Why Certain Liberals Love the War

Writing in The Guardian, U.K., on March 11, George Monbiot raises the question about the blindness of the ‘liberal’ interventionists who refuse to see the war against Iraq as a part of US bid for global ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’. Here, I will argue that the ‘liberal’ interventionists are not blind, but fully conscious of US motives. Their interests are identical with that of the American Republican extreme right. Under the cloak of liberalism (or even ‘radicalism’ as in the case of Nick Cohen, columnist for The Observer) they seek to realise the old vision of an empire where the sun never sets. Whereas the British attempt died a lingering death over two world wars and the political independence of its colonies after 1947, the ‘New American Century’ with its technological and military superiority, promises the ultimate fulfilment of this dream.

The war on Iraq has certainly produced a bewildering array of ‘liberal’ positions. The interventionists believe that whatever the cost, the invasion of Iraq is, in the words of Nick Cohen, ‘the only way to peace’ (March 2, The Observer). A murderous tyranny will be overthrown, Iraqis liberated, one name on the axis of evil crossed off. Let us examine the ideological roots of this argument. Robert Kagan has achieved fame with his book Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, and he is one of the signatories of the Project for the New American Century established in 1997. In an article called ‘The Healer’ published by The Guardian on March 3, he clearly spells out the vision of this new liberalism. Kagan’s dividing of a ‘Kantian’ Europe living for the ideal of perpetual peace and a ‘Hobbesian’ America still clued into the conflictual nature of global reality has attracted lots of attention. What is more revealing, I think, is Kagan’s division of a post-modern Europe and a ‘modern and pre-modern world’ that threatens it. The latter does not, of course, include the US, but Asia, Middle-East, Africa and Latin America. Citing Robert Cooper, once a ‘top official’ of the British Foreign Office, Kagan advocates an international double standard of conduct:

Among themselves, Europeans “may operate on the basis of laws and open cooperative security”. But when dealing with the world outside Europe, “we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era–force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary”. This is Cooper’s principle for safeguarding society: “Among ourselves, we keep the law, but when operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle.”

Kagan not only approves of this, but thinks the US is the indispensable force needed by Europe to achieve this order of things. As the inheritor of European imperialist mantle, it deals with the jungle on a regular basis, while Europe wishes to forget about it. Together, they can work to keep the barbarians at bay by enforcing a global double standard.

What are the key weaknesses of this argument? Obviously, this is an inherently racist vision that divides the world between civilised, peace-loving US/Europe and the rest of savage humanity dwelling in jungles who can only understand the language of force. But this ethical point is far from being the most dangerous part of this argument. Kagan/Cooper’s worldview has a venerable lineage stretching right back to the days of European imperial might where this ‘necessary’ double standard was invoked to rationalise the violent subjugation and oppression of three-quarters of humanity. Philip Meadows Taylor captured this mood in his 1865 novel Ralph Darnell, where his hero Robert Clive says this about Indians “Among Gentoos and Moors–who look more to the effects of physical than moral power than you are accustomed to do in a free country like England–tis only by showing ourselves prepared to resist and overcome any attempts at oppression, that we can insure that weight and respect.power can alone insure us respect”. When Charles Grant delivered his impassioned plea to the British parliament for increased intervention in India, he cited exactly the ‘moral’ difference between civilised Europe and savage Asia that is echoed in Kagan and Cooper’s thinking: “in the worst part of Europe, there are no doubt great numbers of men who are sincere, upright and conscientious. In Bengal, a man of real veracity and integrity is a great phenomenon.” Grant, like many of our contemporary liberals, was also an interventionist abroad. And the justification of that interventionism (with all its brutal consequences) was derived on precisely the moral and political double standard that lies at the heart of Kagan’s world view.

Of course, one need not limit the examples to British imperialism. French, Portuguese, Dutch, Belgian, German, Italian imperial efforts were based precisely on the vision of a civilised Europe that has to play by the law of the jungle in Africa, India, China, Latin America. This language and practice was adopted by the US in its wars throughout the 20th century, whether they were ‘proxy/dirty’ wars in Latin America and the far-east, or direct invasions of Vietnam, Laos, Grenada, Panama. Ethically racist and historically imperialist, this ideology of liberal interventionism is also dangerous because it deliberately ignores the structural causes that reduces large parts of the world to zones of poverty, conflict, massive degradation of human life, social inequality and corresponding rise in violence. It hides the fact that it was the function and aim of empires to keep the majority of the world savage and lawless in order to exist as a relatively prosperous and law abiding entity, although the unravelling of this aim was hideously demonstrated in two world wars. Currently, liberal interventionists refuse to talk about the new imperial imperatives behind the US drive to war against the ‘axis of evil’. With the sinister glow of civilisers in their cheeks, they proclaim loudly about the end of tyranny and spread of democracy, while they deliberately ignore the massed evidence of the miserable failure of these aim. Afghanistan and Kosovo are bandied around as beacons of the new world order. Well, as Luke Harding reports in last week’s U.K. Observer, Afghanistan has fallen rapidly back to feudal warlordism and Hamid Karzai’s own life is heavily dependent on his international body guards. Kabul may have become an international city under the protection of UN forces, but in the provinces the warlords rule just as before. American special troops still work to mop up the Taliban. They managed to call in an air strike on an Afghan village two weeks ago, causing heavy civilian casualties. Pashtun anger bubbles away barely beneath the surface. In time honoured fashion, Afghan tribal and ethnic politics has made use of foreign power to achieve a change in the status Quo under the Taliban. There is certainly no democracy. As for Kosovo, western media in general has contrived to ignore its post-war reality. Not a word about the reverse ethnic cleansing that saw the Kosovo Serbs encouraged to leave with a help of grenades and fire. Not a word about the effect of these returnees to Serbia. On the morning of March 13, the world woke up to the news of the assassination of the Serb Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. The effects of a moral war in the Balkans are beginning to be felt.

The US state today, in the tradition of European empires in the 19th century, is not interested in ‘exporting’ liberation or democracy or nation building. Its administration is committed to achieving global domination both militarily and economically. As Monbiot shows, its Afghan invasion was undertaken to set up forward bases in Central Asia–from Pakistan to Georgia- some of whose leader’s democratic credentials and human rights abuses rival that of Saddam Hussein. You won’t find many US forces peacekeeping in Afghanistan. Moreover, it needs to keep a chain of conflict erupting throughout the world, precisely to enforce the borders between savagery and civilisation. Through international monitory bodies and its own raw military might, it leads the enforcement of structural inequalities that is the basis of violence (Iraq, and indeed Bin Laden’s Jihadis, for example were armed, funded and given ideological credence by the US in the closing stages of the Cold War). It is in the interest of the industrial-military nexus that runs the US government to stoke ‘manageable’ conflicts globally. It provides the rationale for the permanent global dominance it aims for.

The liberal interventionists then, have always worked hand in glove with empire. In the 19th century, they urged for civilising missions across the globe and worked to obscure the true aims of those missions. Today, they dream on about the final solution of global conflicts, paradoxically, through military interventions led by the US. The technologies and the modus operendi of the imperium has changed, its ideological technique hasn’t. It still depends on constructing a vision of a law-abiding and civilised US-European entity (although Germany and France may find themselves outside soon) and the jungle outside. It then works to achieve that vision by enforcing inequalities and violence that makes that vision a reality.

But what are the options? cry our liberal interventionists. It is all very well analysing how Al-Qaida and Saddam came to be. Now that they are here, what can one do about it except wage war? Quite apart from the fact that given the nature of the US imperium, this is a recipe for the deadly Orwellian situation of ‘unending war for unending peace’, it ignores the possibility of taking up genuinely courageous long term, truly international and largely peaceful measures that are already available by the dint of several Peace studies institutes and think tanks. In the case of Iraq, for instance, there are a series of measures available including ending of the sanctions, permanent inspections, inspections monitoring the ‘human rights’ abuses within the country, and negotiating the right of the Iraqi refugees to return. With concerted international effort, and without constant US scuppering of the plans, all these aims are eminently achievable. As Hans Blix constantly points out, the weapons inspections are working. But this doesn’t suit the US administration whose aims were stated in a Project for the New American Century document in 2000–“the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein [it is necessary for] maintaining global US pre-eminence”.

Liberal interventionists identify with US state interests in their unwillingness to lend support for international peaceful resolution of conflicts (both Kosovo and Afghanistan were littered with the rejection of diplomatic solutions). But again they cry, ‘what about the Iraqis under Saddam? Is not their liberation the price we pay for US global dominance?’ I must admit their sudden concern for Iraqis and Kurds is a trifle surprising, since not only were they largely unconcerned about their fates under Saddam till last year, but following their logic, we may as well take up the cry – what about Chechens under Russia and its puppet regime, what about Tibetans under the Chinese, or the Palestinians under the Israeli occupation, the Kurds under Turkey, the people under repressive and dictatorial governments in Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia to name but a few? Have not the Pentagon plans to occupy Iraq and its oilfields and run it in conjunction with the Ba’ath party officials already been rejected in alarm by the Iraqi Congress in exile and the Kurds of northern Iraq? Post-Saddam Iraq, if the Pentagon has its way, is going to be much worse that post-Taliban Afghanistan. Not a democracy, certainly, but a military occupation. Not enjoying liberty, but a change of masters.

The test for European and American liberalism has always been empire. Under the jargon of freedom, democracy and liberty, has always lurked the belief in the double standard advocated by Robert Kagan. Liberal interventionists believe that civilisation and law are features that are largely absent in the world outside US and Europe. They believe that force is the only way to deal with the barbarians. They work to obscure the role of the civilised world in enforcing inequality and ensuring future conflicts. They promote deliberate historical falsifications–in the face of public and resolute support of Tony Blair’s stance on Iraq by Ian Duncan Smith and virtually every member of senior Conservative party, Nick Cohen argues ‘If war was about oil, conservatives wouldn’t oppose it.’ (March 2, The Oberver) The Conservatives are not opposing it. From Aznar in Spain to Berlusconi in Italy and the Rumsfeld-Wolfwowitz -Cheney gang in Washington and Duncan Smith in Britain­ they are supporting it. Perhaps Mr Cohen wishes to protect his ‘radical’ label by obscuring how his position in identical with that of Ian Duncan Smith. Robert Kagan’s ‘healer’ is Tony Blair, whose attempts to win Europe to a hawkish position on Iraq he praises as an effort to ‘advancing an international liberal order in the years and decades to come’. As this advancement of international liberal order depends on being at war with the ‘barbarians’, we can dispense with the rhetoric of universal liberty and democracy. Try as the liberal interventionists may, their position at the heart of empires, whether European or British, is too glaring to hide. They are not blind, they see and their vision is already uniting the globe against them.

PABLO MUKHERJEE teaches at the University of Newcastle. He can be reached at: Pablo.mukherjee@ncl.ac.uk