TCS Daily

The Bias Towards Brutality and Totalitarianism

By Carroll Andrew - March 10, 2004 12:00 AM

On February 29, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved the deployment of peacekeeping troops to Haiti. Before Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled the country, supporters of foreign intervention disagreed about its proper goals. Senator John Kerry and a significant number of Congressional Democrats, for example, felt that it was appropriate to use military action to keep Aristide in power despite widespread and credible charges of anti-democratic intimidation and corruption. Other supporters of military action, led by the Bush administration and the government of France, saw no special value in protecting Aristide; they regarded restoration of civil order to Haiti as paramount.

In spite of their disagreement over goals, international leaders across a diverse spectrum of foreign policy philosophies do agree that military intervention in Haiti is a legitimate course of action. This consensus about Haiti stands in sharp contrast to the lack of international consensus about Iraq. Why has intervention been widely embraced in one situation, but not the other?

Realist security concerns can immediately be discarded as a factor. There is no claim that Haiti poses an imminent threat to surrounding nations, nor any significant claim that the lack of an imminent threat de-legitimizes foreign intervention.

Certainly there is a measure of humanitarian altruism involved, but humanitarian considerations cannot be the major factors that distinguish Haiti from Iraq. Reports say that about 100 people have been killed since the rebellion against Aristide began in early February. The death toll does not compare to the hundreds of thousands killed in Iraq -- 5,000 killed in one day in Saddam Hussein's well-documented chemical attack on the city of Halabja. The scale of violence in Hussein's Iraq dwarfs the scale of violence in Haiti. If stopping killing was an international priority, the United Nations Security Council would have supported intervention in Iraq as well as in Haiti.

Actions of Recognized Governments

The essential difference between Haiti and Iraq concerns continuity of leadership. In the case of Haiti, continuity of leadership was destroyed by internal forces; Aristide lost control of the country, and the identity of a successor who could restore order was not obvious. In the case of Iraq, continuity of leadership was never internally threatened. To the current diplomatic class, this is a very important distinction.

From Castro's Cuba to Pol Pot's Cambodia to Amin's Uganda to Mugabe's Zimbabwe to the warfare in Rwanda and Hussein's Iraq, the history of the international relations over the past several decades is a history of endless tolerance for murder and repression -- as long as the violence involves actions of recognized governments. The international community has little tolerance, however, for protracted disruption in the continuity of leadership within a government. The international community is willing to act -- maybe even for moral reasons -- in the presence of a power vacuum.

Now, continuity of leadership is not the type of standard that the world's diplomatic elite likes to talk about. Preferred diplomatic dialogue concerns high-minded ideals and the processes for affirming them -- on paper. With regard to these standards, the international community has repeatedly shown itself to be interested in seeing that the proper papers are signed, but not particularly interested in seeing that what is agreed upon is carried out. This is no substantive penalty to a state that violates the most basic standards in the most brutal ways. As long as repressive governments pretend to be civilized regimes in the proper diplomatic circles, the international community is willing to turn a blind eye to blatant disregard of human rights and democratic freedoms. The international community will play the fool for dictators and oligarchs who are willing to hold occasional sham elections (see the recent events in Iran), sign the right covenants, and not call undue attention to their continuing violations of the principles in the covenants.

The international community is not so keen to play the fool, however, when the subject is a government's ability to maintain order. A leader cannot blithely deny losing control of his country in the same way he can blithely deny an anti-democratic record of governance. The situation in Haiti is a prime example of this. In Haiti, flawed legislative elections and government involvement in gang violence were documented by the Organization of American States and Human Rights Watch at least as far back as the year 2000. Despite this, the legitimacy of the Aristide regime was politely tolerated within the diplomatic elite. No meaningful action to protect Haitian democracy was called for by any of the present proponents of intervention.

The Bias Towards Brutality

After the February 5 rebellion, however, the situation changed. The Aristide government failed to meet one of the basic criteria a functioning government needs to meet to maintain order -- it could no longer project force as effectively as its opponents could. As a result, the country sank into civil chaos. Aristide's early claims that he was still in control were ignored, and the international community began laying the groundwork for sending in troops.

Ultimately, foreign military action in Haiti was deemed acceptable not because the international community will not tolerate the existence of a dictator, but because the international community will not tolerate the existence of an ineffective dictator. In terms of opening the door to foreign intervention, Aristide's mistake was a failure to keep the people of Haiti frightened into maintaining civil order. He did not go far enough in rigging elections and using street gangs to intimidate opponents. Had he been more brutally totalitarian, had he done a better job of killing the leaders of any potential rebellion while simultaneously glad-handing the diplomatic circuit, he could -- like a Fidel Castro or a Robert Mugabe -- still be in power today.

This is a perverse message for the democracies of the world to send to the dictators of the world.

If the international community refuses to apply the same due diligence to monitoring the abuse of human rights and democratic freedoms that is applied to monitoring the continuity of leadership, the international community can never be a force for democracy. If realistic judgments can be made with regard to minimum acceptable standards of civil order, why cannot realistic judgments be made about situations that demand action to remedy attacks on human rights and democratic freedoms -- even when that means challenging an established government? And if the international community will only promote human rights and democratic freedoms after a dictator has lost control, why should not a Hugo Chavez in Venezuela or the mullahs of Iran believe that their best chances of staying in power lie in establishing the most brutal, totalitarian control over their societies as is possible?

Carroll Andrew Morse recently wrote for TCS against illiberal internationalism.


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