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'endless wars of altruism?'
 an interview with david rieff

An American writer and foreign-policy analyst currently at the American Academy in Berlin, David Rieff is the author most recently of A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (2002) and Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (1995). In this Web-exclusive interview, he discusses what he sees as the distinction between humanitarian interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo and the current war in Iraq, and explains why he's skeptical of the Unites States and Britain's ability "to create democracy out of whole cloth in Iraq." Rieff spoke to FRONTLINE's Wen Stephenson on March 25, 2003.


We all know liberals are divided over this war. For those who support the war, or at least cannot bring themselves to oppose it, one reason seems to be the hope that the war will bring democracy and human rights to the Iraqi people. Obviously, you've heard this a lot. What's your reaction?

photo of rieff

Let me say a couple of things. First, I think that the human rights movement and the Bush administration both subscribe to the logic of intervention. Now, intervention, to be sure, in different causes. But once you say that sovereignty is not the principle absolute, that the criteria are not that a state is sovereign, but rather what crimes it commits (that will be the human rights view) or what threat it poses (that would be kind of the Rumsfeld view) and that those threats and/or crimes, if you like, trump sovereignty, I think you've entered the logic of intervention. So I'm hardly surprised that the liberal West is of two minds.

It's my impression that, particularly in the discourse of Tony Blair, there's a kind of interventionist discourse of the "war of values, not interests." That was Blair's famous phrase. They were fighting a war of values, not interests, over Kosovo. I took his remark at the time to mean, if possible we'll fight future wars in the name of values.

Now, look, I don't want to caricature anybody. I don't feel about Blair, or for that matter about the opponents of the war, I don't feel comfortable denouncing them the way I felt comfortable denouncing the U.N.'s conduct in Bosnia. You know, this neutrality that made no distinction between Serb besiegers and Bosnian defenders of Sarajevo -- it was just peacekeeping, you had to be fair to all parties -- which I thought was morally monstrous.

I think both sides here have a case. I tend to think the people who support the war are doing it sincerely, and the people who oppose the war, it's simply a difference of perspective about international relations, a different perspective about threat, and a different perspective of the role of the United States in the world, and perhaps about unilateralism versus multilateralism.

The idea that Blair is doing this out of some hidden interest, you know, oil or contracts, is just absurd. I mean, nothing could make less political sense than what Blair did. And you have to admire the guy for sticking to his principles. As increasingly even the British press opposing the war have said, here's a guy who's got 80 percent of his country, at least before the war started, opposing. He's got the biggest demonstrations in modern British history. He's got the immigrant community, Muslim immigrant community, up in arms. He has his own sort of chic friends denouncing him. He's got his own party mutiny. And he sticks to his guns.

Related Features

))) The Liberal Divide
Paul Berman, Timothy Garton Ash, and David Rieff discuss Blair, the liberal case for war, and the divided left.

))) The 'Slightly Unexpected' Leader
A Web-exclusive interview with John Rentoul, chief editorial writer for The Independent and author of Tony Blair: Prime Minister (2001), who discusses Blair's character, his political influences, and the evolution of his "ethically based" foreign policy.

Related Links

))) "Picking a Good Fight"
"After Somalia, after Haiti, after Bosnia, after Rwanda, after Kosovo, after East Timor, after Chechnya -- after all these widely varying instances of action or inaction, does 'humanitarian intervention' have a future?" An online roundtable hosted by The Atlantic Monthly, with David Rieff, Robert D. Kaplan, Edward Luttwak, and Benjamin Schwarz. (The Atlantic Online, April 6, 2000).


So I certainly think that this is an act of principle on his part. Now, we can talk about what the content of those principles are, and what their implications are for the international system. And that's, obviously, another conversation.

What's the difference between the liberal version of this, the kind of messianic mission of a Blair, and the neoconservative vision of remaking the Middle East? Do you see a distinction?

In that sense, and that sense only, I think Blair and the neoconservatives have more in common than, say, Blair and the realists within the United States, the administration.

And I must tell you that I'm not somebody who believes that Saddam Hussein is just another dictator. In fact, I learned that from the human rights movement. If you read Human Rights Watch reports, you know Saddam Hussein is an exceptional figure. He is guilty of genocide. I don't think it's inaccurate of the administration, or the Blair government, to insist that this guy, along with Kim Jung Il, poses a threat, a future threat, but a threat nonetheless to the United States, which other tyrants, whether it's the dictator of Congo at the moment, or some faction leader in Somalia, or somewhere else, do not pose.

Now, the administration, as I see it, is divided between people like Don Rumsfeld who really think these are the enemies of the United States, and the existence of weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons, small weapons, weapons you can't find with satellites or in the normal ways, make pre-emption a strategic necessity. And my own view is that they're right, and that the left, the anti-war left, to me would be much more convincing if they would concede this. As long as they deny this, to me they really very much put their own credibility into doubt.

Now, it seems to me that Rumsfeld, and for that matter, reluctantly perhaps, but nonetheless, Powell and I suspect Condi Rice, think the United States has these enemies, and we must destroy them before they destroy us -- a perfectly realist, 19th-century nationalist view of national security. And if the rest of the world is too thick headed or timid or unwilling to resort to military force, then no responsible leader can allow that to get in the way of what is a matter of absolute national obligation.

On the other side, it seems to me, are Richard Perle, Dick Haass, Doug Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, who really believe that George W. Bush is Reagan II, that we can effect the same kind of utopian transformation in the Middle East that we effected in the Soviet Union. And what they say is, "You liberals," or "you Foggy Bottom types" -- because after all they're just as contemptuous of the Powells of this world as they are of the Gore Vidals --"You people, you don't understand. You said the Soviet Union would last a million years, and it didn't. And now you're saying the Arab world is condemned to this kind of regime, and we can do nothing. But we can actually do a lot -- just as we could overthrow the Soviet Union through the combination of an ideological war and a military buildup, we can do the same thing in the Middle East and absolutely transform the world."

Now, to my mind, to a very large extent, they reflect the oldest traditions of the Republic -- you know, Franklin's famous phrase, "The cause of America is the cause of humanity." As both conservatives and Marxists have always pointed out, the difference between the United States' empire and every other imperial power is the American empire is a revolutionary empire. France might be the only other one that could claim that. But there's a messianic quality. And even the founders who opposed this -- I mean, John Adams didn't deny that the American cause was a special cause -- they just insisted that going out to transform the world by force was not the way to do it.

So, I think in that sense, both Blair and the neoconservatives in the Bush administration, both represent an idea of a war of values, whereas I think Rumsfeld, and I suspect the Powells of this administration, represent simply a war of what they view as self-preservation. I don't actually see a dichotomy between Blair and, say, Dick Perle -- even though on every matter from cultural issues to style to political ideology they would disagree with each other heartily. But in terms of the idea that this is a war for democratization, I think Blair has more in common with Perle or Doug Feith than with, let's say, Colin Powell.

Does Blair think like an American?

You know, one thing that strikes me about Blair is, I've always said the biggest difference between Europe and the United States is that Europe is a post-Christian continent and we are a Christian country. And, you know, if you think of Mitterand and Kohl, and for that matter John Major and Mrs. Thatcher, and Schröder and Berlusconi, and if you went down the list of major European leaders, you'd be hard pressed to find a real believer among any of them. Whereas in our tradition, you know, the believers are a dime a dozen. And Blair's a believer.

So, in that sense I do believe that Blair's affinity for President Bush is real. I think they're two devout Christians, who are sincere believers, and whose faith is a central element of their careers, of their essences. They're men of faith. I'm actually not surprised at all that Blair, who was thought to be the great friend of Bill Clinton, seems to get along if not better then at least as well with President Bush. And the Christian view of the world is a view of conversion. It's a view of redemption. It sees the world as a place where people need to be saved.

And my hunch, speaking of the United States, is that the president is more on the Perle, Feith, Haass side, as I see what he's done, and the language he uses. But my sense is that these people really sincerely believe that American hegemony without democratization American-style isn't worth it -- that they are genuine utopians. This administration, if it has one cardinal political flaw, tends only to believe in its own best-case scenarios. It's an administration of ideologues to a very considerable extent. I think they tend to take their wishes for realities, which is the mark of the utopian.

I mean, one thing that always strikes me about the neoconservative wing of the Bush administration is how much they remind me of May '68 ultra-leftists. They're like those people. They're totally persuaded that they're on the side of the angels. And they're not very particular about the means they use on the way toward doing, you know, that angelic work.

I consider myself, in every sense, someone who is a friend of the American military and sympathetic to its concerns. But, you know, when I hear the secretary of defense complaining about American soldiers being put on television, and I think of Guantanamo, and the disgraceful policies of the Pentagon about captured Taliban, I'm afraid it does stick in my craw. But, of course, if you're a true believer, if you're an old Bolshevik, you know what matters is that you're on the right side; law is just an instrument. Again, these people strike me that way.

There are those who make a case for viewing a war (not necessarily this war, at this time) against the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein as a war against a latter-day incarnation of 20th-century totalitarianism or fascism, and have criticized Bush for failing to make this a "war of ideas," a war about liberal-democratic values, rather than merely a war about credibility and national security. Should this war be seen as a war of ideologies?

Well, I think for Blair it is. I believe that Blair thinks that, you know, Saddam Hussein is simultaneously a threat to his country and to the other democratic countries, in purely military and terrorist extents, and that the Baathist regime is particularly dreadful and merits being overthrown. I think the Blair view is that there are both values and interests at stake, and that makes it imperative, the combination makes it imperative.

I think the difference is that the British government does not see its role as intervening all over the world. It doesn't have troops in how many dozen of countries we have troops in. It doesn't affect to be the sole remaining superpower for the good and sufficient reasons that it isn't. So for Blair, he's got to present this war as a special case. Whereas we, at least conceivably, could simply assume an imperial burden.

So, for Blair to argue the case I think requires the values issue to be made at least part of it. I think that's the liberal justification for the war, precisely that Saddam is simultaneously an almost uniquely wicked tyrant, infinitely deserving of being overthrown, and a clear and present danger.

But not even so much Saddam Hussein personally, as the ideology that his Baathist regime represents? That it's a kind of fascism, heir to 20th-century totalitarianism?

Yeah, but my question to that is: Is it really the duty of the United States to topple every totalitarianism? For example, I hear a lot of talk, among supporters of the war, of references to appeasement. But, I say to myself, Hitler was a guy who almost succeeded in conquering the world. Is Saddam such a threat? In other words, had we appeased fascist Romania rather than fascist Germany, would that have been so terrible? Is it really necessary for the United States to use force to right the wrongs of the world? I mean, it's the old question.

Is Saddam Hussein really the incarnation of totalitarianism? He is a totalitarian dictator, but does that mean that all the other totalitarian dictators should be overthrown by us? Should we go after various African tyrants? Should we invade Cuba? I mean, is it really the case that it is the duty of the United States, as a country with the military might, to do this? To undo regimes, particularly when we have nothing to put in their place?

For me a vital distinction, for example, between an intervention in Bosnia, which I supported, and this, is my support for the Bosnians had to do with the fact that I felt Bosnia was a genuine democracy. And that I wanted my country, a democracy, to side with this other democracy against their fascist enemies. But it seems to me people are saying, in effect, we know how to build democracies in these places. Or, alternatively, these democracies are waiting to germinate, if only we could get rid of the totalitarian tyrant.

And I don't buy it. I've got to say, I don't see any evidence for this. And I'm very skeptical of the ability of the United States to create democracies in places like Iraq, which have never had a democracy. These just seem to be utopian constructs. And I'm very puzzled by them.

We're not going to build a viable democracy in Iraq having invaded it. Because one thing that I think the people from the left really just refuse to accept is that, you know, the United States is viewed as an imperial power in these parts of the world.

On the pro-war left, you're saying?

Yeah, the pro-war left. They've forgotten everything they knew about American imperialism. And when I say this I'm not suggesting that America is an evil country. I mean, no one has more contempt for Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman and those sorts of people than I do. I find what they say of literally no value intellectually or morally.

Nonetheless, the United States is viewed as the successor empire to the European colonial empires by huge numbers of people in the world. The notion that we can establish a kind of credible post-war tutelage seems to me again an incredible amount of wishful thinking. I mean, in effect, what people both on the neoconservative right, and the sort of hawkish left, seem to be saying is, in effect, that this time American power -- well, the people on the right always thought American power was fundamentally benign -- has become completely benign. And I'm very puzzled by that.

This is the question, I think, intelligent opponents of Blair have asked him, which is why is it the duty of Britain or the United States, why is it the duty of our people to kill and die to create democracy out of whole cloth in Iraq?

It seems to me the people who say that, you know, who choose to view the war against Saddam Hussein as a fundamentally moral crusade, are in effect saying that it's the job of the United States, in principle, to be the sword bearer of the anti-totalitarian struggle. But is that really true? I mean, the Soviet Union posed a clear danger to us, in my view. Again, I'm not at all of the left view in this. Our national survival was at stake in the Cold War. Is our national survival really at stake now? And if it's supposed to be a war of values, then is it really our fate -- and should we agree to this fate if we have any say in it -- to fight endless wars of altruism? I mean, that's what the logic of that position seems to suggest.

It seems like Rumsfeld, and Blair for that matter, are saying that the combination of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism does pose some kind of existential threat. Maybe not that it could literally destroy our country, but that it could do so much damage, cost so much loss of life, that it's a threat of that order. Whereas you seem to be saying that on an ideological level, the threat of Baathist fascism, or whatever, isn't really a threat to our way of life.

I don't think there's any chance of Saddam Hussein making converts out of the Mexican government. I'm just trying to understand what existential threat would mean. I understand the existential threat. And again, because I'm not -- I am, you know, very, very cautiously opposed to this war, in the sense that I felt that we should have waited a bit longer, but I am not sure of my position. I'll be very candid. Kenneth Pollack may be right, and I may be wrong. Don Rumsfeld may be right, and I may be wrong. This may be a big enough security threat to warrant doing it. I'm not sure. My sense is it is not, but I could be wrong, which is why I've never taken a strong anti-war stance, and why I can't support the demonstrations and all this, because I do feel that these people may be right about it, purely in terms of a threat.

You see, what worries me about the argument about combating totalitarianism, if it's unaccompanied by the notion that we are, you know, in immediate and clear and present danger from the totalitarianism in question -- again, I come back to my 1930's example. We were in danger from Nazi totalitarianism; we were not in danger from Romanian totalitarianism. So if the danger is so great, fine. But if what we're talking about is wars to redress wrongs, the bad Iraqi regime, is that really what we should be doing?

And this is where, frankly, I think the right is more honest than the left. The neoconservatives want, or at least some of them want, an American empire. That's a coherent position. You know, at least I can understand that.

You've written, it was in the recent essay in Foreign Affairs adapted from your new book, "Given the choice between liberal imperialism and barbarism, the former may well be the best that the people of Sierra Leone or perhaps even Bosnia can hope for at the moment." You weren't bringing Iraq into the conversation there. But what about Iraq? I guess it depends on what you mean by liberal imperialism. If you're talking about the right being more honest about wanting an American empire, are they talking about what you mean here by liberal imperialism?

I don't know. Look, first of all, it is a serious argument, this liberal imperial argument. And it is an argument that objectively can't be denied. For example, there's no question that if the only choices are to be ruled by a U.N. protectorate in Kosovo or by the Serbs, you'll take the U.N. protectorate. I once wrote an essay about how if people are really serious about failed states, what they would do is they'd probably set up another mandatory system, only this time it wouldn't be just an excuse to adding to European empires.

But if we did that, that would really require multilateralism. There was a great cartoon in The Guardian the other day which had the U.N. flag with a Centcom logo in the middle. I think it's very possible that the destiny of the U.N. is to be the colonial office for the American empire, if there is an American empire. I think it's perfectly possible that will happen.

One of the things that I find most striking about the U.N.'s conduct recently is that having denounced the Americans for behaving unilaterally, now the U.N. wants to be given the task of administering the Iraq that the Americans leave. Well, you know, if that isn't the colonial authority of an empire, I don't know what is. And Kofi Annan says things like, "Well, we must accept the world as we find it."

Is that liberal imperialism?

It probably is. But again, for me at least the places I was talking about were places that were anarchic. In other words, I think that argument is much more powerful when you're talking about countries that really have lost the ability to govern themselves. I didn't mean simply any regime we think of as dictatorial. People in Iraq were fed and clothed. In other words, we're not talking about a regime. What I meant were these places that nobody cares about. If the world were a just place, we would all look out for these people, and look after them. And probably the only way we can, which is this kind of liberal imperial form, there's really no interest in the United States taking over Somalia or Sierre Leone or Liberia.

When you think of Liberia, for which we actually bear some literal responsibility historically, nobody is saying, "It's imperative that the United States re-colonize Liberia." But does the logic of the left-wing hawkish position not entail endless wars of altruism?

So is it dangerous making it a war of ideology? And what's the difference between the left-wing hawkish position and the neoconservative position?

The two are not so far away: "The American model is the model for the world. We can remake the world in a democratic image." I'm skeptical of that. I think the Greeks had a word for it: hubris.

When I read neoconservative writers like Bob Kagen or Max Boot or others -- and I have a lot of respect for them -- I think that somehow their faith in America is such that they're really not capable of thinking as historians. In other words, the United States, for them, American exceptionalism goes up to and including the notion that you can pursue imperial ventures without being corrupted yourself. That you can go to war without being brutalized by war. You can be the hegemonic power without abusing that power. In other words, that all the lessons about power and hegemony that history teaches us from ancient China through the British Empire -- somehow the United States is not subject to those things. The United States is such an exceptional country that none of those rules apply.

Now, if I believed that, I'd be with them. The reason I can't be with them is I do think Lord Acton was right, that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And it seems to me their vision of the American empire would offer us a textbook example of Acton's axiom. I think the United States would itself be corrupted by such power.

I don't understand how these incredibly smart guys are so confident in almost the immutable goodness and virtue of the United States, which is how I read the subtext of their arguments. That seems to me very strange. And to think about any polity, even the United States -- about which a great deal of good in my view can be said -- you know, it's one thing to say lots of good things about the United States as I try to do, and believe in doing, and it's quite another thing to present the United States as a sort of inherently good and, again, more importantly, immutably good place.

If you look at Tony Blair on the one hand and someone like Joschka Fischer on the other, is it possible to view the current war as a "trial of the generation of 1968"?

Well, what I think is that all of these guys who were in '68 are haunted by the appropriate use of state power. And that to some weird degree, their entire careers have been spent thinking about, or being haunted by, the legitimacy of state power. Actually, what's interesting to me about Fischer is that actually Fischer is the guy in all of German politics most sympathetic to the idea of the use of force. Faced by Kosovo he could go along; faced by Iraq, for him it remained a bridge too far. And that's the way I see the difference in trajectory.

Now, obviously, Fischer was a member of the "hard left"; Tony Blair was a member of the "soft left." But I agree with you entirely in the sense that I think the generation of '68, with its profound questioning, its fundamental experience, which was questioning the authority and legitimacy of the state, has been haunted, as it came into positions of leadership and even before, by state power.

But again, I think Fischer was going down the same route as Blair, and really that what from his point of view looked like American unilateralism just blocked him; you know, that was too big an obstacle for him. I don't know whether it's because it brought up the specter of Vietnam, or because -- I don't know the guy, so I don't want to be vulgarly psychological -- but I do know from having seen him speak here in Germany, among other things, my impression is he's really profoundly shocked by the unwillingness of the United States to wait for everybody to come to some kind of deal.

Look, to some extent this is very disingenuous. I mean, it seems to me that when the people in the administration say, "Why is Iraq illegitimate when Kosovo was legitimate?" they have a real point. Myself, I think that's a hard one to answer. It does strike me that in Europe, at least -- I mean, I hate to be so cutting, but why shouldn't I be; in for a penny, in for a pound -- I think a lot of the European opposition is fear. It's the fear of Islamic terrorism, of revolts in the immigrant communities. It's the sense that this is really dangerous. No one thought the Serbs were going to try to blow up the Strasbourg Cathedral. So, in a sense, you could do Kosovo, which was just as illegal -- if Iraq is illegal, Kosovo is illegal -- Europeans could support Kosovo, or at least not get too worked up about it, because there wasn't going to be any price to be paid. And, you know, I'm afraid I'm cynical enough about the motives of the demonstrators to feel that this is not an incidental element in this story. That when people say they're afraid of war, I think what they're really saying is they're afraid of Islamic terrorism, and fear the war will provoke it.

And while I don't mean to say people aren't sincerely opposed to American unilateralism, and all the rest, I think underlying that is a kind of deep fearfulness about what the price of this will be in their lives. And maybe they're right.



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posted april 3, 2003

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