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Narcissus' empire

In the 1990s, wars were not fought for oil - or any other financial interest, explains Linda Ryan. This is what made them so dangerous

'When policy was driven by moral motives it was often driven by narcissism. We intervened not only to save others, but to save ourselves, or rather an image of ourselves as defenders of universal values.' Michael Ignatieff, The Warrior's Honour

The fall of the Berlin Wall 10 years ago ushered in a new age of humanitarian intervention. It was said then that the end of the Cold War would bring an end to the struggle for territory between East and West. The United Nations, long paralysed by Cold War rivalries, would at last become the means for advancing genuine human rights. With the old cynicism of Cold Warriors like Henry Kissinger and Andrei Gromyko a thing of the past, it would be possible for a new kind of international relations to prevail: one based on moral principles. The international community would use its military might to further human rights, not imperial theft.

That was the theory. What was the outcome?

The main theatres of humanitarian intervention were:

  • Iraq, 1991: 180 000 killed by the 'international community' in the Gulf War and 80 percent of the country's infrastructure destroyed, at an estimated cost of $150 billion.
  • Somalia, 1993: 4000 killed by UN troops over 12 months; 700 killed on one night, 5 September.
  • Bosnia, 1993-5: Thousands killed in a bloody civil war, followed by the military occupation of the newly independent state by UN forces.
  • Rwanda, 1994: Hundreds of thousands killed in fighting between Hutus and Tutsis, followed by the inauguration of a military dictatorship under UN guidance.
  • Iraq, 1992-9: Some 500 000 dead due to lack of basic foods and medicines under the regime of economic sanctions. Continuing US/British raids have killed more than 200 in 1999 alone - 17 in one single raid on 19 July.
  • Yugoslavia, 1999: 2000 Yugoslav civilians and 600 military personnel killed in NATO bombings that destroyed 44 percent of the country's industry.

The human sacrifice on the altar of humanitarianism has been profound.

In their defence, the humanitarians have claimed that the challenges they faced were profound. The dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, the ethnic nationalism unleashed in the Balkans, Milosevic's 'Greater Serbia', the teenage Somali militias, the Hutu genocide....The more elevated the humanitarian rhetoric, the lower the enemy is portrayed.

A trade in atrocity stories against the enemy is the hallmark of this curious humanitarianism. From the beginning, public relations firms like Hill & Knowlton were employed to invent stories, like the one that Iraqi soldiers had dashed premature Kuwaiti babies on to the floor to steal their incubators. Years after the Gulf War, reporter Maggie O'Kane admitted that 'we, the media, were harnessed like beach donkeys and led through the sand to see what the British and US military wanted us to see'. The American public relations firm Ruder Finn was hired first by the Croatians, then the Bosnian Muslims, and finally by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to foster images of the Serbs as Nazi demons. Ruder Finn targeted American women and Jews with the promotion of stories of Serbian rape or death camps, and various human atrocities. In the liberal American Nation, Slavenka Drakulic wrote, 'even if the rapes were used for political propaganda, this could be justified'. In March 1999, UN weapons inspector Richard Butler's report of new Iraqi weapons of mass destruction prompted another round of bombing against Iraq. His second-in-command Scott Ritter claims that Butler was told by US officials 'to sharpen the language in his report to justify the bombing'.

At the end of 1999, controversy broke out over the numbers of ethnic Albanians killed by Serbs during the most recent conflict. The assumption that Serbs were committing genocide against the Kosovo Albanians was a major justification for NATO's bombing campaigns. But the attempt to sell this war as a crusade against genocide, it has been argued, led to an exaggeration of the numbers killed by the Serbs (see page 31).

Vilifying the enemy is a basic precondition of all war propaganda. Once dehumanised in the imagination, the enemy can be killed in fact. But the readiness of self-styled humanitarians to revoke their opponents' membership of the human race is remarkable.

Warning prime minister John Major in 1991 not to fall for the argument for a pause in the bombardment of Iraq, Labour leader Neil Kinnock said, 'to be blunt, the best time to kick someone is when they are down' (John Major: the autobiography, p256, see review on page 44). When President George Bush discussed with his chiefs of staff the possibility that the Iraqis might back off, secretary of state Brent Scowcroft protested, 'don't you realise if he pulls out, it will be impossible for us to stay?'. 'We have to have a war', said Bush, who was privately jubilant when negotiations between the Iraqi foreign minister and James Baker broke down (Bob Woodward, Washington Post, 20 June 1999). Two years later, a red-faced President Bill Clinton was fulminating against the Somalis: 'We're not inflicting pain on these fuckers. When people kill us they should be killed in greater numbers. I can't believe we are being pushed around by these two-bit pricks.' (Quoted in George Stephanopoulos, All Too Human, p214)

In the refugee camps on the Rwandan borders with Zaire in 1996, the full horror of 'humanitarianism' came to a head. The consensus that the Hutus were collectively guilty of a genocide against the Tutsi minority persuaded aid agencies like CARE and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to suspend help to one million Hutu refugees. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and aid agencies cooperated in the forcible repatriation of refugees back to Rwanda, into a civil war and ethnic persecution. UNHCR officials put refugees on to railway carriages in the knowledge that they were going to their deaths. Those who fled instead to the forests were left to be slaughtered by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, in what former CARE head of emergencies described as a 'new low for humanitarian principles'. Among those championing the withdrawal of aid to the unworthy was international development secretary Clare Short, who complained that 'assistance strengthened the evil forces [the refugees, that is] which had brought about the genocide in Rwanda'.

The ruthlessness of humanitarian intervention was indicated by NATO's bombing of refugee convoys in April 1999. When questions were raised about this, NATO attempted to create a smokescreen by pinning the blame on the Serbs. Yet a report in the journal of the US-based International Strategic Studies Association in May presents a very different picture. A transcript of the voice traffic between the initial strike aircraft and the spotter plane EC-130 Hercules AWACS, reads:

Pilot: 'I am keeping 3000 feet. Under me columns of cars, some kind of tractors. What is it? Requesting instructions.'
AWACS: 'Do you see tanks? Repeat, where are the tanks?'
Pilot: 'I see tractors. I suppose the Reds did not camouflage tanks as tractors.'
AWACS: 'What kind of strange convoy is this? What, civilians? Damn, this is all the Serbs' doing. Destroy the target.'
Pilot: 'What should I destroy? Tractors? Ordinary cars? Repeat, I do not see any tanks. Request additional instructions.'
AWACS: 'This is a military target, a completely legitimate military target. Destroy the target. Repeat, destroy the target.'
Pilot: 'Okay, copy. Launching.'

Faced with the disparity between the professed humanitarianism and its consequences, one natural response is the charge of hypocrisy. From the outset, critics of intervention saw humanitarianism as a mask for vested interests. 'At the apex is oil', writes New Left Review's Peter Gowan of the Allied campaign against Iraq. 'Oil interests could fit easily with the liberal objective of removing Iraq from Kuwait.' (The Global Gamble, p158) Protesters chanted 'no blood for oil!'.

But it is far from obvious that the military intervention in Iraq secured a greater share of the region's oil wealth. Iraqi oil production has been slashed. The terms of the intermittent 'oil for food' programme are onerous, with $700 million surpluses from $2 billion sales in 1995 transferred to Kuwait and the UN as reparations. But the West could have secured a greater profit in Iraqi oil through conventional trade, without the $150 billion cost of fighting the war, or the £918 million subsequently given in aid to Iraq.

Nor do the subsequent interventions fit the pattern of nineteenth-century imperialism's plundering of native resources. The theatres of war have not been the richest areas of the globe, but the poorest - Somalia, Kosovo. Critics hoping to discover some pecuniary motive beneath the humanitarian rhetoric were forced to speculate about the 'strategic' importance of the Balkans as a route to Caucasian oil deposits, as though Boris Yeltsin's government was not already in the West's pocket.

Still looking for the hidden motive, many critics of intervention pointed to the way that military occupations were undertaken to distract from domestic problems. David Mamet's film Wag the Dog portrayed a US president going to war to divert attention from a domestic sex scandal. While it was on release, President Clinton, facing impeachment over his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, ordered the bombing of Iraq. Was this the face that launched a thousand warships? UNSCOM whistle-blower Scott Ritter said, 'you have no choice but to interpret this as "wag the dog"'. Mamet complained that the president had misread the script - 'it's supposed to be Albania', he joked. But it is not just Clinton's sleaze-ridden presidency that has embraced humanitarian intervention. If anything, Teflon Tony Blair is even more fervent in his promotion of an ethical foreign policy.

The quest for an ulterior motive behind the humanitarian mask stems from an unwillingness to believe that the humanitarians really mean what they say. Somehow it would all make sense if we could find the hidden mineral resources of Kosovo or East Timor. If this new imperialism were a rerun of the nineteenth-century robbery of the 'lesser' nations it would be bad enough. But at least such plunder had given motivations and limits. What is really so destructive about the new policy, though, is not the quest for profit, but the desire for moral renovation, played out on a foreign field. This moral fervour is, like the doctors of MSF, 'sans frontières' - limitless.

The criticism of intervention as narrowly interest-driven or hypocritical not only misses the point. It participates in the same moralism that is driving the interventionist trend. Liberal critics of the Allied offensive against Iraq complained that the United Nations was ignoring the Bosnians because they were Muslims. Black American congressmen like Charles Rangel protested that Africa would never get the attention that the Balkans got: the response was Operation Restore Hope in Somalia. Trenchant critics of imperialism like John Pilger and Noam Chomsky pointed to the hypocritical way that the West ignored human rights abuses by its Indonesian allies in East Timor - only to be wrongfooted when their own exposures of abuses became propaganda for military intervention. The problem is not hypocrisy, but the clamour for the high moral plane. In such a climate, demands for action against human rights abuses lead inexorably to military intervention, human rights tribunals, and 'democratisation' programmes.

At the core of the humanitarian agenda is an impulse to moral renovation on the part of Western elites. As Michael Ignatieff says, this is a drive 'to save ourselves, or rather an image of ourselves as defenders of universal values'. 'This is not a battle for NATO, this is not a battle for territory', insisted Tony Blair at the Stenkovec refugee camp in May 1999. 'This is a battle for humanity.' Foreswearing territorial ambition is now second nature in all such interventions. Disinterested foreign policy operates on a higher moral plane than old-fashioned realpolitik, and that is what makes it so deadly. In self-styled crusades of good against evil, without the geopolitical constraints of the Cold War, anything can happen.

Early in the Bosnia crisis, UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali was moved to complain that the Security Council 'is becoming more like the General Assembly: it is making demands that it knows cannot be implemented' (quoted from his book, Unvanquished, p42). Increasingly, the permanent members of the Security Council were striking propagandistic poses rather than delivering practical policies. The purpose of foreign policy was shifting from one of geopolitical gain to an inwardly directed moral renovation.

Prime minister John Howard announced Australia's leading role in the East Timorese intervention 'as being able to do something that probably no other country could do...because we occupy that special place. We are a European, Western civilisation with strong links to America, but we are here in Asia....We spent too much time fretting about whether we were in Asia, or part of Asia, or whatever' (Agence France Press, 22 September 1999). Howard hopes that doing the 'right thing' in East Timor will solve Australia's Asian identity crisis, while in Portugal the national daily Diario de Noticias editorialises that 'for the sake of our past, present and future, we cannot fail now'. Military action is a means to invest Western elites with a sense of moral purpose that is lacking in the domestic sphere.

Western leaders organise photocalls in refugee camps and among troops regularly. John Major remembered his talk to the troops in Iraq as 'pure theatre' (The Autobiography, p297), while Boutros Boutros-Ghali spied on Bill Clinton trying 'to learn Aristide's secret of electrifying the crowd' at his inauguration as president of Haiti, which 'the White House wanted to make an American victory celebration' (Unvanquished, p219).

In her speech on children and war on 26 April 1999, Clare Short talked of 'the challenge to all of us - governments, NGOs, international institutions alike', that 'we must ensure that the evils of ethnic cleansing bring no rewards...we look after refugees...[and] we have a clear moral duty'. Listening carefully it is clear that the subject of the speech is not child soldiers, but 'we', we who care, have moral duties and fight evil. In the process of delineating this moral cause, Short is also defining the new elite that will carry it out, the NGOs and international institutions. Through the promotion of the humanitarian agenda, the old guard of interest-driven foreign office mandarins is being replaced by the new elite of disinterested aid workers and human rights activists.

Throughout the 1980s, Western elites crippled their own core institutions and allegiances in a struggle to limit public demands upon the system, demobilising popular movements on left and right. Today, when those elites struggle to create even a minimal consensus, the appeal of humanitarian action abroad is that it is a realm in which higher, disinterested motivations can be projected, with no danger of domestic repercussions. As Tony Blair said at Stenkovec, 'Milosevic shall be defeated so these people can again become symbols of hope, humanity and peace'. Turning real people into symbols of Western largesse is the point of humanitarian intervention. The drive to build this empire is the narcissism of the elite.

Reproduced from LM issue 126, December 1999/January 2000



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