Commentary Magazine


Deliver Us from Evil by William Shawcross

Deliver Us From Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords, and a World of Endless Conflict
by William Shawcross
Simon & Schuster. 416 pp. $27.50

The British journalist William Shawcross, like many members of Tony Blair’s Labor party (and like many members of the Clinton administration), cut his political teeth protesting against the Vietnam war. Sideshow, his 1979 book about the U.S. intervention in Cambodia, leveled the nasty, and appalling, accusation that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger bore direct responsibility for the murderous rampages of the Khmer Rouge. American attacks on North Vietnamese positions in Cambodia, Shawcross argued, had “created the conditions, the only conditions, in which [the Khmer Rouge] could grow.”

In the 1970′s, the world was a simple place for liberals like Shawcross. Great-power interventions in “civil wars” like Vietnam’s, however cloaked in the rhetoric of good intentions, were immoral. Power was evil, American power especially. But then, in the 1990′s, these liberals of the 60′s generation finally took power themselves—seeking to use it, of course, not to do evil like Nixon and Kissinger but to do good. With the threat of Communism gone, their interventions would be undertaken for the purest of motives, and by the purest of means. They would be selfless, and, what is more, they would be performed not by nations—with their hopelessly parochial interests—but by the “international community,” under the legitimizing rubric of the United Nations.

It was thus no doubt an especially unpleasant surprise when the exercise of power even on the part of pure-minded liberals turned out to be no less messy and morally complicated than actions taken by any of their predecessors. Somehow, UN mandate or no, perfect “justice” in a place like Bosnia could never be achieved. Somehow, the most benevolent policies could have the most unfortunate consequences. Somehow, the “tragedy of American diplomacy,” to use the phrase of the revisionist historian William Appleman Williams, at whose knee many of these liberals had studied, was the tragedy of diplomacy practiced under international auspices as well: in the exercise of great power, even for noble ends, the rights of weaker peoples are always trampled.

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This rude awakening to reality provides the underlying theme of Shawcross’s new book, Deliver Us From Evil. In it, he leads the reader on a rapid tour through the international crises of the 1990′s. Touching down at one moment in Iraq to view the United Nations’ failed efforts to root out Saddam Hussein’s weapons, at the next he takes us to Cambodia, where international efforts produced a generally fair election that was then undermined by Hun Sen’s seizure of power, then on to Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and East Timor—places where the international community responded to crises slowly or not at all, with results that ranged from the disastrous to, at best, the partially successful.

In order to prepare his account of these crises, Shawcross traveled the world with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. He also interviewed a number of the undeniably heroic people—the “lightly armed UN peacekeepers with ambitious mandates, unarmed monitors, humanitarian-aid workers from nongovernmental organizations, election officials, and UN volunteers”—who make their living trying to remedy human tragedies at the behest of the “international community.” Indeed, Shawcross wants us to try to view the world through the eyes of these overworked, underpaid, much-maligned, and often forgotten civil servants; he begins his book with a brief but moving account of one of them, Fred Cuny, who seems to have singlehandedly saved hundreds if not thousands in Sarajevo and elsewhere until he became a victim himself of the Russian assault on Chechnya.

But if Shawcross’s approach is thus somewhat novel, when it comes to assessing these “fragments . . . of the entire picture of keeping peace in the post-cold-war world,” he is as short on conclusions as he is long on narrative. It is not just that one can find better, and more enlightening, accounts of many of these individual crises elsewhere. (For his portrait of the Balkan conflict, for instance, Shawcross depends in part on a series of articles by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books from which a reader would learn more not only about Bosnia but also about the general issues of American and international efforts to address the post-cold-war world.) It is that, hopping from one part of the world to another, Shawcross engages in little if any comparative analysis and makes virtually no effort to relate the lessons learned from one crisis to those learned from another.

Even the interesting idea of telling the story of the civil servants and volunteers who do the dirty work in international crises turns out to be of doubtful value in explaining world events. To describe international affairs through the eyes of Kofi Annan is a little like covering a baseball season through the eyes of baseball commissioner Bud Selig. Although Shawcross, like other liberal commentators these days, seems to think that big “nation-states” are increasingly irrelevant in the modern world, his own book proves precisely the opposite. The more deeply he involves us in the lives and preoccupations of international civil servants, the more we find ourselves wondering what is happening in the centers of real power.

To be sure, in a very brief prologue and equally hasty concluding chapter Shawcross does ponder the meaning of it all. But what he comes up with is less than revelatory. Surely we are past needing to be reminded that interventions in the name of “humanitarianism” do not always achieve an entirely humanitarian purpose; or that television—the so-called “CNN effect”—can spur sometimes unwise efforts to alleviate human tragedies; or that nations often talk an altruistic game when it comes to working within international institutions but then selfishly look out for themselves when the going gets rough. Not only is this banal, it is singularly unhelpful in determining what nations actually should or should not do in the many and varied crises that have erupted and will continue to erupt around the world.

On that broad question, Shawcross himself is ambivalent, if not confused. At one moment, he actually seems to argue against international “humanitarian” intervention altogether, questioning its legitimacy as well as its efficacy. He approvingly repeats a comment by the British historian Michael Howard about the misfortunes that would have ensued had the European powers intervened to stop the American Civil War before the North succeeded in defeating the Confederacy. “If,” Shawcross muses, “the prospect of having their conflict ‘managed’ for them by foreigners (however well intentioned) would have been unwelcome to the American people then, why should it be more acceptable to other peoples in the world today just because the motives of those who believe fervently that ‘something must be done’ are often decent?” He also finds intriguing the argument by the American policy analyst Edward Luttwak that it is better to let some wars run their course, since foreign meddling can have the result of perpetuating the conflict that sparked the war in the first place. “Humanitarianism,” Shawcross concludes, “can be dangerous.”

Many an American conservative these days would agree. But Shawcross is no conservative. Nor is he prepared to accept the consequences (or let others accept the consequences) of Howard’s and Luttwak’s hardheaded doctrines. And so, after complaining about the dangers of the “humanitarian” impulse, he insists that “overall,” his dismal account of the past decade’s interventions is really “a hopeful story” in the end; that the international community is “making progress”; and that what is needed is not less humanitarian intervention but more, and better:

To be humane, humanitarianism must last for more than the fifteen minutes of attention that each crisis is accorded these days . . . . intervention must be consistent; it must be followed through.

Fair enough; and yet, no sooner has he delivered himself of this pronouncement than he warns us once again that “Not everything can be achieved, not every wrong can be righted, simply because the international community desires it.”

Ultimately, what all this back-and-forth amounts to is little more than an exercise in liberal handwringing. The events of the last ten years have chastened many liberals of Shawcross’s generation into a more mature sense of what can and cannot be achieved by intervention, and also given them a much more skeptical view of what the “international community”—as opposed to the powerful democratic nations—can do. Armed with these insights, they have more or less soldiered on. But to judge by this book, in at least some members of his generation these same events appear to have instilled so many doubts and uncertainties as to render them, in effect, paralyzed. In true 60′s fashion, the only thing left is to raise those very doubts and uncertainties aloft as a badge of superiority—infinitely preferable, in any case, to accepting the inevitable costs, moral as well as political, of action.

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