What are the grounds for intervening in other countries’ affairs? There are none for military actions by external actors, argues one distinguished commentator and editor. Liberal interventionism is really all about Western self-interest. On the contrary, argues a leading proponent of intervention. The application of noble principles has a history that has changed the world for the better. Written by Peter Wilby
Suppose that, in 1916, an Arab “peacekeeping” force, horrified by the slaughter in the trenches, landed in Europe to put a stop to the First World War. Or that, in February 1945, outraged by the Allied bombing of Dresden, armed Africans had assumed a “responsibility to protect” German civilians.
Such scenarios may appear, to many Westerners, absurd. Even if such interventions had been feasible, it would have seemed then, and still seems now, an unthinkable infringement of sovereignty. All philosophies of intervention in foreign conflicts – liberal or otherwise – take it for granted that we are talking about the global “North” putting the less advanced “South” to rights. In his essay A Few Words on Non-Intervention, written in 1859, the philosopher John Stuart Mill, while arguing that it was as criminal to go to war for an idea as for territory or revenue, insisted that “barbarians”, such as Algerians and Indians, “have no rights as a nation, except a right to such treatment as may ... fit them for becoming one”.
That is the first aspect of liberal (or humanitarian) interventionism that should make us pause. Not only is it beyond the Western imagination that Europe or North America should ever be on the receiving end of intervention, it is hard to believe, as the Melbourne University law professor Anne Orford has observed, that the UN’s much touted “responsibility to protect” doctrine would ever be invoked to authorize measures against established Western allies.
There was no question of the US offering to intervene militarily in Egypt against its long-standing ally Hosni Mubarak. Nor did it manage more than a squeak of protest at the killings of civilian protesters in Bahrain, where the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based. Nor did it object when its ally Saudi Arabia intervened on the side of Bahrain’s rulers. The government of Yemen, regarded as a frontline state in the battle against Al Qaeda and the recipient of substantial US military and financial aid, is also allowed to suppress protest with impunity.
But Syria, where President Assad is an ally of America’s enemy Iran but also an antagonist of the Sunni Islamists behind Al Qaeda, is a subject for earnest debate. Iraq in 2003, on the other hand, was a no-brainer: Saddam Hussein, though once an ally and still no friend of Al Qaeda, had been an enemy for more than a decade. Moreover, Iraq has extensive oil deposits. So does Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi went in the opposite direction to Saddam, from Western enemy to friend. Here, the US hesitated long enough to decide that, since Gaddafi was probably doomed anyway, it had to assist the rebels. Needless to say, Israel, an honorary member of the global “North”, can commit as many outrages as it wishes against the Palestinians.
In other words, the West’s willingness to intervene in foreign conflicts, supposedly in defence of liberty and human rights, is nearly always in strict proportion to what it perceives as its self-interest. This was as true in the Balkans as in the Middle East, where a Greater Serbia, allied with fellow Slavs in Russia, was thought a threat to European Union ambitions of economic dominance (or, as it is sometimes called, “leadership”) in the east of the continent.
The West, however, is often mistaken in its perceptions of where its interests lie. It believes that, if other nations adopt the values of liberty and democracy, the world will be safer for Europe and America. If nations also embrace neoliberal economics, accept foreign investment and lower trade barriers, so much the better. Indeed, to most Western politicians of both right and left, democracy and free markets are more or less indivisible.
The Wrong Results
But democracy, taken literally as universal suffrage, does not always lead to what Western leaders think are desirable ends, as America should have learned in Latin America, where it repeatedly intervened to overthrow (or try to overthrow) democratically elected regimes that turned out too socialistic. In the Middle East, the dilemma is similar, except that Islamists, not socialists, often emerge strongest in free elections.
When they talk of democracy, the US and Europe have in mind the urban middle classes who most eagerly embrace liberal, secular, democratic and entrepreneurial values. In developing countries, the rural poor form the majority and tend to see modernity as a threat, not an opportunity. Democracy frequently delivers the “wrong” result, elevating to power, at best, sceptics about the benefits of liberalised economies or, at worst, fundamentalist religious parties.
This takes us to the heart of what is wrong with liberal interventionism. Led by Western powers, it presumes to insert into other people’s lives a political agenda and a set of values determined from elsewhere. British and American leaders believe their armed forces can act as neutral, disinterested agents, using a scalpel to remove a cancerous growth. In reality, such alien incursions are more comparable to ill-targeted chemotherapy than to surgery. It is impossible to prevent the invaders’ own war aims – not least the national prestige at stake in being able to declare some kind of victory – from intruding. Intervention in the Balkans, for example, became a test of NATO’s credibility.
Opponents of intervention are often accused of patronising Arabs or Africans by arguing they do not want or deserve liberty and democracy. But it is one thing to argue that these are universal values, another to decide how, when and in what form others should adopt them. It is patronising to argue that Iraqis or Syrians or Libyans are incapable of making their own political weather and determining their own best interests.
Politicians and modish commentators in Western countries are poor judges of what the peoples of developing countries want, which is mostly peace, security, food and water. Yes, they want to keep out of torture chambers (which, post-intervention, did not disappear in either Libya or Iraq), but in countries ruled by tyrants, many people become skilled at keeping out of trouble. It is harder to dodge a cruise missile, or to avoid the consequences of anarchy or a ruined harvest.
It may be argued that Libyans and Syrians made their views evident. But the outcome of Western intervention in Libya remains unclear. Gaddafi fell, but nobody can say with certainty what regime will finally emerge in his place; since the rebels’ victory, most of the country has been ruled by private militias. The uncertainties in Syria are similar. Intervention introduces new and complicating factors to countries in the throes of revolutionary change. It often prolongs what is in effect a civil war. The worst of the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia followed intervention. Kosovo today, as well as being a center for money laundering and trafficking of drugs, prostitutes and human organs, is a tense and divided society in which a NATO force keeps an uneasy peace.
Moreover, there is hypocrisy in the claim that intervention is justified because dictators must be stopped from murdering their own citizens. Gaddafi killed and brutalized Libyans long before civil war began, as did Assad in Syria, without audible protest from the West. On the contrary, America, with its “extraordinary rendition” program, was sometimes willing to take advantage of such countries’ facilities for torture. Only when the tyrants began behaving barbarously in public, exposing their true nature to Western TV audiences, was intervention considered. But the governments of the West had known the nature of these regimes for many years.
Eschewing intervention does not mean doing nothing. The West can start by banning the sale of weapons, except to trusted, stable and unimpeachably democratic allies. Some of the worst regimes are strong enough to oppress their peoples only because they are propped up by Western aid.
A parliamentary committee on arms export controls found this year that the British government had issued 3,000 export licenses for military and intelligence equipment worth £12.3bn ($18.9bn) to countries that were on its own official list for human rights concerns. The committee found 62 licenses for exports to Iran alone and the other countries included Egypt, Bahrain, China, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Russia and even Syria. Only two of the 27 states on the human rights list were not receiving arms.
Then there are the tyrannies of hunger and disease, created by a lack of clean water and sanitation, by malnutrition, by shortages of medicines. These torments take infinitely more lives and cause infinitely more suffering than the most inhumane dictator. Some are directly caused by Western actions: rigged trade markets that bankrupt developing-world farmers, for example, or the refusal of pharmaceutical companies to allow poor countries to import or manufacture cheaper copies of patented drugs.
“Humanitarian” military action – surely an oxymoron – would rarely need to be debated if Western countries more often put liberal and genuinely humanitarian considerations above economic and political interests. When the rhetoric is stripped away, liberal interventionism turns out to be little more than imperialism in a new guise.
Peter Wilby is a columnist for the Guardian and a former Editor of the Independent on Sunday. He is the biographer of the former British Conservative Prime Minister Anthony Eden and is currently writing a socialist history of cricket.
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