Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.
The fate of Iraq is a sideshow, the terrorist threat is a red herring, and the radical Islamist’s dream of a worldwide jihad against the west is a fantasy, but the attempt to revive Pax Americana is real.
— Gwynne Dyer
The notion of “humanitarian intervention” by former imperialist and now neo-colonial powers is as old as the hills. One can trace such pretexts back far in modern history. Two examples, among many, suffice: the 1898 U.S. invasion of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines was done in the name of saving those peoples from the Spanish yoke. Hitler used it as the excuse to annex the Sudetenland regions of (then) Czechoslovakia to supposedly “save” the poor German residents of that country.
More recently, humanitarian intervention has yet again gained currency, a needed pretext to extend empire or maintain its geo-political clout. Like all excuses for war-making, it hides the deeper political and economic factors for attacking a country, suggesting to the victims that the aggression launched against them is really, in the end, for their own good and that such intervention “preempts” worse suffering. In fact humanitarian intervention is the doctrine of “pre-emptive military strikes” twin brother; they go together like a horse and carriage.
We are somewhat befuddled by the manner in which, all the same, so many so willingly fall for this and cannot see humanitarian intervention for what it is?
The idea of killing people to save them has always been a cynical way to manipulate public opinion then and now. Despite being little more than an old colonial trick, now greatly refined and updated in the post-Cold War period, it has seemed to pull at the public’s heartstrings to win support for military intervention when the “the Communist threat” has long lost its vibrancy.
What distinguishes the more recent forms of humanitarian intervention is that thanks to the writings of the likes of Samantha Powers and Susan Rice, humanitarian intervention now has a more comprehensive theoretical justification, i.e., the pretexts for military intervention have become more refined, coated with phony concern for “the people.” It was used to justify the military intervention in Libya, and until less than a month ago was the emotional cutting edge for greater military intervention in Syria.
As an elaborate excuse is needed to justify unprovoked aggression – all in the name of the public good – humanitarian intervention serves the purpose well. But at its heart, strike it down to its basics and it little more than liberal racism – i.e., “we” = one neo-colonial power or another = magnanimously no less – are invading a country for its own good because those poor dumb folks don’t have the wherewithal to protect themselves and need our kind assistance to prevent disasters.
No matter where one locates the historical origin of this concept – classical, medieval, Victorian or contemporary – one thing appears to be reasonably clear: that the modern phase of humanitarian intervention preceded the Arab Spring and the 1990s NATO intervention in Yugoslavia. It began as early as the 60s during the Nigerian Civil War. Its oil rich southeastern province, Biafra, attempted to secede and declared independence. The Nigerian government responded by launching an all-out offensive. Things went very badly for the Biafrans, but no one in the West cared.
The Nigerian Civil War, the war of Biafran succession, was essentially triggered by powerful internal tensions. Still, it’s not cynical to suggest that what made the war between the Nigerian state and the Biafrans especially brutal and violent was the fact that it became a proxy war for the region’s rich oil resources.
With the ample military and political support provided by the British, the Nigerian government was able to make life very difficult for the secessionists. Interestingly, for all their Cold War hostilities, US and Soviet interests converged in support of the Nigerian government. For its part, Biafra did enjoy some of its own international support: Israel, France, Portugal, South Africa, Rhodesia and the Vatican City provided military training and arms.
It is a fascinating moment because it is where the framework – the contemporary filter through which we now perceive all humanitarian tragedies – was first constructed. Facing imminent defeat and suffering horrific human losses of more than a million dead, the Biafran government found a very odd Geneva office of an American-run public relations firm, Mark-press, which set out to change the way people in Europe saw the war.1 According to a Time Magazine article of the time:
Since January (1968), Mark-press has literally waged Biafra’s war in press releases —more than 250 of them. They are crammed with news of impending arms deliveries that is designed to embarrass European governments and with stark warnings about starvation. The firm has arranged air passage into Biafra for more than 70 newsmen from every West European nation and transmitted eyewitness reports to their publications.2
Mark-press, masters at spin, succeeded in turning a war that ordinary people saw as a political conflict in faraway land into something very dramatic and heart-breaking that created moral outrage and necessitated immediate action. Out of Biafra, the idea of saving the innocent civilians of the world from war was resurrected.
Although since the Biafra civil war of 1968 there has been a number of genocides around the world – the Ache Indians, the Hutu in Burundi and the Tutsi and Hutu conflict in Rwanda – yet the next time that humanitarian intervention rears its head as a fundamental principle in interstate relations was during the conflicts in former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s.
When the Bosnian crisis began in 1992 humanitarian groups and the UN came in to try and help victims of Serb aggression. But they quickly began to realize they were being used by western governments as a way of containing a crisis that the politicians did not want to get involved with. “Containment through charity” was the way one UN official put it.”
The July 1995 slaughter of 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica in front of UN troops who stood as bystanders (as they did in Rwanda) by the Serbian troops shook the world community and forced the impotent UN into action. When finally American air power – under the command of NATO – was used to force the Serbs to negotiate a peace, very few disagreed. Out of the Srebrenica massacre an odd amalgam – “humanitarian militarism” – was born. This idea then went through a lengthy debate at the UN which culminated in the development of what is loosely defined as Responsibility to protect or R2P in 2005.
Saving People From Harm, or Preserving Vested Interests?
We do not intend to analyze nor assess the wealth of literature that has come to exist since 2005. Suffice it to say that we see a fundamental shortcoming in the way the debate is framed between two concepts of “sovereignty and human value” as if these issues form and take shape in vacuum. What the current debate lacks is the context under which such humanitarian intervention is expected to function. The international pecking order or the present interstate relations constructed after World War II was more or less a colonial structure intended to preserve the hierarchical order in post-war interstate relations. Those relations remain essentially in force, now in what might be called a “neo-colonial” context.
The abstract concepts of human rights or sovereignty – which have been persistently violated by the militarily powerful – provide few insights into possible action guidelines. What is the meaning of humanitarian intervention under such a dysfunctional global system in which powerful states have a double standard concerning international law? While pronouncing platitudes, when it suits them they violate international law with impunity (the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan; France in sub-Sahara Africa, Libya). In truth, claiming the right to “exceptionalism,” they show no respect for international law and see no limit to their exercise of military power with wanton disregards for any values or norms.
As such, the lack of precision as to what constitute humanitarianism is the least of our concern.
What concern us are the inconsistent practices of former colonial and present neo-colonial powers – the doctrine of double standards, which uses “human rights” as a pretext for intervention. Militarily, the world’s strongest nations essentially define and decide the criteria for applying the doctrine where it is to their benefit and they will be their own judges as to its application of international law. For example, note the recent comments by President Obama concerning Syria which clearly underline our argument:
But we are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus. Out of the ashes of world war, we built an international order and enforced the rules that gave it meaning.
They clearly underline our argument.
The U.S. Humanitarian Rhetoric Examined
Let us take a cursory look at how uninterested the United States has been in humanitarian intervention through the years:
1. In 1969, neither the U.K. nor the U.S. opposed the repression of the Ibo people of Biafra by the Nigerian military state.
2. In 1971, U.S. President Nixon did not oppose the slaughter of the people of Bengali descent by Pakistan’s military state.
3. In 1972, perhaps as a precursor to the later Rwandan genocide, these Western, imperial powers invoked “sovereignty” as a reason to refrain from intervening to stop Burundi Tutsi killing 100,000 Hutu people.
4. The U.S. directly helped create the conditions for, and in turn helped to cover up, the third largest genocide in modern history: between 1975-79, in the chaotic regional aftermath of the imperial wars on Vietnam (first by a U.S.-backed France, and then after the defeat of France, by the U.S. “going it alone”).
5. Two of seven million Cambodians were slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge. Even after a Vietnamese military intervention ended this “holocaust,” for a decade the U.S. and most of Europe continued to back Pot Pol keeping his seat at the U.N.
6. In 1992, the U.S. and Europe watched as the Bosnian Serbs attacked both Muslims and Croats. The U.S. continued to support the arms embargo on the Muslims. NATO intervened in 1995. In 1999 NATO launched its bombing attack on the Serbian army in Kosovo.
Then came Afghanistan and Iraq and attack on civilian in Pakistan, Yemen, etc. with more than a million civilian lives lost in Iraq alone. All this because the current world power felt that all this was helpful to its interests.
Has anything fundamental changed since Rwanda, or Iraq? Can NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, or the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq be seen as small steps towards more principled and effective humanitarian intervention to stop genocide? To even attempt such an argument is to continue to ignore the larger and deeper historical situation.
On NATO’s 50th anniversary, in 1999, it was dragged into playing a more global aggressive role beyond its European mandate, mostly as a result of U.S. pressure. The Washington Declaration of April 1999 set the stage for this shift. While the language of “self-defense” remained, it was surpassed by a new set of narratives which included the possibility of conducting “crisis response operations.” Such “response operations” were to be launched over security risks such as “terrorism,” but also, more notably, over “disruption of the flow of vital resources” (Par. 24). This “management of crises through military operation” (Par. 49) was now to be carried out “beyond the Allies’ territory,” (Par. 52) which was contrary to the original intent of NATO as an organization.3
We believe that the doctrine of humanitarian intervention was and is not being revived to combat genocide, but to take advantage of post-Cold War global realities where naked “Vietnam type” intervention and aggression is more difficult to justify. Rather, it arose due to the unipolar geopolitical situation that includes the interplay of the UN, NATO and the American Empire. In the short period since the implosion of the Soviet Union we have seen the workings of “internationalism” shift from the UN to NATO and US unilateralism. The UN’s role has become even more subservient to US diktats than previously.
We see such a shift in the locus of international action and attempted legitimacy from the 1991 UN-authorized war with Iraq over Kuwait, to the 1999 NATO war with Yugoslavia over Kosovo, which received after-the-fact legitimacy from the UN, to the 2001 NATO attack on Afghanistan, to the 2003 unilateral US invasion and occupation of Iraq which was not authorized by the UN or supported by NATO to the current crisis in Syria and the U.S. attempting to invoke yet again the H.I. doctrine.
One needs to be cognizant of the fact that in the current unipolar circumstances, with the vacuum left within the UN-based system of international law, a new U.S. imperial order emerged driven by its vast military-industrial power and its need to maintain control of global energy flows. Humanitarian intervention is part and parcel of a backdoor attempt to re-colonize the rest of the world by strong nations, in an effort to justify imposing their will on weaker ones. Humanitarian intervention, in the end, is nothing more than a pretext for imperial military intervention – a pretext that permits the post-Cold War imperial order and its allies to ravage the world with impunity.
 See filmmaker Adam Curtis’s blog at BBC.
 “Nigeria’s Civil War: Hate, Hunger and the Will to Survive.” Time Magazine. August 23, 1968.
 NATO had already played a military role in Africa already in the 1970s, specifically Angola, when it was used to support Portuguese colonialism’s effort to crush the independence movement there. But that was done “under the table” so to speak. Now there was a full-blown doctrine to rationalize NATO’s new global field of operations.