Sitting in his presidential palace in 1991, Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein and his Culture Minister Hamad Hammadi drafted a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). Hussein and Hammadi hoped that the U.S.S.R. would help save Iraq from the West’s barrage. Hammadi, who understood the shifts in world affairs, told Hussein that the war was not intended “only to destroy Iraq, but to eliminate the role of the Soviet Union so the United States can control the fate of all humanity”. Indeed, after the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S.S.R. fell apart and the United States emerged as the singular superpower. The age of U.S. unipolarity had dawned.
A jubilant U.S. President George H.W. Bush inaugurated a “New World Order”, namely “a world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle”. It is the U.S., he intimated, that lives by the “rule of law” and it is the enemies of the U.S. — “actual and potential despots around the world” — that live by the “rule of the jungle”. In this new world, “there is no substitute for American leadership”, said Mr. Bush, and so “in the face of tyranny, let no one doubt American credibility and reliability”. Enemies of the U.S. — tyrants and despots — would face the full-spectrum domination of the U.S. military. Mr. Bush’s predecessor, Ronald Reagan, had already wanted to go after “misfits, looney tunes and squalid criminals” who opposed U.S. policy, but he was held back by the U.S.S.R. and by popular liberation struggles in Africa and Latin America. The collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the weakened Third World bloc provided the U.S. with a tremendous opportunity.
The humanitarian facade
George H.W. Bush’s successor Bill Clinton gave the idea of intervention its liberal patina. His National Security Adviser, Anthony Lake, crafted the notion of “rogue states” — those countries that remain outside “the family of democratic nations”. Mr. Lake’s examples included Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea.
The U.N.-backed sanctions regime sought to weaken Iraq to the point of collapse. No pretext allowed the West to tackle the other countries. It was Yugoslavia, instead, that faced the barrage of “humanitarian intervention”, the new term of art for Western bombardment in the service of protecting civilians. The killing of 45 Kosovar Albanians in Racak in January 1999 provided the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) with the reason to intervene. China and Russia refused to provide U.N. authorisation. It did not stay NATO’s hand, which bombed Yugoslavia into pieces. Older theories to preserve state sovereignty — such as the 1648 Peace of Westphalia and the 1934 Montevideo Convention — went by the wayside. If the West decided that a conflict demanded intervention, then the full force of Western power would be brought to bear on those whom the West determined to be the “bad guys”. This was the gist of humanitarian interventionism.