Silver Lining

Is Iraq the first step in a new era of human rights?

Is Iraq the first step in a new era of human rights?

When Winnie-the-Pooh was stuck in the doorway of Rabbit's house, he was squeezed so tightly that he couldn't even sigh, and a tear rolled down his cheek. He asked Rabbit plaintively, "Would you read a Sustaining Book, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness?"The United States and Iraq are thoroughly stuck in the midst of an endless war for which no book-not even the Book of Baker-can offer easy comfort. What is less apparent is that human rights advocates have been caught up in the mess as well. President Bush has conducted the war in Iraq as if it were a human-rights campaign-and it did accomplish a major human rights goal. That wasn't the war's original justification, of course. But Saddam Hussein was a brutal tyrant and now he is gone. Had the president announced in 2003 that he was forming a multilateral force to take out Hussein in order to stop him from committing further atrocities against his people, many human-rights fans would hardly have been able to hold back the huzzahs.Now we find ourselves not only with a war we can't get out of, but with a new found reluctance to undertake necessary human-rights interventions elsewhere, as in Darfur. Just imagine what will happen the next time a president proposes to commit American blood and treasure to spread democracy around the globe.The problem is not just that neoconservatives have (mis)appropriated the human-rights agenda. The problem is that neither neoconservatives nor human-rights aficionados will settle for anything less than total victory. The former believe that only victory will keep us safe from bodily harm; the latter, from the destruction of the soul. But since neither group knows exactly how to achieve such a victory-how to make a democracy out of a police state in five easy steps, for example-and since total victory is a rarity in this world, except when President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan is running for re-election, both sides are bound to be disappointed.\n\n\n
The bad news is that we tend to repeat our mistakes.
The path out of disillusionment leads first to a rethinking of fundamentals. When is military intervention called for to end human-rights abuses, and what authority suffices to legitimate it? The 2005 U.N. World Summit adopted the principle that the international community has a "responsibility to protect" populations at great risk, even if that means contravening the long held "sacred" principle of state sovereignty. And if the Security Council won't do its duty and authorize such action then the General Assembly, or even regional organizations, may step in. But for one country, even the world's most powerful, to act alone is neither effective nor desirable.And so a second step out of our dilemma is a revivified commitment on the part of the U.S. to international institutions. Ironically enough, the Iraq War may usher in just that. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Condoleezza Rice wrote: "Foreign policy in a Republican administration … will proceed from the firm ground of the national interest, not from the interests of an illusory international community." Now on her knees in supplication over Iraq, Dr. Rice surely understands today that America's interests and the world's can hardly be disentangled. Might the paradoxical effect of Iraq eventually be to reawaken interest in a standing U.N. army or the International Criminal Court, which, had it been functioning 20 years ago as planned, might have made it possible to remove the Butcher of Baghdad without either the bloodshed or the baggage?The formula we are looking for is clear, if not simple: the worst atrocities must not stand; the more people who try to stop them the better; the best inoculation is the rule of law; strong international institutions can enforce that; they need America's leadership; smart leaders sheathe their power in velvet.The bad news is that we tend to repeat our mistakes. A popular cartoon from my generation showed a much beribboned U.S. general talking on the phone to the president of another country. "Become a democracy by tomorrow," he was saying, "or we bomb the shit out of you."The good news is that, as a famous preacher once put it, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." A new American generation is recognizing that U.S. power is finite and wisdom is not limited to the land between sea and shining sea. Pooh finally did manage to free himself from Rabbit's doorway, never to make that mistake again. Whoever said he was a silly old bear?HONEY Pooh's cravings are based on the fallacy that bears seek out honey. In reality, they are after the hive's larvae and pupae.
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