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Behind a humanitarian mask

The American invasion of Somalia has been uncritically accepted as a life-saving mission launched for the best of motives. Few people have bothered to ask why the hard-headed Western powers, which have never shown any regard for life in the third world before, should suddenly have become so charitable.
Frank Richards looks behind the humanitarian mask to identify the true motives driving the USA, Britain and the rest to intervene around the world today. The real face of Western foreign policy, he finds, is an ugly and menacing one

According to the Western media, Operation Restore Hope has been a unique initiative. For the first time in history, a superpower has deployed tens of thousands of troops in a no-expense-spared operation, not out of self-interest, but to fulfil its basic humanitarian obligations. As outgoing president George Bush put it, the American invasion of Somalia was intended to do 'God's work' and to 'save thousands of innocents'.

The American press too was at pains to emphasise the humanitarian motives which had propelled the marines into Somalia. The New York Times described the intervention as 'a turning point in American foreign policy: for the first time American troops are entering a country uninvited, not to shore up an anti-communist regime, protect American wealth or stifle a strategic threat, but simply to feed starving people' (5 December 1992).

Everybody now seems to use new terms such as 'war for humanitarian purposes' and 'humanitarian intervention' with abandon, to describe 'uninvited' interventions which in the past would have been aptly characterised as gunboat diplomacy.

According to mainstream accounts of Western foreign policy today, it appears that hard-headed realpolitik has gone out of fashion. National and class interests have been suspended, and instead global diplomacy is now motivated by moral imperatives. No sooner had the marines landed in Mogadishu than American diplomats were pressing for an escalation of military intervention in Bosnia - again to save innocent lives.

Experts in international affairs now argue that the invasion of Somalia is part of a new humanitarian cycle of world diplomacy. It is widely suggested that the rules of diplomacy have changed, and that moral concerns have become the central element in foreign affairs. The New York Times has again captured the tone of the discussion, linking the Somali invasion with the creation of 'safe havens' for Kurds in Iraq at the end of the Gulf War.

'The action in northern Iraq, like that in Somalia, was a response by president Bush to a humanitarian outcry. Pictures of Kurdish refugees huddled in the snowy mountains, and of emaciated Somali children, produced much critical comment in the press about what was seen as Mr Bush's indifference.' (New York Times, 4 December 1992)

The attempt to depict American foreign policy as driven by altruistic concerns is not new. The White House itself has always claimed that its foreign interventions, from Vietnam to Nicaragua, were motivated by moral concerns. What is new today, however, is the apologetic consensus which uncritically accepts the humanitarian rhetoric of Western diplomacy as good coin.

Endangered species

For instance the American journalist quoted above, who connects the humanitarian theme in the invasion of Iraq with that of Somalia, does not bother to ask what has happened to those Kurdish refugees who made the fashionable headlines 18 months ago. (For his information, they have been repeatedly attacked by forces from America's Nato ally, Turkey.) Or for that matter, what has happened to that other famous endangered species, the 'marsh Arab', whose survival provided the pretext for establishing an air exclusion zone and threatening the Iraqis once again? Apparently the West's humanitarian concern has a short attention span.

It seems that, in today's uncritical political climate, there is no need for a sophisticated explanation of the new rules of international relations. The simple argument generally used is that in the post-Cold War era, new considerations have come to dominate global diplomacy. According to one American journalist: 'In a world without menace from another superpower, the US military must be ready to act against mass murder, which breeds hate and revenge, and menaces stability.' (A Lewis, 'Changing the Rules', New York Times, 4 December 1992)

Just why the demise of the Soviet Union should impose on the United States such onerous moral responsibilities is never explained. Which is not surprising, given that there is no logical link between the two. Why should Western powers which were clearly driven by realpolitik in the past have suddenly come over all humanitarian today?

It is also worth asking why some third world famines demand a military intervention while many others are ignored? Moreover, why are prison camps in Bosnia an outrage to human decency while similar camps housing Vietnamese refugees in the British colony of Hong Kong are a matter of indifference? The West appears extremely selective in its dispensation of humanitarian concern.

In truth there are several motives behind the recent development of American and Western foreign policy. But none of them is humanitarian.

At the intellectual/ideological level, Western diplomacy today is primarily concerned with the rehabilitation of imperialism. The different adventures in Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia are all oriented towards reclaiming the moral high ground of international relations for the Western powers.

Until the 1940s the West had always possessed the moral high ground. It could promote itself as superior to the colonial world, and depict empire-building as part of a civilising mission. This was the White Man's burden. From this standpoint, imperial intervention made perfect sense. The civilised elite of nations decided what was in the best interest of the non-civilised masses. Of course, from time to time colonial powers got carried away and went too far in oppressing their subjects. But this was seen as a small price to pay for all the good that Europeans were doing in the colonies.

Belief in Western moral superiority came to an end in the forties. The horrors of the Second World War - the systematic extermination in the concentration camps, the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki - called into question Western standards of civilisation. The ruling elite of Western nations became increasingly uneasy about defending imperialism, colonialism and notions of racial superiority. Imperialism, which until the thirties had neutral and sometimes even positive connotations, became a term of abuse.

Moral crisis

After the Second World War, the revolt of the old colonies against their masters further undermined the moral claims of the West. The moral crisis of Western imperialism was reflected in a change of diplomatic language. So in 1949, members of the International Law Commission agreed to 'refrain from using the expression "civilized countries" because...it dated back to the colonial era with its concept of the "White Man's burden"'(see GW Gong, The Standard of Civilization in International Society, p90).

As the culture of imperialism was eroded, so the third world came to occupy the moral high ground. On the floor of the United Nations, American and British diplomats were constantly lectured by their non-aligned counterparts on the evils of colonialism.

Worse still from the point of view of the self-esteem of the Western ruling classes, for a time the cause of the third world became fashionable among middle class youth at home. They opposed military adventures like the American war in Vietnam, and identified with third world figures such as Che Guevara. This new mood was experienced as a rejection of the West's imperial past. The fact that third world causes could now command moral authority struck a direct blow against the old coherence of the superior Western self-image.

Western elites could not entirely reconcile themselves to this body blow to their self-image. Throughout the postwar period there survived a strong undercurrent of resentment at the new moral ascendancy of the third world. During the Cold War, the West could do little other than grumble about the moral claims of the third world. Occasionally it would gleefully point to some atrocity or political disaster in Asia or Africa as confirmation that 'these people' could not really rule themselves. But the Western powers were generally wary of going too far, for fear that the Soviet Union would be able to exploit any hint of colonial attitudes to increase its influence in the third world.

West vindicated

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the new global climate of conservatism has provided the West with an unexpected opportunity to rehabilitate its past. All of the conflicts and economic disasters which are the consequence of the anarchy of the capitalist world market can now be blamed on 'corrupt' third world and Eastern European regimes. The failure of the various radical experiments in the third world now serves as a vindication of the West. The collapse of Stalinism around the world has allowed the rhetoric of Western imperialism to make a comeback.

This is the context in which the so-called humanitarian war has now emerged. These wars create useful precedents for 'uninvited' Western intervention in the affairs of other countries. But that's not all. They also retrospectively legitimise the entire history of Western imperialism. If American troops are so altruistic in Somalia today, why should we doubt the humanitarian impulse behind imperial adventures in the past?

During the past three years there has been a growing demand in the Western media to absolve imperialism of any guilt, and to condemn the third world idea. After the Gulf War, Robert Harris of the Sunday Times explored 'How old-fashioned imperialism could be the Kurds' salvation'(14 April 1991). A year later Newsweek exhorted 'Let's abolish the third world' (27 April 1992).

Gunboat diplomacy

The revival of the vocabulary of empire is by no means confined to journalists. Last September in an interview in the Independent, British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd called for a new imperial role for the United Nations. Hurd's vision of a new imperialism implied that Western powers should now enjoy a permanent right to intervene in the internal affairs of peoples in Eastern Europe and the third world.

At present, it is critical for the Western powers to conceal their foreign interventions behind a humanitarian mask. If gunboat diplomacy can be presented as a response to a genuine demand to feed the starving (Somalia), or to save the victims of a holocaust (Bosnia), then it is likely to enjoy full support at home. The power of this approach has been well demonstrated in Germany.

Since the Second World War, Germany has been constitutionally forbidden from launching foreign military adventures. For sometime now, however, the German authorities have sought to win domestic support for their right to intervene militarily abroad once more. The wave of humanitarian concern about Somalia provided the solution to the problem of how to restore a militarist culture in Germany. The announcement on 17 December 1992 that German troops would be sent to Somalia provoked virtually no opposition.

Promoting Western intervention as a humanitarian mission legitimises imperialism not only in the present, but also, by implication, in the past. Many apologists for imperialism have used the invasion of Somalia as the point of departure for defending the idea of colonialism in general. The Wall Street Journal observed that it was not 'pining for the return of unfettered nineteenth-century colonialism'. But:

'We are, however, quite eager to repudiate much of the theory, articulated mainly by US liberals during the post-colonial era, that the system erected after World War Two - capitalist, democratic, American-led, grounded in British traditions of contracts and property rights - was somehow "not right" for the indigenous groups and cultures of what came to be known as the third world...American leadership and property rights look to be precisely what the starving of Somalia very much want.' (7 December 1992)

In case the message was lost, the Wall Street Journal added that what 'Desert Storm did for America's military credibility, Somalia may do for its moral credibility'.

The Journal's aside about moral credibility is important. There is now a widespread recognition that Western society is going through a time of acute moral uncertainties. The West has failed to find a substitute for the powerful Cold War myths. In the post-Cold War era there seems to be no new vision or political inspiration. Instead, moral uncertainties are paralleled by an erosion of consensus.

When the Wall Street Journal writes of 'moral credibility' over Somalia, it reveals that its real preoccupation is with domestic concerns. So we are told that in Somalia, 'we assume the US security forces won't have to read the teenage thugs their Miranda rights, as they must for the Crips and Bloods in south central Los Angeles'. It is as if the problems raised by the Los Angeles riots have been relocated to Somalia, where they can be resolved to a satisfactory conclusion with a kick up the backside from the humanitarian marines.

The rhetoric of humanitarian diplomacy at once rehabilitates the imperial past, and provides our rulers with a moral antidote to the social malaise that now afflicts Western societies.

It is important to emphasise the theme that Living Marxism has called the moral rearmament of imperialism, since this motive behind Western intervention is usually ignored. The failure to examine this issue has led many critics of imperialism to misunderstand the dynamic which drives the Western powers to intervene in the third world today.

Oil and Islam

For example, many misguidedly argued that the Western invasion of Iraq was really motivated by the quest for oil. The argument was superficially plausible but fundamentally flawed. The West already had a surfeit of oil. And in any case, it had complete access to Iraqi oil. So why launch a military operation for something you already possess? When it came to Somalia, finding the 'obvious' cause of intervention was not so easy. Somalia has no oil or little else for that matter. For some critics of Western imperialism, the threat of Islamic fundamentalism served as the substitute for oil. This threat was about as real as the motive of oil in the case of Iraq. In neither case is there a single cause - economic or otherwise - that accounts for the military intervention.

The starting point for understanding Western diplomacy in the post-Cold War era is the dislocation caused by the crumbling of the old world order and the ending of the old balance of power. The Western Alliance is no longer bound together by the anti-communist politics of the Cold War. This has enabled tensions among the Western powers themselves to come to the surface, and has helped to expose America's loss of the unquestioned world leadership which it enjoyed after the Second World War.

In the absence of an international equilibrium, it is no longer clear what are the rules of the great power game. The new fluidity in international affairs creates a situation where major powers often react to each other rather than pursue any pre-determined objective. So it was the high-profile German diplomacy in the former Yugoslavia which forced the other main Western powers to become involved - not so much to contain the Serbs as to contain the expansion of German influence.

America lacks the clout to retain the initiative in the Balkans. Instead it has sought to reassert its global authority through its intervention in Somalia, by demonstrating to the European powers how indecisive they have been in Bosnia. Somalia has no importance for Washington other than as a stage upon which it can strengthen its claim to world leadership. Until this claim is recognised by others, or until a new international balance of power is established, there will be many more Somalias.

A walkover

Once it is understood that Washington has been actively seeking opportunities to demonstrate its military power, it should be clearer why the USA intervened in Somalia. It invaded Somalia because that was likely to be the least complicated adventure. Here was a country with minimal military capacity and with no infrastructure to speak of, waiting for a Western saviour. The carefully crafted public relations exercise about ferocious warlords threatening the lives of millions made this intervention a realistic option. America invaded not because of famine or any other reason to do with Somalia itself, but in order to give a demonstration of American 'leadership'. The primary role of this invasion is to provide a precedent for the future. The fate of the Somalis today is of no concern to Washington.

Of course, even the most carefully calculated move does not always achieve its objectives. Until a stable new balance of power among the Western nations is established, every major foreign policy initiative will invite a counter-response. If it is all right for the Americans to intervene in Somalia today, what is to stop the French from invading Algeria tomorrow. There is already considerable tension among Nato countries around the Balkan crisis. The risk of conflict between Greece and Turkey cannot be discounted. Where will the West's humanitarian military forces strike next?

Facade of unity

The current emphasis upon high-profile military intervention is part of reorganising the world order. The decline of American dominance and the breakdown of the postwar settlement has unleashed forces which will eventually lead to the redivision of the world among the major players. This process is still at an early stage. National differences between America, Germany or Japan are seldom allowed to gain momentum. A variety of international organisations acts to curb the tendency towards conflict. However, this facade of unity is wearing thin. The rows over world trade indicate the shape of things to come.

While direct conflicts between the Western powers remain muted, there is nothing to inhibit Western rivalries from being played out in the third world and even Eastern Europe. Behind the mask of humanitarian intervention, the deadly game of great power conflict gathers pace.

There are many vivid symbols of the new imperialism. The devastation of the Iraqi conscripts on the Basra road by Allied saturation bombing is one striking reminder of the barbarism of the civilised West. The landing of American Special Force personnel on the beaches of Mogadishu, only to be welcomed by hundreds of journalists, illustrated the unprecedented capacity for hypocrisy within Western diplomacy today.

But for me the most haunting image of all was the sight of an American television reporter consuming a diet drink in front of starving Somalis at a feeding centre. For a brief moment, everyone who cared to look could see the grotesque visage that is usually masked by the rhetoric of humanitarian gestures.

US marine in action in Mogadishu

The Revolutionary Communist Party presents


launched at the Hot Wars and Holocausts Conference in November 1992. If you would like a copy of the manifesto, and details of related events, write to Manifesto Against Militarism, BM RCP, London WC1N 3XX.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 52, February 1993

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