Who Can Intervene
In response to “A Solution From Hell” (Issue Twelve), there are at least two further questions about humanitarian intervention that should be asked, but almost never are. The first is: even if there seems to be a strong case for intervention of some kind, does it follow that any and all state actors are equally well placed to conduct it? G. A. Cohen has recently explored in Rescuing Justice and Equality the different arguments that can, and cannot, justifiably be made in particular interpersonal settings: the judgment that “You’d better negotiate” with a kidnapper might be morally and politically appropriate coming from a police officer, but not from the kidnapper him or herself. Both morally and politically, and also prudentially, the idea that the US and the UK—with their particular histories in the region—were the right states to carry out even an impeccable humanitarian justification for war in Iraq (had one existed) was hard to credit.
The second question, which the piece rather evades, is whether hypocrisy in intervening in some cases but not others is morally indefensible. Do mixed motives, in which the intervener might also have a political or commercial interest, impugn the validity of intervening there? Although ethical standards derive their force from their universal appeal, their application is always haphazard and often distorted. There will always be more wrongs than there are people or states willing to put them right. That might justify selective intervention, if intervention can ever be justified at all. But it doesn’t justify selective criticism or ignoring comparable cases if the singling out of one newly baptized pariah state becomes so influential as to defy any possible comparison. Douglas Hurd’s unconscionable policy in Bosnia was justified by the claim that “The light shone by the media is not the regular sweep of the lighthouse, but a random searchlight directed at the whim of its controllers” (quoted in Brendan Simms’s Unfinest Hour, Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia). To some extent we can’t help but operate moral searchlights, but there is a moral duty to sweep the light as well as to focus it.
Mark Greif’s “Cavell as Educator” (Issue Twelve) offers a refreshingly accessible introduction to the ideas of one of America’s best living philosophers. But it made me wonder: if Cavell’s main ideas are as relevant and available as Greif claims they are, then why, unless one has sat in his class at Harvard (as Greif did), or gone to graduate school in philosophy (as I belatedly did), is an American today still so likely to need such an introduction?
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