A great deal of attention has been paid to the stratagems of John Bolton, the fiercely anti-UN diplomat whom President George W. Bush recently appointed US ambassador to the UN, and rightly so. But what has tended to get lost in these discussions are the malign synergies between a Third World suspicious that so-called humanitarian interventions are only colonialism redux, and a unilateralist US administration wedded to the concept of pre-emptive war against enemies that it equates with states that violate human rights.
Because the Bush administration, as its officials repeatedly insist, placed the installation of democratic, human-rights-oriented regimes, by force if necessary, at the core of US foreign policy, those who see only aggressive imperialism in the US' interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq view human rights in a more skeptical light. In a sense, the UN, Annan and the human-rights activists who have been perhaps his biggest backers, are caught in the crossfire.
All of this brings to mind one of the great Spanish director Luis Bunuel's later films. The pre-credit sequence shows a group of Spanish guerrillas during the insurgency against Napoleon being led to a wall where they are to be executed by firing squad. At the head of the firing party, a French soldier carries the Tricolor forward. On it are the great words, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." The guerrillas are led to the wall, and, just as the soldiers are raising their guns to their shoulders, one insurgent shouts, "Down with liberty!" We have not progressed very far, it seems.
David Rieff is the author of At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention and A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.
Copyright: Project Syndicate