WASHINGTON — It appears to be the season for second thoughts about American intervention in Iraq. Periodic public-relations offensives after endless “turning points” have failed to halt the Bush administration’s long-term slide in popular support. The misbegotten war in Iraq does more than discredit Washington’s Mideast policy. It effectively destroys the case for humanitarian intervention and nation-building. The Bush administration might be uniquely inept and foolish, but the basic problem is the policy, not the implementation.

Long among the most avid advocates of humanitarian war-making, writer David Rieff, author of “At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention” (Simon & Schuster), has been clobbered by reality. Every additional day the U.S. stays in Iraq reinforces the truth of his reformed views.

“At the time of the Kosovo war, I had written that, if I had to make the choice, I would choose imperialism over barbarism,” he explains. “In retrospect, though, I did not realize the extent to which imperialism is, or at least can always become, barbarism.”

Rieff does not argue against humanitarian intervention in all circumstances. Rather, he writes, “What I do not stand by, what indeed this book is largely an argument against, is my previous conviction that humanitarian military intervention, whether to alleviate massive suffering or rectify grave human rights violations should be the norm.”

Most notably, Rieff made his name pushing for intervention in Rwanda and Kosovo. In both he has had second thoughts.

Of the former, he writes, “I made allowances and apologies for the (Rwandan Patriotic Front’s) own ruthless conduct that, while not on the same order of magnitude as the genocide within Rwanda, was nonetheless intermittently murderous and barbarous.” Once the group won control in Rwanda, it then created “one of the great crimes of our time” by intervening in neighboring Congo. In short, what seemed morally obvious was not.

Rieff’s disappointment over Kosovo is, if anything, more acute. His extraordinary admission should give pause to any enthusiast for humanitarian war-mongering.

Writes Rieff: “What postwar Kosovo has demonstrated is that Kosovar Albanians were just as efficient at ethnic cleansing as their Serb counterparts had been when Belgrade and Orthodoxy held the upper hand. Since 1999, something on the order of a quarter million Serbs and Gypsies have been forced to flee the province, all under the largely silent eye of United Nations and European Union officials who preferred to claim that things were largely progressing in the right direction.”


Rieff views Iraq through the prism of his disillusionment with past humanitarian wars. Rieff looks at sanctions, which ended up “choosing American security over Iraqi mass suffering.” He also offers a detailed look at the role of Shiites in Iraqi politics — “The Shiite Surge,” as he titles it.

Most painful to read, however, is Rieff’s chapter on the mess that Iraq has become. He begins simply: “On the streets of Baghdad today, Americans do not feel welcome.” This after Bush administration officials promised that the invasion would generate a shower of flowers and good feelings.

Writes Rieff, “Despite administration claims, it is simply not true that no one could have predicted the chaos that ensued after the fall of Saddam Hussein. In fact, many officials in the United States, both military and civilian, as well as many Iraqi exiles, predicted quite accurately the perilous state of things that exists in Iraq today. There was ample warning, both on the basis of the specifics of Iraq and the precedent of other postwar deployments — in Panama, Kosovo and elsewhere — that the situation in postwar Iraq was going to be difficult and might become unmanageable.”

Rieff highlights the hypocrisy of leftwing humanitarian interventionists who criticize Bush. But because the neoconservatives are most responsible for the disaster in Iraq, Rieff targets them for his heaviest verbal shelling.

Observes Rieff: Saddam Hussein had no nuclear arsenal; Iraqi oil revenues were insufficient to cover even a fraction of the cost of the reconstruction; U.S. troops have earned the enmity of many of the Iraqis who had supported the invasion; and far from becoming a bastion of U.S.-style democracy, Iraq’s future is likely to be determined by a Shiite religious hierarchy that has little sympathy for any meaningful separation of church and state.

Thus do neoconservative dreams turn to dust in Iraq. It is time for second thoughts about Iraq. David Rieff’s ruthless honesty contrasts sharply with President George W. Bush, who took the U.S. into an unnecessary war based on false pretenses. And with the neoconservatives, who continue to bungle policy and waste lives. It’s time for Washington policymakers to follow Rieff’s lead.

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