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War works?



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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September 22, 2009

LONDON - An unpleasant truth often overlooked is that although war is a great evil, it does have a great virtue: 'it can resolve political conflicts and lead to peace'. So wrote Edward Luttwak in Foreign Affairs.

The end of the bombing in ex-Yugoslavia was a case in point. It ended with both sides claiming victory - the Western allies got the Serbian army removed from Kosovo and the Serbs won agreement from NATO that it would disarm the Kosovo Liberation Army.

The tragedy of war or violence is not that sometimes it does not have positive outcomes, it is that these same goals could have been met without war, if the protagonists had only been prepared to be more farsighted, wiser, and more prepared to be more patient and creative in their diplomacy and less bellicose in their confrontation.

Tossing such arguments back and forth should also make us think about another angle to the war conundrum. Why, as many think, war can resolve problems, don't we let the quarrellers sort out the issues themselves?

Unless our own national interest is imperilled why don't we let the belligerents become exhausted or let one win decisively? If outsiders intervene and impose an armistice does it not just put the conflict on hold - as with Kashmir?

During the Cold war years the geo-political temptation of the two superpowers was often to intervene and if they got too involved with their respective proxies they would decide to effectively collaborate in using the UN Security Council to impose a cease-fire. Often enough this was only in the late stages of a conflict as with the many African wars, but it happened because neither Washington nor Moscow could afford to be drawn in too deeply on opposing sides, as there was always the dangerous possibility they would end up confronting each other with nuclear weapons.

Today, post cold war, the big powers, especially the western ones, get involved in trying to impose a peace not to placate Moscow but rather their own publics who have been disturbed and aroused by harrowing pictures and reportage from the latest war.

After the genocide in Rwanda President Bill Clinton boldly announced, "Whether you live in Africa or Central Europe or any other place, if somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background or their religion, and it's within our power to stop it, we will stop it." But what did the U.S. do about Sri Lanka?

Apparently Clinton judged it a mistake that the U.S. ran from Somalia and used its veto get the UN to withdraw its peacekeepers from Rwanda.
But what's the long term outcome? Does not outside intervention and subsequent pacification merely give time for would-be belligerents to reconstitute and rearm their forces?

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If the history of civil wars is anything to go by, more often peace arrives when there is a clear-cut victory by one side. If no party is threatened by defeat and loss what incentive do they have to negotiate a lasting settlement? Moreover, there is an ancillary problem of Western intervention, whether the troops go in or not. War these days is characterised by a rush of good works. Every organisation from the Red Cross to the notorious Japanese agency that sent lactating mothers to Cambodia can appear almost overnight on the scene.

It is the human impulse at its best but, again, the tragedy is that it can prolong war. Voluntary organisations and the UN by feeding refugees on the Thai border restored to health and well-being enabled the genocidal Khmer Rouge from Cambodia to fight another day. Again, the massive aid to the huge refugee camps in the Congo of Hutus expelled from Rwanda kept the pogrom leaders and their followers, fed, clothed and ready to lead more Tutsi-killing raids across the border. The same point can be made about the UN camps set up immediately after the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war.

The aid organisations need to discipline themselves to think through more carefully the consequences of their actions. And as for those well intentioned NATO troops, they should limit themselves to forming high powered posses to snatch those leaders who have been indicted by the International Criminal Court and bring them to trial in The Hague.

The truth is it is usually evil, peculiarly motivated, leaders who are responsible for whipping up the passions that end up in war and ethnic cleansing, not ordinary people.

Take these dozen or so out and the situation will often calm down. It is surely better than months of aerial bombardment. War may or may not solve problems, but is a terribly blunt instrument. Can't we be a little cleverer?



Copyright © 2009 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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