From British daily The Morning Star:
Clamour for war
(Sunday 07 December 2008)
The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War
Conor Foley (Verso, £14.99)
IAN SINCLAIR finds plenty to think about in a book highlighting the humanitarian bodies that have demanded armed intervention.
As an aid worker, Conor Foley is well placed to write on the topic of humanitarianism.
The overarching thesis of The Thin Blue Line is that, from the 1990s, certain traditionally neutral humanitarian organisations have become increasingly politicised, often advocating international military interventions during grave humanitarian crises.
For example, he describes how CARE played a significant role in mobilising support for Western intervention in Somalia and Haiti, while Oxfam and Human Rights Watch supported military action against Serbia in the Bosnian and Kosovo wars respectively.
Using his first-hand knowledge, Foley also gives a general critique of aid work, noting the poor planning, inefficiency, staffing problems and cultural insensitivity that characterised much of the response to the 2004 tsunami in south-east Asia.
In perhaps the book’s strongest chapter, Foley provides a welcome debunking of the myths surrounding the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, “the high watermark of political humanitarianism,” he argues.
He explains how the bombing of both military and civilian targets set a precedent for Iraq, with “Western politicians lying to the public in order to justify the war” and the military intervention itself turning “a simmering crisis in to a full-scale humanitarian disaster.”
He then turns his attention to the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, highlighting how the humanitarian effort has unwittingly become part of the wider counter-insurgency, and the predictable results this has had for the safety of aid workers on the ground.
Foley may be very critical of the outcomes of many so-called humanitarian interventions, but a radical anti-imperialist he is not.
Ignoring the consistent post-war US foreign policy of both Democratic and Republican governments, he dismisses the aim of “imposing a pliant pro-Western regime” in oil-rich Iraq as “the goal of some ultra-hawks within the Bush administration.”
Contradicting this is the testimony of the director of communications for then US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott, who wrote that “it was Yugoslavia‘s resistance to the broader trends of political and economic reform – not the plight of Kosovar Albanians – that best explains NATO’s war.”
Apart from a brief mention of the “scramble for Africa” in the late 19th century, a broader historical survey of the topic, which would surely show that military aggression has always been justified with reference to humanitarianism, is sadly lacking.
However, despite these reservations, The Thin Blue Line is undoubtedly a thought-provoking, accessible and well-referenced book about a complex and controversial topic. Foley’s analysis deserves to be widely read and studied closely.
A NORWEGIAN humanitarian group warned on Tuesday that thousands of civilians in Serbia remain at risk from unexploded cluster bombs left over from the 1999 NATO blitz of the country: here.
Update, Obama presidency, April 2009: here.