Simon & Schuster • 2000 • 413 pages • $27.50
The end of the Cold War led many people to hope for a new world order in which the United Nations would impose peace around the globe. But that dream died in the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, and in villages across Rwanda. It died along with murdered Kurds in Turkey, battling Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, and independence supporters in East Timor. It died in a dozen other conflicts around the globe.
In Deliver Us from Evil, William Shawcross hopscotches across the world’s civil wars and disorders, describing well-intentioned but often ineffective international attempts to intervene. Many of the individuals involved are indefatigable.
Shawcross begins by introducing Frederick Cuny, a Texan who helped bring relief to the short-lived state of Biafra, which sought to break away from Nigeria more than three decades ago. Over the years he ended up in Kuwait, Somalia, and Bosnia.
Cuny recognizes the complexity of his work. In Biafra, Shawcross reports, “Cuny became convinced that the food lift was indeed merely sustaining the fighting.” Moreover, in his view, Nigeria proved to be relatively merciful in victory. That experience caused him, and many other humanitarian workers, to advocate cutting off aid to the Cambodian government in 1975 because, he thought, “The Khmer Rouge can’t be that bad.” Oops.
The problems in Cambodia were immense. Corruption and vice accompanied the U.N. contingents. Cops from Third World countries “behave here just as they do in their own countries,” one humanitarian worker told Shawcross. The Khmer Rouge refused to cooperate. The French complained that education was conducted in English. The Bulgarians were “more interested in organizing prostitution rings than in monitoring cease-fire violations.”
Intervention in Somalia was a complete disaster. The mission proceeded under circumstances seemingly designed to result in failure. Reports Shawcross: “There was never a real cease-fire in Mogadishu, and the security force was unable to protect the aid and see that it went only to the starving. Instead, a lot of it went straight to clan fighters.”
The Bosnian intervention was perhaps the most complex of all. President Clinton promised decisive action to stop the violence, but his advisers were divided. The administration’s most fateful decision was to reject the 1992 Vance-Owen peace plan. Former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and former British Foreign Secretary David Owen found Clinton’s secretary of state, Warren Christopher, to have “barely studied their proposals.” The administration then rejected the plan as being indecently generous to the Serbs, even though the proposal gave them less territory than they received, after three more years of bloody fighting, through the Clinton administration’s Dayton accord.
Other failed missions litter the U.N.’s corridors. In Haiti the United States led an effort that transformed a military dictatorship into a presidential dictatorship. U.N. efforts in Sierra Leone actually reversed the government’s success, achieved through the use of private mercenaries, against brutal guerrillas. Assistance for Rwandan refugees in Zaire was of dubious value. Reports Shawcross, “Aid officials constantly had to ask themselves whether they were doing more harm than good—whether their assistance was killing more refugees than it saved.” The U.N. embargo on Iraq killed civilians without enforcing disarmament.
And then there was Kosovo, the most dramatic example of Western hypocrisy. As Shawcross delicately observes, “To repeat Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s notorious remark about Bosnia, there were probably ten places in the world that were worse off than Kosovo at the time.” Despite endless humanitarian rhetoric, the West seemed inclined to act only when white Europeans were at risk, their deaths were reported on CNN, and their killers represented an unimportant state, in this case Serbia.
Despite the U.N.’s unending failures and only occasional, limited successes, Shawcross remains hopeful of international action “to make the world a little less horrible.” His book offers no policy prescriptions, but only experiences—experiences that should chasten anyone with grandiose ambitions about mounting global humanitarian crusades. His conclusion should be imprinted on the minds of U.S. policymakers: “humility is important. Not everything can be achieved, not every wrong can be righted simply because the international community desires it. We cannot suddenly rebuild failed states or failing territories into our own image; Bosnia will not become Michigan, nor Sierra Leone the Netherlands, just because we would like to see visions of harmony on our television screens.”
Doug Bandow is a monthly columnist for Ideas on Liberty.