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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

The Violent Folly of Humanitarian Interventionism: Western Delusions

May 30, 2008

by Jean Bricmont
May 28, 2008

One can understand why some people might have sincerely thought that
the Iraq war would be  a "cakewalk". First, consider WW2 ; the US
mercilessly bombed Germany and Japan, including their civilian
populations, then occupied those countries militarily, imposing
almost total control. Yet, today, Germany and Japan are among the
world's most faithful allies of the US. How deep this alliance really
is and how long it will last remains to be seen, but for the moment
it is a reality.

Now, consider the Cold War. Remember that, once upon a time,
governments from Poland to Bulgaria were hostile to the US. Now, they
want nothing more than integration into Nato, advanced US
anti-missile shields and participation in the occupation of Iraq. Or
consider, even more surprisingly,  Vietnam, where US investors are
now welcomed with open arms, while, in a not so distant past, the US
was ferociously bombing Vietnam, killing millions of people and
poisoning the environment.

Even after the bombing of their little country in 1999, the Serbs
behaved as desired, by voting out Milosevic and by accepting, at
least for a while, pro-Western governments approving implicitely if
not explicitely the bombing of their own country.

All this led to a worldview, dominant in the West, particularly among
intellectuals, and even (if not especially) among liberal or leftist
intellectuals, which may be called the Great Western Delusion.
According to that view, the world, especially the Third World, is
full of people oppressed by their own governments, run by political
dictators and economic mismanagers, and those people only look
forward to being helped or supported or liberated (if necessary by
military means) by the good, democratic, liberal, open market West.
This leads to a large part of the left supporting "democratic
revolutions" in Ukraine, Belarus, Lebanon, Zimbabwe, among other
places, as well as supporting human rights in China and Tibetan independance.

The reason it is a delusion is that it misses the fundamental change
in the 20th century, at least the one which has had the greatest long
lasting impact. This is not the history of fascism or of communism,
which indeed belong to the past, but decolonization. Not only did
this movement free hundreds of millions of people from a particularly
brutal form of racist domination, but it inverted what had been the
dominant trend in the history of the world since the end of the 16th
century, namely the movement of European expansion. The 20th century
marked the decline of Europe, and the replacement of Europe by the US
as the center of the world system is likely to be short lived.

Once we understand that, it is rather easy to see the source of our
contemporary delusions. Germany and Japan were, before the war,
imperialist powers and, partly for that reason, fiercely
anticommunist. So, what the US offered to their elites, after the
war, was basically to continue doing what they had been doing before,
namely fighting communism, but by relatively peaceful means, and
under American leadership. That was a "way out" for the defeated
powers that was far more acceptable to them than the Versailles
Treaty had been for the Central powers after WW1. It explains why the
American policy in Germany and Japan after WW2 has been relatively
successful and has led to a rather stable alliance, at least so far.

Similar considerations apply to the "victory" in the Cold War. The
Achilles' heel of the Soviets was always their control over Eastern
Europe. Indeed, most of the populations there felt "European" and all
their elites were looking with envy towards the "civilized" West and
away from the "barbaric" East. So that their"control" was, for the
Soviets, a constant source of troubles (starting in East Germany in
1953, then Hungary 1956, Prague 1968, Poland etc). And of course, it
is in those countries that the US were most warmly welcome after
1989. But that warmth basically extends to Western Ukraine and stops
there. The Russians, as well as the ex-soviet Asian republics don't
feel all that Western and know that they'll never be considered as
part of "the West".

And this is true a fortiori for China, Latin America or the Muslim
world. There is nothing "positive" that the US could offer, as a
compensation for the war, to Iraq and Afghanistan today. While
travelling in Syria in 2002, a small businessman (pro-Western in some
sense) told me that "80% of the people in the region would want
Saddam to go, but if it is the US that eliminates him, they'll have
100% of the people against them ; indeed, we have had the Turks, then
the British and the French, now the Israelis ; we don't want
colonialism any more". He was perfectly right and this obvious truth
was rarely understood in the West at that time, even among antiwar
people (who often favored Western intervention, but of a milder, non
military, form than Bush).

One of the main weaknesses of the contemporary Western left is
precisely that it does not sufficiently take into account, in its
worldview, the demise of colonialism when it vigorously embarks on
pro-democracy or pro-human rights or pro-minorities campaigns in the
Third World. The most recent example of such a campaign is the
agitation around the Olympic games in China, particularly virulent in
Paris, which is nowadays the capital city of such "humanitarian"
imperialism (which has replaced there both marxism and fake 68
revolutionarism). The issue is not whether the "Free Tibet" movement
is legitimate or not, or even whether the Dalai Lama is a former
slave owner and a stooge of the CIA, but is far more basic: what are
"we" (the Western left) hoping to achieve there ? China is not Serbia
and is not going to be bombed into submission. We are more
ecomonically dependent on them than they are on us, so that economic
sanctions (another favorite tool of the humanitarian left) won't work either.

China remembers its subjugation to foreign powers and its
dismemberment just as much as we remember WW2 and the holocaust.
China also says "never again". It obviously sees (rightly of wrongly)
our current agitation about Tibet as a continuation of our past
policies. And that is true of all the Chinese, irrespective of their
political beliefs. The best thing we could do for the Tibetans would
be to reassure China that we don't have imperialist ambitions in that
part of the world. But all the agitation about Tibet, as well as the
installation of US military bases in Central Asia, go  exactly in the
opposite direction.

Of course, each time we intervene we will find  people, dissidents or
minorities, who are apparently "on our side". But most often, as, for
example, the Kosovo Albanian nationalists as well as the current
rulers in Iraq, that is just because they are happy to use US power
to achieve their goals. But those goals, creating an ethnically pure
state in Kosovo or installing an Islamic state in Iraq, do not
necessarily coincide with those of US rulers (who also suffer from
Western delusions) and even less with the broader goals of the Western left.

The "support to minorities", constantly used by imperialists to
weaken rival states, is one of their most irresponsible policies.
Indeed, what happens to those minorities when the empire withdraws
and leaves them to live with their neighbours that considers them as
traitors? What happened to the Hmongs in Laos, after the American
withdrawal ? Or to the pro-German groups in Eastern Europe after the
defeat of Germany ?

What the Western left should do is to encourage a realistic view of
the world situation and a foreign policy based on such realism. Now,
"realism" usually sounds like a dirty word to leftist ears. But it
all depends what a realistic analysis leads to: if one thinks that
one is all powerful and if that is indeed the case (as it was with
West vs the Rest  of the world during past centuries), a realistic
policy may be one of brutal plunder. But if one is not as strong as
one thinks, then, more realism should lead to a more prudent policy.
If Hitler had been a "realist" he would not have launched WW2 and he
would certainly not have invaded the Soviet Union. If the US had been
more realistic it would not have escalated the Vietnam war in the
early 60's, nor would it have invaded Iraq in 2003. Besides, realism
would certainly lead the US to drop its constant support for Israel
that brings no oil, costs a lot of money and creates an enormous
amount of animosity towards the US.

The irony is that the most progressive position (at least
objectively) in those matters is often the one of the capitalists
who, most of the time, favor open trade rather than boycotts or
sanctions (or wars) on humanitarian grounds. Of course, one could
favor limitations of the capitalists' power, uncluding trade, on
social or economical grounds, but, as far as international relations
are concerned, the left should support a similar position, which is
also the one of the non-aligned movement, namely mutual cooperation
and the rejection of unilateral (non UN based) sanctions.

The problem of the US and Western elites is not only that they are
willing to pursue violent policies in favour of their interests, but
that they also pursue violent policies against their interests,
because of their unbounded arrogance. We no longer control the world
and great miseries follow from the non acceptance of this fact. Far
from encouraging our "humanitarian" interventions, the left should
foster a more realistic appraisal of the relationship of forces in
the world and a policy based on dialogue, respect for national
sovereignty and non intervention.

Jean Bricmont, teaches physics in Belgium and is a member of the
Brussels Tribunal. His new book, Humanitarian  Imperialism, is
published by Monthly Review Press. He can  be reached at
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
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