The case against liberal interventionism

A version of this piece has been cross-posted at Though Cowards Flinch.

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 people Leftists 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.


Anonymous said…
Flawed in theory and practice, but we have no alternative to it? Great logic, dude.
bensix said…
(Thought I'd copy this from TCF. Sorry it's so gol' darn earnest - I must have been reading CiF or something.)

Bob’s dismissal of the “if not X, why not Y” contention isn’t too compelling. The power of the argument – which, I’ll admit, has often been misused – relies on showing that interventions aren’t selected via a calculus based on humanitarian import/strategic potential but on factors that hint at more disingenuous motives: geopolitical value or craving for resources. So, if the U.S. rant about Ahmadinejad, say – whose absence would be useful to them – but ignore the deeds of Karimov or King Abdullah it’s not unfair to feel that their intentions are a little more self-serving than pure and untarnished altruism. It’s not a moral argument but a practical one.

On the motivations of states: I’m no theorist so I guess I could be wrong but if we think about the multifarious atrocities of, er – well – just about all great powers it seems unarguable that they’re no bleeding hearts. Sometimes their interests might be aligned with a people’s – as far as I know the Vietnamese intrusion was a good thing for Cambodians – but it’s futile to think that they’re tools to be wielded as we desire – so, while you might cheer the fruits of the Cambodian invasion you’d be under no illusians that the Vietnamese state was a reliable force for good. (I don’t think they intervened to stop a genocide, by the way; I think they were pissed off with Cambodian border raids.)
bob said…
Thanks Ben. Might as well paste my comment back from TCF:

I agree that the interests of all powers, including Vietnam in my example, are generally malign, and indeed may be in the case of Libya. But I also think that sometimes they might coincide with just causes, occassionally because they have been persuaded to do the right thing for good or for bad reasons or often as not out of sheer coincidence. And when our interests or our sense of justice coincides with their actions, should we not (conditionally/with qualifications/with no reservations) support them?
bob said…
See also
Waterloo Sunset said…
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.

However, the vast majority did embrace Blair. And still are. If you compare the venom directed at George Galloway (which I don't have an issue with), their criticism of Blair on this issue is still very muted. Largely, the only "defense" has been along the lines of "it wasn't just Blair, other people were doing it as well" which is both irrelevant to the subject at hand and pitiful.

A lot of them were very clear that they believed support for Galloway made people de facto accomplices in his support for repressive regimes.

Fine. But we should hold them to the same standard. Any of them that backed Blair and are not now prepared to apologise and retract for doing so should be seen as apologists for the crimes of Gaddafi.

In short, liberal interventionism may be flawed in both theory and practice, but unless Younge and Marqusee can provide a meaningful alternative

Surely the burden is actually on liberal interventionists to show that their preferred option can work and explain how the many historical issues with the tactic can be rectified?

Without that, what you're essentially saying is "well, the great powers will sometimes oppress people, but we don't need to talk about that if they happen to be doing something I agree with".
Waterloo Sunset said…
Oh, and:

But I also think that sometimes they might coincide with just causes, occassionally because they have been persuaded to do the right thing for good or for bad reasons or often as not out of sheer coincidence. And when our interests or our sense of justice coincides with their actions, should we not (conditionally/with qualifications/with no reservations) support them?

Is equally an argument that could be used for supporting Hamas...
bob said…
Excellent points WS, as usual. Don't have time now to respond properly, but for now:

1. On the Blair thing: Both Marqusee and Younge are vague about the "liberal interventionists" (M.) and "liberal hawks" (Y.) they are referring to. Many of the advocates of intervention now (e.g. Achcar) were hardly Blair supporters in any way.

2. Where the burden should fall. In theory, I'd agree with you that the advocates of action need to make the case more strongly than the advocates of inaction. But in the context of an emergency, where non-action means death, is that true in practice?

3. On Hamas. I guess sort of! I suppose I'd say that I might envisage supporting a specific action of Hamas if it happened to coincide with a just cause. But I also see a huge qualititative difference between ("imperialist") liberal democracy and fascism, and I see Hamas as at least semi-fascist.
Sarah AB said…
I felt I owed you an on-topic comment, Bob - thanks for the very interesting post - I do rather agree with one of Bensix's points in that I've also noticed commentators being intensely interested in exposing (quite properly) injustices in Iran, while showing no interest in similar problems in Saudi Arabia. It's partly a 'meme' problem rather than a conscious wish to ignore other countries though.
skidmarx said…
You could try this,this and this, though the former two are as concerned with the differences in the anti-interventionist left as with making the case.
skidmarx said…
If it could have been stopped by Western action – if Israel had acted to stop the Falange,
Sneaking in the idea that Israel as part of the West is above barbarism and having amnesia about the actively role they had in organising the massacre.
skidmarx said…
Millions, maybe tens or hundreds of millions, of people Leftists
Ho ho, leftists aren't people. For Jogo to have suggested that it is these unpersons that need speaking to like children, well...
and the whole evil anti-Americanism think is just pants. I've met plenty of knee-jerk anti-Americanism among the non-political, among Leftists I'm used to a near universal distinction between the US government foreign policy and Thems da Peeps.
I might think about things to say about the whole 'objectively pro-Gadaffi' thing {again read the Tomb piece on why he's not thinking that not giving clear military advice makes you any less a wisher of success for the rebels). For the moment, Hamas "semi-fascist"? I fought it was one way or the other.
sackcloth and ashes said…
I'd take skidmark's rants about the justice of intervention against genocidaires more seriously were it not for the fact that he endorses Rwandan genocide denial.

I'd also add the most obvious point about Lebanon - which is that the Falange atrocities at Sabra and Shatilla were part of a conflict in which all sides (Druze, Palestinians, Amal, Hezbollah, the Syrians, all Maronite factions, the Sunnis) committed atrocities against each other.

I don't see skidmark getting worked up about the war of the camps, in which (unlike Sabra and Shatilla) there was a clear link between war crimes committed by Lebanese factions and direction by their external sponsors. But in this case the people ultimately responsible for all those Palestinian civilian deaths were the Syrians, so their culpability is excused. But then I'd expect nothing more from the minion of a far-right party masquerading as a leftist one.

As for Seymour's hypocrisy over Libya, this puts it in a nutshell:
flyingrodent said…
I find it astonishing that, after the last decade, almost all of the response to the Libya situation has been ideological.

Discussing interventionism, I'd have thought it'd be more useful to ask whether it works. I can see clearly why the suddenly re-muscularised liberals don't want to talk about that and, in fact, get quite annoyed when you try to steer conversation in that direction.

I'm mystified as to why its opponents don't focus on the appalling track record of interventions, though. That track record is by far the most damning piece of evidence in the armoury. In a sane world, it would've spiked both the Libya and Iraq adventures at the planning stage.

Start waffling about imperialism, and you're a) playing right into Decent hands, since that's where they're at their most comfortable, and b) somehow managing to shoot at and miss the fish in the barrel. Every time somebody raises the I-word, I facepalm a little inside.
bob said…
Rodent, excellent point about the I-word and I also agree that effect not ideology should be the determining factor.

I'm not sure that inteventionism's balance sheet is so easy to draw up though, as it depends on how you define it and because so many effects are hard to assess. In the credit column: liberating the concentration camps (but rather late), liberating the people of Cambodia from Pol Pot (but rather late), preventing some ethnic cleansing in Kosovo (arguably: disputed), helping end civil war in Sierra Leone, removing Pol Pot, removing Taliban. In the debit column: chaos and violence in Iraq, corruption and on-going violence in Afghanistan (but nothing compared to the Taliban), what else? (That's off the top of my head. Last question not rhetorical.)


Shatila: I am not sure if Israel is part of the West or not. Most anti-Zionists/"anti-imperialists" seem to think it is not. Whether it is or isn't, doesn't mean I think it is "above barbarism". As I've said before, West's history is (partly) one of barbarism - and
bob said…
Shatila: I accept that the IDF had at least an indirect role in the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. But it also could have acted to stop them, and failed to. Would it have been an evil act of liberal interventionism if they had thus acted? Or rather was the evil their sin of omission in standing by while they happened? My only point about the massacres, in short, was that Younge's cheap moral posturing about remembering them is obscene when you think it through.
skidmarx said…
If they hadn't acted to make damn sure the massacres took place then no that omission would not count as an act of evil liberal interventionism, even assuming that any Israeli government could be convincingly descibed as liberal.

You've duplicated the same link, which seem to say more about what you're not committed to.

No, I think Gary Younge makes a fair point, and you miss it when you replace the fact of Western complicity with the acts mentioned with an illogical hypothetical in which the same states that are complicit suddenly think that the reverse course of action is appropriate.
bob said…
Thanks for pointing out the duplicate link - the other one I meant was this but it's the one I pasted twice that says it more, i.e. that I absolutely don't think the West is above barbarism.

I can't see Younge's point at all. He says people that talk about urgency "treat “now” as its own abstract point in time", but it seems to me that every war crime or act of brutality has its own "now" in which it might be appropriate to act. By claiming that talking about "now" is "sophistry" for this reason, and then going on to make moral capital out of living with the ramifications of previous nows makes absolutely no sense to me. I don't get it at all.
sackcloth and ashes said…
'If they hadn't acted to make damn sure the massacres took place then no that omission would not count as an act of evil liberal interventionism',

So we're agreed that the Syrians are guilty of multiple counts of war crimes for their actions in Lebanon (from 1975 to 1992) then?

'even assuming that any Israeli government could be convincingly descibed as liberal'.

Hmm, remind me which country has had a multi-ethnic democracy, an independent judiciary and a free press since 1948 ...

But then you're the man who thinks that only 100,000 were slaughtered by the Hutu Power regime in 1994.

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