Help Is on the Way

August 21, 2008; Page A11

Most international-law experts have long agreed that war is permissible against a government that commits or tolerates atrocities against its own subjects. This rule does not apply to instances of run-of-the-mill repression, but it does apply to abuses of extraordinary severity. The government at fault is deemed to have forfeited its claim to sovereignty, and other states may send troops to stanch the bloodshed. Nobody has defined where the threshold lies, but it was obviously crossed -- to take two notorious examples -- in the case of Hitler's Holocaust and Pol Pot's maniacal regime in Cambodia.

[Freedom's Battle]

The problem is that no one lifted a finger in response to either horror. While international law rests in part on intuitive justice, it also rests on custom. What have states actually done by way of humanitarian intervention? Not much. Decades back, the case often cited in legal literature was the landing of Western forces in the Congo in the 1960s to protect Europeans caught in the middle of a multi-sided civil war. But rescuing whites stranded in African chaos made an uninspiring example. A more promising precedent was Tanzania's invasion of Uganda in 1978 to oust Idi Amin. Tanzania, however, insisted that its action was taken in response to territorial violations by Ugandan forces, not to Amin's murderous domestic record.

In short, the case book on "humanitarian intervention" seemed hopelessly thin until the 1990s. In the decade between the Cold War and the war on terror, global diplomacy focused on a series of crises ripe for humanitarian intervention: Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo. In these cases, however, the performance of outsiders was decidedly mixed. The firmest, timeliest response came in Kosovo, where the atrocities were fewest; the least effort was made in Rwanda, where they were greatest. In Bosnia, intervention began too late; in Somalia, it ended too soon.

Still, acceptance of the idea grew, and in 2005 and 2006 the United Nations enshrined in various resolutions what it called the "responsibility to protect." With "Freedom's Battle," Princeton historian Gary J. Bass buttresses the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention by reacquainting us with three 19th-century episodes in which military invasions were undertaken to rescue populations subjected to terrible abuses. He describes the naval efforts of Britain, France and Russia in support of the Greeks fighting for independence from Turkey in the 1820s; the suppression by France of communal warfare between Druse and Maronites in Lebanon and Syria in the 1860s; and Russia's defense of Bulgarians against Ottoman "horrors" in the 1870s.

Mr. Bass relates these episodes masterfully, providing a wealth of detail in fluid prose. Although he aims to make a point -- about the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention -- his accounts are full and fair-minded. "Freedom's Battle" is a pleasure for the learning one can take away from it and for the opportunity it provides to reflect on how much things have changed since the 19th century, and how much, in certain ways, they have not.

The battles between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon -- eventually resolved not only by outside force but also by a power-sharing arrangement representing each sect -- seem painfully familiar. So does the assiduity with which Russia played every humanitarian crisis solely for its own aggrandizement. The poet Byron was the apotheosis of philhellenism, journeying to Greece to join its fight for independence, and his disappointment in the real-live Greeks he met sounds like so many contemporary encounters of Westerners with the Third World.

Preludes to current debates can be heard in Thomas Jefferson's forecast of universal democracy as well as in John Quincy Adams's rejection of a donation for Greek relief on the ground that he would rather see the money spent "at home." One feels a frisson of a contrary kind in reading the scale of the massacres that galvanized the conscience of the 19th century -- death merely by the thousands. So innocent seem those days before slaughters by the millions.

I am not sure, however, that Mr. Bass's story leads to the conclusion he aims for. He claims that "the tradition of humanitarian intervention once ran deep in world politics." But his accounts offer ambiguous evidence. In every case the victims were Christians mistreated by Muslims, and in each case those urging rescue appealed directly to Christian solidarity. Napoleon III, preparing to send soldiers to Syria to protect the Maronites, invoked the glory of the Crusades. How far is all this from rescuing white people in Africa?

Worse, even the religious solidarity was sometimes feigned. Russia long arrogated the right to intervene as protector of Christians under Ottoman rule, but Mr. Bass quotes Disraeli's plausible report "that the Russian ambassador had told him that 'Russia did not care a pin for Bulgaria, or Bosnia . . . what it really wanted was the Straits.' " Mr. Bass provides a wrenching chapter on the World War I massacre of Armenians by the Turks, focusing on U.S. ambassador Henry Morgenthau's vain appeals for intervention. This massacre eclipsed the killings in Greece, Syria, Lebanon or Bulgaria -- and yet went unimpeded. So much for the "tradition" of humanitarian action running "deep" in world politics.

Finally, Mr. Bass tackles some of the difficulties -- then and now -- of humanitarian intervention. On one end of the spectrum, few states are willing to risk the lives of their own citizens to rescue others. On the other, humanitarian concern may be put forward as a pretext for what are really imperial designs. Today the first difficulty is much more likely than the second -- think only of the unrelieved sufferings of Darfur. I'm with Mr. Bass in wishing for a greater willingness to intervene, but I suspect that interventionists are on stronger ground appealing to natural justice than to "tradition."

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
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