Seeing Through the ‘Humanitarians’

by , March 12, 2011

With clashes in Libya ongoing it was inevitable two types of opinion makers would make a comeback. First the smug humanitarian calling for a return to the good old days of Clinton and the Kosovo War. That morally invigorating episode in which NATO went after Yugoslavia’s civilian economy, massacred around two thousand non-combatants from the air and made itself complicit in the killing of at least a further eight hundred and the expulsion of 200,000 at the hands of the KLA.

And secondly, the sober skeptic whose words of caution and anti-interventionism are worse than useless. In recent days the nagging from the something-must-be-done brigade has been followed in close lockstep by contrary opinions that are a waste of space. Cautioning against intervention on the grounds of technical difficulties and unforeseen consequences or fiscal obstacles is worthless unless tied down to the issue of the right to intervene.

With Russia and China opposed to any interference it is clear there will be no legal right to intervene bestowed by the UN (if you are one of the legalists that actually buys this stuff). That leaves only the moral right. But where exactly does the West get the moral capital to enable it to go on a moralistic air crusade against the regime in Libya?

At this moment Gadhafi’s main ongoing crime is blockading cities in rebel hands and bombarding them from the air. The question is how is this any different from the Pentagon’s own handling of troublesome cities in Iraq. If anything Gadhafi has so far acted with more restraint. A Libyan city has jet to be depopulated and virtually ruined – the fate suffered at American hands by Falluja in 2004. 

Yet the idea that the interventionist busybodies who are active now in regard to Libya would have called for an intervention against the US forces during the siege of Falluja is preposterous. Not just because of the discrepancy in power between the US and any rival power, but just as much because the requirements for a humanitarian intervention is that it be carried out by American (or European) power and directed against exotic foreigners.

One is to be weary and suspicious of the power and ambition of lesser powers. The idea of a humanitarian intervention carried out without UN authorization by Russia, China, or Muammar Gadhafi would be met with instant scorn. American power on the other hand is infinitely redeemable. No matter how often it discredits itself and shows itself to be a force for chaos, destruction, coercion, and criminality it can always be instantly rehabilitated and called upon to do something good – and do it right this time. Provided a villain can be found, Americans can always be safely cast in the role of heroic saviors, even if fresh from the slaughter in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Balkans.

The true purpose of humanitarian intervention is the rehabilitation of American power and imperialism. The anti-interventionist skeptic who does not combat this goal of the "humanitarian" is not a very good skeptic.

Arguing against intervention on the grounds that the US can not afford the expenditure associated with it and stopping there plays into the humanitarian interventionists’ hands perfectly. All the better that such a point be made to better showcase the United States’ supposed altruism. Instead of the story being the addiction to imperialism and its costs at home, the story becomes of the "benevolent hegemon" making a sacrifice it can ill afford for the sake of a victimized but inconsequential people in a far of land.  

Arguing against intervention on the grounds that it is the Europeans’ problem does much the same. It rehabilitates American power all the more as the story becomes of the broken-hearted US which, unlike others, could simply not allow itself to "stand by and do nothing," even when it was really someone else’s responsibility to act.

The arguments centering on unforeseen difficulties and consequences of intervention, all the while assuming noble intentions on the part of the Western effort, at least stop to think of the people on the receiving end of the humanitarians’ bombs, yet they too are inherently flawed. The escalation of violence, and an increase in the scale of humanitarian disaster after an outside intervention takes place is not only a foreseen but an intended consequence of "humanitarian intervention."

In the Kosovo War the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia transformed a conflict which had up until then claimed a number of lives that was in the hundreds into one that claimed thousands. Despite this it continues to be hailed as a shining example of humanitarian warfare done right. And indeed it was.

The greater grows the disaster on the TV screens, the greater the rehabilitating effect on the American power for having "stepped in." The more evil the foreign villain can be shown to be and the wider the extent of his heinous acts, the better it illustrates the need for the sort of action the moral crusaders advocate. Naturally much of that can be made up, but it helps if the villains can be made to cooperate at least in part.

An increase in the level of violence after the intervention commences is welcome. It serves to shut up the half-hearted critics and to spark the calls for yet wider intervention. It retroactively justifies the initial interference. Never mind the cause and effect. The interventionist can point to the TV screen and work himself into a righteous rage explaining how this is precisely what the intervention is fighting against and sought to prevent.

In the 1999 Kosovo War Albanian refugees crossing into Macedonia and Albania became the stated reason why NATO had to bomb Yugoslavia, even though this refugee flow only materialized after the bombing began. A humanitarian crisis that would have never occurred had NATO not involved itself became the proof of why NATO was bombing a nation for all the right reasons and an argument for why launching a bombing campaign against exotic countries should be more readily considered in the future. 

To the extent the reports from Libya are accurate the regime there appears to be both hugely villainous and less villainous than the cohorts of scoundrels in Washington and a number of European capitals. Purely morally speaking, Western intervention against the regime in Libya makes no more sense than would an attack by Tripoli against a number of Western regimes. A worthwhile anti-interventionist argument has to touch upon this issue of moral high ground. It has to shake up the framework of the phony humanitarian that presents American imperial power as moral, at a time when it is morally bankrupt.