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Humanitarian Imperialism – II
By: Shmuel Amir
Hagada Hasmalit: Left Radical Forum
12 January 2010

In my previous article, `Humanitarian Imperialism`

I discussed Jean Bricmont’s book Humanitarian Imperialism in which he lucidly and unequivocally explains his rejection of intervention of one country in the affairs of another, allegedly in the name of human rights. Bricmont does not speak of such aggression in general terms but points his finger directly at the United States of America, the strongest country in the world:

It is the United States, with its military power, which maintains the state of extreme injustice that prevails today. The USA, not Iraq or Yugoslavia, is the country with which the world’s progressive forces are in confrontation and which they will confront in the future, again and again. Every gain for the USA in war or diplomacy is – at least partly – a setback for the forces of progress.

It must be said that Bricmont sets a very high standard for human rights and protest movements. Indeed, among many of the broad left-leaning movements such a statement will be considered a great exaggeration. We often hear left-wingers asking in astonished tones: “Is America guilty of everything?” In America they often ask, with equal astonishment: “Why do they hate us so?” Could it be sheer jealously and petulance against kindly old Uncle Sam? Bricmont proposes in his article, that instead of asking why they hate “us,” it would be better to ask, why do they hate “our policies”? That might be conducive to some serious introspection. Similarly, here in Israel we should be asking not why `they hate us` but `why do they hate Israel`s policies?”

Bricmont calls on the protest movements and defenders of human rights to go on the offensive. He rejects the approach of “against this and also against that” as in `against Bush and also against Saddam Hussein,” or “against NATO and also against Milosevic,” and he asks whether anyone at the time come out “against the USA and also against Vietnam” or “against Hitler and also against Stalin?”

The tendency to soften the protest by trying to please everyone is misguided and actually gives the big powers carte blanche to go ahead and occupy Iraq or the Balkans. Such an approach is, in fact, support for the aggressor.

For example, Bricmont criticizes human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International which, at the time of the war against Iraq, issued emphatic appeals to the `combatants` (a neutral term for both the attacker and the attacked) to respect the laws of war. Not a word about the illegality of launching of the war itself – what international law calls “the supreme crime.” It is, according to Bricmont, like urging rapists to use condoms. And he adds that “the ideology of intervention in the name of human rights was a perfect instrument for destroying the movements for peace and anti-imperialism.”

In Israel too, human rights organizations exhibit ambivalence regarding America’s intervention all over the world. I can still remember how, at the time of the drafting of a petition against the invasion of Iraq, stormy debates took place among us on the question of whether the USA or Saddam Hussein was the more guilty party. Nevertheless, Israeli human rights organizations should be commended for doing an exemplary job of protesting against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Constant and fearless demonstrations against the Occupation are taking place on the streets of our cities and in Ni’lin, in Bil’in and Sheikh Jarrah. (It is true, however, that these groups could be more accurately described as activists for peace rather than as human rights organizations in the strict sense.)

Bricmont follows in the footsteps of the political journalist Tony Judt, when he refers to the liberals who naively supported American intervention in Iraq in order, ostensibly, to establish democracy there, as “Bush’s useful idiots.” It is already be possible to speak of “Obama’s useful idiots.” He seduced them with some touching speeches and they became his fervent disciples, thus undermining the powerful wave of global protest that we had witnessed during the Bush years. As if there were a substantial difference between the policies of Bush and those of Obama. Anyone in doubt should ask the Iraqis, the Afghans and the Palestinians – and lately, even many Americans.

The Nobel Peace Prize

The speech Obama delivered on the occasion of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize (itself an Orwellian act), was a particularly outrageous example of the promotion of humanitarian imperialism. An American president has just decided to send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, a warlike measure if ever there was one, an act George Bush would have been proud of -- and at that very moment he is given the Nobel Peace Prize. Here we have a president who has an occupation army in Iraq, a president who recently increased his military budget (the size of which is equal to that of the military budgets of all the other countries in the world put together), a president who maintains 700 military bases in over 100 countries around the world, a president who repeatedly threatens Iran (“all options are on the table”) – and there he is, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize! In his speech he explains that there are just wars, an apparent reference to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which, according to him, were imposed on America, and are, of course, being waged for the sake of humanism and democracy. He reminds us that he is the Commander-in-Chief of the US military forces, and that he must defend his country. The country that enjoys absolute global military supremacy (a fact of which the liberal hawks love constantly to remind us) has to wage war from fear in order to “defend” itself. But that is the way of empires. The Romans in their time claimed that all their wars were wars of defence and thus, through unending defensive wars, Rome became a mighty empire.

The grim spectacle of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the most powerful warlord in the world was a thoroughly European spectacle. The judges who awarded the Prize are Europeans as was most of the applauding public. It should be borne in mind that that applauding audience represented countries who are responsible for about 80 percent of all military expenditures in the world (the US and its allies in Europe). And it is they who are preaching – especially to the Third World – about peace and human rights.

Obama`s “useful idiots” are the Western journalists now thrilled by the “realism” of his speech. They explain that Obama understands that it is impossible to achieve an ideal world and we must be satisfied with the real world of Obama’s “just” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, preparation for war against Iran, and the realism of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories, inclusive of the siege of the Gaza Strip.

When Bricmont emphasizes the central role that America plays in human rights violations all over the world with its large and small wars, he is also addressing many of the decent people in human rights organizations who hang their hopes on none other than the USA. When Obama was elected to the Presidency, their euphoria knew no limits. But as time marches on, they have begun asking when, for god`s sake, will Obama get his act together and, to begin with, force Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories?

These people see in the USA the embodiment of all that is good: a model of civil rights, elections every four years, a free press, and a free market. They have little or no interest in a class analysis of the USA and its regime: the terms “capitalism” and especially “imperialism” are not within the sphere of their interests. They reject any approach that could be considered “anti-American.” And they understand human and civil rights to be part of Western culture, as opposed to “primitive” Eastern culture.

Food first, moralizing later

Bricmont does not let the West off easily. He sees nothing idyllic about the creation of the European nation-states or the USA. They were born through wars, the destruction of indigenous populations and the merciless persecution of all internal opposition. Bricmont goes on to say that if the Russians oppressed the Chechens like the Americans oppressed the Indians there would be no conflict with Chechnya today. Chechnya would simply not exist. He does not condone Russia’s behaviour in Chechnya. Rather, he urges people in the West to exhibit a little more humility when they speak of that conflict, and other ones like it.

He adds that if China or Yugoslavia had enjoyed a long period of economic development and reached the economic level of the West, conditions in Tibet and Kosovo would be similar today to those of Wales in Britain, the Basque country in Spain, or Brittany or Corsica in France.

In Bricmont’s view the development of China today is far from idyllic. He likens it to England at the time of Dickens. To those in the West who condemn China, he asks: what do you expect from the Chinese? Colonialism? The way we did it? (Or the way England did it in its time?) What does the West want from the Third World? Does the West expect their historical development to follow the trajectory of that of the West? Let us not forget that it included bloody wars among themselves, wars of religion and civil wars, an outrageous lack of democracy and persecution (in the not-so-distant past) and certainly violations of human rights on a scale that is unknown today. Or maybe the West demands that they give up on the difficult task of economic development towards a higher standard of living. That is to say, that they continue to suffer from hunger; just as long as they adhere to the lofty principles that Europe and America never adhered to under similar circumstances?

Is the West willing to sacrifice its standard of living for the sake of the developing countries? (Just this week in the climate conference in Copenhagen we learned that the West would not dream of doing such a thing.)

Bricmont also has reservations about the West’s attitude towards the Soviet Union. In his opinion the Soviet position during the Cold War was basically defensive. He rejects the accepted Western discourse which prefers to see Stalinism as nothing more than a result of the regime’s internal choices. In his opinion, no one can imagine what would have happened in the USSR if it had not been born in the horrors of civil war and then compelled to catch up with the West both economically and militarily in the face of the Nazi danger. Accordingly, he criticizes the positions of the Trotskyites, the anarchists and most Communist parties, which today are competing with each other to excoriate Stalinism, without taking into account the fact that it was to a great extent a response to threats and attacks from the outside. He sees their approach as a surrender to imperialism.

Bricmont’s book is the work of a radical who is not afraid of asking difficult questions. He refuses to be satisfied with vague fashionable statements and he refuses to spare the rod in his criticism of the left. Some of his opinions will certainly provoke debate within the left but it is clear that the time has come once again to raise questions that have long been concealed under the thick shroud of accepted or acceptable opinion.

Space constraints prevent me from giving full justice to the abundance of ideas expressed in this important book. I particularly liked Bricmont’s way of seeing the arrogant imperialist West through the eyes of the Third World. In this he is following in the footsteps of Fanon, Lindquist, Tariq Ali, Vijay Prashad and many others.

Gandhi was once asked what he thought about Western civilization. His reply: `I think it would be a good idea.”

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

- Translated from Hebrew by George Malent

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