Imperialism in the Guise of Humanitarianism

Jean Bricmont’s Humanitarian Imperialism is a book that, to use the overwrought (but in this case true) rhetoric of book blurbs, should be read by anyone concerned with rebuilding the left, stopping the Iraq war, or with the future of humanity in general. The subject of his book is the human rights ideology which insists that the US/the West is morally obligated to military intervene to protect the political and civil rights of various peoples around the world. He argues that this line of thought has been absorbed by most of the left in Europe (and, we would add, in the US), and that it helps account for the listlessness of the struggle against the Iraq occupation. Not a timid writer, Bricmont expends no energy deconstructing the discourse of human rights, or expounding on its intellectual genealogy. Instead, he focuses directly on the argument itself, and its multiple variants (such as the use of dubious historical backdrops, including the failure of the left to be sufficiently critical of Stalin, and the example of World War II). He further keeps things simply by avoiding philosophical questions of cultural relativism, instead simply trying to answer whether the military interventionist strategy in fact promotes the human rights it claims to. One wonders how the many defenders of humanitarian imperialism would respond to the arguments laid out in the book. Of course, they will simply ignore it, or perhaps slander the author (defender of Saddam/Stalin, etc.).

In a nutshell, Bricmont’s argument is that the US is the principle obstacle to progress in the global south, its military the ‘sword of damocles’ that hangs over any progressive political experiment there. Instead, the US seeks to maintain an unequal world in which the wealthier countries are dependent on the poorer ones for raw materials, cheap labor, and even money (the debt crisis) and analytical minds (the ‘brain drain’). Human rights ideology is basically an effort to refurbish the image of this war machine. ‘Successful’ interventions, like Yugoslavia (putting aside the details of the actual intervention and its aftermath) enhance the possibilities of future, larger wars (as has come to pass). Furthermore, greenlighting interventions because US and European intellectuals judge the human rights situation to be sufficiently bad destroys the simple principles of international law. Instead of the law that countries cannot invade other countries for reasons of their choosing, we are left with a chaotic situation in which the strongest country (the US) decides what is a just or unjust war. Rather than debating which human rights situations require US interventions, progressives should work to push back all the manifestations of US power (not only military, but also economic, media, political strategies) and work towards developing economies in the wealthy countries that are not dependent on the existence of an impoverished zone in the global south. As an alternative to intervention, Bricmont encourages cooperating with the sovereign leadership of states, and recognizing that one cannot simply solve all the problems one would like, particularly through military intervention. Strikingly, the book was published well before the explosion of interest in the situation in Darfur, which is renewing the arguments for humanitarian imperialism all over again.

Given this argument, it is not surprising that there is considerable overlap between Bricmont’s work and that of Noam Chomsky (although it should be said that Bricmont has a lighter touch in his prose). Readers of the latter are undoubtedly roughly familiar with the many coups the US has engineered, and the numerous crimes committed by the US military in places like Afghanistan and Iraq as it seeks to ‘export democracy’. Nevertheless, the book is well worth reading by people already familiar with Chomsky’s line of thinking. That is because Bricmont focuses much of his energy on fallacies prevalent on the left (including Chomsky’s own tendency to overestimate the capacity of the US to do whatever it wants). For example, Bricmont takes apart the ‘neither/nor’ approach (neither Milosevic nor NATO, neither Saddam nor Bush) for being both unrealistic (not waging war would ultimately strengthen the hand of the relevant foe, however this is a lesser evil the left should forthrightly come to terms with) and for obscuring the enormous power asymmetries involved in these confrontations (now that Saddam has been hanged, and Iraq is in ruins, what equivalent judgment will fall on George W. Bush’s shoulders?). But he also challenges declarations that the left must support some force (the Iraqi resistance, the Zapatistas, Palestinians, etc). Unless people are planning to send money, arms, or themselves to fight alongside of those they support, such declarations are purely rhetorical, and simply obscure and complicate the message of the anti-imperialist forces. He also casts a skeptical eye on the production of proposals to resolve the situation in Iraq, Palestine, or elsewhere. Such proposals can create a false sense that a solution to the conflict is in sight, rather than focusing on shifting the balance of forces that will be necessary before a change in the situation will occur (I would add that focusing on this balance of forces question — asking what groups [churches, unions, portions of the population, etc.] can be brought over to our side, and how our strength could be best mobilized, would be a valuable alternative to the opiate of thunderous, but repetitious denunciations of the Democratic leadership).

Bricmont also revitalizes several arguments of the ‘old left’, to good effect. For example, he reminds us that the third world socialism of the twentieth century was largely authoritarian in good part because US intervention repeatedly destroyed more democratic attempts at reform.

Rethinking the slogan of the World Social Forum, he asks what sort of world might have been possible if Arbenz, Mossadegh, Allende, et al. had not been overthrown. Bricmont also questions why political and civil rights are now held in such high esteem, while questions of social and economic rights are declared irrelevant. Is it so self evident that the free transmission of
literature is more important than people having enough to eat? Is there nothing to be said for governments such as Cuba that have made real progress on the latter, particularly when compared with various democracies in the region that have not?

Bricmont has one strategic suggestion for the left that should be taken very seriously. Given the failure of existing human rights organizations to take issues of war and economic bullying seriously, he calls for the formation of an ‘imperialism watch’ that would focus on all the different expressions of US/Western imperialism. Such an organization could denounce not only military invasions, but also intervention in elections, the production of new military bases, high handed economic behavior, etc. Not unlike current human rights campaigns, it might help to produce campaigns around several of these issues at once, although, unlike the human rights groups, there would of course be no hint that intervention by the West might be a relevant last resort. I can see several advantages such an organization would have over the current expressions of the peace movement. It would not hinge its existence on stopping or ending one particular war. It would not invest messianic hopes either in those who are militarily opposing the US, or in those who are electorally opposing the current regime within the US. To the extent that such an imperialism watch was successful, another world might truly be possible.

9 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Lila Rajiva said on June 6th, 2007 at 7:59am #

    Have been posting on this important topic recently. It’s a difficult thing to do. Because it sets you up as a target for people who think you are using national sovereignty to shield human rights violators.

  2. Lila Rajiva said on June 6th, 2007 at 10:55am #

    Also see the Euston Manifesto.

  3. Max Shields said on June 6th, 2007 at 3:18pm #


    Must you introduce that neoliberal document – the Euston Manifesto?

    It’s everything Jean Bricmont is not about – perhaps that’s you’re point.

  4. Lila Rajiva said on June 6th, 2007 at 4:12pm #

    Yes – I was giving you an example of what Bricmont is talking about. A dangerous document.

  5. Steven Sherman said on June 6th, 2007 at 6:41pm #

    Lila–Thanks for the link to the Euston manifesto. Bricmont discusses this in his book, including the striking disparity between the way the failure of the left to sufficiently condemn Stalin is held front and center, while trying to understand how the US wound up invading Iraq is regarded as so much irrelevant ancient history, compared to the left’s supposed duty to support the occupation. But I had no idea the author of this document is Norman Geras, who used to write for New Left Review.

  6. Max Shields said on June 6th, 2007 at 7:47pm #

    It is intriguing that Bricmont is taking this issue of human rights on. It, like so much, has been coopted by Western imperialist (neocon/lib).

    No doubt you’ve noticed, the EM has got the old “just war” fellow himself – Michael Walzer as signatory – he was one of the initial to “bless” this infamous document and peddle it to a mix of mindless sheep who think that if “human rights” is put in front of every proclaimation, “well where can I sign up to send the troops?” follows.

    Now that I think of it it was this muddy EM that must have incited Bricmont. The EM looks harmless enough, until you follow its logic and where it takes you. Whiskied Islamophobic Hitchens must have drooled his signature on there somewhere.

    Have you noticed how the EM zeros in on the Middle East. Middle East is the center of the Universe – all else is subserviant and fades to the periphery. It sets the stage for the red herring – Darfur. Pay no attention to the atrocities of Israel, or the US in Iraq and elsewhere – take pictures of the children in Darfur, SAVE DARFUR, JUMP, JUMP, JUMP and SAVE DARFUR. Pull a string here and there, come on you little mindless, bleeding heart sheep – we’ve got you hooked on “human rights” now it’s time to perform – jump you imbeciles!

    Yes, the Euston Manifesto, a package of truly deceptive propaganda.

  7. Lila Rajiva said on June 7th, 2007 at 3:07am #

    Yes – it’s a red herring. But you have to know a lot to see that. And if you point it out, it seems that makes you an apologist for jihadis. I am worried about some of the language in it taken along with all the speech regulation in the air, whether it would make the kind of stuff that’s in DV, for example,
    potentially a violation of law.

  8. Max Shields said on June 7th, 2007 at 6:41am #

    Lila the fact that you brought up the EM demonstrates that you “know a lot”.

    Darfur is a perfect example – at least to my mind – of what such a document – in action – is about. Remember there is a longish history in the US of blending American Exceptionalism and purity with interventionism. The Christian Right – as liberals are loath to note – were gullable to the theocratic threats of jihad and thus the demand to dominate and kill before “they” kill us. So were easily sold the fear/domination (get them before they get us) paradigm.

    On the liberal side, the weakness is the blind spot to humanitarian (human rights) interventionism. This is just as lethal. Whether applied in the Balkans or Somalia or Darfur (and as you know the US has intervened at various times there). In fact the neoliberalism of T. Friedman is all about neocolonialism – Western superiority (usually implying Arab/Isam inferiority).

    I have studied the EM and debated it ad nauseum else where. It is the perfect example of imperial liberalism with a special place for pro-Israel and American core values. So what the EM supporters do is to lace the document with liberal ideals and then insert demands for pro-Israel and America (and it is done very craftly). It attempts to define what a “good” leftist is, and then reject anyone who does not buy into this propaganda.

    As you may know, Michael Walzer is a scholar of the “just war” school. Invading (and occupying) Afganistan is ok, invading and occupying Iraq is not according to his “just war” doctrine. Chomsky has roundly refuted Walzer’s notion, but it is an underpinning of the EM.

    The EM is dangerous to the extent that it not only puts moral parameters around “good” leftist, but that it continues to have legs with the community at large and infiltrate our processing of interventionism – hence my diatribe on SAVE DARFUR.

    If you are meeting up with the folks who support EM, you are not alone. I should be challenged whenever someone tries to foist it as the “new good left”.

  9. RLaing said on June 7th, 2007 at 5:23pm #

    Humanitarian Intervention, and Just War are nice theories, but can anyone demonstrate that either one has ever happened, even once?

    By this, I mean an instance where a nation has gone to war, and thrown real resources behind it, without there also being some obvious issue of power involved?

    Yes, if you insist, WWII put an end to the Nazi regime, but the Russians didn’t make the necessary sacrifices out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they could either resist the Nazi invasion with every fiber of the national will, or they could pass into slavery. The West only got involved when it became obvious that the Nazi empire would be destroyed. Before that, our elites, like those in Russia, were perfectly prepared to accomodate to Nazi power.

    Debating these issues might be good mental exersize, but let’s live in the real world. When genuine issues of power arise, nations will turn to violence to settle them, and they will use whatever levers on public opinion are available. ‘Just War’ and ‘Humanitarian Intervention’ are powerful tools to mobilize the mob, and for its part the mob is strongly predisposed to buy the goods.