Humanitarian imperialism and its apologists

The Thin Blue Line:

How Humanitarianism Went to War

Saviors and Survivors:

Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror

Humanitarian Imperialism:

Using Human Rights to Sell War

The Liberal Defense of Murder

IT IS perhaps no accident in the new Star Trek movie that Captain Pike recruits a dissolute, brawling drunk, Jim Kirk, to join Star Fleet by calling it the “Humanitarian Armada” for the United Federation of Planets. No offense to Trekkies, but this phrase brilliantly captures the way U.S. imperialism has disguised its widening interventionism in the rhetoric of defending the victims of oppression.

Many liberal and formerly left-wing intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens were not just duped by the new humanitarianism, they adopted it as their own position. These intellectuals returned to their traditional role as, in Jean Bricmont’s apt phrase, a “secular priesthood” for imperialism.

A host of recently published books analyzes the new humanitarian interventionism and its apologists. In The Thin Blue Line, Conor Foley explores how the United States found eager collaborators among humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Foley is an insider, a career humanitarian, who has served in nearly every recent intervention from Kosovo to Afghanistan. He is not an anti-imperialist but is deeply troubled by the disastrous history of NGOs’ complicity with the Western powers and the catastrophes they have wrought in Kosovo and elsewhere.

He shows how after the Cold War, the United States has turned to international vehicles like the United Nations (UN), North American Treaty Organization (NATO ), and the newly established International Criminal Court (ICC) to overrule national sovereignty with the stated aim of protecting people from human rights abuses or imposing peace settlements of various sorts. The Western powers have used the UN Charter, the UN Conventions on Genocide and Human Rights, and new doctrines like “the responsibility to protect” to justify the new interventionism.

Foley recounts how political humanitarianism developed among NGOs like Bernard Kouchner’s Doctors Without Borders to complement U.S. interventionism. These formations grew while the traditional left—demoralized by the failures of postcolonial regimes and the collapse of Stalinism—declined. Often headed by ex-leftists like Kouchner (who is now France’s foreign minister), humanitarian NGOs abandoned their tradition of neutrality in conflicts, calling for military intervention by the Western powers, and even collaborating in invasions and occupations.

As Foley writes, “bodies that were established to alleviate human suffering could, on occasion, be given the task of making the case for war.” CARE agitated for UN intervention in Somalia to end the famine in the early 1990s. World Vision and Human Rights Watch argued for military intervention against Serbia to protect Muslims in Srebenica. Oxfam argued for the NATO attack against Serbia to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

The United States has been happy to incorporate such NGOs into military planning, operations, and postwar occupations. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that humanitarian NGOs in Afghanistan were a “force multiplier for us, an important part of our combat team.” After the military conquests, Foley notes, “aid agencies have taken on state-like functions such as running health, education, and welfare systems.”

Foley pulls no punches looking at the disastrous results of the political humanitarian collaboration with U.S.-backed interventions from Somalia and Kosovo to Afghanistan and Iraq. He even goes so far as to question the viability of the various international institutions like the ICC because they are so compromised by their subordination to the UN Security Council and the Western powers, especially the United States.

However, he discounts left-wing criticism of humanitarianism as complicit with imperialism. As a career humanitarian, he defends the old position of NGO neutrality, holds out hope for reformed international law and institutions that can oversee humanitarian interventions, and even defends interventions as a necessary evil. But he nevertheless ends the book with a troubling admission that humanitarianism may just be “another part of the problem.”

Mahmood Mamdani’s new book Saviors and Survivors offers a sharper anti-imperialist critique of political humanitarianism through a case study of the Save Darfur Coalition’s (SDC) campaign to get the United States to intervene in Sudan. Mamdani is a professor at Columbia University and author of the brilliant critique of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia Good Muslim, Bad Muslim.

He argues that “the Save Darfur lobby demands, above all else, justice, the right of the international community—really the big powers in the Security Council—to punish ‘failed’ or ‘rogue’ states, even if it be at the cost of more bloodshed and a diminished possibility of reconciliation…. In its present form, the call for justice is really a slogan that masks a big-power agenda to recolonize Africa.”

Mamdani exposes the hypocrisy of the United States expressing concern about Darfur while Washington was engaged in mass murder, torture, and ethnic cleansing in Iraq. He argues that beneath all the crocodile tears about genocide, the United States aimed to pressure China, which is heavily invested in the Sudanese oil industry, as well as target the Islamist government of Sudan as part of its “war on terror.”

While the antiwar movement agitated against U.S. militarism, the SDC and its campus wing, Students Taking Action Now Darfur (STAND), built a mass prowar movement demanding military intervention in Sudan.

SDC’s campaign was based on a mountain of distortions and fueled by an antipolitical moralism. SDC claimed that the Arab and Muslim government was intent on genocide against Blacks and Christians in Darfur. Infamously, SDC inflated the numbers of those killed in Darfur, claiming that the Sudanese government and its allied militias had killed 400,000 people in Darfur between 2003 and 2005.

SDC’s claim of genocide simply does not hold water. The Government Accountability Office called their claims into question. The most credible study by an affiliate of the World Health Organization found only 131,000 excess deaths, most as a result of disease and malnutrition. Moreover, after the African Union orchestrated a peace deal in 2006, the violence had plummeted to levels far below other conflicts in Africa.

Moreover, Mamdani undermines SDC’s moralistic fable of evil Arabs killing good Black Africans. He shows that the complex conflict in Darfur began with an ecological crisis that precipitated a civil war between groups of sedentary farmers. He demonstrates that it is impossible to reduce this conflict to one between Arabs and Black Africans or Muslims and Christians. He also shows that atrocities, especially rape, were committed on all sides.

Recent U.S. policy toward Sudan, by taking one side in the conflict, has only exacerbated the crisis instead of solving it. The United States pressured the ICC to ignore the atrocities committed by the insurgency and only indict Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide. These moves have inspired the rebels, who have refused peace deals and continued to fight the central government.

In place of calling for Western intervention, Mamdani argues for a regional African political settlement that aims at reconciliation and an approach to war crimes involving exposure but not retribution. For international activists concerned about the crisis, he advocates a return to the left-wing tradition of solidarity with Africa against imperialism, not for it.

Jean Bricmont’s brief polemic, Humanitarian Imperialism, attempts to explain why so many on the left have taken up military humanitarianism. Bricmont is a Belgian physicist who made a name for himself by penning a book with Alan Sokal, Fashionable Nonsense, a brilliant polemic against postmodernism.

Bricmont defends a tradition of anti-imperialism and Third World solidarity. He argues that the left is confronting imperialist aggression led by the United States to reverse one of the key victories of the twentieth century—decolonization. The United States is using humanitarianism as a cover for a wholesale attack on the Third World, violating sovereignty, and overriding international law along the way.

However, the left has been ill-equipped to counter this new onslaught. Much of the left, as Foley argues, has suffered disillusionment in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the failures of postcolonial regimes. In addition, the right has organized a well-funded campaign that has co-opted many ex-leftists to relegitimize imperialism. As what Bricmont calls “useful idiots for empire,” they disguise the contradiction between the horrific past and present of imperialism and their stated humanitarian intent.

To counter this pro-imperialist consensus, Bricmont contends that the left must draw on the enlightenment commitment to universalism, human rights, and international law. It must expose the hypocrisy of imperialism’s claim to humanitarianism by showing the harm that it has done in the past and continues to do today.

He shows how imperialism wrought horrors through colonialism, and continued to do so after decolonization. The United States overthrew progressive governments and installed reactionary dictators, the paradigmatic example being the U.S.-backed coup by Pinochet against Allende in Chile. Foley stresses that far from ending, this history continues through the Afghan and Iraq wars and occupations today. Given these facts, there is no credible basis for taking U.S. humanitarian intentions at face value.

Bricmont’s book is a good brief polemic, but he is too apologetic about the betrayals of Stalinism and failures of Third World nationalist governments. For an adequate reconstruction of the left, which is one of his stated goals, we must simultaneously oppose imperialism and criticize Stalinism and nationalist dictatorships as oppressive barriers to the transformation of our world. He also exaggerates the ability of the left to use the UN or international law to resist U.S. imperialism.

China Miéville’s book Between Equal Rights is an important corrective to this widespread belief in international law as a means to prevent war and oppression of subject nations. Miéville is an award-winning novelist as well as a Marxist theorist of international law.

Miéville argues that international law is the product of imperialism and is actually a vehicle for the dominance of the biggest powers, not a means for progressive opposition. Drawing on the Bolshevik legal theorist Evgeny Pashukanis, Miéville contends that generalized commodity exchange under capitalism gave birth to law in its distinctive modern form.

Whether between workers and bosses for wage labor or between a buyer and a seller of a product or service, commodity exchange takes place as a contract between legally equal individuals. Thus the legal contract, law, has emerged as the ubiquitous social relation between individuals as well as nation-states in the international system.

Coercion, Miéville shows, is intrinsic to this commodity form of law. He writes, “violence—coercion—is at the heart of commodity form, and thus the contract. For a commodity meaningfully to be ‘mine-not-yours’—which is, after all, central to the fact that it is a commodity to be exchange—some forceful capabilities are implied. If there were nothing to defend its ‘mine-ness,’ there would be nothing to stop it becoming ‘yours,’ and then it would no longer be a commodity, as I would not be exchanging it. Coercion is implicit.”

Moreover, legal equality masks actual inequality. In the world system, advanced capitalist powers and oppressed nations are not in fact equal. So in a legal contest over the interpretation of, say, the legality of a war, the nation with the greatest power is more likely to win its interpretation over those with less power. To encapsulate the point, Miéville quotes Marx’s observation that between equal rights, force decides.

This is particularly so in international law, since there is no sovereign state to oversee and enforce legal rulings as in domestic law. As a result, the interpretation and policing of international law comes down to the capitalist nation-states themselves. As Miéville writes, “this is why international law is a paradoxical form. It is simultaneously a genuine relation between equals and a form that the weaker states cannot hope to win.”

Appeals to international law are, therefore, completely incapable of resisting imperialism. For example, International Court of Justice (ICJ) courts ruled that the United States violated Nicaragua’s sovereignty by supporting the Contras and mining the country’s harbors. But the United States ignored the ruling, argued that it was out of the ICJ’s jurisdiction, overrode a Security Council resolution that would have enforced the ruling, and never made any restitution.

As Miéville points out, “from the left, one might argue that this evidences that the U.S. has the power to flout law with impunity; alternatively, that the U.S.’s interpretation was the one made actual and that this illustrates the imperial actuality of international law. Either way, out of an apparent legal triumph for progressives, the international legal system is undermined as a site for activism.”

Importantly, Miéville argues that we have not entered a new phase of imperialism in which the so-called international community is using international law to undo national sovereignty. He points out that imperialism and its international law, while predicated on sovereign property-owning states, always built in qualifications of sovereignty so that powers could legally intervene in other states. The United States and other powers are using political humanitarianism and various international institutions as ideological justification and tools for traditional inter-imperial conflicts and to intervene in weaker nations.

Richard Seymour’s new book, The Liberal Defence of Murder, is a tour de force, a magnificent attack on the pro-war left as well as a genealogy of liberal and reformist support for imperialism from European colonialism to America’s informal empire today. Seymour is known for his attacks on the pro-war left on his ironically named blog Lenin’s Tomb.

Seymour shows how the leading lights of European liberalism supplied their ruling classes with ideas, especially white supremacy, to justify conquest, colonialism, and war. For example, John Stuart Mill wrote in his famous essay “On Liberty,” “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.”

Seymour also reveals how European imperialism produced its own revolutionary opposition, Marxism, that argued for international working-class revolution against capitalism and its empires. He argues that leftists who end up joining liberals in support of imperialism have abandoned Marxism for reformism or were always just reformists. The British Fabians and the Labor Party, for instance, always supported the British Empire’s rule over India and its other colonies.

Tragically, the socialists of the Second International were reformists by the eve of the First World War, so instead of opposing the gigantic inter-imperial slaughter over the colonial division of the world, they each backed their respective capitalist governments. Lenin’s Bolsheviks, along with a minority of dissident revolutionaries in Europe, were the exception; they sought to end the war by overthrowing their militarist capitalist states.

The Bolsheviks succeeded, but all the other revolutions lost, isolating the workers’ state, which suffered an internal counterrevolution at the hands of Stalin and the state bureaucracy. Stalinism in turn became an imperialist force in its own right, conquering Eastern Europe. It then ordered its affiliated Communist Parties to curry favor with their home states to win them as allies for Russia. Thus, the French Communist Party backed France’s colonial rule over Algeria.

After exposing the history of European imperialism and its left apologists, Seymour turns his sights on U.S. imperialism and its liberal and reformist lackeys. He emphasizes that the American Revolution, a great victory for bourgeois liberalism, established a “Herrenvolk democracy,” a white republic, that relied on chattel slavery and genocide against Native Americans buttressed with racism to justify it. With the Spanish-American War, the United States projected itself as a great imperial power. Woodrow Wilson best embodies the official liberal face of empire. He declared that the United States must batter down barriers to its commerce even if “the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused.” Unsurprisingly, Wilson was a racist who supported the Ku KLux Klan and thought “politically undeveloped races” were incapable of self-government.

Except for Mark Twain’s Anti-Imperialist League and Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party, most liberals went along with the new imperialism, including supporting the First World War. Even more tragically, the Communist Party, which had led many of the great labor battles in the 1930s, took the lead from Stalin to abandon its opposition to the Second World War, support Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese Americans, expel its Japanese membership, and declare communism to be “Twentieth Century Americanism.” The betrayals of reformism and Stalinism helped cultivate popular support for U.S. imperialism—what Seymour calls an imperial constituency.

In the wake of the Second World War, Cold War liberalism became hegemonic in the United States. The Truman, Johnson, and Kennedy administrations promised mild tinkering with the system at home and support for anticommunist right-wing dictatorships abroad. Liberals and reformists like the Socialist Party’s Norman Thomas in the United States formed an “anti-totalitarian” left in support of American imperialism against fascism and Stalinism.

The New Left of the 1960s discredited Cold War liberalism among intellectuals for a period. But, with the retreat of the movements and the disillusionment among New Leftists with Mao’s China, U.S. imperialism took the opportunity to regroup and rehabilitate its project. It found willing aides de camp among, of course, the neoconservatives and the anti-totalitarian left but also from ex-leftist intellectuals.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rout was nearly complete. Ex-leftist intellectuals of all sorts backed interventions from the Gulf War to Yugoslavia and Kosovo, where they supported U.S. military assault to stop “another Hitler,” Slobodan Milosevic. In the wake of 9/11, these left apologists for empire went into high gear, denouncing “Islamofascism” in support of U.S. imperialism’s attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq.

The liberal and reformist intellectuals have played a vital role in justifying the new imperialism. As Seymour argues, “Liberals and socialists can claim without embarrassment to support the empire because of their profound internationalism, because of their egalitarian commitments, because they hate fascism, and because they favor gender inequality. A look at what they have helped to rationalize and humanize, and the means they have used to do so, suggests that the colonial habits of mind have not left us.” 
Perhaps the most important point in the book is for anti-imperialists, as Seymour argued at the Left Forum, to take Marxism and Lenin¹s Bolsheviks seriously. The Marxist tradition always opposed empire, rooted it in capitalism, and defended the right of nation¹s to self-determination. Most importantly it has argued the only way to abolish empire and win genuine human liberation is through international working class revolution. The Marxist tradition can thus help a new generation of activists explode the myth of humanitarianism intervention and build a new movement of international solidarity from below against imperialism and the capitalist system that sustains it.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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