Mini Teaser: David Rieff's frustrations show in his effort to make sense of post-Cold War humanitarianism.

by Author(s): Alan J. Kuperman

The dynamic is simple: under ordinary circumstances, most disgruntled ethnic groups do not take up arms against the state because they fear ruthless retaliation. As a result, most states have no incentive to carry out genocide or ethnic cleansing against subordinate ethnic groups. But when the international community announces a policy of humanitarian intervention to protect ethnic groups against atrocities, it actually increases the incentive for these same groups to launch armed rebellions. Leaders of such groups now calculate that if their rebellion succeeds, they win; if it falters, some outside force will spare them the greater cost of defeat--so why not go for it? The tragic, unintended consequence of a policy of humanitarian intervention is thus to trigger more rebellion, which in turn provokes more ruthless retaliation by state authorities. Any credible analysis of humanitarian intervention today must at least discuss this dynamic. Rieff's does not.

A Bed for the Night is not a coherent analysis but a series of fragmented musings by a very talented writer and reporter who wants to share his well-earned frustrations. Such a style can work in op-ed and short essay formats, where syncretic analysis is neither expected nor possible. But it falls flat in a book-length work, where emotional energy and a way with words cannot cover over a lack of intellectual rigor.

Essay Types: Essay