Notes From the Margins…

Peter Beaumont on the Folly of Good Intentions

  • February 19, 2012
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With the new post-Gaddafi order in Libya disintegrating into violent chaos,  Peter Beaumont examines the pitfalls of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in today’s Observer.   He quotes from an article by former State Department official Stewart Patrick in Foreign Affairs last September, which described the fall of Tripoli as “the first unambiguous military enforcement of the Responsibility to Protect norm, Gaddafi’s utter defeat seemingly putting new wind in the sails of humanitarian intervention”.

Beaumont appears to agree with this assessment and insists that “the mission to overthrow Gaddafi was a noble one”.   But he then goes on to include Libya in a list of countries where western military interventions have left a “series of weak and corrupt fragile states, where violence is often commonplace and anything resembling real democracy utterly absent” – a list that includes Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo.

In his analysis of why interventions with such good intentions failed, Beaumont argues

while few would deny that states using violence against their own populations delegitimise themselves, when that abuse is then deployed to argue for the use of force to remove regimes, it creates a complex dynamic that risks normalising conflict in the new political space, as has occurred in Iraq and Libya. Perhaps even more worrying has been the starkly visible trend towards ever-more hands-off engagement in the post-conflict reconstruction that has mirrored an apparent desire for intervention to be ever cheaper in terms of blood and treasure.

This leads him to conclude that

if the notion of humanitarian intervention is not to be utterly discredited, there has to be a rigorous, realistic and practical understanding of what is required not simply to remove abusive regimes, but to guarantee genuine freedoms, democracy and transparency in the post-conflict period.

Throughout this analysis, Beaumont’s insistence on  the “core moral principle of humanitarian intervention” is matched by an unquestioning assumption that the interventions he describes were motivated by the same elevated concerns.

Absent from this analysis is any sense of the way that R2p rhetoric has been used as a propaganda front for the new post-Cold War militarism.  Beaumont does not  mention the strategic and geopolitical objectives that have underpinned the interventions he describes, or the ways in which these objectives have directly contributed to the failures he describes.

It’s not for nothing that all the interventions mentioned by Beaumont have relied on local allies, puppets and stooges with a very dubious commitment to democracy or human rights, whether it was the gangsters of the Kosovo Liberation Army,  sleazy and unrepresentative politicians like Ahmed Chalabi and the corrupt former UNOCAL representative Hamid Karzai, the warlords of the Northern Alliance or former Gaddafi loyalists who jumped ship when it suited them.

Such allies are unlikely to become the basis for stable or democratic post-conflict societies, and they are generally chosen by the ‘interventionists’ in order to realise their own specific agendas.  In his insistence that atrocities and human rights abuses carried out by states against their own population ‘delegitimise’ the regimes concerned, Beaumont does not address the legitimacy of atrocities and crimes carried between states – including those that have taken place in the course of the interventions he describes.

He cites a Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities presented to Barack Obama in August last year as a triumph for ‘intervention hawk’ Samantha Power, the author of A Problem from Hell, who he credits with prompting Obama to back the anti-Gaddafi rebels.  The directive argues that

Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.    Our security is affected when masses of civilians are slaughtered, refugees flow across borders, and murderers wreak havoc on regional stability and livelihoods.

Many of these things have happened as a consequence of the interventions Beaumont describes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.   Because war is not a humanitarian activity, and aggressive ‘pre-emptive’ or ‘preventive’ wars are never likely to produce humanitarian outcomes.

Beaumont is right that the principle of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ is a good one,  and a worthy aspiration for a civilised international order in which moral principle takes the place of narrow self-interest in the relationships between states.  But the disasters that he describes have not been carried out in pursuit of such an order.

On the contrary, they have been launched by a handful of powerful states in pursuit of the same old geopolitical and economic objectives, which use humanitarian rhetoric as a smokescreen for permanent war, and which invoke moral principles when it suits them and ignore them when they don’t.

And contrary to Beaumont’s assertions, there really is nothing very noble about that.


Featured Image: Lance Cpl. Ryan Busse.  Wikimedia Commons.




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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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