Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention [Buy Now]

By Gary J. Bass

Random House, 528 pages, $35

The post-9/11 world of American politics is a tricky one to navigate.

Conservative realists and non-interventionists make up a block of foreign policy thinkers who find themselves uncomfortably aligned with reflexive pacifists and anti-imperialists of the American hard left.

Their opponents are neoconservatives, neoliberals, and other believers in “global democratic revolution,” carried out by a “benevolent hegemon.” Constitution Party presidential candidate Chuck Baldwin described this political landscape as “globalists versus anti-globalists,” and though the battle lines are clear to those engaged in ideological warfare, mainstream commentators remain unconvinced.

Historian Gary Bass is not one of those commentators.

In his new book Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention, Bass relies on several interesting historical examples to trace the rationale for using might to make right, and introduces a nuanced view more honest than what one finds from the average observer of global politics.

In the process, the reader is exposed to grizzly details of massacres, the origins of modern international diplomacy, and the beginnings of the “celebrity cause” cult that fuels things like the “Free Tibet” movement today.

Unlike most books interested in promoting human rights by force of arms, Bass focuses on the actions of Western nations and not the philosophies of phony intellectuals from beltway think tanks.

In doing so, Bass suggests these actions were necessary evils that laid the groundwork for similar actions in the Balkans and elsewhere. That Bass reveals the roots of this “humanitarian” ideology (rightfully pointing to its origins in revolutionary France) is something he should be given credit for. His honesty is rare in pro-interventionist quarters. That he relies less on appeals to emotion than appeals to good neighborliness is an equally strong selling point.

Another strength of the book is Bass’ willingness to admit the history of humanitarianism has not always been paved with good intentions. In fact, the considerations of Realpolitick have been the established norm for those driving the policy bus. Those who wish to go another route quickly lose their seat. History’s deviations have largely and not surprisingly led to failure after failure.

An important question Bass’ book omits is whether these sorts of “benevolent” military actions can succeed without support from the civilian population at home.

Bass theorizes that mass media and communication technologies have made real-world brutalities more tangible to Westerners, who naturally sympathize with the plight of their underdeveloped brethren.

Though this is a central tenet of liberalism, it doesn’t wash with the American character, as even a casual observer of history knows: Americans tend to be suspicious of foreign wars, and wars with no connection to the national interest do not sit well with Main Street.

By pointing out cases of abuse by the Ottoman Empire and ending with an account of the Armenian genocide, which was overseen by the Ottomans, Freedom’s Battle risks being seen as another in a long line of anti-Islam broadsides, aiming to prove the inherent Muslim interest in re-instituting a Caliphate from Mecca to Malaysia.

In fact, however, Freedom’s Battle is an even-handed treatment of the great Islamic Empire from a proponent of muscular internationalism.

Again, Bass deserves credit.

Critics may be tempted to lump Bass in with the neoconservatives and neoliberals, but he is a different breed. A hybrid of sorts of Benjamin Disraelli and William Gladstone (both of whom are major players in the book), Bass is as much a realist as he is a neo-anything.

The difference is this: Bass sees multilateral arrangements as absolute necessities for humanitarian interventions to succeed. Bass also treats the arguments about a “new imperialism” seriously, and is at least sympathetic to the “balance of power” considerations favored by Realpolitik conservatives like Henry Kissinger.

Still Bass is an unabashed man of the center.

He leans toward an internationalism that is different in degree from that of the neos, but not large enough to be a difference in kind. In a war of ideas that pits the center against a tentative left-right alliance, Bass is with the center.

And yet, as Yeats wrote, “the center cannot hold.”