Humanitarian Imperialism


by Tod Davies

We’re being bullied now into thinking that we have a ‘moral duty’ to intervene in other people’s governments when they don’t meet our human rights standards.  But as Jean Bricmont points out in his book Humanitarian Imperialism (translated from French by Diana Johnstone), imperialism has a way of using everything it can to further its own ends.  And since it’s power that gets to define what a human rights standard is, the powerless don’t get much of a look in

That bullying is effective.   For example, how many Democrats do you know who would challenge their own party when it says, sanctimoniously, that we can’t just ‘cut and run’ now that Iraq has descended into chaos?  How many people hesitate to argue when someone at a dinner party passionately urges military intervention to solve some problem somewhere else?  How many people, even though well meaning as hell, have become completely blind to the fact that, in the world, we the privileged ones are not the Subject that brings Peace, Democracy, and Goodness to the rest of the world, which is then reduced to an Object that we’re supposed to maintain?  Just about everybody you know, probably.  I certainly get confused about it.

Fortunately, Jean Bricmont has painstakingly separated out the confusing threads that make up our present tie to militarization.   He talks about how ideology rather than force is the preferred invisible instrument of control in a democratic society.  He lays out the costs of the imperialism we practice without naming it, even to ourselves.  He sets out a series of questions to those who would use human rights as an argument for war.  For example, he wants to know if they are willing to accept responsibility for torture.  Torture, as Bricmont points out, is a direct result of war.  “An army that finds itself the target of resistance fighters who are like fish in the sea is inexorably led to try to gain information by force.  If one calls for military intervention, one is calling for war and occupation, and in that case, in effect calling for torture.”  And Bricmont is not fuzzy minded about torture:  he knows that it works.   The French dismantled the rebellion in Algeria using torture, even if it didn’t help them to maintain ultimate control.  And it certainly has worked in crushing rebellions against American interests in Latin America.  But, as he points out, in those scenarios, “no serious person can see bright prospects for human rights.”  So the question is:  if you’re for preemptive and ‘humanitarian’ war, are you prepared to take the responsibility for what it sure to follow?  Rape, massacre, torture — these are not the result of the brutal military mind.  These are the inevitable (indeed, traditional, historical) results of war.  If you want it, you got it.

 Bricmont, with blessed ruthlessness, dissects our prevailing ideology:  the ideology of the dinner party, of the glossy magazine, of the cult of personal growth, of everything that just wants to think of itself as good while letting its government get on with the murderous business as usual that lets us lead such pleasant lives here at home.  He points out that imperialism (that’s us, guys, yep, that’s right, take a look at ourselves, that’s us, not the underdog no matter what stories we tell ourselves — the Empire) has a way of using everything it can to further its own ends.

“To function as an instrument of domination,” he says, “the human rights ideology calls for rewriting history, selective indignation, and arbitrary priorities.”  In other words, only the powerful get to say what’s a violation of human rights and what’s not, with the inevitable result that, by definition, what the powerful does is not an abuse.  But, he says, there’s also hope:  “The paradox is that the more ethics advances toward a genuine universality — and the human rights ideology constitutes an advance in relation to previous ideologies — the more hypocritical the dominant power becomes.  The current dominator powers have a more universalist discourse than, say, Genghis Khan; as a result, they need to be more hypocritical.”

Continues @ Exterminating Angel press zigzag1.jpg


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