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Review: The Thin Blue Line, by Conor Foley

The article appeared in The Herald

There is little denying that most armed conflicts and humanitarian emergencies are messy affairs in which rights and wrongs are often inseparable. There are books on the such topics which avoid becoming equally messy but this is not one of them.

The problem with Conor Foley’s The Thin Blue Line, How Humanitarianism Went to War is that he can’t decide whether to make it a memoir, an essay or a polemic. He dwells for large chunks on the niceties of international law without explaining much more than the fact that it is ambigious, while the huge cast of humanitarian colleagues and UN officials to whom he introduces us seem incidental to his overarching argument. He is at his best when describing specific crises or relating first-hand the difficulties faced by humanitarians in Kosovo or in lawless Afghanistan. Like an Antipodean backpacker determined to see the world in his gap year, however, he hops around far too much to sustain the narrative.

The effect is disorienting, but does not disguise the fact that his basic thesis is neither sustained nor convincing. The book describes the journey over the last 20 years towards ‘humanitarian intervention’ – as a way of holding states accountable for they way treat their own populations – becoming the new norm in international law. Human rights and humanitarian aid organisations have drawn closer together and Foley shows how their neutrality has been compromised as they allow themselves to be manipulated to promote explicitly political objectives.

Perhaps this could have been avoided but Foley does not venture to explain how. In the early 90s the weakness of the international community’s response to genocide and human rights violations in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina was such that there was a clamour for the doctrine of non-intervention in the affairs of autonomous states to be set aside. As Foley acknowledges, UN soldiers were mere bystanders in the Balkans. Elsewhere he supports the argument that most humanitarian activity in Africa is ineffective in terms of reducing poverty, and even damaging.

Aid agencies, wise to this new appetite for intervention, have become adept at influencing public opinion in their parent countries. They know that the best way to raise money and get things done is to stir consciences. Human rights and humanitarian NGOs are often the first to report atrocities and suffering, but this creates a dilemma for them: by calling on governments to protect people, they know that force may be required. Foley sees this as an abandonment of the humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality, yet is unable to counter the argument that these are not worthy sacrifices in the interests of preventing bloodshed.

NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, Foley says, made a bad situation worse. He neglects to offer an opinion on whether the west was right to take the fight to the Taliban after 9/11, but much of his discussion of the perceived abuses of humanitarian ideals focuses on operations in Afghanistan. He bemoans the fact aid agencies there have become part of the wider counter-insurgency effort and dismisses political objectives such as rebuilding governance and judicial structures and the “promotion of philosophical convictions associated with western liberal values”, as neo-colonial.

The west, indeed, comes in for no end of criticism – westerners in general for their idealistic partisanship, their short attention spans and “out of sight, out of mind” attitude to many of the most serious crises; America in particular for not supporting UN missions enough in the 1990s then seeing itself as above the law in Iraq and Afghanistan. Foley reserves particular contempt for the Bush administration but, it would seem, more for having ridden roughshod over the international body politic and declared the UN to be ineffectual than anything else.

In his section on the war in Iraq, Foley is incisive in cataloguing Blair’s dishonesties. He doesn’t tell us anything new but the PM’s repackaging of the invasion as a ‘humanitarian intervention’ after the WMD claims were blown sky high, resonates in the context of a book about betrayals.

Foley does draw some fairly sensible conclusions, albeit tangential to his main gripes. In particular he believes Britain should abandon its slavishness to the US, that so-called liberal interventions this decade have shown democracy is unlikely to be imposed from the outside, and that we need to realise the international community cannot conjure peace and prosperity out of total chaos.

One more inconsistency: humanitarian organisations, writes Foley, should not be mobilised in support of particular political agendas or philosophical convictions; yet they have an important role to play in the arguments for “global economic justice”. What could be more political?