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VIRTUAL WAR Kosovo and Beyond By Michael Ignatieff;
Metropolitan Books: 246 pp., $23

The Necessity of War

September 03, 2000|DAVID RIEFF | David Rieff is the author of "Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West."

After Somalia and Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo, the heady optimism of the immediate aftermath of the Cold War seems almost as culpably naive as Woodrow Wilson's assertion in 1918 that World War I had been the "war to end all wars." And yet both policymakers and the educated public in Western Europe and North America were genuinely astonished when, far from signaling the end of history, the collapse of the Soviet empire seemed to unleash furies that had not been seen, in Europe at least, in half a century.

To an alarming extent, the response to the realization that the post-Cold War world, far from having created a post-ideological utopia of peace and capitalist plenty fueled by technology, is one in which famine, ethnic cleansing and war have reemerged untamed, eerily mirrors Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' famous schema of the five stages of dealing with death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. For all the talk of a human rights revolution, of a revitalized United Nations or of a U.S. foreign policy based on values rather than interests, there is little appetite for turning these millenarian post-Cold War dreams into realities. In less than a decade, elite opinion swung from believing that there was almost no crisis that the so-called international community could not resolve to the pessimistic conclusion that, except in a few rare cases, there was little that could be done.

To his great credit, Michael Ignatieff was one of the few voices to have warned, almost from the moment the Berlin Wall fell, that the West's euphoria was altogether inappropriate. In his 1994 book, "Blood and Belonging," he anatomized the rebirth of various sanguinary particularisms in Europe and North America. Using as one of his explanatory keys Freud's idea of the "narcissism of petty differences," Ignatieff succeeded in making intelligible both the psychological and the historical underpinnings of the new world of ethnic conflict in which the world so bewilderingly found itself.

Ignatieff has an immensely wide-ranging intellect. The author of a brilliant book on the idea of the prison, as well as the official biographer of the late Isaiah Berlin, he was by no means an obvious candidate for the life of a part-time war correspondent, nor was it obvious that the work would suit his temperament. And yet clearly the theme of the barbarism into which so much of the post-Cold War world beyond the Western European and North American core seemed to be sinking increasingly obsessed him. In his 1998 book, "The Warrior's Honor," he attempted to think through the question of humanitarian intervention.

That book was not a success because Ignatieff did not seem prepared to question rigorously enough his own cherished views or those of the aid workers, human rights activists and U.N. officials whom he accompanied into the killing zones. And yet, in retrospect, "The Warrior's Honor" was probably a necessary way station on Ignatieff's own progress in thinking through these questions. Certainly, there is nothing willfully optimistic or sentimental about his most recent book, "Virtual War." To the contrary, Ignatieff, who is now also engaged in a long-term project to try to understand both the accomplishments and the limits of the human rights revolution of the last 50 years, has produced a work that is both intellectually unflinching and genuinely open-minded. Ostensibly a consideration of the moral and political implications of the West's military intervention in Kosovo, the book is in fact the best exploration of both the operational and moral dilemmas of humanitarian war that has yet been written.

Given Ignatieff's position, which was strongly in favor of the NATO action, and his close relations with such important figures in the West's political and military leadership as Richard Holbrooke and Gen. Wesley Clark, writing such a book took courage. Even on a less exalted level, all of us who have been privileged as writers to travel with aid workers have had the experience of wanting to take up the cudgels on their behalf; it is a kind of morally superior version of the Stockholm syndrome and, like Ignatieff, I have certainly fallen victim to it. But Ignatieff takes a very different tack in "Virtual War." Here, he is clearly more than willing to bite the hand that feeds him--whether the hand in question belongs to NATO, the human rights movement or the United Nations.

The book is not without its flaws. I have the sense that Ignatieff, perhaps for practical reasons or perhaps because time is an enemy when one has as much to say as Ignatieff does, is writing too fast. Much of "Virtual War," which accompanied a television program Ignatieff did for British television, collects pieces on the Kosovo War that he wrote for The New Yorker. He also reprints the public exchange over the morality of the war he had with the British politician and writer Robert Skidelsky in the London magazine Prospect.

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