In prepping for a fortuitously timely class session on humanitarian intervention, I reread Madeline Albright’s op-ed from 2008 on the “end of intervention.” The claim, which I bought at the time, was that the perceived illegitimacy of the Iraq War had resuscitated the norm of state sovereignty, which had taken some hits since the end of the Cold War. Implicit in the piece was that the invasion of Iraq had disillusioned formerly “liberal hawks,” particularly as Bush’s rhetoric had been so instrumentally idealistic. I never bought that neoconservatives are really concerned about human rights. They like beating up on dictators who give us trouble, who just happen to be bad guys. However, I think that enough folks believed it that it gave humanitarian intervention a bad name.

If Albright was right at the time, boy it appears that the pendulum has swung the other way quickly. Of course we have been through this before. After the Cold War, everyone was gung-ho to smack around nasty warlords, until Somalia and Bosnia. The UN retrenched into traditional peacekeeping, as it had been practiced during the Cold War. Then Rwanda happened and we got tired of getting jerked around by Karadzic and Milosevic. The 1995 and 1999 NATO bombings in the Balkans seemed to make the liberal hawks more confident that one could use force to do the right thing, even if there were some real doubts during the Kosovo operation as to whether air power would work alone. That was probably the peak of the belief in peace enforcement. Then, Iraq.

Now, in just the space of a few weeks, a UN-authorized operation in the Ivory Coast has deposed Gbagbo, who was fighting a civil war against the elected President, Ouattara. It is not like the latter was leading a non-violent movement like Rugova in Kosovo. But the international community took sides and bombed Gbagbo’s house. The brother’s crib! And of course NATO is still at war with Libya with Security Council authorization.

Despite all the risks, I am pleased with these developments, as I always thought that liberal hawks had nothing to apologize for in Iraq. That was not the kind of war that they really had in mind. Liberal hawks believe in military operations in which human rights protection and democracy are really the main driving forces, even while recognizing that there are always ulterior motives as well. Any fool could see this was never true of the American invasion of Iraq. Even if one does not personally support these two particular operations, at least we should accept the principle that we do have the right to step in should the international community endorse the operation. Even if wasn’t always the case, such as in the bad old days when big countries just willy-nilly took over small countries, the norm of state sovereignty is today ultimately more harmful for human rights than the responsibility to protect or peace enforcement.

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