Volume 42, Number 6: November/December 2008

Better and Better Reasons for War

Review: Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War

by Jean Bricmont
Monthly Review Press, 2006

In his timely and keenly argued polemic, Humanitarian Imperialism, Jean Bricmont subjects left-liberal humanitarian rationale for war to the same kind of unsparing scrutiny as he and his co-author Alan Sokal did to the intellectual pretenses of postmodernists in Intellectual Impostures. But while the influence of the postmodernists rarely reaches beyond the confines of academia, the conceits of humanitarian imperialists have global implications and, with the saber-rattling against Iran, may yet lead to catastrophe.

Although professions of noble intent have always accompanied imperial aggression, writes Bricmont, the preferred rationale is no longer Christianity, the “White Man’s Burden,” or Mission civilisatrice. Instead it is “a certain discourse on human rights and democracy mixed in with a particular representation of the Second World War.” As the Left traded away its socio-economic commitments under assault from the ascendant neoliberal order, it has instead turned to moralism and “values,” privileging political and individual rights over social and economic rights. With a peculiar notion of antifascism replacing traditional anti-imperialism, it has been more than willing to support – indeed, encourage – military intervention abroad so long as a “new Hitler” is identified and the stated aims are defense of democracy, freedom, human rights, women’s rights, etc.

Following the humiliation in Vietnam, a chastened U.S. military had chosen to forgo intervention as a preferred option. This found expression in the Powell Doctrine, which prioritized diplomacy without ruling out the use of force. Indeed, it prescribed “overwhelming force”; but only after all diplomatic options had been exhausted and a clear exit strategy laid out. This did not sit well with one of the central tenets of neoconservatism: preemption. Neither did the legacy of Vietnam. Neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol and Richard Perle were keen to resurrect the legend of WWII – the good war. With the demoralized Left in search of its own moral crusades, their interests dovetailed. Kosovo and Afghanistan convinced the pugnacious neoconservatives that the argument for war was made far more compellingly by the humanitarian crusaders, notably the “nouveaux philosophes” in France, the Greens in Germany, the Euston Manifesto in the U.K. and assorted liberal hawks in the U.S.

This irony was best highlighted in France, where the Iraq war found a champion in celebrity Socialist Bernard Kouchner, even as the conservative Sarkozy and Chirac opposed it. In the U.S., the opposition of Brent Scowcroft, James Baker and Zbigniew Brzezinski was evened out by vocal support from liberals like Paul Berman, Michael Walzer, George Packer, Thomas Friedman, et al. Neoconservatives and liberals closed ranks behind Bush in the pages of the New Yorker, the New Republic, the Washington Post and the New York Times, all editorially aligned to the war policy. Canadian Michael Ignatieff summoned the White Man to pick up “The Burden” and gushed: “empire has become a precondition for democracy.” To his eternal shame, his defense of torture appeared in the New York Times the very day the Abu Ghraib story broke.

The presumed nobility of intent also rendered international law superfluous, thus helping undermine it. Therein, Bricmont argues, lies the threat of future strife. Bricmont couples his sustained demolition of the humanitarian arguments with a critique of the defective anti-war arguments, which concede all in the premise by accepting the humanitarian rationale. His debunking of the WWII analogy should similarly be essential reading for anyone opposing wars.

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