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by Daniel Luban

The Fog of Humanitarian War

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Few political debates have changed as rapidly over the last four years as the one surrounding humanitarian military intervention.

As the U.S. invasion of Iraq got underway in 2003, anti-interventionists on both the left and right were blasted by the pro-war establishment as callous isolationists indifferent to the suffering of Iraqis under Saddam Hussein. There seemed to be little space for anti-interventionism in the new foreign policy consensus that stretched from liberal humanitarians like Michael Ignatieff and Michael Walzer to neoconservative hawks like William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer.

Four years later, the course of the Iraq war has led to increased introspection by former "humanitarian hawks", and has opened new political space for members of both the anti-imperialist left and isolationist right.

It is with Iraq squarely in mind that Jean Bricmont, a French theoretical physicist who made his name as a critic of postmodern theory, takes aim at the doctrines of humanitarian intervention that rose to the fore during the 1990s debates over Rwanda and Kosovo.

His latest book, "Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War" (Monthly Review, 2006), is a provocative, albeit unfocused indictment of the ways in which human rights rhetoric feeds into a militarism that ends up damaging the cause of human rights worldwide.

Bricmont begins with the sensible observation that nearly every regime claims altruistic motives for its actions, however self-interested or malicious they may be, and therefore that using a regime's humanitarian rhetoric to judge its intentions is close to useless.

He goes on to provide a damning account of the anti-democratic violence that has been perpetrated by the United States under the rhetoric of "spreading freedom", ranging from the CIA-backed coups in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s to the funding of the Nicaraguan Contras 30 years later.

These examples and others effectively make the point that the United States and other Western powers have always deployed human rights rhetoric in a selective and self-serving manner, ignoring their own abuses and those of allies while using the wrongdoing of unfriendly regimes as an excuse to justify intervention.

What is surprising is not that regimes have falsely claimed altruistic motives for their military actions, but that self-described humanitarians so often believe them. Particularly, Bricmont shows, the fact that so many of the Iraq war's architects had previously supported gross violations of human rights in Latin America and elsewhere should have been a warning sign to liberal humanitarians.

One of the book's particular insights is its portrayal of a sort of interventionist "ratchet effect". Often, Bricmont notes, the failure of one form of Western intervention creates a humanitarian crisis that the West takes as evidence that an even more extensive intervention is needed. Rarely do foreign policy analysts step back and take the lesson from these crises that the wisest solution would have been to avoid interfering in the first place.

Foremost among the safeguards against interventionist militarism, Bricmont argues, is international law, and he sets out a defense of international law against the doctrine that human rights violations annul national sovereignty.

He demonstrates the almost unconscious sense of U.S. exceptionalism that underlies this doctrine with a few simple yet effective counterfactuals. How would the U.S. respond, he asks, if Brazil were to unilaterally invade Iraq to install a democracy? Or if India were to respond to terrorist attacks by taking it upon itself to "liberate" the populations that produced the terrorists?

Bricmont also gives a good account of some of the pathologies that have driven the interventionist urge, particularly the fixation on fascism and the Second World War to the exclusion of all other history. The yearning to experience the internationalist heroism of the "good fight" against fascism, as he documents, has led leftists like Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen to back policies a long way removed from the anti-imperialism of their hero, George Orwell.

"Humanitarian Imperialism" thus demonstrates the hypocrisy behind the U.S.'s self-image as a champion of human rights, and offers a convincing argument that nations often deploy human rights as a smokescreen to conceal self-interest and militarism.

The book does not, however, offer a systematic or particularly thorough critique of humanitarian military intervention as such. Bricmont notes that "to call on an army to wage a war for human rights implies a na•ve vision of what armies are and do." But he only addresses this point in passing, even though it would seem to be the essential one for his argument that military intervention cannot help but have a destructive effect on human rights.

And while the book focuses heavily on Iraq, it gives little attention to more ambiguous cases of intervention or non-intervention. Rwanda is barely mentioned, and Kosovo receives only a few pages of discussion. To argue not merely that Iraq was a mistake, but that humanitarian intervention in general is always a mistake, it would be helpful to address instances that are less clear-cut than Iraq.

Bricmont's discussion of the opposition of human rights rhetoric and international law is illuminating, but again seems too narrowly focused on the U.S. and the Iraq war. Readers who agree that a unilateral and illegal war is wrong might be curious about how Bricmont would respond to a multilateral humanitarian intervention conducted in accordance with international law -- for instance, one justified by the U.N. Genocide Convention. Although arguments against this sort of intervention certainly exist, the book does not really delve into them.

Finally, the book sometimes suffers from a simplistic division of the world into oppressive empire and oppressed subject. For example, Bricmont's admiring references to a unified "Iraqi resistance" to the U.S. occupation gloss over the complex political dynamics of the war, ignoring the fact that the various factions comprising this resistance have inflicted far more suffering on each other and on their fellow Iraqis than they have on the foreign occupiers. Ironically, Bricmont, by imagining a single Iraqi resistance fighting against the U.S. in unison, makes the same analytic error as the Bush administration.

It is likely that within a few years we will see a book that uses the mistakes of the Iraq war as a starting point for a thorough critique of humanitarian interventionism in general. "Humanitarian Interventionism" is not that book; its brevity and occasional sloppiness prevent it from being an exhaustive rebuttal of the interventionist impulse.

It is, however, a bracing rejoinder to the high-minded rhetoric that dominates foreign policy discussions, and a useful look at the self-deceptions that have led so many would-be humanitarians to sign on to recent military adventures.

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Albion Monitor   August 2, 2007   (

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