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In an important and insightful essay over at The New Republic , David Rieff makes some particularly astute observations about larger implications of the diplomatic crisis that erupted in the wake of the Israeli confrontation at sea with the Free Gaza flotilla. There is little doubt that, as a political act, the Free Gaza flotilla came out the winner. Egypt has altered its policies with respect to the Gaza blockade, and as Rieff points out, “Prime Minister Netanyahu himself is talking about the need to rethink the blockade,” with the Obama administration applying pressure for just such an outcome. So, were the partisans on the ships heading for Gaza political provocateurs or humanitarian activists? It’s a question Reiff rejects as misguided. For decades humanitarian activists such as Bernard Koucher, a founder of Doctors Without Borders, have urged the political mission of humanitarian efforts. And, as a matter of fact, many governments encourage and support humanitarian efforts precisely because they recognize the political significance of NGOs. The roles of pro-Darful activists provide an obvious example.

By Rieff’s reading of the signs of the times, therefore, the apparent diplomatic success of the Free Gaza activists—a success undoubtedly encouraged and welcomed by the Turkish and other Middle Eastern governments—”represents the coming to fruition of the idea of non-governmental organizations as central players in global geopolitics.” “The old Westphalian system of absolute state sovereignty” is breaking down, and by Rieff’s reckoning, “it is impossible to stop this new version of humanitarian action—highly partisan, highly political—from going forward, even if, by the canons of classical humanitarianism, it is something of a misnomer.”

That sounds right to me. Humanitarian activism expresses itself in an increasingly elaborate networks of interlocking programs, initiatives, and interventions that are financed by private foundations and governmental outlays. It’s inevitable that this network will be used as pawns by sovereign states (or powerful private individual such as George Soros) in order to advance their interests—and for just this reason the global network of NGOs with frustrate, stymie, and perhaps in some instances defeat the power of sovereign states

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