At the Point of a Gun
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At the Point of a Gun

Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention

David Rieff

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📖 eBook - ePub

At the Point of a Gun

Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention

David Rieff

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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.

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Part One




THE TRUCK BOMB THAT DESTROYED the UN headquarters in Baghdad on August 19, 2003, has been as shocking to the UN as a political community as the events of September 11, 2001, were to most Americans. Hyperbole? No one who witnessed the outpouring of emotion at UN headquarters in New York or Geneva would think so. But the depth of grief and outrage engendered by the murder of Kofi Annan’s special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello, and twenty-one of his UN colleagues, goes beyond the fact that, trite as it may sound, most UN staffers think of themselves as belonging to a sort of extended family. More crucially, they regard themselves as working not just for an institution (as people tend to do at the World Bank or the IMF) but as serving a cause. That cause, as a surprising number of them will say without a trace of irony, is the cause of humanity.
It is easy for an outsider to be cynical about the UN. The end of the cold war had encouraged absurdly high hopes for the organization, hopes that were cruelly deflated by the triple peacekeeping disasters of Somalia (1993), Rwanda (1994) and Bosnia (1992–95). UN peacekeeping had many successes in the past, from Cyprus to Cambodia, and its peacekeeping department won a Nobel prize in 1988. But in Bosnia the moral limits of the peacekeeping ethos were exposed to the world. UN officials refused to accept that they had an obligation to take the Bosnian—that is, the victims’ side—against the government in Belgrade and its Bosnian Serb surrogates. They hewed to the most exquisite neutrality, insisting that this is what their Security Council mandate demanded.
For an organization that continued, at the time, to insist that it was morally superior to the governments it served—the bureaucratic arm of the world’s transcendental values, as Michael Barnett, an American scholar who worked for the UN on Rwanda, put it—this was an astonishing position to take. Later, too late for the 250,000 who died during the Bosnian conflict, the UN admitted as much. In its self-lacerating report on the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, it concluded that there had been a “pervasive ambivalence within the UN regarding the role of force in the pursuit of peace” and “an institutional ideology of impartiality even when confronted with attempted genocide.”
Rwanda in 1994 was worse. Months before the genocide began, Romeo Dallaire, the UN force commander on the ground, warned UN officials in New York—notably Kofi Annan, then head of the peacekeeping department—of the impending slaughter of Rwanda’s minority Tutsis by elements of the Hutu-dominated government. Dallaire asked for permission to act against those plotting the slaughter. New York refused, insisting that his job was to assist with the recently signed peace accord, and even reprimanded Dallaire saying that raids against weapons stores “could only be viewed as hostile by the Rwandan government.” In fact, the UN, still smarting from a peacekeeping failure in Somalia not of its own making, was more concerned about its own institutional survival than anything else. As Iqbal Riza, Annan’s chef de cabinet once he became Secretary-General, put it, “We could not risk another Somalia . . . We did not want the Rwandan peacekeeping mission to collapse.” Another UN inquest painted “a picture of a failed response to early warning.”
Despite these reports on the Bosnian and Rwandan disasters—which, to his great credit, Annan either commissioned or permitted to be issued after he became Secretary-General—UN officials could (and can still) be found shifting the blame for the world body’s often disgraceful conduct on to the member states, and above all on to Britain, France, Russia, China, and the U.S., the permanent, veto-wielding members of the Security Council. In fairness, this is par for the international course. Just as the UN claims success for itself when it mounts effective peacekeeping or nation-building operations (in El Salvador, in Mozambique, in East Timor under de Mello’s leadership), while attributing the failures (Bosnia, Rwanda) to the ill-conceived mandates imposed on it by member states, so the great powers routinely blame the UN for their failures, as the U.S. did so infamously when its own bungling led to an unexpected reverse in Somalia.
Still, a culture of blamelessness is so ingrained at the UN that even Kofi Annan—who has probably been more frankly self-critical about the world body’s shortcomings than any of his predecessors—could address a passing-out parade of troops from UNPROFOR, the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, and tell them after the Srebrenica massacre, that they had performed admirably. What he meant was that since they had been given an appalling and unworkable mandate by the UN Security Council, they had done the best they could.
The problem here is that UN officials, while insisting, when criticized, that they have no real autonomy, do not present themselves as an international bureaucracy, or a servicing secretariat along the lines of the African Union. On the contrary, they routinely make large moral claims for the institution. These claims of moral authority, and the credibility they continue to have around the world, are what makes the UN a central, rather than a subaltern institution. The question is whether these claims should still be taken seriously. That they continue to exert a powerful influence is beyond doubt. If they did not, there would be no urgent discussion of the U.S. needing to turn the Iraq operation over to the world organization to impart some legitimacy to the postwar occupation. But does it really make sense to invest such hopes in the UN? That uncomfortable question is seldom addressed by those who wish the UN well. (Those who wish it harm, notably within the Bush administration, particularly at the department of defense, are another matter.)
In a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, Shashi Tharoor made an eloquent case for the U.S. to recommit itself to the principle of multilateralism in international affairs generally and to the UN specifically. (Tharoor, a career UN official and novelist, is part of a talented brain trust around Annan which has also included former Financial Times journalist Edward Mortimer and, until recently, American international relations scholar Michael Doyle.) In the course of setting out his argument, Tharoor addressed the issue of the UN both as a stage and as an actor. The stage role is indisputable. The UN is where “states declaim their differences and their convergences.” But when he says actor, he means actor in the theatrical sense—someone performing according to a script written by someone else—and not the more commonsense definition of someone capable of acting for himself. “The UN is the actor,” he writes “that executes policies made on its stage, sins . . . committed by individual governments are thus routinely blamed on the organisation itself.” Using the metaphor coined by an earlier Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, Tharoor describes the UN as “a Santa Maria battling its way through storms and uncharted oceans to a new world, only to find that the people on shore have blamed the storms on the ship.” This vision is astonishingly self-regarding. And note the logic of the argument: if the UN can do no wrong, then surely it must be supported, on the “something is better than nothing” principle.
THERE ARE many reasons to support the UN—Tharoor offers some of them in his article, which debunks the quasi-abolitionist arguments of Bush administration officials like Richard Perle and John Bolton—but the fact that it exists is not one of them. The same thing could have been said about the League of Nations in the 1920s or the 1930s. By chance, the Guardian recently reprinted an editorial it ran on August 27, 1928, on the occasion of the signing of the Kellogg-Briand pact that was meant to “outlaw” war, in which it made just such a case. “Anyone can point out the weaknesses of the League,” the leader writer intoned, “describe its failures, analyse its vices; but the man who does not see that the creation of the League has put man’s hope for peace and his nobler ambitions on a new basis is blind to the history of human institutions.”
The point here is not to claim that the UN is as great a failure as the League, or to deny its successes, above all in its sometimes heroic efforts to alleviate human misery among the poor—the cause to which de Mello devoted most of his career. The sheer range of issues the UN is concerned with through its agencies—such as the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme)—from treaty law to sanitation, and from peace and security to the environment, proves, as Tharoor rightly insists, that it is not irrelevant. The UN’s humanitarian agencies are often criticized for inefficiency and corruption, and like any other governmental bureaucracy they have their share of fools and knaves. But these specialized UN agencies remain the court of last resort for refugees, child soldiers, and, indeed, for the billions of people in the poor world, above all the hundreds of millions in sub-Saharan Africa.
Still, the UN was not founded as some giant alleviation machine—the International Committee of the Red Cross writ large—even though human rights, justice, better living standards, and human dignity are mentioned in the UN charter. It was founded first and foremost as a peace and security institution, designed, as the charter put it, to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and to “maintain international peace and security.” UN officials now routinely claim that peace and security are only one imperative among several. But this is historically inaccurate and self-serving. The UN was founded as a central part of the postwar answer to Nazism. It was not created to bring relief, valuable as such a mission is. Indeed, if the failures of UN peacekeeping in the 1990s really are the pattern of the world organization’s future, if the UN is incapable of autonomous action in the field of peace and security, and if all it can now be is a giant diplomatic talking shop and a giant relief and development institution, then the case for abolition is far stronger than even the UN’s critics have previously suggested.
This may not be the case. Certainly, the war in Iraq has demonstrated the limits of American unilateralism as clearly as it has demonstrated the reality of the U.S.’s unprecedented military power. And “cleaning up” after U.S. invasions of the new type—Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq—may indeed afford the UN a role as a de facto colonial office to U.S. power. It is still, however, unclear whether the UN will either accept or be invited to play such a role. What is clear is that being fuelled with good intentions is not enough. If the UN is worth defending, it must be because of what it accomplishes, not for some radiant future it may lead us to. After Communism, we should be inoculated permanently against radiant futures. And the example of the League of Nations should serve as a cautionary tale for those who wish to think seriously, rather than sentimentally, about the UN.
Proponents of the UN often remark that if the world body did not exist, it would have to be invented again. Doubtless this is true. The need for what we now call multilateral solutions to international problems did not begin with the founding of the UN in 1945, nor will it end when it is eventually superseded, as it will be one day. But the UN is an institution with a particular history and a specific set of underlying assumptions. It is an intergovernmental institution; in other words, a body comprising—and with a secretariat responsible to—the world’s states, not the world’s peoples. Notwithstanding Annan’s attempts to challenge an unqualified reading of sovereignty—in which states are free to do anything within their own borders—the UN’s bedrock assumption remains state sovereignty. This is what has made going beyond the rhetorical commitment to human rights—a hallmark of Annan’s tenure—so fraught. And it is perhaps why the UN can never live up to the expectations of the world’s peoples, even though for some it continues to incarnate them.
For all its pretensions to moral leadership, the UN remains the product of the postwar period in which it was established. Its charter emerged from the negotiations between the founding members in 1944 and 1945, as Stephen Schlesinger details in a fascinating book, Act of Creation. And it is only sensible to imagine that another global body might well be configured differently and be better equipped to cope with a world that has changed out of all recognition. To say that an institution has outlived its time is not the same thing as saying it is useless. The UN presided with great intelligence and commitment over the dissolution of Europe’s colonial empires (the last mission of this type was de Mello’s UN administration in East Timor). But the fact that it was well-suited to the era of decolonization does not change the fact that it may be ill-suited to the twenty-first century, with its rogue states, WMD, international terror networks, and an interventionist global superpower.
TO CLAIM as William Shawcross did in his book on UN peacekeeping, Deliver Us from Evil, that Kofi Annan was “charged with the moral leadership of the world,” is to indulge in a preposterous sort of sycophancy that impedes serious thought about the UN’s future. Annan has had a long and distinguished career within the UN bureaucracy, which he entered as a young man and in which he has served, with the exception of one brief stint in the government of his native Ghana, for his entire adult life. But he is not the secular equivalent of the Pope or the Dalai Lama: he is a politician, a man of power. The cloying press coverage Annan tends to receive, at least outside the U.S., probably serves to obscure the fact that he is indeed the only secular world leader whose brief is as much concerned with the poor and the powerless throughout the world as with the powerful. A British prime minister or a U.S. president does not wake up prepared to devote most of his day to the problems of refugees in northeastern Congo or pollution in the Strait of Malacca. For Annan, such issues lie at the heart of his work. But as observers of the UN have pointed out since its inception, the world body is not a moral post. Annan is the head of the secretariat of an intergovernmental organization—a body whose charter is virtually silent on the Secretary-General’s actual power and role.
Each Secretary-General has defined his position according to his own lights. Dag Hammarskjöld, who held the post between the surprise resignation in 1953 of Trygve Lie, the first Secretary-General, and his own mysterious 1961 death in Congo, was probably the most daring. The much underrated U Thant, who succeeded Hammarskjöld and served until 1971, took many more risks than he is usually given credit for, and went so far as to denounce in public the American war in Vietnam—something it is difficult to imagine either his predecessors or his successors doing. Kurt Waldheim (1972–81) was a Nazi, of course; Pérez de Cuéllar (1982–91) a cautious, canny diplomat; and Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992–96) so thoroughly tyrannized his staff that when Washington decided to deny him a second term, the rank and file at UN headquarters were hard pressed to come up with convincing expressions of regret. Annan, while Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, impressed the U.S. government by his willingness to cooperate with their (belated) decision to intervene in the Balkans. But while there is much evidence that Annan was an effective official, he gave no sign of any special moral leadership. Indeed, many, myself included, reproached him for not resigning over the peacekeeping debacles in Bosnia and Rwanda, which were under his direct supervision. On form, he seemed a decent, intelligent, refined man, but not someone who would rock the boat.
It is one of the surprises of Annan’s tenure, which began in 1997, that this man, who is the first career UN official to become Secretary-General, has been willing to go out on a political limb more frequently than his detractors ever imagined. This is not to say that he has often defied the U.S. On taking office, Annan made it his highest priority to restore relations with Washington and to get the U.S. government to repay the vast arrears in dues it owed the UN. Soon after the attacks of September 11th, the Bush administration defused the dues crisis by handing over $582 million, although the UN claims the U.S. still owes it over $1 billion, mainly for peacekeeping duties. (Total annual UN spending, including agencies and peacekeeping, is over $5 billion.) To be effective, the UN is dependent on U.S. participation and on U.S. financial contributions, something Annan and his advisors recognized from the beginning. His success in patching up relations with the U.S. was an extraordinary diplomatic coup. Annan even managed to charm (or at least neutralize) that diehard reactionary opponent of the UN, Senator Jesse Helms. What it must have cost Annan to make such efforts can only be guessed at. A friend of mine in the Secretariat would only say at the time, “Paris is worth a mass.”
The lesson of the League of Nations—from which the U.S. absented itself—played an important role in Annan’s calculations. Whatever he may or may not have thought of particular U.S. policies (urging the U.S. to lift Iraqi sanctions in the mid–1990s was one issue on which Annan did challenge Washington, albeit discreetly), Annan remained faithful to his initial analysis of the UN’s situation: with the Americans, the world body could succeed in achieving many of its goals, but without the U.S. it would flounder. And Annan’s goals were ambitious. In 2000, he convened the so-called Millennium Summit, which was meant not only to chart the course of the UN in the coming decades, but also to set ambitious targets for poverty alleviation, the environment, and education, as well as peace and security. The summit was controversial. Many UN officials privately believed the organization had already hosted too many conferences, and that the gap between the goals set forth and the actual willingness of member states to meet their commitments had grown too great. But Annan persisted; the summit was held—the largest in UN history—and the goals duly set. (The sceptical officials look almost certain to be proved correct, at least in the field of development aid where few rich countries are likely to reach their targets.)
To make even a formal success of securing international approval of the millennium goals, Annan had to secure the assent of the U.S. in a way that his predecessors had never been able to do. The rationale was simple. As Tharoor puts it in his Foreign Affairs piece, turning a dismissive metaphor coined by the American neoconservative Charles Krauthammer wittily on its head, “If international institutions serve as ropes that tie Gulliver down, then Gulliver will have every interest in snapping the ropes and breaking free of the constraints imposed on him. If, however, these institutions constitute a vessel sturdy enough for Gulliver to sail, and the Lilliputians cheerfully help him to man the bridge and hoist the mainsail because they want to travel to the same destination, then Gulliver is unlikely to jump ship and try to swim on alone.” The image is an unfortunate one—what the delegations from the UN’s other 190 member states feel about being called Lilliputians, one can only imagine—but privately both serving and former UN officials make the same point: however much they might grouse about the U.S., Annan would have been grossly irresponsible, both to the UN as an institution and to his role as a political leader trying to further international peace and security, they argue, if he tried to map out a strategy for global governance that did not have the U.S. at its center. Annan’s position in this regard is often described as being similar to Tony Blair’s. Like Annan, Blair is supposed to think that, for better or worse, for the foreseeable future, the U.S. is the only power that can define the global agenda. If it can be persuaded to act in good causes then those causes will be furthered. But if the U.S. declines to act, little will come of the moral ambitions of the human rights revolution or of the lofty goals set by the UN’s Millennium Summit.
There are obvious flaws in this argument. It assumes that the U.S. and the UN, or, for that matter, the ...

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APA 6 Citation
Rieff, D. (2013). At the Point of a Gun ([edition unavailable]). Simon & Schuster. Retrieved from (Original work published 2013)
Chicago Citation
Rieff, David. (2013) 2013. At the Point of a Gun. [Edition unavailable]. Simon & Schuster.
Harvard Citation
Rieff, D. (2013) At the Point of a Gun. [edition unavailable]. Simon & Schuster. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Rieff, David. At the Point of a Gun. [edition unavailable]. Simon & Schuster, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.