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Mick Hume

From the Falklands to Bosnia

A lot of people who would have opposed British and US invasions in the past now support military intervention in Bosnia. They might do so out of a desire for peace. But the hard truth is that they are allowing themselves to be used as patsies by the war-makers of the Western governments.

Times change. When, in April 1982, Margaret Thatcher commanded the British people to 'Rejoice, rejoice!' because the royal marines had recaptured South Georgia from a few Argentine conscripts, she set the triumphalist tone for public discussion of the Falklands War. When Argentina surrendered two months and many deaths later, Thatcher told cheering crowds in Downing Street that 'Great Britain is great again'. The celebration of carnage made some people proud. It made others want to vomit.

Today, in the public debates about military intervention in the former Yugoslavia, the tone is very different. Those calling for Western military action in Bosnia do not ask us to rejoice over war, but to care about its victims and to help bring peace. They do not boast of making Britain great, but of getting Britannia to act as a sort of armed social worker in the Balkans. Many who would have been sickened by the Falklands War seem the most enthusiastic about intervention in Bosnia.

The irony is that politicians who organised past Western war efforts and peace activists who opposed them, now use the same language to call for the UN, EC or Nato to take firmer action in Yugoslavia. Why? Is there really anything so very different about Western intervention in other people's affairs today?

In April, Thatcher called for the West to stop prevaricating, arm the Muslims in Bosnia and threaten the Serbs with air-strikes. These demands won Thatcher enthusiastic support from a variety of Labour MPs and radical journalists who had treated her as a hate-figure for the previous 15 years. This change of heart seems all the more surprising, if you look a little more closely at what she said about intervening in Bosnia.

'I felt angry when the Falklands were invaded', Thatcher told American television. 'We took action. I felt angry when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait. President Bush and I took action.

'We had the weapons. We also had the will. We have the weapons now. Where is the will?'

Thatcher put Bosnia on a par with the Falklands and the Gulf, as a crisis to be resolved by Western firepower. Do those who support her call for military intervention in Bosnia today also concede that she was right to send Britain into war in the past? And if not, what's changed?

Was she right to send a task force to the South Atlantic, to recolonise the Malvinas Islands? Was she right to send British forces to the Gulf, to help the USA destroy Iraq? And what about 'the weapons' Thatcher spoke of; was she right, too, about Cruise missiles and the rest of the arsenal she assembled?

At the time, the Labour left and the peace movement opposed Thatcher's war against the Argentines and her preparations for war against the Iraqis (a war waged soon after by John Major), and bitterly criticised her rearmament programme. Now most of these same people champion her militaristic attitude towards the Serbs.

In reality, the motives pushing Western governments to intervene abroad today are as insupportable as they were at the time of the Falklands. The peace-loving British authorities which have sent troops and aircraft to Bosnia are no more concerned about saving lives than they were when they sank the Argentine cruiser Belgrano with all hands in 1982, or massacred fleeing Iraqi conscripts on the road to Basra in 1991. The Western governments' recent displays of gunboat diplomacy, whether directed at Iraq, Somalia, North Korea or Serbia, are all part of a self-serving crusade to assert their own authority.

What has changed is not the bloody reality of military intervention, but the way in which it is perceived in the West. The key factor in altering perceptions has been the collapse suffered by former critics of Western imperialism. Their conversion to the cause of Western intervention has gone so far that Margaret Thatcher, for so long the devil incarnate, can now be hailed as a guardian angel. And in the process, Thatcher's record of militarism has, at least in part, been retrospectively vindicated.

The consequence of all this is to create a uniquely pro-interventionist political climate, one which allows the Western authorities to interfere in other people's affairs and pass it off as doing a lot of good work for charity. This is truly a godsend for the governments concerned, at a time when they are all undergoing political crises.

Today governmental institutions and parties are suffering a loss of public respect right across the West. That makes it hard for them to win support for foreign adventures by mobilising traditional, tub-thumping nationalism. Thatcher's Falklands War rhetoric about Britain being great again could have little impact today, when symbols of the British state's greatness from the monarchy to the police force are the subject of public contempt.

The conversion of the old opposition to the cause of intervention provides Western governments with a partial solution to this tricky problem. It enables them to present their aggressive foreign policies in the new language of human-itarianism, peace and famine relief. With the assistance of liberal commentators and Labour politicians, the British military and its gunboat diplomacy can now acquire a gentler image and a place on the moral high ground.

The punchline of this process is not funny. Just as the Falklands triumph stood the Tories in good stead at home during the eighties, so the consensus supporting military intervention in the nineties allows very conservative conclusions to be drawn in Western societies. Of course, this does not mean that expressing concern about Bosnia can win John Major a by-election in Newbury. The danger is far more serious than that.

The unspoken assumption behind support for intervention is that the West knows what's best for Eastern Europe and the third world, that Western states are the force for civilisation on Earth, with the right and responsibility to save others from themselves. The widespread endorsement of such conservative sentiments today is better than money in the bank for Western capitalists.

The new consensus supporting foreign interventions means that anti-war arguments have suffered a serious loss of edge. Nobody even raises questions any more about the way in which the Western states and their central agency, the United Nations, are tearing up the old rules of international affairs and trampling across the sovereignty of nations, which the UN charter still declares to be sacrosanct. Nobody objects that the Western missions in places like Somalia and Cambodia are really colonialism by another name. Instead, the former critics of Western intervention concentrate on chanting 'we must do something' over and over again. And with the support of that sentiment, the Western powers set about staging a free-for-all in the former Yugoslavia.

What do they mean, 'we must do something'? Who is 'we', and what is the purpose of the 'something' that must be done?

In today's debate about intervention, those who argue that 'we' must do something about Bosnia in fact mean that the British and other Western governments must act on our behalf. But why should we suddenly share the same interests as the government over Bosnia, when our concerns conflict with theirs over every domestic issue? Why should we believe that a government which is prepared to run down the NHS and throw psychiatric patients on to the streets of British cities is really concerned about the welfare of the sick and the weak in Srebrenica?

The British government will pursue its own narrow interests in Bosnia, as it does at home, seeking to preserve its power and prestige rather than to save lives. Noamount of humanitarian appeals will alter that iron law of international politics. So let us forget about begging the government to take constructive action, and redefine the 'we' who needs to do something.

As people who are concerned about militarism and war, 'we' should be trying to organise a popular movement against our government's trouble-making foreign adventures, not applauding them. We ought to demand that the West gets out of the former Yugoslavia altogether, not encourage it to take more military action.

Wringing hands over Bosnia and demanding that the Western powers do something might sound like a constructive and positive approach. But such demands for action really represent a passive acquiesence to the influence of British militarism - the same reactionary influence which prevailed over the Falklands. As a result, the warmongers can allow yesterday's peace activists to front today's campaigns for military intervention. And that really is something for them to rejoice about.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 56, June 1993

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