagan to those who extol the uses of soft power and multilateral institutions like the United Nations such as Joseph Nye, is one of American hegemony. Americans are uncomfortable with the term empire, and in many ways it does not adequately describe the realities of United States preponderance in the world. Frank advocates of an imperial vocation for the U.S., many of whom, like the historian Niall Ferguson, interestingly are British (will this "Greece to their Rome" never end?), may not have the influence the attention paid to them in the media might suggest. But within the policy elite, there seems to be a broad consensus that, as the military historian Eliot A. Cohen has put it, "in the end, it makes very little difference whether one thinks of the United States as an empire or as something else...the real alternatives are U.S. hegemony exercised prudently or foolishly, consistently or fecklessly, safely or dangerously."

Cohen is associated with the neoconservative movement in the United States, but his view is one that most members of the U.S. policy elite would probably agree with, even while they would certainly differ over the question of, say, whether the Bush administration's use of American power in Iraq can best be described as prudent or foolish. It was President Bill Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, after all, who called for an exercise of American power "with allies if possible, alone if necessary." And those who defended the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 against charges that it was illegal under international law were surely right to respond that by that criterion the War in Kosovo in 1999 had been illegal as well.

If UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's assent and that of the UN Security Council had not been a requirement in the Balkans, why was it necessary in the Middle East? There are answers to that, of course, not least the obvious one that the Kosovo war was overwhelmingly supported (Greece being the predictable exception) by the countries of the region whereas the war in Iraq was opposed by virtually every country in the Middle East with the exception of Israel. Nonetheless, the question is a pertinent one and cannot simply be brushed aside, particularly by those who supported intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo and opposed it in Iraq -- i.e., by people like me.

Of course, the triumphalist moment in America with regard to Iraq passed quickly. Almost no one, even the staunchest advocates of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, would still claim that what followed the fall of the Iraqi dictator was the unbridled success they had predicted before the war started. The continued bloodletting on the ground in Iraq, the overwhelming evidence that although U.S. troops may have been welcomed when they toppled the Baathist regime, they soon came to be viewed with hostility by the Iraqi people, who resented the American occupation of their country, and the growing realization, supported even by U.S. State Department statistics showing that there were more terrorist incidents in 2003 than in any previous year, that the world was anything but safer after Operation Iraqi Freedom despite what the Bush administration had promised, might have been expected to shake people's faith in the idea of armed intervention in the name of democracy, human rights, and humanitarian need. But this has not been the case.

The enthusiasm in the U.S. Congress during the summer of 2004 to declare that the ethnic cleansing in the western Sudanese region of Darfur constituted genocide in the legal sense of the term; the demand by candidate John Kerry that President Bush go to the UN and help organize a humanitarian military intervention; the support that these demands received in much of Europe; the offer by both Britain and Australia to commit troops to any "humanitarian" deployment: all of these things testified to the extent to which faith in the idea of imposing human rights or alleviating humanitarian suffering norms at the point of a gun remained a powerful and compelling idea. Despite Iraq, it seemed there were many in both Western Europe and, more importantly, in the United States, where most of any serious troop deployment, if nothing else, at the logistical level, would have to come from, still subscribed to the view of humanitarian intervention enunciated by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Chicago in 1999, when he argued that "if we can establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights, and an open society then that is in our national interests, too."

It is an argument that the human rights movement had been making for decades. It underscored that movement's campaign for rights in the former Soviet empire and also its campaigns against U.S. collaboration with Third World dictators from Vietnam to El Salvador. When it was taken up during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, who appointed human rights activists like Patricia Derian to positions of authority in Washington, the American right was aghast. Now, as I write in 2004, this language is the boilerplate of the American right. As President Bush's deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, by many accounts the ideological architect of the Iraq War, has put it, "if people are set free to run their countries as they see fit, we will be dealing with a world very favorable to American interests."

In the gaps in that sentence -- "set free" by whom and under what conditions? -- you can hear, in all its pathos, and with a sense of ghastly inevitability, or fatedness, worthy of a Greek tragedy, the Bush administration's profound miscalculation of and wishful thinking about the realities on the ground of postwar Iraq and the limits of what U.S. military power can actually accomplish. And yet arguably, the human rights justification for the decision to invade Iraq stands up to scrutiny far better than the false claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or the false assurance that overthrowing him would reduce the level of terrorist threat to the United States.

Given the rise of human rights as an over-arching moral context for the exercise of power by Western countries, this probably should not be surprising. By now, the view that, at least where possible, and, ideally, as often as possible, humanitarian or human rights disasters must not be allowed to take place -- a view shared by figures with otherwise little if anything in common in their view of the role of international institutions or the authority of international law as Kofi Annan and Paul Wolfowitz -- is almost no longer open to question among foreign policy experts. In the United States, only activists on the far left, like Noam Chomsky, on the far right, like Pat Buchanan, and those who belong to the increasingly beleaguered realist school, notably members of President George Herbert Walker Bush's security team like General Brent Scowcroft and General William Odom (whether it was Bosnia, Iraq, or George W. Bush's doctrine of pre-emption, American military officers in the post-Cold War era have been consistently more cautious than their civilian counterparts), have bucked this policy consensus on a consistent basis.

In what may have been an unguarded moment, Robert Kagan, viewed by many as one of the premier theorists for the expansive use of American military power, once said to me that his real position was that the choice America faced was "leaning toward or away from" the use of military force. And the argument of "hard Wilsonians" like Kagan -- the phrase is that of another neo-conservative writer, Max Boot -- was that whereas the Clinton administration had mistakenly leaned away from using force (often they cited Bosnia and sometimes, though less often, Rwanda as an example), the Bush administration at least had the opposite tendency (neoconservatives have been far less enamored by President Bush than American liberals imagine; Vice President Cheney, and, above all, Paul Wolfowitz, have been their men).

My argument in this book is that in fact the tendency is so widespread that it unites American neoconservatives and human rights activists, humanitarian relief groups and civilian planners in the Pentagon. I lay out the arguments for this claim in the essays that follow. But it would be dishonest of me not to add that I also make this argument because I know myself to have been, at one time, a member of this unlikely assortment of bedfellows. And in the interests of, as the cliché goes, full disclosure, I have included an essay I wrote in defense of this view. It was not the only one I wrote, but this is a selection of my pieces and, in any case, I think it states the interventionist case better than I did anywhere else for, as its title stipulates, "A New Age of Liberal Imperialism."

A writer who deals with war and humanitarian emergency and imagines he or she can be right all the time is certainly deluded and probably either simple or megalomaniacal. I believe I was wrong in supporting the Rwandan Patriotic Front to the extent that I did in 1994 through 1996 in a number of essays that I have not included here. Having arrived in Rwanda toward the end of the genocide in 1994, and seen the graves, and seen that it was the Tutsi-led RPF that put an end to the slaughter, I made allowances and apologies for the RPF's own ruthless conduct that, while not on the same order of magnitude as the genocide within Rwanda, was nonetheless intermittently murderous and barbarous. And it took me years longer to realize that what the Rwandans had visited on the Congo in the name of their own security was one of the great crimes of our time. That they were not the only villains in the Congolese tragedy does nothing to excuse the role they played in a war that took somewhere between one and four million lives between 1996 and 2000 and still takes many lives today, even as officials in Kigali disclaim any responsibility. This sense that having suffered a great wrong makes anything you do permissible is obviously not restricted to the Great Lakes region of Africa. The conduct of the Israeli government toward the Palestinians, though it has not exacted anything like the same ltoll in lives, is another obvious case in point.

Relief workers talk -- it is a humanitarian cliché by now -- of the relief to development continuum. In my darker moments, increasingly the rule rather than the exception, I think one would be well-advised to speak of the victim to victimizer continuum. Or is it a Möbius strip? On the evidence of Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Burundi, Kosovo, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and Iraq, it would be hard to prove otherwise. And yet I think the natural human instinct to side with the victims often got in the way of my fully understanding what I was seeing during the now decade and a half I have been at this strange vocation of writing about man-made catastrophes. Certainly, it got in the way of my understanding the real nature of the Kosovo Liberation Army, an error which figures in a piece I have included here.

Those blatant mistakes will be evident and, in some of these pieces, I have included a few afterthoughts. For the rest, I have let the essays and reported pieces stand as they were published, and, self-evidently, unlike the Kosovo and Rwanda pieces, I continue to stand by their conclusions. What I do not stand by, what indeed this book is largely an argument against, is my previous conviction that humanitarian military intervention, whether to alleviate massive suffering or rectify grave human rights violations should be the norm that a Tony Blair or, indeed, a Kofi Annan seems to believe it either has already or should become in international relations. This does not mean I always oppose such interventions. To the contrary, it seems to me that consistency, whether of the type practiced by Paul Wolfowitz or Noam Chomsky, is a terrible error when one is talking about wars. It is a utopia, and if my work has any consistency or any merit it is, in my eyes at least, in its fervent anti-utopianism.

For reasons I try to explain in these pieces, or in one of the postscripts to them, I remain convinced that Bosnia was a just cause. And I still wish the United States or one of the European great powers had intervened in Rwanda. But my position is the polar opposite of Kagan's: I believe we should lean away from war, lean as far away as possible without actually falling over into pacifism. Of course there are just wars: the category was hardly retired with the victory of the Allies in World War II. But I would insist that there are not many just wars, and that the endless wars of altruism posited by so many human rights activists (no matter what euphemisms like "peacekeeping," "humanitarian intervention," "upholding international law," or the like they may care to use) or the endless wars of liberation (as they see it) proposed by American neoconservatives -- Iraq was supposed to be only the first such step -- can only lead to disaster.

I did not "need" the Iraq war to teach me this, but my experience of spending more than six months in Iraq in a series of protracted stays while on assignment for the New York Times Magazine has hardened me in this view. In a sense, this book is a chronicle of the path I took toward this chastened sense of things that I now have. Iraq, though, was at the center of this journey, and the second half of the book reproduces most of the work I did there. In a previous book on humanitarian action, I tried to make the case that the gap between our moral ambitions and the realities of our world had simply widened too far to be bridged by human rights activism, relief work, or military intervention, and that humanitarian relief groups needed to "opt out" of the role they were being placed in -- that of subcontractors to the war efforts of various NATO powers. This is not the direction most humanitarian groups are heading in (the French section of Doctors Without Borders remains a notable though increasingly isolated exception). Indeed, one British humanitarian specialist, Hugo Slim, has written that "there is considerable overlap of moral ends between the Coalition [military forces and civilian administrators], humanitarian, human rights, and development agencies in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Left and right, that is the received wisdom of our day. "The New Military Humanism," Noam Chomsky called it, and for once he was right. My own view is that, after Iraq, this fantasy should have been discredited. Obviously it hasn't. Equally obviously, this book is my attempt to help discredit it, written by someone who was long sorely tempted by what once seemed to me like a way of reducing human suffering but now seems to me like a recipe for a recapitulation in the twenty-first century of the horrors of nineteen-century colonialism, whose moral justification, it should be remembered, was also humanitarianism, human rights, and the rule of law. It is not true that history repeats itself first as tragedy and the second time as farce. It just repeats itself as tragedy, over and over and over again.

-- David Rieff

Seattle, July 2004

Copyright © 2005 by David Rieff

About The Author

Photo by Megan Hustad

David Rieff is the author of eight previous books, including Swimming in a Sea of Death, At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention; A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis; and Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West. He lives in New York City.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (August 4, 2006)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743287074

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Raves and Reviews

"Provocative. . . . Brutally articulate. . . . Intriguing." -- The New York Times

"David Rieff's ongoing examination of international events and their protagonists is often colored by a deep skepticism, but there is indeed much to be skeptical about nowadays. Rieff provides original and valuable insights into the Iraq war, Kosovo, Rwanda, and other situations. He evaluates institutions -- the U.S. government or the United Nations -- and he examines the practical validity of concepts -- humanitarianism, sanctions, internationalism, human rights, or democratization. Rieff's analysis, based on his firsthand observation, is stimulating and clear-eyed. His book is important for those who believe that ability to cope with the future starts with frank criticism and self-analysis, and that in human affairs and institutions, one of the prerequisites for progress is a relentless examination of past events, mistakes, and illusions." -- Brian Urquhart, former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations

"Rieff's lucid, fair-minded, and provocative essays should be mandatory reading for anybody who is trying to make sense out of our ever-more-troubling, post-September 11 world." -- Sanford D. Horwitt, San Francisco Chronicle

"In the last decade, Rieff has been one of the most engaging observers of war and humanitarian emergencies in such troubled places as Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. At the Point of a Gun charts the predicament of liberal internationalism. . . . Offers fascinating reporting from post-invasion Iraq and reflections on the odd Bush-era 'marriage' of liberal Wilsonians and conservative hawks." -- G. John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs

"Rejecting equally utopian humanitarianism and neoconservative ideology, Rieff's collection of essays provides a compelling analysis of when military intervention is necessary and when it is doomed to fail." -- George Soros

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