With the increasing possibility of some kind of intervention in Syria looming, a University of Chicago panel was held to unpack how liberal thought and Western power politics often are used to mask the unsavory aspects of what many usually call “humanitarian intervention.” The speakers mentioned the Arab Spring, the war in Libya and went into detail on how military intervention is employed in the name of human rights.
Each speaker on the panel was highly accomplished: Jennifer Pitts, an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France”; M. Cherif Bassiouni, who played a lead role in the formation of the International Court of Justice and the prosecution of war crimes in Yugoslavia; Glenn Greenwald, who is known for his work as a blogger for Salon; and Tariq Ramadan, an expert on Islam and its integration and conflicts in Western society. (Ramadan was prevented from entering the United States during the Bush Administration.)
The panel took place in a magnificent chapel called the Rockefeller Chapel. I did not get the best audio of the speeches, there is echo in the audio clips here. The University of Chicago Muslim Students Association plans on posting audio of each of the speeches soon. In the meantime, here is Greenwald’s speech (and, if the echo is too much for you to tolerate, check back here in the next day or two for the audio from University of Chicago students).
Beginning with the fact that there is “no cognizable legal formal definition” for “humanitarian intervention,” Greenwald made the point throughout his speech that in recent centuries there are virtually no wars that have not been cast as necessary for humanitarian reasons. Rarely has any leader said a war must be fought for “imperial ambitions.”
He made the point that the term “humanitarian intervention” is intended to make one think there are actually two types of war: ones that are fought for material or self-interest or empire and ones that are fought for the sake of humanity.
In recent history, the world has seen three clear examples of powerful countries launching wars for dominance that are said to be “humanitarian”: the Iraq War (2003), the Russia-Georgia conflict (2008) and Afghanistan (2001). Greenwald outlined aspects of these wars or conflicts that the powerful manipulated to make it seem like they were necessary for humanitarian reasons.
He proceeded to explain why he thought wars must be cast as “humanitarian” in order to be launched: (1) public support is hard to build if it doesn’t seem like a “greater cause” is being served and (2) “all but the most sociopathic leaders” need to believe the wars they are waging have a “noble cause.” He highlighted Saddam Hussein, who passionately believed what he did when Iraq invaded Kuwait was for the good of humanity.
Greenwald worked in another salient point by sharing an “acrimonious debate” he had gotten into with The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg over the Iraq War. Goldberg had suggested that because there were Kurds in Iraq who benefited from the Iraq War, it was disingenuous to oppose the war because some good had come from the invasion. But, Greenwald countered that in every “humanitarian intervention” one can single out a group of people that benefited.
Finally, he made clear these “humanitarian interventions” are the center of attention for the most vocal advocates until they are actually launched. After that, advocates mostly tune out and ignore the carnage or wreckage that results. This is exactly what has happened with the Libya War.
If the embedded player does not work, you can also go here to listen to Greenwald’s speech.