The New Killing Fields: Massacre and the Politics of Intervention

October 16, 2002

The New Killing Fields: Massacre and the Politics of Intervention


JOANNE MYERS: We are very pleased to welcome today Michael Walzer and Peter Maass. Their essays appeared in an edited volume called The New Killing Fields: Massacre and the Politics of Intervention, an attempt by several well-known journalists and critical thinkers to come to terms with the moral and political issues raised by the widespread mass killings and ethnic cleansing that have occurred since the early 1990s.

I'm very pleased that these two contributors to this volume are with us to present their views about what America and its international allies did and did not do in the past decade to confront the bloodshed in the killing fields of Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and East Timor.

Although the focus of this book is on three countries, each one different from the other, in terms of their history and geography the authors still believe that there are lessons to be learned from each that reach far beyond their borders.

The debate about humanitarian intervention has been one of the more defining issues of the last decade. Whether we are speaking about the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, or East Timor, the use of military action by one state to protect people at risk in another is guaranteed to provoke a heated discussion.

What the world should have learned from the violence of the 20th century seems clear. However, the recent spate of small wars, fueled by ethnic or religious antagonisms, has upset many formulas for distinguishing between an acceptable level of domestic unrest within a country and an outrage that demands international intervention.

Questions, such as how should the international community act when governments massacre their own people, as in the original killing fields in Cambodia; or when do human rights supersede those of sovereignty; and what is a moral criterion for humanitarian intervention, are always difficult to answer

Our guests this afternoon will address these issues to provide us with a blueprint for avoiding the killing fields of the future.

Michael Walzer will explore the issues of responsibility, raising the questions of when and how should we intervene, who should intervene, and when it is time to end the intervention.

Peter Maass will turn our attention to the war in the former Yugoslavia and will consider the consequences of non-intervention. He will also look at the effect of the war on terrorism in fighting genocide. Gentlemen, we are delighted to have you both with us this afternoon.


PETER MAASS: I will talk a bit less in these remarks about Yugoslavia than about the effect of the war on terrorism in general on the effort to stop and prevent genocide, but afterwards we can talk as much about Yugoslavia as you would like.

If you grew up in a Jewish community, as I did, you often heard the phrase in relation to a big world event, "Is it good for the Jews or is it bad for the Jews?" I want to talk about the war on terrorism not in relation to whether it's good for the Jews or bad for the Jews, but whether it is good or bad for the war against genocide.

With just an initial glance, you might think: Okay, since there is now this big justified and necessary focus on terrorism, the effort to prevent genocide, which was never much of a priority for the American government except sporadically and belatedly during the 1990s, will slip down the totem pole to leave the first ten priorities as the war on terrorism.

If, however, you look more carefully, in many ways this war on terrorism is good news for the war to prevent/stop genocide militarily if need be. The American military has shown, particularly in Afghanistan, and probably will show in Iraq, that it is quite adept at fighting irregular warfare, and irregular warfare is required to stop genocide. That's the kind of warfare that was required in Bosnia, and that's also the kind that would have been required in Rwanda if we had chosen to fight the genocide there.

I want to begin by looking at Bosnia, which, for the first couple of years, was regarded as a military quagmire for Western intervention. Sure, there were bad things going on in Bosnia. But Colin Powell, who the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the beginning of the war, very memorably said that it would take a quarter-million troops to do something about the terrible violence that was occurring there. And so, for the first couple of years of the war, the possibility of military quagmire was given as the main reason that we couldn't stop it: "It will be too much of an effort and we’ll end up with another Vietnam if we try to do anything there."

You had politicians who tried to throw dust into everybody's eyes and say, "Well, maybe it's not even genocide. Maybe all sides are equally guilty." And in the end, you had several years of Western, and particularly American, vacillation that not only did great dishonor to our government, but also allowed several hundred thousand people to be killed.

Then by 1995, there was finally enough in the way of outrages, and particularly enough in the way of dissention within NATO to prompt the American Government to say, "Okay, enough, we're going to do something." This wasn't any kind of moral conversion on the part of the American Government; it was a pragmatic one. When the American Government did intervene with NATO for a bombing campaign in 1995, it took just eleven days and 3,000 air sorties to stop that war, to bring the Serbs to the negotiating table. And this was after four years of Colin Powell and everybody else saying "military quagmire, can't be done"— and then relatively light bombing by the standards of today brought the conflict to an end.

It is important to bear in mind when we are looking at genocide and how to stop it and whether it can be stopped, to realize that, although it appears monstrous, it's a policy when you come down to it, and it’s implemented by individuals who are not Goliaths, who are themselves very imperfect, and the policy is often implemented imperfectly.

I reported on the war in Bosnia and spent a lot of time there on the Serb side with the worst soldiers you could possibly imagine, as lazy, fat, and corrupt as you can possibly conjure up. And it wasn't any surprise to me that it only took eleven days of bombing to get them to go to the negotiating table.

If you look also at Rwanda in the early 1990s, you had a genocide, which was much more ferocious and much quicker than the one in Bosnia, and in which the United States Government played a particularly heinous role because it withdrew and encouraged the withdrawal of the UN troops.

Again, the main argument was: "Look, we can't stop this. It's just a hurricane of monstrosity and it will be another quagmire in Africa."

A very valiant Canadian general in charge of the UN contingent there, Romeo Dallaire, heroically tried to persuade the United Nations to give him permission, even with the few troops he had, to take some offensive action which he thought could be useful, such as seizing weapons caches and giving protection to some people. And this was denied to him.

Subsequently, after the war, the Carnegie Commission did a study with U.S. and European generals, active and retired, looking at Dallaire's contention that the genocide could have been stopped with just several battalions of troops. This blue ribbon commission agreed that it would have taken perhaps 5,000 soldiers to stop the genocide as it began. It would not have been a quagmire.

This is another example to me of how, although genocide is indeed monstrous, it is also a policy and it can be stopped, not with necessarily an armada, not necessarily with a D-Day type of force, but something quite less substantial than that.

Afghanistan presented many of the same difficulties as Bosnia – hostile terrain, hostile soldiers, the whole panoply of problems. And then, what happened in Afghanistan was that the Taliban was brought down largely by the special forces on the ground—maybe 1,000 in Afghanistan— with American air strikes. This was irregular warfare that the United States Government had always been incredibly reluctant, and understandably, to undertake. It turned out that the American military was incredibly effective at doing it.

This is something that is likely to be repeated sometime soon in Iraq. There will be more regular troops, but it is clear that the special forces will again lead the way, and also be successful. Whether you agree with the need for America invading Iraq, if it happens, it will be successful and yet again further proof that irregular warfare practiced by the United States military can take care of problems that are incredibly intractable.

Genocide will be one of those problems. And so no longer can or should American generals, and American politicians in particular, hide behind the argument that, "Oh, genocide in country X or genocide in country Y is going to turn into a quagmire if we try to do anything about it."

One other element of what is happening today that affects very much the effort to prevent genocide relates to unilateralism. There is a tendency amongst people in the policy community, those who are attuned to genocide, to try to do so in multilateral ways. But, at the same time, as bombing showed not only in Bosnia but in Kosovo, and as the Afghan campaign also showed, we don’t need other countries if there is a job to do.

For quite a long time, particularly in Bosnia, the main argument against U.S. intervention, promoted by Warren Christopher, was that the Europeans didn't want to go along with us, that we should not do something of this nature without the Europeans doing it with us and approving, and that we probably couldn’t even do it on our own. Afghanistan has shown, and Iraq is likely to show, that there is so much that we can do on our own.

We shouldn't be reckless in trying to do it, but we shouldn’t, on the other hand, make an excuse of saying that there are lots of things we can’t do, that are militarily beyond us, because fighting genocide, using irregular warfare on our part, is something we can do that is effective and will not necessarily lead to another Vietnam.

MICHAEL WALZER: We planned the special issue of Dissent from which this book comes and the book before 9/11, before the war in Afghanistan, before the war against terror, before the new doctrine of preemption was put forward, before the war or the non-war with Iraq. All of these have pushed humanitarian intervention a little into the shadows, and perhaps more than a little, because Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld seems disinclined to intervene ever, anywhere, except when it is very clearly in our national or imperial interests.

But humanitarian intervention doesn't belong in the shadows, and it will not stay there. There will be more cases of massacre and ethnic cleansing, and we will discover again that military action in such cases has a moral urgency that stands close to, even though it isn’t the same as, the urgency of self-defense, and that stands, in my view, ahead of the urgency of preventive war.

So our book is a defense of the use of force for humanitarian purposes. It is not an undiscriminating and unqualified defense. It is an effort to figure out what the criteria are for acting forcefully, or refusing to do that, and it is an effort, represented by the two of us here, at once theoretical and practical: How do the occasions for intervention appear when we reflect on them at a distance and how do they look up close, on the ground?

Now, there is a national-interest argument for humanitarian intervention, because we will in fact all be safer in a world from which mass murder and deportation have been banished. But the urgency of this kind of military action is moral, not strategic, corresponding to the Biblical maxim, “Do not stand by the blood of your neighbor.”

The most common question I am asked with reference to this maxim, which means do not stand idly by when the blood of your neighbor is being shed, is: How much blood justifies intervention?

There is no right answer to that question. I want to set the bar high. What is at stake, after all, is war, even if it sometimes can be a very short war. But it is war, with its terrible costs and its radical uncertainty. And so, the answer to the question "how much blood?" has to be something like what justifies humanitarian intervention is mass murder, ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, not just the ordinary brutality of authoritarian regimes.

Let me give an example. No one suggested a military intervention against the Argentinean generals, although it was the British war in the Falklands, that eventually brought them down. But that was not a war of humanitarian intervention.

Over a period of some years, the generals probably killed more people than died in the World Trade Center attack. And who would want to say that 3,000 murders aren't enough to trigger a forceful response? And yet, they aren't, or they weren't. No one even thought of launching a war against the Argentinean regime. There are other kinds of responses short of war—political, diplomatic, economic—that seem more appropriate in such cases.

And so I want to stress mass murder. But perhaps I should add the threat of mass murder also. The Administration's forthcoming preemptive war against Iraq doesn't seem to me either just or necessary. But it is important to notice that the NATO intervention in Kosovo was, in a sense, a preemptive strike, because the worst things that we expected had not yet taken place when the decision was made to launch those attacks. And surely, there was no obligation to wait for the worst things to happen. We had good enough reasons to know that they were coming. That's what justifies a preemptive attack.

Condoleezza Rice said recently, "We don't have to wait for them to attack us," which is true, but we do have to wait for some sign that they are going to attack us.

In Kosovo the signs were very clear that massacre, terroristic killing, and ethnic cleansing were about to come on a very large scale.

And similarly, an intervention in the very first days of the Rwanda killings, even though their full extent was not yet known, or the intervention that was recommended by the UN commander on the spot would surely have been justified. You do not have to wait until the hundreds of thousands of deaths have happened.

And if not the UN, then who? The answer that I defend in my piece is whoever can should. Now, Peter stressed the role of the United States, and I accept that that role will often fall on us, but it needn't always fall on us. It is worth arguing for not only multilateral decision-making whenever there is time for that, but also a division of labor on the ground.

The killing fields of Cambodia were shut down by the Vietnamese, not by the United States, not by any of the great powers. The UN would never have approved of that intervention, but the Vietnamese did it. They did it for mixed reasons, but they did it.

The blood regime of Idi Amin in Uganda was overthrown by the Tanzanians, again not by us, not by any of the great powers, and not with UN authorization.

So once you recognize that it often does not require a great deal of military force to defeat these murderers, then many different countries can exercise the role of humanitarian interveners. It is worth thinking about how both multilateral decision-making and a division of labor can be established.

Still, I can't help thinking that had the UN been more successful in places like Bosnia and Rwanda, its authority in places like Iraq would be much greater than it is today and it would be much harder to threaten war without regard to UN decision procedures.

So that's another argument that connects humanitarian intervention to national interest, everyone's national interest. If there is ever to be an effective rule of law in international society, what more plausible place to start, than with collective action against mass murder? If the UN isn't effective there, then who is going to trust it to be effective anywhere else?

The UN is used these days by people who want to avoid any use of force for any purpose. Turning to the UN has become a way of looking for inaction. So that after 9/11, the people who said, "You have to go to the UN" were really saying, "You can't do anything." But the UN won’t survive repeated instances of inaction or of inadequate action in places like Bosnia and Rwanda.

When the massiveness of the horror is plain to see, then somebody has to act. Whoever can should. But if we found some international agency that can, then surely it should in the strongest sense.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you both very much for those introductory comments. I’d like to open the floor to questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Could either one of you give me an example of a quagmire, where we really shouldn’t have been, but for whatever reason we care, on a moral ground we should, but because of the other implications we shouldn’t?

Intervention could be nation against nation; it could be within a nation, civil war, where one tribe or sect of religious interests is massacring another. I’m curious to see where you draw the line as far as clearly a case where we really should, the moral reasoning is there, but for all those reasons we can’t.

PETER MAASS: Your last question first, in terms of where do you draw the line, I don’t think I can draw the line. Each of these things has to be done on a case-by-case basis, and in different ways. The tools needed to prevent genocide in East Timor, and the reasons for doing so, are very different than they were in a place like Rwanda, for example, or in Bosnia, or if Saddam Hussein made some move against the Kurds right now.

The worst thing to do, now that you have these very positive examples like Afghanistan is to say, "Woohoo, we can do this anywhere and everywhere at the first drop of blood."

I agree with Michael on the moral imperative, but in today's world that is not enough to generate political support. You will never get an American government, for moral considerations only, to intervene militarily. Kosovo was a humanitarian intervention, but it was done because there was a great amount of political fear in the American Government that things would get out of control there, this would be another Bosnia, and that it would look really bad and be a huge problem. It was not a moral consideration, per se.

You need to be able to make a strategic argument. However, if the moral outrage at what is going on in country A, B, or C is significant, there is likely to be a very important strategic element involved, Bosnia being an example. For several years, people denied that there was an immediate strategic problem for the United States. As a result of that, in the end there was because it threatened NATO.

If you look at Rwanda, you can say, "Well, it's not clear how that directly affects American security." That's true, it's not clear now. But in many things that go on politically in this world, we need not only to be imaginative in looking at the possible consequences of what we do, but also the possible consequences of what we don't do.

Back in 1989, there was a great celebration when the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, and the war in which we had supported the Mujahideen was seen as being an absolutely brilliant strategy. Now you can look back on it and say, "Wait a minute. Probably the Soviet Union was going to fall apart anyway, and we just created this monster, which was Islamic radicalism."

So for that reason, if you look at a place like Rwanda now, the problem is still festering. Fine, there's no genocide, but central Africa is a mess, and to a great degree it's a mess because of this problem that still is unresolved at the heart of Central Africa. And who knows what will come of that in the way of regional troubles? Stability is something that is in America’s interests, even if at the moment it doesn't appear that the instability is representing an imminent threat.

MICHAEL WALZER: There are certainly overriding prudential arguments against interventions in cases like Tibet and Chechnya. Nobody will go to war on behalf of the Tibetans or the Chechnyans because the risks to the world are much too great.

Prudential arguments of that sort are also moral arguments, because if you are going to act responsibly in the world, you must think about what risks you are imposing on your own soldiers, on the people you are supposedly rescuing, and on all their neighbors.

But the inability to act consistently in these kinds of cases is never an argument against acting where you can. It is not as if, having failed to intervene in Tibet, you therefore can’t intervene in East Timor for the sake of moral consistency.

You make the same kinds of decisions that police make on a highway. You stop the speeding cars you can stop, but if going after some driver involves risks to other drivers on the road, then it’s better if you let that guy go. You have to make those kinds of calculations.

Kosovo was mostly a moral enterprise, but it was motivated by shame to a very large extent, and the sense of NATO at risk was, in part, a consequence of its shameful behavior. To be publicly shamed is very dangerous for political actors. NATO could not allow what had happened in Bosnia to happen again in Kosovo. It would have been a morally, but also a politically, undermining spectacle.

QUESTION: Please comment on the case of Somalia in the early 1990s where, for altruistic and humanitarian reasons, the United States, under the auspices of the Security Council, went in thinking that with food and some military forces, we could quell the terrible quagmire. It turned out that the momentum and inertia of the terrible situation there, the anarchy and all the people being killed and starving to death, proved to be much too much for the United States, and it still is so now. This was a humanitarian effort clearly, under the UN auspices as well, and it turned into the type of disaster that has given many people in Washington cold feet from then on.

PETER MAASS: I have been to Somalia a couple of times. Every one of the top ten reasons for not intervening were present with the Somali operation, one of them being the famine that the United States Government went in there to heal, to stop the fighting so that food could be delivered. There is much evidence now that the famine was near its end, and so one of the root causes for going in wasn't necessarily as strong as it might have appeared. And then how it was handled was also a tremendous blunder. Part of it involves command being divided up and how the troops are equipped.

Somalia is most valuable as an unfortunate learning lesson for all of us. You must have a real problem going on that you have a plan to solve to begin with, which wasn’t necessarily the case. And you need to have the strategy and the troops on hand to solve the problem that you've identified, which wasn’t the case in Somalia.

And you've got to also figure out what are your goals. Are you planning to restructure the country and then rebuild it? The American Government at the time didn't know how much we wanted to do, which played into the chaos.

So it was a screw-up in every single category you could imagine, but much has been learned from it. All subsequent interventions that the American Government has been involved in have benefited from the mistakes that were made there, just as they have also benefited from the mistakes made in Bosnia. Nobody benefited more from the horrible mistakes in Bosnia than the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

MICHAEL WALZER: I want to remind people that the immediate cause of our withdrawal from Somalia was the casualties that we took in one operation.

That raises questions about what kind of a commitment you have to make when you send troops into other people’s countries, what kinds of risks you have to be prepared to accept for your own soldiers. You can't intervene militarily in other countries and insist that the only casualties should occur among the others and not among us. If there are good reasons to intervene, then you have to be prepared to take casualties.

That may be an argument for insisting that humanitarian interventions be carried out by volunteers. We don’t have a conscript army anymore, but we recruit people specifically for humanitarian interventions who have accepted the risks. That makes it easier for the country to accept the risks.

QUESTION: I was going to ask you what kind of united military mechanism or instrument could be used when you need to go in. Fifty years ago, a United Nations police force was suggested. Mr. Maass has just said that in many instances you need a relatively light force. Romeo Dallaire could have done it with two battalions in Rwanda.

So is there anything to a United Nations-sponsored ready-to-go strike task force rather than a single country going in with massive military or waiting for the UN to supply its usual contingent of troops? Could you address that, following up on what you said about recruits and training a force that is ready to go in on these humanitarian missions?

MICHAEL WALZER: There will one day be a UN force. It will probably be called a “police force.” It will be an army. It will be designed for rapid deployment in situations like the Rwandan case. But that is somewhere down the road.

And even if there were a force of that sort, there is no guarantee that it would be used in a timely way, given the internal politics of the Security Council and the General Assembly.

There should also be forces, like a NATO or an EU or an American rapid deployment group, that can be sent in these situations when necessary.

Again, recruitment of volunteers for these purposes is probably a very good idea. Think of it on the model of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. You would not have difficulty recruiting people for humanitarian intervention.

QUESTION: My question is directed to you, Peter Maass. You were very laudatory about the U.S. forces, small in number, and what they accomplished in the areas of genocide. I'm disturbed that you left out, and Mr. Walzer did not, the role of the international instruments such as the United Nations, and that the United States then fostered an operation, in your concept, on a unilateral basis. Yet, there were two other major elements in all of these operations, the EU and NATO. Therefore, the United States, being a founding member of the United Nations, is violating numerous premises of the international instruments, the United Nations Charter and the Genocide Conventions.

PETER MAASS: The United States was not necessarily the only one violating the pledges. The Geneva Protocols require countries that acknowledge genocide to be occurring somewhere to act to prevent it. In the case of Bosnia, none of the countries were doing that, neither the United States nor its European allies.

I don't know which other intervention you are referring to. Do you mean Afghanistan? In the intervention in Kosovo, the air campaign in Bosnia, and the campaign in Afghanistan—yes, our NATO allies were very important in Bosnia, very important and useful in Kosovo, but it was America that pushed it, against the opposition of basically all allies except for Britain. The military forces that were used were predominantly American in Afghanistan.

These operations wouldn't have happened without America actually anteing up the troops and planes.

Is that in violation if it is done unilaterally without the approval of the Security Council? Is that a violation of the Protocols and the founding documents? In some cases, it might be.

In the case of Bosnia, we allowed the United Nations Security Council Members not wanting to act to prevent us from taking action. We said, "Okay, we'll follow the rules, and if our friends on the Security Council don't want us to do anything, we won't do anything." So in that case, the rules got in the way of the right thing to be done.

I am, maybe more so than Michael, affected by the Bosnia situation because I covered it quite intensively and I feel very strongly about the unhelpful role that the United Nations played, although the United States allowed it to play. So I don’t have great sympathy for the United Nations Security Council not having its wishes always followed by the United States. But at the same time, we should not just go off and do everything just because if we think so, it has to be right.

MICHAEL WALZER: I also feel very strongly that when no one is acting you should act. I tried to give examples that didn't involve the United States, like the Vietnamese in Cambodia or the Tanzanians in Uganda. The UN, as I said, would never have approved either of those interventions, and yet they were right.

Our book is, unhappily, a record of the failures of the United Nations in the three cases on which we focus most of our attention. It’s a reason to strengthen the United Nations, not necessarily to ignore it or bypass it. But you can’t strengthen the United Nations by pretending that it is already an instrument of global humanitarianism or an agent of law and order. It just isn't.

When you are in a crisis, you have to act on the assumption that no one else will act.

In East Timor, the United Nations was quite involved by organizing an election, which produced a massive vote for secession from Indonesia, and then it was not prepared to protect the people who voted for secession. In the immediate aftermath of the election, there was a rampage by Indonesian-sponsored militias killing the people who had supported the secession. Now, that’s a terrible failure of the United Nations. No threatened minority group anywhere in the world will accept the protection of the United Nations now. They will seek the United States, NATO, the European Community—anyone but this force which has failed again and again.

Having said that, I still believe that one day we will find a way to make international agencies effective.

QUESTION: Would each of you comment on David Rieff's argument that humanitarian intervention is increasingly being used as a convenient banner for states to march in and pursue their own political and economic objectives.

MICHAEL WALZER: I'm not familiar with his argument. The Vietnamese in Cambodia went in and shut down the killing fields, overthrew the regime of Pol Pot, and set up a satellite regime of their own. So certainly you could say that they were pursuing their own geopolitical strategic interests along with the humanitarian interest of ending the killing. But from the standpoint of the Cambodians who weren't killed, they have to be grateful for the mixed motives of the Vietnamese, and that they actually intervened.

I agree with Peter, that there is no pure moral motive in political life, nor in domestic politics, nor in international politics. That means that even when good work is being done and lives are being saved, you can be sure that some national interest, some strategic goals, are also being pursued. That was the Tanzanians in Uganda; the Indians in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Those interventions were humanitarian interventions, but they certainly also served strategic goals of the governments that did the intervening.

That is not an accusation. A politician who defends national health care probably isn't doing it out of a deep love of the people who will be helped, but he's doing it because he thinks he can win an election with such a program.

PETER MAASS: I suppose that the one humanitarian intervention we could point to would be Kosovo. I disagree somewhat with Michael on this. Yes, there were humanitarian motives involved, but I don't think that was it. In Kosovo before the actual NATO-led/U.S.-led intervention, how many ethnic Albanians had been killed? It was about 2,000, which is horrible. Two thousand is actually, in terms of the amount of bloodshed that goes on on this planet, a relatively low amount over a year or two preceding the actual intervention.

While we were intervening for at least some humanitarian reasons in Kosovo, look at what was going on in [the D.R.]Congo, look at what was going on in Angola in the civil war there, and there was no intervention happening, or no consideration even of intervention, in either of those places. So if humanitarianism really was a consideration amongst policymakers in Washington, they wouldn't have been focusing on Kosovo, but on the Congo, for example.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you both for being with us today.

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