The Humanitarian With the War Machine

David Aaronovitch, the London Times columnist who supported the war in Iraq, is sorry. He is sorry “for Abu Ghraib and for Donald Rumsfeld. For not understanding the insurgents. For the looting. For the dire planning.” He’s also sorry for “the election workers assassinated, the police trainees blown up, the parents of children caught in crossfire….”

And yet he stands by his decision to support the war, on the grounds that these disasters are less than the disaster of Iraqis being “massacred, shredded, gassed, beheaded, suppressed, starved, immiserated, terrorized, and tortured” under Saddam.

Johann Hari, another British newspaper columnist who cheered the invasion of Iraq, is also sorry. He’s especially sorry for Abu Ghraib, those photos that show a “GI with a lacerating grin and empty eyes dragging a collapsed, naked Iraqi on a leash like a dog.” Hari admits that he was wrong to see America as a force for good in Iraq, and “George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld as the praetorian guard of Amnesty International.”

Yet he, too, stands by his pro-war position, on the basis that “there would be no peace for Iraqis with Saddam left in power, and a majority of Iraqis wanted the invasion to proceed.”

On both sides of the Atlantic, various left-leaning and liberal commentators who supported bombing Iraq are indulging in this kind of self-flagellation. They throw their hands in the air and say: “Yes, aspects of the war and occupation have been ugly. But it was still right to invade. It was the humanitarian thing to do.”

I don’t know what is more gobsmacking about these semi-mea culpas: The sheer narcissism of cheap newspaper hacks to believe that they have the right and authority to offer solemn apologies to the people of Iraq – or their blinkered belief that the looting, insurgency, terror, and torture are aberrations in a generally good war, the result of mistakes or misjudgments in an otherwise decent, humanitarian campaign.

Here, they make an elementary mistake. The violence and instability of postwar Iraq are not a deviation from the humanitarian script; this is humanitarianism in action. Present-day Iraq is not humanitarianism gone wrong; it is the direct and logical consequence of a humanitarian interventionism that is motivated more by the West’s desire for moral satisfaction than by the needs or wants of people in the Third World. Yes, Iraq – like Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan before it – was a humanitarian war; that is what makes it so dangerous.

When I tell people I’m opposed to humanitarian intervention, some respond by asking: “Oh, so you’re not a humanitarian?” When I tell them I opposed the invasion of Iraq, they say: “Were you in favor of leaving Saddam in power, then, and letting him trample over Iraqis’ rights?” In fact, the reason I’m against humanitarian intervention is precisely because I want to see freedom and democracy in Iraq and other parts of the world, and I recognize that humanitarian intervention does not deliver these things. It makes local situations worse. It exacerbates tensions, leaves volatile political vacuums in its wake, further removes power from the hands of ordinary people, encourages nihilism, and kills and injures thousands of men, women, and children.

Why am I against humanitarian intervention? Because I am a true humanitarian. Why did I oppose Operation Iraqi Freedom? Because I believe in real freedom.

For close to 15 years now we have been told that newly enlightened Western powers are finally – after decades of imperialist looting and communist-bashing – using military intervention for good. In the 1990s, following the end of the Cold War, Western intervention became redefined as humanitarian intervention, and a great number of liberals and left-wingers (and many on the right, too) celebrated this new interventionism as a means of righting wrongs in far-off lands and bringing peace and stability to beleaguered peoples. Even as such caring imperialism left tens of thousands dead, and entire cities and towns destroyed, its supporters demanded more and more of it to “liberate” the Third World from tyrannous dictators.

What they failed to realize (as they made their Doublespeak demands for more war in the name of liberty) is that the new humanitarianism is even more dangerous than old-fashioned imperialism. Where the war parties of old were at least constrained by considerations of realpolitik and diplomacy, by the need to plan for and restore order after conquering a territory for economic or strategic gain, the humanitarians have no such constraints.

They see their interventions as being about much more than trifling matters of territory and politics; they see themselves as part of a grand mission to save humanity. As Tony Blair said of his bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999, “[this is] no longer a military conflict. It is a battle between Good and Evil; between civilization and barbarity.”

President Bush updated this vision of a new and never-ending war between good guys and bad guys while talking about the war on terror and Iraq in 2003. “Events during the past two years have set before us the clearest of divides,” he said. “Between those who seek order and those who spread chaos.”

In such a self-flatteringly fundamental battle, the righteous humanitarians do not feel themselves constrained by any of the rules or mores of mere “military conflicts.” Where traditional militarists of the Cold War era launched wars to defend their national interests, and thus tended to tailor their battle strategy to take account of politics, diplomacy, and order, the humanitarians on a mission to vanquish evil and save mankind do not recognize any such restraints.

Those who proclaim to have right on their side can do no wrong. They can drop bombs for peace, occupy land in the name of liberty, and kill and maim under the banner of humanitarianism. Freed from the old geopolitical constraints, these moral missionaries can pretty much do as they please. Their interventions are best understood as moral stunts, spectacles intended to demonstrate the whiter-than-white credentials of the decent West against some wicked tinpot loser “over there.”

And it is precisely this stunt-like nature of humanitarianism – where the mission is to topple a tyrant to make the West feel good about itself – that breeds such terrible instability in places like Iraq.

Aaronovitch and others distinguish between their high-minded humanitarian desire to get shot of Saddam and the grubby reality on the ground: looting, insurgency, instability, and the rest of it. But there is no distinction: their high-minded humanitarianism created this grubby reality.

The humanitarians brought down the Ba’athists but replaced them with nothing of substance. They achieved their mission’s aim of getting rid of Saddam but gave little thought to what would happen next. And because the Ba’athists dominated every aspect of Iraqi society – from politics to education to healthcare – their swift and sudden removal left a gaping hole at the heart of Iraq. Here we see the deadly nature of humanitarianism: It can easily remove dictatorships, but it cannot so easily put something new and convincing in their place.

Where the old interventionists, motivated by clear national, economic, or political agendas, would have devoted their energies to building an indigenous movement that could take the reins of power after the war and keep order, the humanitarians, motivated by a preening desire to be seen as international do-gooders, give little consideration to such matters. In Iraq they have since attempted to insert a stable government, but it has little real legitimacy or grassroots connection with the people.

As a direct consequence of the humanitarians’ narcissistic intervention, Iraq was not liberated but rather was left in a volatile and vacuous state. That is why the supposed liberation was followed, not by celebrations or gatherings of the Iraqi people to decide what to do next, but rather by mass outbreaks of looting – because Iraqis did not win or own their “liberation,” but rather were handed it, overnight and without consultation, by the humanitarians.

Liberty and democracy in Iraq can only really come about through the struggles of Iraqis themselves. It is only in the process of fighting for freedom that a people start to conceive of what kind of freedom they want and how their society should be governed. In removing the ruling regime and knocking down some statues of Saddam, the humanitarians did not bring freedom but rather brought chaos – and the Iraqi people responded in kind, by ransacking the emptied-out government buildings, stealing what they could, and generally behaving in a way that you would not expect a truly liberated people to behave.

This is perhaps the greatest con of humanitarianism: It promises liberty to people in the Third World but in truth it disarms them, turning them into pathetic victims who must wait for brave warriors from the West to come and rescue them. For all its grand talk of freedom and liberty, it further disempowers people from being able truly to liberate themselves.

More recently, religious groups and violent insurgents have moved into the vacuum left by the humanitarians’ toppling of Saddam. Again, this is a direct consequence (not an aberration) of the coalition’s war, which created the conditions for the rise of various armed, unrepresentative groups seeking to assume control over parts of the new, hollowed-out Iraq.

The only freedom the humanitarians brought to Iraq is the free-for-all to see which group can take over which patch of land in this messy, unstable state. The humanitarians’ myopic and self-serving focus on “getting rid of evil,” pushing aside wicked dictators, showing that good can triumph over bad, leaves the big fundamental questions of government, society, and law unresolved. Such is their obsession with saving mankind from the scourge of evil that they overlook basic matters of policy and stability and what will happen after the shock ‘n’ awe.

Unlike the old interventionists, the new humanitarians have little by way of a clear strategy or plan, except to make themselves look good by taking on the bad guys – which means that once the bad guys are gone, things tend to get worse rather than better.

Why am I opposed to humanitarian intervention? Because there is little truly humanitarian about it, and it puts off further the day when people in the Third World might liberate themselves from tyranny.

Author: Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill is editor of Spiked in London.