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The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War Hardcover – October 17, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

British aid worker Foley paints a bleak portrait of humanitarian intervention in this book that exorcises his failed missions during a career with such organizations as Amnesty International and the UNHCR. He revisits his time in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Indonesia, enumerating the knotty ethical dilemmas inherent in offering humanitarian aid (i.e., the blurring boundary between "development and humanitarian action" or the challenges of maintaining political neutrality while providing aid). Foley doesn't dissect these dilemmas with enough clarity for a nonexpert reader to understand the pros and cons of modern interventionism. Moreover, Foley is too exasperated by a morass of "too little, too late" missions over the past 15 years to objectively analyze interventionism's touchy relationship to international law. He refrains from offering solutions and is content to point out thorny problems ranging from the use of force and usurpation of national sovereignty to cultural insensitivity. His bitterness suffuses the book, which ends on a hollow prescription: "the need to develop a rather different discourse on human rights interventionism, one which is more modest in recognizing its limitations, but more ambitious in recognizing what needs to be done." (Nov.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


“This is a penetrating analysis of modern humanitarianism. Conor Foley brings all his own experience to bear as he punctures the myths and delusions that have coloured discussion of humanitarian action from Biafra to Kosovo to Iraq, Darfur and Afghanistan. He lays bare the complexities and dilemmas that are rarely examined and argues that the answer to the world’s woes is rarely military intervention. A stunning book!”—Helena Kennedy

“When can massive and systematic violations of human rights within one state justify a foreign intervention? Today, few questions are more pressing. With this vital and necessary book Conor Foley outlines an important agenda for change.”—Philippe Sands

“No one is more qualified than Conor Foley to raise questions about the good and the bad—mostly the bad—of humanitarian intervention. Foley has been there and done it as a humanitarian worker throughout his adult life, and he raises many disquieting questions as he uncovers the failures of even the most well-meant military interventions. Iraq ans Afghanistan loom large in this book, and the American travails there are dispassionately depicted in ways one rarely finds in mainstream media reporting.”—Seymour M. Hersh

“Drawing upon his personal experience from emergency operations across the world and legal scholarship, Conor Foley has written a strikingly original, wide-ranging and insightful critique of humanitarian action and military intervention.”—Alex De Waal

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 266 pages
  • Publisher: Verso (October 17, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1844672891
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844672899
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,216,731 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By David Hillstrom on December 20, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This book is essential. It responds with both compassion and the wisdom of first hand experience to the growing debate over humanitarian crises and how to deal with them. I applaud the author for his courage in volunteering for humanitarian service in some of the most dangerous places on earth. More importantly though I applaud his courage in speaking up forcefully to the growing lobby of liberal interventionists, who urge the US to take up the new `white man's burden' and to assume the mantle of responsibility to protect. Conor Foley has put himself in harm's way during his service and now argues against the tide of growing opinion (supported by the media and such high profile players as CNN's Christiane Amanpour) in favour of a more cautious and pragmatic approach to humanitarian conflicts. Mr. Foley quite literally charts a course along a `Thin Blue Line' between humanitarian compassion and the impulse to intervene, which has in recent years evidently caused more suffering rather than less.

A few examples of Foley's contribution to the debate may be helpful:

* The author reviews the traditional role of humanitarian organizations and their tendency toward neutrality in order to accomplish their goals. He then explains how that neutrality has been co-opted by a political humanitarianism favoring intervention.
* He examines how the policies of the UK government evolved under Tony Blair to abandon multilateralism in favor of liberal interventionism and a special relationship with "the world's strongest state."
* He explains how the humanitarian effort in Afghanistan "joined the wider counter-insurgency effort." And he laments that he and his colleagues had not signed up for such a role.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By ewaffle on September 30, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Conor Foley calls the roll of genocide, ethnic cleansing, rape as a political/military weapon, mass murder and other horrors of the past couple of decades including a few natural as opposed to man made disasters. He has been at the aftermath of many of them: Somalia (civil and religious war); Kosovo (ethnic cleansing); Sri Lanka (civil war); Indonesia (tsunami); Sudan (ethnic cleansing, civil war); the Kurdish areas of Iraq and Turkey (state sponsored mass killing). Looming over everything is the slaughter of up to 800,000 Tsutis citizens of Rwanda by their Hutu neighbors while the United Nations ignored it or even tacitly encouraged it by pulling out troops. In retrospect it is clear that a couple of regiments of airborne infantry could have slowed and diverted much of the killing saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and a division could have stopped the massacre in its tracks.

The utter barbarity of Rwanda in 1994 is most used to justify "humanitarian intervention" which can range from military and political operations that infringe on the territory and sovereignty of a country on the hawkish end to the more dovish definition of impartial distribution of relief assistance during armed conflict. Foley's view is that most situations, dire though they may seem, are not as straightforward as Rwanda. He was in Kosovo during the height of the Serbian/Albanian battles and through the NATO led air strikes. Foley sees Kosovo as a telling example of "we must do something" which often leads creates more killing and destruction than would have happened without intervention.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Anton Tikhomirov on September 11, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I really like Foley's review of humanitarianism in the world. I especially enjoyed the short chapter on the Kosovo war.
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