Friday, November 18, 2011

The Altruism of Imperialism

Jean Bricmont. Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006.

Richard Seymour. The Liberal Defence of Murder. London/New York: Verso, 2008.

Samantha Power, "A Problem From Hell:” America and the Age of Genocide. New York: Perennial Harper Collins, 2002.

Reviewed by T. Hatch

Robespierre once argued that “nobody likes armed missionaries.”  That was in the context of an argument with Brissot de Warville (and those of his ilk generally known as Girondins) who, anticipating elements of the Bush administration, advocated a preemptive attack on the royalists who had run away from the Revolution and their foreign enablers.  Further, according to Brissot, this act of liberation could only be greeted with enthusiasm by the burghers of Koblenz.  To indelicately state the obvious the people of Koblenz were much like the people of Baghdad in not greeting their “liberators” with open arms; while Brissot arguably got what he deserved George W. Bush has really good seats to Texas Rangers baseball games and a presidential library. To heighten the indignity,  history has robbed Brissot of the credit of formulating the Bush Doctrine.

Samantha Power who currently runs the Office of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights as Senior Director of Multilateral Affairs on the staff of the National Security Council argues that it is the moral responsibility of the United States government to intervene militarily to prevent genocide.  Who could be against the prevention of a genocidal slaughter?  The problem is that this “responsibility to protect” argument transcends simply intervening to halt genocide and allows the ideological cover for a less exalted form of imperialism on the part of the world’s leading interventionist.

Power was reportedly one of the leading advocates of a humanitarian intervention in Libya inside the Obama administration.  At the time of this writing Muammar Gaddafi has been freshly killed and the era of despotism has been vanquished.  The problem is that what started as a humanitarian military intervention to save the civilians of Benghazi has “worked” to achieve regime change. This template for humanitarian imperialism is now far more likely to happen again. Just as Brissot and Bush couched their plans for conquest in humanitarian language so the Obama administration has made imperialism an altruistic activity.

In “A Problem From Hell” Power chronicles the efforts of Raphael Lemkin, who originated the term genocide, to bring the issue to the attention of the world.  The United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in December of 1948.  Springing into action the United States Senate became the ninety-eighth nation to ratify thirty-eight short years later.

One of the most endearing parts of Power’s book is the story of Senator William Proxmire’s relentless struggle to have the Genocide Convention adopted by the Senate.  Proxmire, a democrat from Wisconsin, used his one minute speech in the Senate 3,211 times to argue for the ratification of the Convention.  Finally, in 1986 that ratification occurred.

Richard Seymour, also known for his blog Lenin’s Tomb, in The Liberal Defence of Murder directly criticizes Power for paying no attention to the worst crimes of Western states e.g. Guatemala and East Timor. She also somehow forgot to include the atrocities in Indochina committed by the U.S. which were quasi-genocidal.  Seymour asserts that “The assumption that the US military will have the answer to genocidal violence wherever it is occupying cannot work without this historical forgetting.” (p. 219)

Seymour argues the process by which the U.S. government launches imperialistic wars of conquest, while at the same time comparing itself favorably to Oxfam, began with the first Gulf War in 1991. The idea that Empires can be trusted to perform good deeds out of a sense of altruism is absurd.  The Gulf War was the real beginning of the exaltation of humanitarian intervention. It is from this point that a straight line can be drawn to the logic of humanitarian intervention in Yugoslavia, which in turn laid the groundwork for the debacle in Iraq. 

Supporting American or European power against aspects of global power deemed even more barbaric was irresistible for some.  The “nouveaux philosophes” i.e. Bernard Henri Levy, Andre Glucksmann, Bernard Kouchner (“Mr. Humanitarian Intervention”), and Alain Finkielkraut were galvanized by a logic of “lesser evilism.” Formerly left-wing intellectuals accommodating themselves to capitalism has led to what Seymour has labeled an “energetic depoliticization of the issues.”  Politics as thus been reduced to a disingenuous discourse of human rights.

Jean Bricmont in Humanitarian Imperialism Using Human Rights to Sell War argues that the well-meaning advocates of humanitarian intervention provide “moralistic cover for the cynicism of a Donald Rumsfeld.”  Since the West is all about “widespread indifference to criminal policies pursued with a perfectly clear conscience” (p. 57) the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” is perfectly suited to these nefarious ends.  This is the epoch when the U.S. Navy can advertise itself as “a global force for good.”  Moralizing rhetoric combined with cynical practice has flourished remarkably in places like Afghanistan.

Bricmont maintains that ideology is the most effective form of social control in a democratic society; a free press is a brilliant propaganda tool in the service of imperialism.   So the defense of human rights serves as the righteous basis of Western imperialism in its offensive against the former socialist bloc and Third World countries escaping from the cold embrace of colonialism. He goes as far as to suggest that humanitarian interventionism has become today’s new opium.

There is a stunning hypocrisy in what liberal imperialists will defend.  Most U.S. Democrats, European Social Democrats, and Greens defend democracy domestically but call for the dictatorship role for a small group of countries on the international level (Obama being the modern version of Gladstone in this respect).  An international Herrenvolk democracy has been created; American liberal ideology has conquered the world. Because Bricmont believes that there is nothing more hopelessly utopian than the notion that there can be stability in a world under American hegemony, he proposes an organization for our time. The watchdog organization that he proposes would be called “Imperialism Watch.”  Its mission would be to denounce wars and war propaganda as well as the economic pressures and other maneuvers that make injustice thrive and prosper. 

All of this might lead us to ask a couple of relevant questions.  Was Rachel Corrie a true example of humanitarian intervention as Richard Seymour suggests? Or, when President Romney launches his first humanitarian assault to whom should he rightfully give credit?

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