Book review: The Thin Blue Line. How Humanitarianism Went to War by Conor Foley

A humanitarian aid worker who has worked for Amnesty International, the International Rescue Committee and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in conflict zones as diverse as Kosovo, Afghanistan, Columbia and Sri Lanka, Conor Foley is well placed to write on the topic of humanitarianism.


The overarching thesis of The Thin Blue Line is that starting in the 1990s certain traditionally neutral humanitarian organisations have become increasingly politicised, often advocating international military interventions during grave humanitarian crises.  For example he describes how CARE played a significant role in mobilizing support for western intervention in Somalia and Haiti, while Oxfam and Human Rights Watch supported military action against Serbia in the Bosnian and Kosovo wars, respectively.  Using his firsthand knowledge Foley also gives a general critique of aid work, noting the poor planning, inefficiency, staffing problems and cultural insensitivity that characterised much of the response to the 2004 tsunami in south-east Asia.


In perhaps the book’s strongest chapter, Foley provides a welcome debunking of the myths surrounding the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 – "the high watermark of political humanitarianism", he argues.  He explains how the bombing of both military and civilian targets set a precedent for Iraq, with "western politicians lying to the public in order to justify the war" and the military intervention itself turning "a simmering crisis in to a full-scale humanitarian disaster".  He then turns his attention to the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, highlighting how the humanitarian effort has unwittingly become part of the wider counter-insurgency, and the predictable results this has had for the safety of aid workers on the ground.


Foley may be very critical of the outcomes of many so-called humanitarian interventions, but a radical anti-imperialist he is not.  Ignoring the consistent post-war US foreign policy of both Democratic and Republican governments, he dismisses the aim of "imposing a pliant pro-western regime" in oil-rich Iraq as "the goal of some ultra-hawks within the Bush Administration."  Elsewhere, he contentiously states the NATO intervention in Kosovo "can legitimately be described as humanitarian because its basic war aim was to bring the suffering of civilians to an end."  Contradicting this is the testimony of the Director of Communications for US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who wrote "it was Yugoslavia‘s resistance to the broader trends of political and economic reform – not the plight of Kosovar Albanians – that best explains NATO’s war."


Except for a brief mention of the ‘scramble for Africa’ in the late nineteenth century, a broader historical survey of the topic – which would surely show that military aggression is always justified in humanitarian terms – is sadly lacking.  Even Adolf Hitler was at pains to highlight how he was "no longer willing to remain inactive" while "millions of human beings" were ill-treated in Czechoslovakia in 1938.


However, despite these reservations The Thin Blue Line is undoubtedly a thought-provoking, accessible and well-referenced book about a complex and controversial topic.  Foley’s analysis deserves to be widely read and studied closely.


The Thin Blue Line.  How Humanitarianism Went to War is published by Verso, priced £14.99.  


*An edited version of this review was recently published in the Morning Star.  [email protected] 

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