The case against liberal interventionism
I think the two most powerful cases against liberal interventionism I’ve read recently are “The Innocence of the Liberal Hawk” by Gary Younge in the April 11 edition of The Nation, and “Thoughts on Libya and liberal interventionism” by Mike Marqusee at his website. The two pieces have different contexts – one by a British writer transplanted to the US, aiming at mainstream liberal US commentators like Thomas Friedman, the other by an American transplanted to the UK, aiming at more left-wing British opinionists like Jonathan Freedland. But they reach similar conclusions and make overlapping arguments.
Many of their strikes against liberal interventionism hit home. Marqusee correctly argues that liberal interventionism relies on the great powers, who they treat as neutral agents. He argues that liberal interventionism has a technocratic vision of military power, seeing it as a tool like raising taxes, which can be implemented in a time-limited, surgical way. He argues that liberal interventionism is blind to the imbalances in wealth and power between the states that intervene and the regions where they do so. Both Marqusee and Younge point to a logical fallacy in the interventionist position: the imperative to “do something” considers only one “something”, military intervention, dismissing or failing to conceive of other forms of solidarity.
However, a number of their strikes go amiss.
Both of them linger on the West’s double standards: why Libya and not Bahrain? John Rentoul has called this the “why should I clean my bedroom when the world is in such a mess” argument, and its misses the fact that many liberal interventionists have been leading critics of the monarchies of the Gulf region and few of them embraced Gaddafi when Blair and Sarkozy did.
Marqusee has a clichéd vulgar materialist explanation for the double standards: oil. But his own examples show the weakness of this explanation. “If liberal interventionists were consistent,” he says, “they would advocate similar Western military action in relation to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the Congo, Kashmir, Iran, Israel, Burma, etc. etc. etc.” But a glance at this list shows several oil-producing countries where the West is failing to intervene, as well as places with other resources of huge geopolitical and economic significance to the West – Congo is extremely mineral-rich, and our mobile phones would be useless without the coltan mined there. In fact, the last things the oil industry wants in Libya is war, disruption, or democracy; they were perfectly happy with Gaddafi, no less than they are with the autocratic regime in Bahrain.
On the other hand, Marqusee recognises the limitation of the double standards argument, and persuasively argues that “We cannot cure our governments’ double standards with double standards of our own... We don’t demand the invasion of Burma or the bombing of Tel Aviv and no one called for NFZs over the townships during the apartheid years.”
However, Marqusee misses two crucial features of Libya, which makes it different from such examples. On the one hand is something that Younge recognises: the legitimacy of intervention in Libya is not derived from a legal case dreamt up on Capitol Hill or Whitehall, but from the demands of the rebels in Libya. As Younge puts it, “the invitation to attack did come from a credible resistance movement within Libya.” Marquesee says “we stand in solidarity with democratic struggles”, but what kind of solidarity ignores the cries for help of the masses rising up from under Gaddafi’s heal?
The second, related feature is the urgency of the situation in Libya. Younge responds to this, but with cynicism and casuistry. On the liberal interventionists who say that rebels and their civilian supporters are being crushed now, he says “Such sophistry treats “now” as its own abstract point in time: a moment that bears no legacy and carries no consequences. Amnesia and ignorance are the privileges of the powerful. But the powerless, who live with the ramifications, do not have the luxury of forgetting. They do not forget Shatila, Falluja, Abu Ghraib or Jenin—to name but a few horrific war crimes in which the West was complicit.” I find this argument utterly immoral as well as manipulative.
To take Shatila, there was a moment when the horrific massacre was about to happen, and a moment when it did happen. If it could have been stopped by Western action – if Israel had acted to stop the Falange, or if UN peacekeepers had protected the camps – would this not have been desirable? Wouldn’t the “legacy” of such intervention have been the saved lives of the powerless? Is the moral credibility of remembering Shatila a purchase worth the price of the inaction that allowed the massacre to happen?
Or, to take another of Marqusee’s examples, part of the reason the left did not “call for NFZs over the townships during the apartheid years” was that, heinous though the apartheid regime was, there wasn't the immediate threat of mass slaughter which could have been averted by implementing an NFZ. Similarly, although some leftists do demand the bombing of Tel Aviv (or salute the Palestinian “resistance” when it carries it out), the comparison between Israel and Gaddafi’s regime is absurd and obscene.
Both Marqusee and Younge rightly argue that there are other modes of solidarity, other forms of “doing something”, apart from military intervention. They are right that the left’s starting point should be solidarity with the oppressed rather than the West’s strategic interests. But it is hard to see what effective measures of solidarity we can deploy from here, which will address the urgency of the humanitarian situation.
It is instructive here to examine some of the comparisons and arguments from example that the anti-interventionists discuss. In Bosnia, Marqusee places blame on an NFZ and Dutch troops on the ground for failing to stop the Srebrenica massacre. What this ignores is that the passivity rather than the intervention of the Dutch troops enabled the massacre to happen. There was no commitment to liberal interventionism at that point, and the Dutch troops were locked in a Cold War mentality of "peace-keeping", from when local wars were proxy wars between the superpowers and peacekeeping on the ground was backed up by great power diplomacy behind the scenes.
Similarly, Marqusee says that in Rwanda “there were French troops on the ground, defending their national interests and nothing else.” This is true, and is a shame on the French. Again, however, it is not an indictment of liberal interventionism, but of the neo-colonial mentality of the French at that time, in reaction to which people such as Bernard Kouchner articulated their liberal interventionist vision.
Looking at these examples, it is hard to see what concrete measures of solidarity, what other ways of “doing something”, could have made a difference. Workers Aid to Bosnia was effective in getting humanitarian supplies to the beleaguered anti-Milosevic movement — but it was utterly powerless once the ethnic cleansing began in earnest. The logistics of something comparable are still less plausible in Libya. Arming the rebels would be one way forward, but again the practicalities of doing so present severe obstacles. What else do Younge and Marqusee suggest, apart from a gestural memorialising of the massacres after they have occurred?
More fundamentally, Marqusee and Younge both accuse liberal interventionists of an ahistorical analysis, which forgets or erases the whole history of imperialism and the destructive role of the West’s self-interest around the world. This is an accurate criticism in many cases. But Younge and Marqusee also write from an ahistorical analysis, one in which the world is frozen at some point in the Cold War past. Marqusee makes this clear in his last paragraph:
“this debate has reminded me of the gulf that separates my politics (and most of us on the left) from this type of liberalism. For me this gulf first opened when as a youngster I watched liberals launch the Vietnam War on a sea of “good intentions”. The gulf widened when, despite the ensuing nightmare, liberals continued to believe in the benign nature of US (or British or French) world intentions.”Marqusee’s analysis is stuck in the Vietnam moment. Younge is younger, but his politics too were formed in the Cold War, in the period of Thatcher/Reagan, of the Iran/Contra scandal, the Falklands war, interventions in Grenada and Panama, American support for the crushing of national liberation movements in Africa. Their worldview essentially sees intervention as something only “the West” can do; it sees “the West” as a homogenous entity; it sees “the West” as the ultimate power in the world.
My politics were formed by similar contexts to Younge’s, so I am sympathetic. But the world has significantly changed in a number of ways. Marqusee claims that “In the name of pluralism [liberal interventionists] endorse a uni-polar world, governed perpetually by a few great powers.” But, in fact, we now live in a multipolar world: in which Russia is no longer the evil empire nor a defeated ex-superpower but a rising economic force with its own geopolitical agenda and its own proxy low intensity wars across central Asia, in which huge tracts of the continent on what Libya sits are being bought up by Saudi millionaires and Chinese investment companies in a new scramble for Africa which makes the age of Cecil Rhodes look petty, in which Saudi military might exceeds that of most European nations, in which non-state actors like Hezbollah have offensive capabilities beyond some European nations, in which the Gulf states are the patrons rather than the clients of American capital.
Take again some of the examples Marqusee mentions: Burma is a major location for Chinese investment in oil and gas extraction and exploration, as well as the site of Chinese military installations at Great Coco Island. Similarly, the violence in Darfur is fuelled by Chinese weapons and economic interests, while UN action to stop the violence is blocked by China. As Christopher Hitchens said in a recent interview, "Darfur, Zimbabwe, Burma, North Korea, anywhere that the concept of human rights doesn't exist, it's always the Chinese at backstop. And always for reasons that you could write down in three words: blood for oil." In other words, the anti-interventionists vision of US oil-thirsty gunboat diplomacy is a case of selective blindness.
The anti-interventionists' unipolar vision also only obscures other examples of liberal interventionism. It ignores the Vietnamese liberation of Cambodia from Pol Pot, for example, in which a non-Western force eventually intervened to stop a genocidal dictator who was slaughtering its own people. (After I wrote this, I saw Anthony Barnett using the same example: “while the Cambodians did not want to be ruled by the Vietnamese, who they usually loathed, they were very pleased indeed, as one of them put it to me, "not to be genocided". The Cambodian people were liberated from tyranny, their torture and terror was ended. The humanitarian justification for this trumped any form of theory or political schema.”)
The unipolar vision also ignores the times when African Union forces have policed some of the continent’s most horrific war crimes, such as Darfur, where their lack of resources critically undermines their effectiveness. It ignores instances of Western intervention that serve absolutely no geopolitical interest, such as Britain’s involvement in Sierra Leone, where the Indian-led UNAMSIL intervention in 1999 was utterly ineffective but British intervention (Operation Palliser) helped bring an end to the decade of blood-letting (violence, incidentally, which the Gaddafi regime aided and abetted). Most liberal interventionists, rather than simply cheer-leading Western action, have also supported these interventions too, even though they have not served Western interests.
In short, liberal interventionism may be flawed in both theory and practice, but unless Younge and Marqusee can provide a meaningful alternative, how can the left in strong nations help to stop civilians in places like Libya, Sierra Leone, Cambodia or Kosovo from being “genocided”?
Footnote: Getting it wrong about Yugoslavia: Marqusee writes that “When the full scale intervention that the liberals had been calling for finally took place in 1999, it precipitated a massive escalation of the ethnic cleansing it was supposed to stop and stymied the anti-Milosevic movement in Serbia (which succeeded without western help a year later).” This seems wildly misleading to me. Milosovic, recall, had been president of Serbia from 1989 and resigned in 2000; the NATO intervention did not cause his downfall, but nor did it “stymie” it. The NATO intervention was mainly a response to the massacre at Racak in 1998, and the history included the massive ethnic cleansing in Bosnia which occurred while NATO stood on the sidelines. The general picture of Yugoslavia up until 1999 was massive amounts of ethnic cleansing while Western powers failed to act. There was no geopolitical reason, no oil interest for example, that finally made them act in 1999, but simply being unable to ignore the moral case.
Footnote on Juan Cole: The Barnett quote above is from his introduction to Juan Cole's open letter to the left, which I also recommend. Jogo sent it to me, with these words:
What so amazes me is the way "the Left" has to be spoken to like children. Which Juan Cole does quite patiently and strategically. The way one has to do when speaking to children.
Juan Cole gives 3 reasons why intervention is rejected by some. He leaves out a fourth (possibly the strongest) reason: mindless, stupid, evil anti-Americanism. Whatever America does is necessarily bad or certainly questionable. Millions, maybe tens or hundreds of millions, of
peopleLeftists think that way.
Also read: David Osler: Libya - revolution betrayed?; Paul C: What the Libyan action tells us about the New Conservative regime (part 1); Libya: class warfare and the New Conservative state; Carl P: A note after the NFZ; plus further links from Henning Bertram.
UPDATE: Also read the comments by Boffy at Poumista, and this series of posts at Lady Poverty: 1, 2, 3, 4.