Always Another Munich?

Alan Wolfe is a distinguished political scientist with a long interest in the nexus between morality and social policy. His newest book is an ambitious and important attempt to create a useful framework for deciding when to intervene to stop political violence by other state actors.

A liberal with roots in the Democratic left’s anticommunism (and anti-McCarthyism) of the 1950s and ’60s, Wolfe turned antiwar in the Vietnam era, was later a “post–Cold War liberal,” and he has since had “third thoughts” about the uses and misuses of military power.

He insists, for openers, on the existence of evil in the world, but distinguishes “political evil,” or evils imposed by the power of a state, as of far greater concern than evils perpetrated by depraved or deranged individuals, like the Columbine shootings. Political evils are usually rational and goal-oriented, and usually very destructive because of the resources available to the perpetrators. Wolfe posits four types of political evil: terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and “counterevil,” or tit-for-tat evils, like torturing terrorists because they routinely resort to torture. The task Wolfe sets himself is to make careful distinctions between his categories, to draw the policy implications from the distinctions, and to point out the bad policies that result from confusing or conflating the differences.

Genocide Wolfe defines as the attempted extermination of a whole people on religious, ethnic, or racial grounds. Hitler’s Jewish policy is the classic example, and there are only a few others in modern history. The Turkish attempt to eliminate the Armenians after World War I is one; so was the slaughter in Rwanda. Stalin’s political and class-based depredations against his own people is a strange middle case between ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Ethnic cleansing is the forced expulsion of peoples in pursuit of national ethnic purity, and is often accompanied by large-scale violence, including murder, rape, and pillaging. Throughout history, it has been a traditional objective of nation-states. Wolfe points out that in the rescrambling of Balkan states following the breakup of Yugoslavia, all of the seven successor countries ended up more or less ethnically homogeneous. The depredations of the Serbian strongman, Slobodan Milosevic, were not “genocidal,” as Western liberal interventionists like Anthony Lewis insisted, but a particularly vicious form of ethnic cleansing. The Bosnian Serbs slaughtered more than eight thousand Slavic Muslims in a single day at Srebrenica, a horrific act, but their primary objective was to force non-Serbs out of Serbian-majority territories. (Stalin’s murder of tens of thousands of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest was similarly horrific, but few have labeled it “genocide.”) After Milosevic’s fall, the Croats, who were among the initial victims of the Serbs, returned the favor to the Serbs, as did the Kosovars. The Western bombing campaign in 1995 stopped Milosevic, but had little effect on the underlying ethnic cleansing.

Terrorism comprises heinous acts by non-state actors against noncombatants for demonstrative purposes. 9/11 was an act of terrorism, not an act of genocide. Neither are terrorists madmen. Plotting the 9/11 attack occupied several years, and terrorists usually choose their targets carefully. History suggests, moreover, that terrorist movements usually run out of energy and expire on their own. Terrorist depredations must be met with all appropriate resources, including force. Killing bin Laden and attacking terrorist cells with “smart bombs” are appropriate antiterrorist responses; launching a military assault with forces designed for a conventional war between nation-states isn’t.

 Wolfe especially deplores the cheapening of rhetoric. Sooner or later, almost every enemy is called “another Hitler.” The failure to stop Milosevic was described as “another Munich.” It wasn’t. Milosevic’s expansionist goals were limited to Serbian territories; he was no threat to the Czechs. What is happening in Darfur, Wolfe argues, is a savage conflict between two predominately Christian ethnic groups, with both territorial and economic overtones. A substantial proportion of the deaths appear to be caused by disease or the random actions of local warlords. In Rwanda, the killing was intentional, on a very large scale, and aimed at extermination, so it warrants the label of genocide.

Both liberals and conservatives—like Norman Podhoretz and Bernard-Henri Lévy, Dick Cheney and the late Christopher Hitchens—have been profligate users of “genocide” rhetoric. Hitler and Stalin, Wolfe insists, are sui generis—their objectives were so outsized as to be almost eschatological, and they had absolutist command of the resources of very large states, free of moral or legal restraint. We may never see their like again. Saddam Hussein was dangerous, but he wasn’t Hitler. The policy consequences of inflationary rhetoric, as Iraq demonstrates, can be catastrophic.

A couple of quibbles. Although I greatly admire Wolfe, I wish the book were shorter and crisper. Wolfe’s taxonomy is the heart of the book, but disquisitions on philosophical definitions of evil, Augustine, the Manichees, Hannah Arendt, and modern psychology detract from its focus.

My second quibble relates to Wolfe’s detailed descriptions of the local conflicts he is classifying. He seems to have good firsthand knowledge of Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, but his discussions of Darfur and the Balkans have the smell of the library. In a way, that makes one of his main points. The labels we apply to distant conflagrations must be based not on daily headlines, but on real intelligence dispassionately considered. That’s a caution that should especially apply to the United States, for when it strikes out blindly, it can—more than any other nation—inflict massive collateral damage.

Published in the 2012-03-09 issue: 

Charles R. Morris’s most recent book is The Rabble of Dead Money, a history of the Great Depression (PublicAffairs).

Also by this author
The Future of Inequality

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads