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Democracy and Armed Intervention: Conversation with David Rieff

May 13, 2005

CARNEGIE COUNCIL: In a recent article you wrote that during the 1990s you moved from being a liberal interventionist to being a realist. Reading your work, it seems that this has been a gradual progression as you witnessed a series of interventions. But did you also have an epiphany, one particular experience that changed your mind?

DAVID REIFF: I wouldn't call it an epiphany. I think I was always closer to a realist by temperament in the sense that I'm a person whose deepest impulses are anti-utopian. And they always were, even though I'm of the generation of the Vietnam War, and of protest. I was on those demonstrations, but I never had that "change the world" kind of feeling at the root of most of the mass protests that took place then.

So I think my liberal internationalism was to a very large extent a counsel of despair, because of the blood of Bosnia and Rwanda and the blood of lots of other places. I kept thinking that if we have the power to do something, surely that's preferable to the slaughter. And I don't want to repudiate the idea completely; I still think that interventions to avert ongoing massacres absolutely fit in with the realist position. In other words, I think you can make the case.

However, you certainly don't intervene with what I believe is the impossible and impertinent idea of imposing democracy from the outside, as unfortunately the U.S. government is doing in Iraq. But when you're talking about mass killings you could have a limited case for it. You could say that maybe our military power can't regulate societies, but just stopping mass killings, is something a military force can do. So if it's practical we do it, if it's feasible we do it, if it's clear what to do—but there are plenty of cases where it's not clear. Yet even if it's not clear, there are situations in which surely saving lives is worth all the post-intervention confusion.

For example I have no doubt that were we to seriously intervene in Darfur, we'd probably make a real dog's breakfast of the post war. It's very possible that there would be all kinds of major unintended consequences. I haven't been to Darfur and these days I'm very skeptical about talking about places I haven't visited. But if the reports of the death toll and the claim that the conflict is ongoing are true or even close, then I think there's a case for intervention.

So in terms of interventionism, I think we should take the Catholic position and say "We're all sinners and we all sin occasionally."

Where I think this thing has gone off the rails is that there's an attempt now on the part of the American government in particular to claim that these are wars of values, and should be almost the norm. The version of the critique of Westphalia that is very current in the UN and the human rights movement suggests that states committed to rule of law and democracy, assuming they do so with the proper multilateral mandate, have the right to simply abrogate state sovereignty if they feel that some terrible abuse is going on.

That seems to me a recipe for endless wars of altruism, and it was my sense that this was the direction the human rights movement was going in, along with its kind of doppelganger, the neo-conservative movement. So you now have a situation in which people are vying to figure out what kind of modalities will allow more military intervention. Whereas for me, the events of the last five years have been the best argument for Westphalia that I can think of.

CARNEGIE COUNCIL: You think we should just retreat to our borders and mind our own business?

DAVID RIEFF: Well, I don't think minding one's own business is such a bad thing. The idea of all this blood and treasure wasted so that Ayatollah Sistani and Ahmed Chalabi can take power seems really sad.
 
CARNEGIE COUNCIL: There have been a lot of sins committed in the name of democracy.

DAVID RIEFF: Yes, the other thing I would say is that there's a movie I saw recently called The Phantom of Liberty by the Spanish director Bunuel. It starts with a group of Spanish guerrillas in the Civil War being taken to their deaths by a firing squad made up of French soldiers. As the firing party marches. you see the tricolor with the words "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." As the Spanish guerrillas are about to be shot, one of them shouts, "Down with liberty." And then the credits start.

I think the human rights movement is walking into that particular mess. A few more interventions like Iraq, and the human rights movement is going to seem like a synonym for the American military; and I don't think that's what the human rights struggle, and places like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, had in mind for all these years.

CARNEGIE COUNCIL: Can you tell me what your next project is going to be? Are you going to continue in this vein?

DAVID RIEFF: My next big project is to write a book about Islam in Europe. I have a title, which may never make it into print but is emblematic of what I might do: The New Europeans and their Enemies. And like many working titles it does that thing that a writer like me—maybe any writer—needs, which is not so much a principle of inclusion but a principle of exclusion: what am I not writing about. It helps because obviously a lot more is excluded than included.

I'm doing that and then I hope to do a much more academic work for specialists, a study of the humanitarian reaction to the tsunami. This is a project that's in discussion and I'm hoping will come through because it does seem to me the humanitarian relief response recapitulated almost every humanitarian mistake possible and resulted in absolutely nothing except more transparency — wait for it — not to beneficiaries but to donors. We are more transparent in how we account for money to donors, that's true. Apart from that, I think we learned surprisingly little.

So those are my big two projects. I can't imagine a time when I wouldn't be interested in wars and so-called humanitarian emergencies. Obviously I'm getting a little old for this, but [New York Times reporter] John Burns is ten years my senior, and he's still going strong.

CARNEGIE COUNCIL: That's interesting because I just was looking at the first book of yours I read, which was Going to Miami. It struck me as very prescient and it seems to relate to your next project. You said that "The great travel story of our time is called migration," and you talked about the differences between the way immigration is viewed in western Europe and the way it's viewed here in the United States. There was a time when Europe was becoming more homogeneous, and then suddenly there was the shock of seeing mosques in Europe and people praying in the streets of Marseilles. You wrote that in 1987.

DAVID RIEFF: I did and I've been trying to write this book or a version of this book ever since. I've changed careers in a sense in that I went from writing mostly about America—my two Miami books and a Los Angeles book—to writing about wars and humanitarian emergencies. Because I was actually in Germany after my second book came out and I was writing about immigrants coming to the east—or at least being warehoused there. I was doing that and then I would go back to my apartment in Berlin and there on my TV was Bosnia burning. So I thought I'd go down and write one piece—and ended up staying three years.

So in a way this question of Islam in Europe, the diaspora of Muslims, has been with me for a long time. And I only have questions. The closer I get to doing the book, the more I'm trying purge myself so that I really go into it with a blank slate. Which is difficult to do, as I form opinions for a living. But yes, I've been trying to write this book in a sense for about 18 years.

--Conducted by Madeleine Lynn, Communications

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