Collating commentaries produced over the past two decades, Mission Accomplished?: The Crisis of International Intervention presents Simon Jenkins’s impassioned interrogation of the ‘new interventionism’. While Chris Harmer highlights the slightly repetitive nature of Jenkins’s argument and his tendency to sideline evidence that runs contrary to his own perspective, she writes that Mission Accomplished? nonetheless offers an engrossing, eloquent and powerful critique of the era of ‘liberal interventionism’.
Mission Accomplished?: The Crisis of International Intervention. Simon Jenkins. I.B. Tauris. 2015.
Regular readers of the Times and the Guardian will recognise the pages of Mission Accomplished?: The Crisis of International Intervention as a compilation of Simon Jenkins’s commentaries culled from over a period of two decades. Together they deliver a highly readable, stinging critique of the age of ‘liberal interventionism’. Chutzpah aside for recycling now familiar articles, Jenkins’s commentaries repay re-reading, not least for the spare eloquence of the language, the compelling arguments – those on Iraq and Afghanistan in particular – and their thorough debunking of some of the most grandiloquent hubris of the era.
The commentaries are striking for their Cassandra-like warnings about the consequences of ‘liberal interventionism’, in particular the words penned by Jenkins in the minutes and hours immediately after the events of 9/11. While debris was still falling in Manhattan, Jenkins urged that reason should prevail over revenge in response to the attacks – which should be recognised not as casus belli, but as a monstrous crime:
The message of [September 11] is that for all its horror […] [I]t is a human disaster, an outrage, an atrocity, an unleashing of the madness of which the world will never be rid […] It is not an act of war. America’s leadership of the west is not diminished by it. The cause of democracy is not damaged, unless we choose to let it be damaged. Maturity lies in learning to live, and sometimes die, with the madmen.
Liberal Interventionism Unleashed
Instead, the US-led response to September 11 was to transform the age of interventionism. Jenkins’s ire is at its height for the architects of the ‘war on terror’ in Iraq and Afghanistan: fools’ wars waged on an abstract noun, a technique deployed by suicidal madmen who cannot be deterred, but whose cause would be greatly served by Bush and Blair’s wars of revenge. Other interventions addressed by these commentaries include those in former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone and Libya.
Image Credit: Tony Blair and George W. Bush at Camp David in March 2003 during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq (Wikipedia Public Domain)
The familiar hallmarks of Jenkins’s arguments against hard power interventionism arise from his convictions about what constitutes jus ad bellum and jus in bello. For Jenkins, essential questions about war and peace are determined by the principles forged from the ashes of the world wars and enshrined in the UN Charter. Principal among them are non-interference in the sovereignty, territorial integrity and the political independence of states and the rights of peoples to self-determination. In Jenkins’s worldview, national security or self-defence are the key determinants of just war, not hand-wringing concerns about the rights of ‘subordinate groups’ or the pursuit of doctrinal wars of humanitarianism, ideology or nation-building.
Waging War by Proxy
Another feature of Jenkins’s commentaries is a fierce critique of the means of waging liberal wars: high altitude bombing. This is ‘war at its most stupid’, writes Jenkins, when ‘humanitarian interventions’ are pursued with remote warfare that violates international humanitarian laws. For Jenkins, war is about fighting: ‘Regulating other people’s business should be done, if at all, with guns, tanks and soldiers, on the ground, properly, courageously and fast.’ Readers will be left in no doubt that Jenkins is a realist for whom victory in war is defined in the classic terms of Clausewitz – establishing stability and order founded on state sovereignty.
Mission Accomplished? is a forceful and in parts unanswerable argument against the ‘new interventionism’, delivered with a conviction so consistent it can become repetitive. Top and tail the commentary with the name of the country – Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Kosovo – and it is essentially the same argument, each presented as part of a continuum of the wars of the ‘new interventionists’. Thus, interventions that reversed ethnic cleansing in Kosovo left it an ‘empty and wasted land’; the bombing and diplomacy that put an end to the killing in Bosnia left it an ‘EU colony’; British engagement following the atrocities of Charles Taylor’s thugs in Sierra Leone resulted in a ‘propped up protectorate’, ‘permanently dependent on the British army’. All highly moot, and hardly comparable to the outcome, cost and shifting premises of the interventions in the Middle East.
Characteristic of Jenkins’s analyses is a Manichean certitude of the folly of intervention even in the face of mass murder, genocidal mania, barrel bombing and chemical attacks on civilians. What should be done in the face of evidence of the work of genocidaires and war criminals? For Jenkins the answer to such ‘publicity for atrocities’ is simple: nothing. Human suffering, he writes, is best left to ‘an army of philanthropic young’ to dispense charity: tents, medicine and food administered according to the Red Cross’s founding principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence. And when the thin line of humanitarian aid workers cannot hold when confronted with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide? Readers of Mission Accomplished? will find no answer. The flaw of Jenkins’s arguments is one that he himself identifies: a tendency to use evidence that supports his opinion, but to elide that which does not.
As for the future of liberal interventionism? Jenkins concludes that the era has now been so discredited that any moral legitimacy for further foreign ventures is lost. Ironically, continued calls for intervention in response to the mass displacement of civilians fleeing war may well presage recourse to the justification for humanitarian intervention identified by the great villain of the piece – Tony Blair. In his 1999 speech in Chicago, Blair defined five pre-conditions: be sure of the case; exhaust all other options; ensure military operations are sensible; be prepared for the long haul; and identify the national interest. This collection of commentaries conveys the consequences of failing to meet these criteria in Iraq and Afghanistan. They vividly capture the ethos of an era in which security and order were wrecked, international law abused, aid coerced and corrupted and torture and other atrocities were rife. Above all, Mission Accomplished? serves as a powerful reminder of the price that was paid at the turn of the 21st Century when obsession and revenge passed for foreign policy, stifling and overwhelming reason in the highest echelons of power.
Chris Harmer is a journalist and writer with a background in media and external relations for the BBC, Overseas Development Institute’s Humanitarian Policy Group, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and human rights organisations. She has an extensive record in foreign affairs and communicating academic research to diverse national and international audiences with a strong focus on humanitarian issues and conflict. She was a producer and editor of international news and current affairs programmes for the BBC World Service and has postgraduate degrees in international relations and international law from the LSE and King’s College, London. Read more reviews by Chris Harmer.
Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.