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Iraq intervention, redux?: The folly of ‘humanitarian imperialism’

By Roqayah Chamseddine | Al-Akhbar | June 26, 2014

Jean Bricmont’s powerful book Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War , written during the occupation of Iraq, is a timely historical critique of Western interventionism, one worth examining as the United States of America moves once more in the direction of military entanglement in Iraq. Bricmont, a Belgian theoretical physicist and professor at The Université catholique de Louvain, discusses the ideological factors which legitimize military action in response to humanitarian abuses and “in defense of democracy” (p. 7). — “This is the discourse and the representation that must be challenged in order to build a radical and self-confident opposition to current and future wars.” The humanitarian rationales offered under the banner of there being “a responsibility to protect” have only increased since the end of World War II, and methods to reinforce such motivations have grown progressively coercive.

Bricmont introduces a formula which will come to define “humanitarian imperialism:” when A exercises power over B, he does so for B’s “own good” (p. 11). This is the creed of philanthropic power — which peddles and rationalizes war as a column maintaining international order — and which continues to define the very nature of international conflict post-World War II. Interventionism is no longer argued as being warranted in the name of Christianity, Bricmont argues, but what he calls ideological reinforcements: democracy and human rights. For example, despite former US President George W. Bush’s frequent use of religious imagery, the call to invade Iraq was not only drenched in chilling white saviourism but an overwhelming exceptionalism which contends that only military efforts led by the United States of America would bring about a just liberation and lasting stability for the people of Iraq. “[T]he dangers to our country and the world will be overcome. We will pass through this time of peril and carry on the work of peace,” George W. Bush stated in 2003. “We will defend our freedom. We will bring freedom to others and we will prevail.”

The horrors inflicted upon the people of Iraq are still understated, and since 2003 the bloodshed has not stopped. When Obama delivered his speech in 2011 celebrating the US military withdrawal, there were bombings and shootings in Baghdad, in Mosul, in Kirkuk and in Tal Afer. While the Iraqi people were preparing burial shrouds Obama was reaffirming the previous administration’s claims that the US left for the Iraqi people a stable country, had forged a lasting peace and made the world more secure. Amongst the congratulatory frill and repugnant nationalism Obama did make one salient point — that the US legacy in Iraq will endure and that it shall be remembered. The legacy of this tragic and implacable war will live on in the wombs of Iraqi women who bear children with congenital birth defects as a result of depleted uranium; the riddled bodies of those now suffering from cancer due to the toxic munitions used by the US military and finally in the land of Iraq, which has been devoured and polluted by the chemical weapons the US unleashed during its occupation.

Bricmont does not neglect to stress the deliberation and mercilessly skillful care taken by the US in the implementation of sanctions against Iraq, quoting Marc Bossuyt on this “silent genocide” (p. 24), former Belgian Constitutional Court judge and current member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague:

The sanctions against Iraq has as its clear purpose the deliberate infliction on the Iraqi people of conditions of life (lack of adequate food,medicines, etc.) calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part. It does not matter that this deliberate physical destruction has as its ostensible objective the security of the region.

Bossuyt further explained that not only were the sanctioning bodies responsible but that they could not be acquitted from the charge of having the “intent to destroy the Iraqi people.” The callousness of the sanctions were most illustrated by the words of then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who defended the deaths of some 500,000 Iraqi children in 1996 during an interview with Lesley Stahl for 60 Minutes. When she was confronted with a question by Stahl, who cited the half a million dead children, Albright smoothly responded: “I think this is a very hard choice but the price-we think the price is worth it.”

The practice of humanitarian imperialism is not confined to the Middle East and North Africa and Bricmont’s analysis covers much of its breadth. The US involvement in the 1954 coup d’état in Guatemala for example is one of many historical events covered which “is an exemplary illustration of the real existing “defense of democracy” as it has been practiced by the United States” writes Bricmont (p. 26). The characterization of this “defense of democracy” is what is one of the most valuable components of this text as it applies to much of how the US military industrial complex functions, and it includes the following points, as developed by Bricmont:

  • A paranoid attitude on the part of the superpower toward the slightest challenge.
  • Demonization of adversaries. In those days, it was enough to call the victim a “communist.” Later, the label became “terrorist.” In any case, demonization prevents their side of the story from being taken into consideration.
  • Media conformism: U.S. media relay the official U.S. government version of events without serious investigation; opposing views are dismissed as absurd.
  • Total disregard for international law.

What transpires after the arguments for war are challenged and when claims, like in the case of Iraq, that there exist “weapons of mass destruction,” one of the reasons for the military invasion, are disproven? Bricmont provides us with the argument that is then posed to anti-interventionists who ask why the US cannot then simply “pull out:”

Because, we are told, it is now necessary to “stabilize” Iraq, to “construct democracy” there, etc. As a result, even if it is true that many organizations and intellectuals who defend human rights were initially opposed to the war, they have found themselves more or less obliged to support the ongoing war of occupation until the situation is “stabilized.”

Stabilization takes priority and defence of human rights begins to dwindle once the foreign military occupation ebbs and, above all else, once interests are met. Even now as whispers calling for more US involvement in Iraq grow into shouts the Obama administration has managed to receive immunity for security forces, a “necessary assurance” which protects the US from prosecution in Iraqi courts, denying the people of Iraq even the opportunity to seek justice. And yet the US left a sovereign and capable nation, is that not what we are told? And if so, what does the Obama administration fear, that US war crimes may face the judge’s gavel?

The US has been the direct cause of much of the calamities that have ravaged Iraq — the pangs of the US sanctions, which lasted from 1990 until 2003, continue to torment and fragment the land between the two rivers. The hurdle of immunity in Iraq is one that has been faced by the Obama administration before. When the US abandoned plans to keep “several thousand” troops in Iraq it came after Iraqi leaders refused to grant them immunity from Iraqi courts, and Commander in Chief Obama would rather the US military be shielded from prosecution and withdraw than face Iraq’s judicial system for crimes against the Iraqi people. This is the manner in which intervention devastates — it reintroduces former disparities and attempts to destroy for those under occupation and in the sight of imperial powers any existing components of their self-determination, which includes their right to bring their tormentors to justice. The Obama administration had promised “no troops on the ground” in Iraq and has sent 300 “military advisors” and 275 soldiers to protect the US embassy in Baghdad, despite there already being “a few hundred” troops working as “uniformed personnel” with the same legal protections provided to embassy workers. These troops, even if they range in the hundreds, are but a paltry issue in comparison to the formidable presence of the US aircraft carrier, cruiser and destroyer which have made their way into the Persian Gulf, and the US army installations, comprised of 4 active US bases, in neighboring Kuwait. Further US involvement in Iraq is not a troubling possibility, it is horrifying reality. This is where, once again, the “guilt factor” creeps into the discourse. We are told that “we must support X against Y” and that the only way to do so is militarily and that only our superior military outfits are capable of dressing the open wounds (that our previous military interventions caused).

The US is arguing for the use of airstrikes — The Obama administration is seeking to quiet the bloodshed with arms and pundits are once again nodding in approval. If we are to follow this flawed contention then where does this interventionism end? Will there be annual interventions until Iraq is “stable” enough and will the cycle of pin-the-blame-on-the-dictator (and not our humanitarian intervention) continue? How is the US authorized to intervene when it has already proven itself incapable of exiting the international stage without trails of blood being left behind? What Iraq needs now, and what Iraq has always needed, is unity and reconciliation, not a permanent cycle of war facilitated by foreign bodies. Those who make war profitable and who otherize human life itself cannot lecture the world on stability and freedom, nor can they implement “democracy” by way of the bullet or “precision” airstrikes.

This brings us to Libya, and though this book was written well before the military offensive in Libya, Bricmont has discussed the subject in relation to his book both before and after the killing of Gaddafi. The sole purpose of an army, writes Bricmont (p. 31), is to defend its own country — or to attack another — And even if the latter is deemed legitimate it can never be humanitarian as everything about an army is to serve these aims. In an interview with Belgian writer Michele Collon, before the killing of Gaddafi, Bricmont is asked about the intervention in Libya, specifically as to whether or not the leftist parties who defended the no-fly zone are mistaken in supporting military involvement.

His response cut to the bone of the matter — An intervention would strengthen what he calls the “barricade effect” wherein countries that are within the reach of the US will begin to feel threatened and will then as a result “seek to increase their armaments.” Along with the barricade effect such interventions also open up the doors for others, and so what is to stop any other nation to interfere elsewhere? And once there is intervention then the likelihood of a civil war becomes more probable. In Libya there was the ethnic cleansing of Black Libyans and now many are arguing that the state is on the verge of a civil war as the chaos, much like in Iraq, has not paused.

It is often asked “if military intervention is not the answer, then what is? The answer? Peaceful solutions such as negotiations and cooperative diplomatic efforts, much of which the US and its allies have intentionally circumvented time and time again, should be the primary focus (p. 66):

There is a world of difference between intervention and cooperation. Unlike intervention, cooperation is carried out with the agreement of the host government. Few governments in the Third World reject cooperation if it is sincere. With so much misery in the world it is hard to imagine a situation in which, for a given expenditure of money and effort, cooperation would not save more human lives than intervention.

Bricmont’s book ends with a confident and almost poetic closing, despite the heart-wrenching subject on which the entire text is based:

All those who prefer peace to power, and happiness to glory, should thank the colonized peoples for their civilizing mission. By liberating themselves, they made Europeans more modest, less racist, and more human. Let us hope that the process continues and that the Americans are obliged to follow the same course. When one’s own cause is unjust, defeat can be liberating.

The struggle against neocolonialism shall define the 21 century according to Bricmont, but what we build after the chaos shall define us and shall become our legacy. And so as time moves forward and the bloodshed continues in much of the world, and as the US once again has Iraq in its sights, let us aim for peaceful resolutions rather than military interventions.


Roqayah Chamseddine is a Sydney based Lebanese-American journalist and commentator. She tweets @roqchams and writes ‘Letters From the Underground.’

June 26, 2014 - Posted by | Book Review, Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Militarism, Progressive Hypocrite, Timeless or most popular | ,

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