In Defense of Liberal Interventionism

The Iraq invasion may be a disaster, but the doctrine of intervention is right

01/07/2008 | by Jonathan Powell

Category: Humanitarian Intervention, Conflicts and Strategies, Security, Iraq, Near and Middle East/North Africa, Eastern Arabia/Israel

This proponent of the Iraq War urges the left not to retreat to the comfortable, outdated policy of nonintervention. Protecting innocent peoples from brutal oppression needs to be the first commandment of a moral politics. The only question is, how?

Traditionally it is progressives rather than conservatives who urge intervention in support of human rights and democracy. It was the left that flocked to support the Republican cause in Spain against the Franco regime in the 1930s. And it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Democrats who opted to join the alliance against fascism in World War II in the face of opposition from Republican Party isolationists.

Yet in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War it is now elements of the left that want to retreat from humanitarian intervention, leaving the cause as the exclusive preserve of neoconservatives. I argue that it would be a terrible mistake to abandon the internationalism that is today a central tenet of progressives everywhere. Our fear should not be more American adventurism but rather that the world’s only superpower retreats into isolationism as it did after the Vietnam War. In modern politics in a globalized world, the key dividing line is between open and closed societies: free trade rather than protectionism, tolerance rather than nativism on the issue of immigration, engagement and intervention rather than isolationism.

The case for liberal interventionism was first made by Britain’s prime minister, Tony Blair, in his 1998 Chicago speech on the eve of the NATO-led bombing campaign against Serbia. It is a speech that is worth revisiting. His argument was that the principle of noninterference established by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 was out of date. The wars of religion brought to an end by this treaty had visited unprecedented devastation on the continent of Europe as armies marched back and forth trying to impose Protestantism or Catholicism on neighboring states. In an attempt to prevent a recurrence, the rulers of Europe agreed that wars over succession and wars over territory were fine, but wars aimed at imposing values on another state were henceforth banned. The principle of noninterference lasted for centuries and was regularly invoked by the Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact when I was negotiating with them in the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the 1980s. And we in the West used it as an excuse to sit on our hands during the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968.

Whether or not the principle was ever morally justified, it is no longer practical in today’s changed world. The excuse of the Cold War has been removed and intervening on humanitarian grounds no longer risks nuclear Armageddon between the two superpowers. Globalization has transformed not just economics but politics as well, and the world has become a smaller place. In London we watch Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, and in Waziristan they watch CNN and BBC World. We cannot protect our industries any more by raising tariff barriers and we cannot protect our citizens from terrorist attacks simply by erecting better border controls. If we stand idly by while the peoples of other countries are brutally suppressed by their rulers and when nations disintegrate into failed states, there will be consequences for our security at home. In a globalized world the place to protect our values is not at the border but in a forward defense wherever injustice is being perpetrated on innocent victims. 

Blair’s Chicago speech did not suggest that we invade countries willy nilly. It set out five conditions for determining when action was appropriate. First, we need to be sure of our case. War is a very imperfect instrument for righting wrongs. But sometimes armed force is the only way to address dictatorships. Second, we have to exhaust all diplomatic options. We should always give peace every chance. Third, there have to be practical and sensible military options that we can undertake. Sending gunboats to Zimbabwe, for example, will not work. Fourth, we have to be prepared for the long term. We talk about exit strategies but we cannot just walk away when a fight is over any more than the Allies did from Germany after World War II. And fifth, national interests need to be engaged. We need to promote our own security by protecting the rights of others in a particular situation.

In government we applied these principles to four different conflicts. We did so in 1999 in Kosovo to prevent Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s brutal suppression of the minority Albanian population. The Clinton administration was initially reluctant to deploy ground forces after the bitter experience of Somalia but we argued, successfully, that it was impossible to win the war from the air. We never managed to get a UN Security Council Resolution authorizing action because of the threat of a Russian veto. But no one seriously questioned our approach because we were militarily successful relatively quickly and -because we had a fairly wide coalition of European support.

In Sierra Leone where a humanitarian disaster was happening before our eyes after endless civil war, Great Britain intervened alone. Again, no one objected to the theoretical underpinnings of our action because it was so small and of little strategic importance. But now that governments have been replaced democratically in both Sierra Leone and in neighboring Liberia, the people in that part of West Africa have real hope of a better future.

In Afghanistan, after the tragedy of 9/11 we were able to get a UN Security Council Resolution and garner a wide global coalition of support for military action against the Taliban. The question there remains whether the international community has the patience to remain for the long term because it will take time, money, and blood sacrifice before Afghanistan is able to stand on its own.

And finally there was the difficult case of Iraq. As with Kosovo, we could not get a UN Security Council Resolution authorizing military action because of the threat of a veto. Like Sierra Leone there was a narrow base to the military coalition. And like Afghanistan it is a problem that will take a long time to resolve. But it is Iraq rather than Kosovo, Sierra Leone, or Afghanistan that has undermined support for interventionism in general.

What Went Wrong? 

My starting position is that no one in their right mind would want to see the bloodletting and mayhem taking place on the streets of Iraq. There is no point in pretending that it has all been a wonderful success. But, equally, there are not many people in Iraq who want to see Saddam Hussein and the Baathists returned to power. And I cannot apologize for our desire to get rid of him. Instead of questioning the motives of those of us who supported the invasion, it would be more useful to have a constructive debate about what went wrong in Iraq. If most people wanted to see the back of a bloodthirsty dictator who was murdering his own people and threatening his neighbors, why have we not yet ended up with the free, democratic, peaceful country we wanted?

There are a number of explanations regularly trotted out, but I do not find any of them convincing. It is said we should not have disbanded Saddam’s army. And, indeed, we did not; it ran away. Moreover, reimposing the authority of Saddam’s Sunni officers would have provoked a revolution. It is said we should not have gone so far in de-Baathification, and it is true the policy has had to be reversed just as de-Nazification was reversed in postwar Germany when the Americans realized they had gone so far they could find no competent candidates to serve as mayors. But, of course, we were accused at the time of not going far or fast enough. US Senator John McCain’s explanation for failure is that we sent too few American troops. It is probably true that more troops would have helped, but it is hard to conceive that the Americans could have sent enough troops to prevent all of the ensuing violence. And, lastly, it is said that we should have continued sanctions rather than taking military action. But sanctions were ineffective and were hurting the wrong people while Saddam and his cronies were profiteering from sanctions-busting. Sanctions would neither have ended the regime nor the suffering in Iraq.

Having reflected on the issue in the year since we left office, I think the explanation for our difficulties lies in the fourth condition in the Chicago speech—being ready for the long term. The best analogy for Iraq is the Balkans. Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito died nearly 30 years ago and yet the violent transition from dictatorship there is not yet over. We tried not intervening in Bosnia with disastrous results and a 100,000 dead. And we tried intervening in Kosovo with better results, but still the issue is not resolved and people are dying. So in cases where a dictator is replaced and the bottled up frustrations of generations are released there is probably a cycle of blood that has to be passed through. In Iraq we also faced a brutal dictator who had killed off any potential rival leaders and destroyed civil society, as well as the task of reversing  the rule of the minority (the Sunni) over the majority (the Shia) that had lasted for centuries. So if there was to be change in Iraq—and the only alternative was Saddam handing over his regime to his sons—then the transition was always going to be long and bloody.

The lesson I draw for progressives from Iraq therefore is not that we should give up on intervention but that we should be prepared for a long struggle that requires wide support both at home and internationally. It does not necessarily mean we need a UN resolution—after all we did not have one for Kosovo—but it does mean a broader and deeper coalition than we had in Iraq.

In the Chicago speech, in addition to burying the principle of noninterference, Tony Blair called for radical reform of the United Nations to make it into an alliance for action rather than an excuse for inaction. Unfortunately that reform has not been undertaken and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council have deliberately tried to keep the United Nations weak. It seems to me extraordinarily shortsighted that the United States, whose slow decline has already commenced, does not see the need to establish a rules-based international system before the rise to prominence of countries that do not necessarily share its values leads to a different balance of power in the world. The fact is that India and China are as attached to noninterference as the former Soviet Union was. Maintaining American freedom of maneuver as the sole superpower may make sense now, but it will not in a few years time. My solution would be to give a power of initiative to the Secretary General, to increase the membership of the Security Council so that it represents the new powers of the world, and abolish the veto so that intervention to remove dictators cannot be stopped by one country. If the support of the majority of the Security Council can be secured, then action could be taken with the sort of wide and deep coalition of support for military intervention that is necessary when it takes many years to succeed.

It is an understatement to say that a revolution would be needed to develop a consensus for such radical reform of the United Nations. But without it I find it hard to see how we can agree when intervention should happen. And there are many cases in today’s world crying out for humanitarian intervention. How can we sit back and watch what is happening in Zimbabwe with equanimity? Surely even if our conscience does not move us to action then our self-interest should as we watch the violence it is engendering in South Africa. And can we sit idly by as the Burmese junta allow hundreds of thousands of their people to die in the aftermath of the floods? Do we not care that they deny freedom and democracy to their people? Do we believe that this sort of brutal dictatorship has no consequences for us?

As the power of India and China rises, the only way in which countries like mine can play an effective role in stopping dictators like those in Burma and Zimbabwe is as part of Europe. We need a European defense force that can contribute to righting these international wrongs. Now is the moment to bring that about. France has indicated its willingness to rejoin the NATO command structure and no one can now seriously object to the development of an EU defense capability as being a threat to NATO. European forces are fighting in Afghanistan, and it is wrong that the different nations take on different degrees of risk in that common struggle. European countries spend a huge amount on defense individually and yet only Britain, France, and certain Central and Eastern European countries have an effective military capacity. If we spent the same money with some collective consultation we would be in a position to intervene effectively in support of our values around the world alongside the United States. 

The new US president inaugurated in 2009 will have a great opportunity. Anti-Americanism in Europe, in Asia, and in the Middle East will be suspended. If he can reciprocate this welcome and engage with the rest of the world instead of turning inward then there is the real possibility of a new period of international optimism. Europe needs to be ready to offer support. By that I do not mean words of advice, trying to play Greeks to their Romans, but practical support in ensuring humanitarian intervention around the world from Afghanistan and Zimbabwe to Burma. If we have military capability and the will to intervene then we can play a role in that new international coalition for our values.

Above all we need European leadership. And there we have an opportunity. It is more than three decades since then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asked what was the telephone number for Europe. In all those years we have not been able to produce a leader who can speak for the continent. This is why it is so important to overcome the current impasse over the European Union reform treaty. This would create the new positions of President of the European Council and a new High Representative bringing together the powers of the Commission and the Council on foreign policy. These new figures could form a powerful voice for Europe in partnership with a new US president engaged in the world and ready to intervene in support of our values. It is not an opportunity that occurs very often. It would be a tragedy if we let this pass.

JONATHAN POWELL was chief of staff to Britain’s prime minister, Tony Blair, from 1994 to 2007. His most recent book is Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland.


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