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Looking back at world crises in order to move forward

Freedom on Fire: Human Rights Wars and America’s Response
By John Shattuck
Harvard University Press, 390 pp., $29.95

To get where you're going, you have to know where you've been.

John Shattuck, an assistant secretary of state for President Clinton specializing in human rights, spends most of "Freedom on Fire" looking in the rear-view mirror at four humanitarian crises of the 1990s: genocide in Rwanda and the disintegrated Yugoslavia, China's crackdown on its democracy dissidents, and the never-ending agony of Haiti. He appends a forward-looking conclusion in which he maps a path for American military intervention in future human rights abuses.

Shattuck, who heads Boston's John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, makes a strong and passionate case, though it is ultimately incomplete. He adds backstage detail to well-reported stories -- for example, how Somalia syndrome (the fear of repeating the ill-fated 1993 intervention in that country) spooked US leaders into abandoning Rwanda. The author piles on the bureaucratic history and could have used more riveting vignettes that sear the stakes into your psyche, as when he describes flying over a Rwandan river and seeing, "like logs slowly flowing in the current, hundreds of human bodies. . . ."

If the crises of the 1990s seem like ancient history after Sept. 11, Shattuck ends by proposing four criteria for committing American troops to human rights emergencies.

He says that to intervene, there should be genocide or large-scale slaughter underway; the conflict should create regional instability that neighboring countries want to contain; there should be no possibility of intervention triggering wider war or terrorism; and plans should call for the minimum necessary force for the shortest possible time. He also says the United States should assemble coalitions of allies rather than plunge in unilaterally.

He notes that these criteria would not justify the Iraq war, which "was strongly opposed by countries throughout the region and the Muslim world and was conducted unilaterally without United Nations Security Council approval." He adds that "despite Saddam Hussein's appalling record of continuing human rights abuse, there was no evidence that the earlier genocide [against Kurds and Shiites after the first Gulf War] was about to be renewed." The invasion led to a chaotic occupation that became a welcome mat for jihadists, he notes.

Those who supported the invasion as a security war rather than a human rights war -- who felt that Hussein's documented drive to acquire nukes and become another North Korea made him a serious threat, and that the costs of merely containing him had been lowballed by advocates -- will find Shattuck's criteria inapplicable to Iraq. Beyond that, his four-step program for war invites a question I wish he'd explored more fully.

By themselves, his principles seem a sound yardstick for picking and choosing our humanitarian battles. But what happens when a human rights case competes with other demands for military resources? After all, if former terrorism czar Richard Clarke is to be believed, one reason the Clinton administration didn't deal effectively with Al Qaeda is that its interventions in the old Yugoslavia took priority. Can we walk and chew gum at the same time? The question is critical in Iraq. Whether they supported the war or not, responsible experts agree that whoever is elected president this fall will have to commit money and manpower to avoid a catastrophe there.

If a humanitarian crisis arises elsewhere, on a larger scale than our current involvement in Haiti, will we be stretched too thin if we try to fix it while simultaneously trying to jump-start democracy in Baghdad?

Shattuck is undoubtedly correct when he writes that success against terrorism requires preventing the human rights abuses that often fuel it. But with the headlines screaming about our armed forces and national budget straining under the demands on them, a lay reader is left wondering how we can do it all.

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