‘Freedom’s Battle’: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention

September 8th, 2008 - by admin

Book Review by Joshua Kucera / San Francisco Chronicle – 2008-09-08 22:44:23


Freedom’s Battle:
The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention

By Gary J. Bass (Knopf; 509 pages; $35)

(September 7, 2008) — When NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 to stop human rights abuses in the province of Kosovo, Henry Kissinger called it an “abrupt abandonment of the concept of national sovereignty.” Charles Krauthammer said it “probably qualifies as the first purely humanitarian war.” China’s foreign minister called it an “ominous precedent in international relations.”

In “Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention,” Gary J. Bass, a professor of politics at Princeton and a frequent newspaper contributor, aims to prove that Kissinger and company were wrong: that humanitarian-inspired military actions like those in Kosovo; the 1991-92 U.S. invasion of Somalia, ostensibly to stop starvation there; and proposed Western intervention in Darfur to stop the genocide are not unprecedented.

“Over a century ago, it was a basic principle that troops should sometimes be sent to prevent the slaughter of innocent foreigners,” he writes. “That principle has recently reemerged with fresh strength in the aftermath of the Cold War, but it is anything but new.”

The emergence of humanitarian interventions, in Bass’ view, is directly attributable to the rise of democracy and a free press in 19th century Europe. As independent journalists began to report from far-off conflict zones and their readers had more say over what their governments did, citizens across Europe increasingly pressured their leaders to use military force to relieve suffering in other countries. What we now call the “CNN effect” far predates Christiane Amanpour.

Bass devotes much of “Freedom’s Battle” to the political and diplomatic wrangling that led up to three early crises, when European powers used their militaries to stop humanitarian disasters.

The first such intervention was in Greece, where Greek nationalists in the 1810s waged a guerrilla war of independence to break free from the Ottoman Empire. The biggest British rock star of the day, the poet Lord Byron, took on the Greek cause (largely to preserve his romantic conception of classical Greek culture), and traveled to Greece himself to provide moral support to the insurgents and to draw attention to Ottoman massacres of Greek civilians.

Eventually, Byron’s and others’ efforts to arouse public outrage forced Britain to intervene on the side of the Greeks, even though the Ottoman Empire was then a nominal ally. A British-led naval squadron sank the bulk of the Ottoman navy at Navarino Bay. (Bass points out that Kissinger wrote an entire chapter on the Greek war of independence, in a book praising the 19th century legacy of foreign policy realism, without mentioning that this decisive battle was won by Western interventionists.)

In the second episode, France sent 5,000 troops to Syria in 1860 to stop the massacres of Maronite Christians at the hands of Druze, killings that the Ottoman authorities were neither able nor willing to stem. This model is one that Bass cites approvingly: France from the outset renounced any imperial or commercial gains from the intervention, set a timetable for departure and went in with the explicit support of several other European nations, giving the action international credibility.

Sixteen years later, Russia invaded Ottoman-controlled Bulgaria with a mixture of humanitarian and imperialistic motives. Reports that Turks were massacring Bulgarians aroused a strong pan-Slavic sentiment in Russia, and Czar Alexander II took the opportunity to strike a blow against Russia’s longtime enemy, the Ottoman Empire. Britain, meanwhile, sat out the conflict — despite pervasive Russophobia — because human rights activists there, outraged by gory press accounts of the massacres in Bulgaria, adopted the Bulgarians as a cause celebre.

Bass, while clearly sympathetic to the liberal interventionists, aims not to show that they were right but that they were sincere. There are plenty of reasons not to take their stated humanitarian motives at face value. As Bass points out, such interventions are usually undertaken by strong states against weak ones, giving the appearance of opportunism.

And all the examples Bass cites involved Europe intervening on behalf of Christian minorities of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which naturally raises suspicions of an underlying missionary or colonialist impulse. Cynics also observe that tyrants can claim humanitarian motives, too: Hitler, after all, said he invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938 to protect the Germans there from persecution by the Czech government.

Bass concedes that foreign policy conservatives like Kissinger, who generally argue against humanitarian interventions, may have a point when they object that such actions can create instability. They, too, can be sincere in their conviction that intervention is dangerous. But “the problem with realism is that it does a better job of identifying this problem than of solving it. … Conservatives sometimes give up too easily.”

Bass draws several intriguing parallels between the interventions of the 19th century and those of the modern era. Especially when describing the French occupation of Syria, he observes that debates over war crimes trials, “nation-building” and “mission creep” were as common in the 19th century as in this one, even if not by those names.

But in the end, Bass is frustratingly tentative in drawing lessons from the history he carefully reconstructs. While the introductory chapters tantalizingly set up parallels between the 19th century and this era, Bass recounts the interventions in Greece and Bulgaria with almost no reference to today’s conflicts. He also fails to draw any larger conclusions about whether or not the humanitarian interventions were, in the long run, effective. Was Syria better off because of the French intervention? Was France?

And, for that matter, will Kosovo be better off because of the NATO intervention? Will we? While it’s disappointing that these questions aren’t dealt with, it’s a testament to Bass’ scholarship that the reader is left wanting to learn more about these crucial questions. {sbox}

Joshua Kucera is a Washington, D.C., journalist who writes about foreign and military affairs. E-mail him at books@sfchronicle.com.

© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc

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