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.
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'.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
'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
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.
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
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
A MANIFESTO AGAINST MILITARISM
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