Evolution of a Dangerous Doctrine
by Walden Bello
Focus on the Global South, January
(Revised version of a speech delivered
at the Conference on Globalization, War, and Intervention sponsored
by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear
War, German Chapter, Frankfurt, Germany, January 14-15, 2006.)
As war clouds gather over Iran, the topic
we are focused on in this conference is very timely: great power
military intervention in the affairs of sovereign states for "humanitarian
defined simply, is military action taken to prevent or terminate
violations of human rights that is directed at and is carried
without the consent of a sovereign government. While the main
rationale for the invasion of Iraq by the United States was its
alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, an important
supporting rationale was regime change for humanitarian reasons.
When it became clear that there were in fact no WMD, the Bush
administration retroactively justified its intervention on humanitarian
grounds: getting rid of a repressive dictatorship and imposing
democratic rule. The show trial of Saddam for human rights violations
now taking place in Baghdad is part of this retroactive effort
to legitimize the invasion.
Iraq: Dead End of Humanitarian Intervention
Iraq shows the dangers of the humanitarian
rationale. It can so easily be used to justify any violation of
national sovereignty to promote the interests of an external force.
Yes, under Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi people were subjected to
systematic repression, with many people executed and jailed. Yet,
most of us, at least most of us in the global South, recoil at
Washington's use of the humanitarian logic to invade Iraq. Most
of us would say that even as we condemn any regime's violations
of human rights, systematic violation of those rights does not
constitute grounds for the violation of national sovereignty through
invasion or destabilization. Getting rid of a repressive regime
or a dictator is the responsibility of the citizens of a country.
In this regard, let me point out that not even during the darkest
days of the Marcos dictatorship did the anti-fascist movement
in the Philippines think of asking the United States to do the
job for us.
Now, for some people in the North, who
belong to states that dominate the rest of the world, national
sovereignty may seem quaint. For those of us in the South, however,
the defense of this principle is a matter of life and death, a
necessary condition for the realization of our collective destiny
as a nation-state in a world where being a member of an independent
nation-state is the primordial condition for stable access to
human rights, political rights, and economic rights. Without a
sovereign state as a framework, our access to and enjoyment of
those rights will be fragile.
So long as nation-states remain the prime
political collectivities of human beings, so long as we live in
a Westphalian world-and let me say emphasize that we are not in
a post-Westphalian world-our defense of national sovereignty must
be aggressive. And absolute, for imperialism is such that if you
yield in one case, it uses that as a precedent for other, future
Are we exaggerating our case? No. The
Iraq tragedy is a result only of the American Right's drive to
place US power far beyond the reach of any potential rival or
coalition of rivals. The way to Iraq was paved by the actions
of liberal democrats, of the very same Clintonites that currently
criticize the Bush administration for its having plunged the US
into a war without end. In other words, the road to Iraq would
have been more difficult without the humanitarian intervention
in Yugoslavia in the 1990's. As one conservative writer so aptly
put it, George W. Bush, in invading Iraq, simply took the "doctrine
of 'democratic engagement' of the first Bush administration, and
that of 'democratic enlargement' of the Clinton administration,
one step further. It might be called 'democratic transformation.'"
Kosovo, Realpolitik, and Intervention
Kosovo has been called, along with the
US troop landing to put Jean Bertrand Aristide in power in Haiti
in 1994, a classic humanitarian intervention. But rather than
be emulated, the Kosovo military intervention is something we
cannot afford to repeat. Let us look at the reasons why.
First of all, it contributed mightily
to the erosion of the credibility of the United Nations, when
the US, knowing it would not get approval for intervention from
the Security Council, used the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO) as the legal cover for the war. NATO, in turn, was a fig-leaf
for a war 95 per cent of which was carried out by US forces.
Second, the humanitarian rationale was
undoubtedly the purpose of some of its advocates, but the operation
eventually mainly advanced Washington's geopolitical designs.
The lasting result of the Kosovo air war was not a stable and
secure network of Balkan states but NATO expansion. That is not
surprising, since eventually that was what the air war was mainly
about. Milosevic's moves in both the earlier Bosnian crisis and
in Kosovo, according to Andrew Bacevich, "called into question
the relevance of NATO and, by extension, US claims to leadership
in Europe." If it did not successfully manage Slobodan
Milosevic, the US could not have supported its drive for NATO
expansion. For the Clinton administration, such expansion would
fill the security vacuum in Eastern Europe and institutionalize
US leadership in post-Soviet Europe. In Washington's view, according
to one analyst,
"NATO enlargement would provide an
institutional framework to lock in domestic transitions under
way in Eastern and Central Europe. The prospect of alliance membership
would itself be an 'incentive' for these countries to pursue domestic
reforms. Subsequent integration into the alliance was predicted
to lock in those institutional reforms. Membership would entail
a wide array of organizational adaptations, such as standardization
of military procedures, steps toward interoperability with NATO
forces, and joint planning and training. By enmeshing new members
in the wider alliance institutions and participation in its operations,
NATO would reduce their ability to revert to the old ways and
reinforce the liberalization of transitional governments. As one
NATO official remarked: "We're enmeshing them in the NATO
culture, both politically and militarily, so they begin to think
like us-and over time-act like us."
A major aspect of the politics of NATO
expansion was securing the Western European states continuing
military dependence on the United States, so that the European
governments' failure to follow through on an independent European
initiative in the Balkans was quickly taken advantage of by Washington
via the NATO air war against Serbia to prove the geopolitical
point that European security was not possible without the American
Third, the air war soon triggered what
it was ostensibly meant to end: an increase in human rights violations
and violations of international treaties. The bombing provoked
the Serbs in Kosovo to accelerate their murder and displacement
of Albanian Kosovars, while doing "considerable indirect
damage" to the people of Serbia through the targeting of
electrical grids, bridges, and water facilities--acts that violated
Article 14 of the 1977 Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Convention,
which prohibits attacks on "objects indispensable to the
survival of the civilian population."
Finally, Kosovo, as noted earlier, provided
a strong precedent for future violations of the principle of national
sovereignty. The cavalier way in which the Clinton administration
justified setting aside national sovereignty by reference to allegedly
"overriding" humanitarian concerns became part of the
moral and legal armament that would be deployed by people of a
different party, the Republicans, in Afghanistan and Iraq. As
the right-wing thinker Philip Bobbitt saw it, the Clinton administration's
actions in Kosovo and Haiti served as "precedents" that
"strengthen the emerging rule that regimes that repudiate
the popular basis of sovereignty, by overturning democratic institutions,
by denying even the most basic human rights and practicing mass
terror against their own people, by preparing and launching unprovoked
assaults against their neighbors-jeopardize the rights of sovereignty,
including the inherent right to seek whatever weapons a regime
>From Kosovo to Afghanistan
When the invasion of Afghanistan took
place in 2001, there was relatively little opposition in the North
to the US move to oust the Taliban government. Washington took
advantage of sympathy for the US generated by the Sept. 11 events
and the image of the Taliban government sheltering Al Qaeda to
eliminate negotiations with the Taliban as an option and throw
international law out of the window by invading Afghanistan, with
little protest from European countries. But to strengthen its
position, the Bush administration not only used the rationale
of bringing the perpetrators of Sept. 11 to justice. It also painted
its move into Afghanistan as a necessary act of humanitarian intervention
to depose the repressive Taliban government--one that was justified
by the precedents of Haiti and Kosovo. Invoking the humanitarian
rationale, states belonging to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
like Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands also eventually sent
armed contingents. And in this connection, it must be pointed
out that many NGO's-including many liberal organizations-supported
the US intervention for the same reason
Like the Kosovo air campaign, Afghanistan
soon showed the pitfalls of humanitarian intervention.
First, great power logic soon took over.
Hunting for Bin Laden yielded to the imperative of establishing
and consolidating a US military presence in Southwest Asia that
would allow strategic control of both the oil-rich Middle East
and energy-rich Central Asia. Moreover, Afghanistan was seized
on by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as what one analyst described
as "a laboratory to prove his theory about the ability of
small numbers of ground troops, coupled with air power, to win
decisive battles." The Afghanistan invasion's main function,
it turned out, was to demonstrate that the Powell Doctrine's dictum
about the need for a massive commitment of troops to an intervention
was obsolete-a view that skeptics had to be persuaded to accept
before they could be convinced to take on what emerged as the
Bush administration's strategic objective: the invasion of Iraq.
Second, the campaign soon ended up doing
what its promoters said they would eliminate: the terrorizing
of the civilian population. US bombing could not, in many cases,
distinguish military from civilian targets-not surprising since
the Taliban enjoyed significant popular support in many parts
of the country. The result was a high level of civilian casualties;
one estimate, by Marc Herrold, placed the figure of civilian deaths
at between 3,125 and 3,620, from Oct. 7, 2001 to July 31, 2002.
Third, the campaign ended up creating
a political and humanitarian situation that was, in many respects,
worse than that under the Taliban.
One of the fundamental functions of a
government is to provide a minimum of order and security. The
Taliban, for all their retrograde practices in other areas, were
able to give Afghanistan its first secure political regime in
over 30 years. In contrast, the regime of foreign occupation that
succeeded them failed this test miserably. According to a report
of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "security
has actually deteriorated since the beginning of the reconstruction
in December 2001, particularly over the summer and fall of 2003."
So bad is basic physical security for ordinary people that one
third of the country has been declared off limits to United Nations
staff and most NGO's have pulled their people from most parts
of the country. The Washington-installed government of Hamid Karzai
does not exercise much authority outside Kabul and one or two
other cities, prompting UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to state
that "without functional state institutions to serve the
basic needs of the population throughout the country, the authority
and legitimacy of the new government will be short-lived."
Worse, Afghanistan has become a narco-state.
The Taliban were able to significantly reduce poppy production.
Since they were ousted in 2001, poppy production has shot up,
producing a record crop in 2004 and earning Afghanistan the dubious
honor of supplying close to 80 per cent of the world's heroin
supply. Some 170,000 Afghans now use opium and heroin, 30,000
of them being women.
Government officials are involved in 70
per cent of the narcotics traffic, with about a quarter of the
249 recently elected members of Parliament linked to the drug
trade. One estimate in a study conducted for the independent Afghanistan
Research and Evaluation Unit concludes that at least 17 newly
elected MPs are drug traffickers themselves, 24 others are connected
to criminal gangs, 40 are commanders of armed groups, and 19 face
serious allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses.
For these people, who dominate Afghanistan's political life, "insecurity,"
according to Kofi Annan, is a "business" and extortion
is a "way of life."
Can one really honestly claim that this
life is an improvement over Taliban rule? Many Afghans would say
no, saying that at least the Taliban were able to provide one
thing: basic physical security. Now, this argument may not cut
any ice with upper and middle class people in the North that live
in safe suburbs or gated communities. But talk to poor people
anywhere, and they put great value on ridding their shantytown
communities of criminals and drug dealers.
Oh yes, what about the impact of NGO humanitarianism?
Well, on the heels of the US troops came a veritable army of NGO's
of different kinds, all seeking to help the Afghan people with
hundreds of well-funded projects. Indeed, like the Southeast Asian
tsunami disaster and that wrought by Hurricane Katrina in the
US, raising money for "helping the Afghans" soon became
a profitable operation that made humanitarian-related NGO jobs
among the most desirable in local economy. How positive these
projects have been is another story, since like the military campaign,
there were many badly thought out and badly executed projects
whose main effect was to stoke resentment in the local population.
The Case against Humanitarian Intervention
Popular among certain elite circles in
the US and Europe in the 1990's, humanitarian intervention has
earned a bad name, especially in the South. Kosovo, Afghanistan,
and Iraq underline the bitter lessons of humanitarian intervention.
1. Humanitarian intervention seldom remains
the dominant rationale for long, with geopolitics quickly becoming
the driving force of a military operation.
2. Humanitarian intervention ends up doing
what its proponents say they are out to prevent: instigating increased
human rights violations and violations of human rights and related
3. Humanitarian intervention sets a very
dangerous precedent for future violations of the principle of
national sovereignty. Kosovo opened up the road to Afghanistan,
and both led to the tragedy of Iraq.
All this does not mean that states and
international civil society should not make use of all the moral
and diplomatic means at their disposal to isolate repressive regimes
such as the Taliban. Indeed, when one can be certain that their
impact will be felt mainly by the regime and not the people, economic
sanctions are valid and useful in certain circumstances. Sanctions
had a positive role in apartheid South Africa but they had a very
negative on ordinary people in Iraq, but that is a topic for another
But we must always draw the line when
it comes to the use of force by one state on another. Forcible
regime change is not only wrong. It has far-reaching destabilizing
consequences for the whole international state system. Once it
has managed to get the green light from significant others in
one case, you can be sure that the hegemon will resort to it again
and again, driven by the imperative of increasing its power and
accumulated advantages within the international system. You begin
with a Haiti or a Kosovo, and you end up with an Iraq.
In international relations, there is a
distinction made between "status quo powers" and "revisionist
powers." Status quo powers seek to maintain the structure
and distribution of relative power within the system. Revisionist
powers seek to change the structure and distribution of power.
Ironically, the US is today a revisionist power-that is, it seeks
to achieve a balance of power in its favor that is even greater
than that it enjoys today. By going alone with its earlier "humanitarian
interventions" in Kosovo and Afghanistan, many states and
civil society organizations must bear some responsibility for
creating this unrestrained hegemon.
We must forcefully delegitimize this dangerous
doctrine of humanitarian intervention to prevent its being employed
again in the future against candidates for great power intervention
like Iran and Venezuela. Like its counterpart concept of "liberal
imperialism," there is only one thing to do with the concept
of humanitarian intervention: dump it.
*Walden Bello is executive director of
the Bangkok-based research and analysis institute Focus on the
Global South and professor at the University of the Philippines
 Philip Bobbitt, "Better than
 Andrew Bacevich, American Empire:
the Reality and Consequences of US Diplomacy (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 2002), p. 163.
 G. John Ikenberry, "Multilateralism
and US Grand Strategy," in Stewart Patrick and Shepard Foreman,
eds, Multilateralism and US Foreign Policy (Boulder: Lynne Reiner,
2002), pp. 134-135.
 Michael Mandelbaum, "A Perfect
Failure," Foreign Affairs, Sept-Oct 1999, p. 6.
 Bobbitt, ibid.
 Richard Clarke, quoted in Seymour
Hersh, "The Other War," New Yorker, May 12, 2004 http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?040412fa_fact.
 Herrold, cited in Michael Mann, Incoherent
Empire (London: Verso, 2003), p. 130
 Amy Frumin, Morgan Courtenay, and
Rebecca Linder, The Road Ahead: Issues for Consideration at the
Berlin Donor Conference for Afghanistan, March 31-April 1, 2004)
Washington: CSIS, 2004), p. 22.
 Secretary General, United Nations,
The Situation in Afghanistan and its Implications for International
Peace and Security, A58/742/S2004/230, p. 4.
 "Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai,
"A Harvest of Treachery," Newsweek, p. 30.
 Quoted in Secretary General, United
Nations, The Situation in Afghanistan..., p. 16.>