on 20 December 2008
This book is essential. It responds with both compassion and the wisdom of first hand experience to the growing debate over humanitarian crises and how to deal with them. I applaud the author for his courage in volunteering for humanitarian service in some of the most dangerous places on earth. More importantly though I applaud his courage in speaking up forcefully to the growing lobby of liberal interventionists, who urge the US to take up the new `white man's burden' and to assume the mantle of responsibility to protect. Conor Foley has put himself in harm's way during his service and now argues against the tide of growing opinion (supported by the media and such high profile players as CNN's Christiane Amanpour) in favour of a more cautious and pragmatic approach to humanitarian conflicts. Mr. Foley quite literally charts a course along a `Thin Blue Line' between humanitarian compassion and the impulse to intervene, which has in recent years evidently caused more suffering rather than less.
A few examples of Foley's contribution to the debate may be helpful:
* The author reviews the traditional role of humanitarian organizations and their tendency toward neutrality in order to accomplish their goals. He then explains how that neutrality has been co-opted by a political humanitarianism favoring intervention.
* He examines how the policies of the UK government evolved under Tony Blair to abandon multilateralism in favor of liberal interventionism and a special relationship with "the world's strongest state."
* He explains how the humanitarian effort in Afghanistan "joined the wider counter-insurgency effort." And he laments that he and his colleagues had not signed up for such a role.
* Foley documents how the US and NATO have lost the good will of the Afghan people over recent years using the methods of secret prisons as in Iraq. And this fact should give pause to those who support additional troop deployments to the country today. Meanwhile the aid that had been promised to the country and for which aid workers went to the ends of the world to deliver never materialized.
* The author examines the issue of the legality of humanitarian intervention and provides some behind the scenes debates, particularly in the UK, on how legal opinions evolved in order to accommodate Mr. Blair's new policy.
* He further demonstrates with some background on Bernard Kouchner how the support for liberal interventionism is not limited to the policies of the US and the UK.
* One of the most troubling details is that the US has exploited the mantle of humanitarian intervention to undermine the UN and to essentially take action when it suited its own national interests, thus establishing new historical precedents. This tendency gave voice to the call by John McCain, during the presidential campaign, to establish a `League of Democracies,' thus further sidelining the role of the UN.
The author has presented a clear and pragmatic critique to the growing clamor favoring liberal intervention in humanitarian crises. He has not suggested the abandonment of the suffering, but rather a compassionate argument that intervention has often occurred for the wrong reasons and with terribly adverse consequences. He agrees that there is a need to respond to humanitarian crises. But the way to do so is to clarify the issues of legality, to gain broad international consensus (and not proceed with a coalition of the willing) and most importantly to plan the mission and ensure ample material support with an emphasis on humanitarian development and not upon military victory, Clearly in order to achieve such a shift in the debate and the agenda a substantive reform of the UN charter is necessary, not least of which is a change in the status quo on the Security Council and the perquisites of its permanent members.
David Hillstrom, author of 'The Bridge'