Ignatieff, Apostle of He-manitarianism

Michael Ignatieff shares a few things with Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, Tony Blair, George Bush, and many others. One is an extraordinary ability to reconcile warm concern with insufferable smugness. Another is a plan. America is going to kick some terrorist butt and assure its security by teaching freedom and democracy to the inhabitants of ‘failed states’. This will be in everyone’s interest.

Ignatieff’s plan and its justification are pretty much those of the US government’s. What separates Ignatieff from the others is largely his aura of masculine realism. In substance, he distinguishes himself, not by what he defends, but by what he concedes. He tries for engaging frankness, admitting that

a) The US will act in humanitarian causes only when and where those causes coincide with its interests, strategic or material;

b) US policy is often hypocritical;

c) US occupations will usually be more concerned to maintain control over an nation than to build democracy and freedom there;

d) US efforts can get nowhere unless it addresses fundamental regional problems, for example, in the Middle East, the Israel/Palestine conflict.

e) US power is not unlimited and will come to grief if employed with arrogant ignorance. Like other colonial powers, the US frequently doesn’t deliver on its promise of spreading freedom, and this is politically dangerous.

But, says Ignatieff, the US is still our best bet, and its mixed motives don’t discredit its humanitarian ideals (Empire Lite p.23, henceforth EL): “…imperialism doesn’t stop being necessary just because it becomes politically incorrect.”(EL 106) The new imperialism is not a pure power grab; it is not designed to control territory. Despite America’s impure intentions and its mistakes, the fact remains that there are “many peoples who owe their freedom to an exercise of American military power.” The very title of one his pieces tells us to cut the moralistic crap: “The American Empire (Get Used to It.)”, New York Times Magazine, January 5, 2003.

Ignatieff’s message hits a nerve. He is right to reject the labored horror with which leftists discover that American sometimes has more or less legitimate policy objectives which call for force. He is also right to reject the endless harping on bad American intentions. If the actions have good outcomes, why is it so important that the intentions behind them are bad?

Yet Ignatieff’s position is built on sand, or maybe slime. When he argues that America’s imperial designs are not immoral, he misses the point. The problem is not that those designs might or might not be immoral. The problem is that they are silly. They presuppose a strength and competence America quite obviously doesn’t have, as well as intentions it couldn’t have.

Ignatieff’s position is a web of foolishness, error and confusion. His confidence in American power is so ludicrously exaggerated, so unsustained by evidence, that it validates what seems to be the wildest of left-wing accusations: his enthusiasms are racist. And it is not the virulence of his racism that makes it so dangerous, but its air of even-handedness, sophistication and intelligence. It functions like a sprig of cilantro on the nouveau-imperialist bucket of KFC, transforming Bush’s blunderings into a treat for liberal white folks the world over. Ignatieff seeks to provide a last line of defense for American unilateralism, and by now that last line is about all there is. It is high time to test its strength. What perspective is Ignatieff offering us? What is nation-building? Can America do it? Can anyone? Would anyone want to?

Ignatieff’s outlook: Bringing a man’s world to our doorstep

Ignatieff visits ‘trouble spots’ and tells it like it is. His authority is the authority of the ‘bulky American in combat camouflage, multi-pocket waistcoat, wraparound sunglasses and floppy fishing hat'(EL 77). Though this action hero ‘is not going to talk to me’, Ignatieff mimics his sharp-eyed, ready-for-anything stance, just like a lonely teenager coming out of a Bruce Willis movie. This is no merely annoying quirk; it is the key to his prejudices.

Ignatieff is one of those tough-guy intellectuals who’s always trying to prove he doesn’t have anything to prove. His boots-on-the-ground descriptions of Bosnia and Afghanistan sound like a Car and Driver puff piece: “Big D and Teacher Atta emerge… and jump into their black Audi and black Lexus…. the warriors in their Pajero flatbeds falling in behind.” (EL 87) We’ve already met the Audi and the Lexus in a ‘warrior’s compound’, ‘purring in the driveway’. (EL 77) Likewise the Pajeros: “….eyeing one another from the backs of their dusty Pajero pickups, equipped with roll bars, fog lights and plastic flowers on the dashboards, are about fifty fighters from each side…” .(EL 78) And in Kosovo: “The Jaguars, Audis, and BMWs parked outside the Serbian government building… would do a New York night club proud.” (EL 37) “Pristina’s streets are clogged with the tell-tale white Land Cruisers of the international administrators… “. (EL 73) These vehicles reappear in Afghanistan, where car-repair shops now cater to ‘the passing white Toyota Land Cruisers’ (EL 95; you get more white Land Cruisers at EL 98) Who are you gonna trust? Iggy, or some pussy who can’t even tell a Pajero from a Bronco? These images generously extend Ignatieff’s own authority to his readers. We, who are so used to these fine automotive products, are the genuine article; the Afghans are wannabees. It is our responsibility to see they grow out of it.

Ignatieff wants Washington to be as manly as he is, as we are. “Empires don’t come lite,” he says, “They come heavy.”(EL 79) Like some creep who thinks his honesty about being a creep is disarming, Ignatieff cooks up a testosterone-laced stew in which morsels of freedom and human rights are seasoned with crushing violence, enlightened greed, and calculated hypocrisy. His world contains three races: the ballsy Anglo-Saxons; the Western European surrender monkeys; and those hysterically dim-witted, childlike underachievers, the natives. He avoids explicit racism only through studied obtuseness. In “The Burden” (see also EL 106), he informs us that “America’s empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies, conquest and the white man’s burden.” Isn’t America run by white men? Aren’t their burdens therefore white men’s burdens? The only difference seems to be that now the burden falls, not on just any old white folks, but on the Anglophone whites, the freedom-crème de la freedom-crème.

Now Ignatieff would probably reply that the burden is no less real for falling on white men. But this burden is, as he often reminds us, onerous; it’s not a quick in-and-out operation to rescue some refugees. Why then does Ignatieff think that America, at present better known for its fine doughnuts than for its decency, competence or wisdom, is up to the job? And, while we’re at it, what exactly is the job?

The project of nation-building

Ignatieff’s notion of nation-building is a constantly moving target.

For a start, one must beware of his bait-and-switch tactics. Ignatieff likes to pretend that peacekeeping and nation-building are indistinguishable; he hopes to advertise the former but sell us the latter.(EL 79) Yes, humanitarian intervention–peacekeeping–would have been a good idea in Rwanda. And yes, some governments are thoroughly illegitimate, some societies are cancerously vile. It would be prissy foolishness to treat such ‘failed states’ as ‘real countries’ with real rights to sovereignty or independence. But peacekeeping in such nations is still a matter of preventing mass deaths. These justifiable, genuinely humanitarian interventions cannot be the nation-building to which Ignatieff refers. They don’t require American empire, heavy or even lite; one of those rinky-dink UN forces will do. So this can’t be what Ignatieff is talking about when he refers to nation-building. This is clear from his not-so-faintly contemptuous treatment of the cheese-eater Bernard Kouchner in Kosovo: “…the claim is not that Kouchner is too autocratic; it’s that he’s not autocratic enough and that the UN is too politically correct, too consultative… when it should simply lay down the law… .”(EL 72f.) Worst of all, Kouchner “does that Gallic shrug”. (EL 74)

Another of Ignatieff’s attempts to confuse the issue of American empire is his sleazy conflation of nation-building with nationalism. “Vietnam”, he says, “was a titanic clash between two nation-building strategies, the Americans in support of the South Vietnamese versus the Communists in the north.” (E 117) For a start this is obscure. Does he mean that the South Vietnamese were trying to build a nation with American support? But America supported the South Vietnamese government, not the South Vietnamese, who were in large measure anti-government. As for “the Communists in the North”, weren’t they Vietnamese as well? One thing, at least, is clear: Ignatieff can’t distinguish between the project of building your own nation versus the project of building someone else’s. It is no coincidence that the first is generally regarded as unobjectionable and the second as highly dubious.

Ignatieff also has trouble seeing when a nation is already built. He says:

“Whenever it has exerted power overseas, America has never been sure whether it values stability — which means not only political stability but also the steady, profitable flow of goods and raw materials — more than it values its own rhetoric about democracy. Where the two values have collided, American power has come down heavily on the side of stability, for example, toppling democratically elected leaders from Mossadegh in Iran to Allende in Chile. Iraq is yet another test of this choice. Next door in Iran, from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, America backed stability over democracy, propping up the autocratic rule of the shah, only to reap the whirlwind of an Islamic fundamentalist revolution in 1979 that delivered neither stability nor real democracy.” (“The Burden,” New York Times Magazine, January 5, 2003)

This is another clumsy evasion. To ‘come down heavily on the side of stability’, one of the alternatives must be instability, and one must then choose stability. But in the examples Ignatieff cites, what happened was very different. In Chile, there was no serious instability before the US fomented it in order to back one of the worst torturers of modern times. Something similar happened when the US got rid of Mossadegh in Iran. These aren’t even the worst cases: in Indonesia, for example, the US made a clear choice, not between profitable stability and unstable democracy, but between profitable mass murder and stable nationalism. The US has never chosen stability over democracy–this would oddly imply that the democratic choice was unstable. It has quite often chosen the stability of the grave over independent-minded régimes, some of them democratic. That Ignatieff has made a really Herculean effort to deceive himself on this matter is evident from his claim that the Islamist revolution in Iran “delivered neither stability nor real democracy”. The Iranian revolution may not have delivered civil rights, but it is quite clearly democratic in the core sense of resting on overwhelming popular support. And despite wide-ranging US sanctions, Iran is stable enough to attract precisely the sort of massive investment that goes with economic advantage. (http://www.brookingsinstitution.org/)

If Ignatieff wants to advocate imperial humanitarianism, he should at least present a consistently unvarnished picture of what he proposes. His nation-building proposal, stripped of self-deceiving claptrap, amounts to this: the US should, having first consulted its own interests, occupy ‘failed states’ and suppress disorder. Then, over what Ignatieff repeatedly emphasizes is a long period of time, Americans are to teach these little folks about judicial procedure, democracy, and human rights. Then America will help their apt pupils to create sustainably democratic institutions. (Don’t worry, the little guys yearn for a substantial American presence: see EL 90.) And one gets the distinct impression that America needs to do this in regions, not countries: the project is so ambitious that it will need the Europeans and Canadians to do housekeeping chores. (El 10-18)

Humanitarian incoherence

Iggy’s project–morality aside–has two problems. The first is that no one would ever want to undertake it. The second is that nothing remotely like it has ever worked.

The first problem involves a simple dilemma that arises from the ambiguities of Ignatieff’s project. Either ‘humanitarian imperialism’ eventually frees the people it subjugates, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, it’s simply oppression built on false promises. If it does, no sane imperialist would undertake it.

This may be too difficult for Ignatieff and many others, but not for those subjugated peoples to whom he presumes to teach political realities. Ignatieff thinks the imperialists can’t be blamed as long as they sincerely try to build nations: their motives may be impure, but their objectives are on balance desirable. To what extent they fail to secure those desirable objectives–that is, what actually happens–doesn’t appear to matter. Oh, he understands well enough that the subjugation part of the project must actually succeed: “The key question is whether empire lite is heavy enough to get the job done.”(EL 3) But when it comes to bringing freedom and democracy, Ignatieff’s realism suddenly becomes the understanding that, well, we may not get the job done after all: “Even with American help, the best Karzai and his Kabul government can hope for is to appoint the least-bad warlords as civilian governors to keep a rough-and-ready peace and collect some taxes. This sort of ordered anarchy, among loosely controlled regional fiefs, would provide ordinary Afghans with basic security. This may be all that is possible, and it may be all that American interests require.” (EL 92)

Gee, what happened to “delivering real democracy”? Was that an obligation only for the Iranians? Is open-ended warlordism what Ignatieff meant when he said: “In the new imperialism, this promise of self-rule cannot be kept so distant, for local elites are all creations of modern nationalism, and modern nationalism’s primary ethical content is self-determination”? (EL 22) What happened to: “In the end there cannot be order in the world, and certainly no justice, without democratic self-rule”?(EL 126) What ‘end’? The ‘end’ Ignatieff contemplates for Afghanistan involves, by his own admission, none of these things. What it does seem to involve–and this seems to be what he really means by ‘staying the course’–is permanent occupation in support of undemocratic rule by pro-American warlords. When he speaks of Karzai’s “American help”, he explains: “the only help that counts in Afghanistan is troops.” (EL 92) In fact Ignatieff jumps from tantrums of impatience to sentimental gushing like a spoilt child. After all his tough talk he has the gall to tell us that “The nation-builders to bet on are those refugee families, piled on the brightly painted Pakistani trucks, moving up the dusty roads, the children perched on the mattresses, like Mowgli astride the head of an elephant, gazing towards home.”(EL 107) He is like no one so much as Phil Ochs’ American soldier, who offers you bubble-gum after killing your sons.

Ignatieff can indulge in these inconsistencies because, for him, the actual result isn’t important. It’s enough that the new imperialism embraces the *values* of democracy and freedom. The nation-builders needn’t even *intend* to implement these values; that might not be ‘realistic’. Instead they should conduct an experiment to see if the natives can measure up: “…the local people… should be the ones who decide what kinds of democracy, rule of law and stability of property can be successfully absorbed in their culture and context.”(EL 24) This isn’t even coherent: if there’s no democracy already in place, how can ‘the local people’ decide anything? But the meaning is pretty clear: if they can benefit from our tutelage and establish democracy, fine. If not, fuck ’em. They can look forward to open-ended occupation and a puppet government.

But suppose, just suppose, that somewhere, somehow, the occupiers *could* establish a free and democratic state. They are now on the second horn of the dilemma: would they actually want to do so? Ignatieff generates yet another confusion to make the project seem plausible. He conflates the individual freedom of citizens within a state with the freedom of a people, that is, the freedom of a state which represents them. Without the second, the first is simply a freedom to play musical chairs in a colonial kindergarten. But this second freedom is a little more threatening than having the natives vote for their leaders.

Let’s remember just what any free nation can do, provided its resources and international law permit. It can, for instance, develop weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. They can opt out of non-proliferation agreements, especially if an imperial occupation authority forced them to sign. And a free country can develop any other sort of weapon you can think of: for example, advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. It can buy and sell such weapons, to our enemies, just as we buy and sell them to the enemies of other countries. It can raise large armed forces. It can develop electronic warfare capabilities. It can form alliances. Maybe a free Democratic Iraq would ally itself with Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, a newly radicalized Turkey, perhaps China as well. The rights of these free nations would certainly include launching spy satellites which orbited over the US, and acquiring long-range nuclear missiles. So a free country, a really free country, can not only cease to service our lust for raw materials. It can also get together with other countries, with the express objective of challenging our supremacy.

In other words, what is so unutterably silly about Ignatieff’s proposal is the idea that genuine self-determination or ‘freedom’ could ever be the objective of an imperial power. Building a free nation, if possible, is dangerous: why not take on the much easier task of building an enslaved client state? Ignatieff claims that imperialism’s opposition to ‘modern nationalism’ is a mistake.(EL 119) It is not. Imperial powers fight modern nationalism because it threatens them, and because it can and quite often is defeated. Vietnam was an exceptional case because it had strong Russian and important Chinese support. When that kind of support is lacking, the interest of all imperialisms–and even Ignatieff admits that imperial powers pursue their own interests–is to prevent rather than to foster nation-building. This is why, for better or more often for worse, imperialism has always attacked the real nation-builders, men like Abd-el-Krim in Morocco, Joshua Nkomo, Castro, Lumumba, Gandhi, Bose, Ben Bella and other Algerian revolutionaries, Janio Quadros of Brazil, Nasser, Sukarno in Indonesia, Arbenz of Guatemala, Mossadegh and Khomeini of Iran, Mao and Chou-en Lai. All imperialisms must oppose the building of free nations as opposed to tame, subject ‘democracies’ like our staunch allies, the Marshall Islands. So real nation-building, even where it is possible, is nothing America would ever want to sponsor.

Can America build nations?

Ignatieff is so juiced on American power that the competence issue eludes him. Of course America can build nations; the only issue is whether it has the will to do so. Ignatieff encourages American ‘hubris’ even as he counsels against it: America can do anything anywhere, just not everything everywhere (EL 4f., 119) Is massive force required? Hey, no problem: “Terrorists everywhere have been cured of the illusion, created by the American retreat from Somalia in 1993, that the empire lacks the stomach for a fight.”

This is a firm assumption that is found throughout the American political spectrum. It is doubly presumptuous. There’s no sign that ‘terrorists everywhere’ are under some illusion, much less that they been ‘cured’ of one. For all I know, America does indeed have stomach for a fight, but Ignatieff’s invocation of the Afghan campaign does nothing to establish this. It is not the case that “the Americans do most of the fighting, while the Europeans, who… don’t like fighting, are only too happy to take on the soft sides of nation-building…”, while “…the locals do the translating, cleaning and driving…”.(EL 94f.) Ignatieff knows full well that Afghans do almost all the fighting. His slip of the pen is no pure accident. Ignatieff consistently forgets the real courage and intelligence of the natives who must be cured of their illusions, and always overestimates the courage and intelligence of the white folks. This certainly clouded his crystal ball when it came to Iraq.

For generations, America has never fought a war without crushing air superiority. Even then, it showed little stomach for a fight in Vietnam, and lost. Since Vietnam, America has dared to fight only basket cases; we have no idea how it would fare against a non-microscopic country not crippled by years of sanctions. Why is it therefore holy writ that America has ‘overwhelming military superiority’? Can Iran, for example, be counted on (a) to concentrate its armor for the convenience of the US air forces, (b) to renounce the next generation of anti-tank, anti-aircraft missiles, and anti-ship missiles, (c) to avoid developing useful air power, (d) to lose a guerilla war? If not, what then? And is there anything at all in America’s military record–as opposed to the specifications of its weapons systems–that suggests it could defeat countries like Pakistan or North Korea at a cost–in lives, in dollars–that it would be willing to pay?

What if America must rely on its ground forces? Will there be an endless stream of heroes sprouting up to take the place of those who fall in battle? Though Ignatieff tells us that “The Roman parallels are evident..”, Americans are no Romans. Roman soldiers signed up for terms of twenty to twenty-five years, and Roman armies sustained casualties at a rate never imagined by American troops today. If ‘terrorists’ think America has no stomach for a fight, this is no illusion but at most a mildly optimistic conclusion drawing on considerable though inconclusive evidence.

If America has not in fact shown the stomach for a real fight, then there is no evidence at all that it can win one. There is no good reason to believe that the US has ‘the stomach’ even to maintain the bare military control for the extended period Iggy thinks necessary to teach the natives who’s boss. Had he waited a bit before writing on Afghanistan, he would have noticed this. The natives noticed it earlier, but then they’re less impressed with the white folks than the white folks are with themselves.

Ignatieff thinks he has taken care of this objection. He says that imperial power is no match for ‘the aroused power of modern nationalism’. (EL 117) The suggestion here is that the natives can somehow rise above themselves if they are swept into some religious or secular crusade. But the Vietnamese communists, for instance, did not win, as Americans love to believe, because they charged exultantly into the jaws of death for the motherland. They won because they had good generals, tight organization, brilliant logistics, and some pretty good technology of their own: excellent artillery and an automatic rifle that many American special forces still prefer to much newer American models. Neither in Iraq nor in Afghanistan is there evidence of some unitary nationalist fervor. There are a bunch of people, some of them bitter enemies, who for a wide variety of reasons want to kick American ass, and do a good job of it. It doesn’t take collective fervor for tough, brave, intelligent, rational calculators make whatever alliances suit them, and to fight an ignorant, blundering army. But the idea that imperialism might be dealing with individual human beings rather than delirious masses never crosses Ignatieff’s lordly mind.

Most telling of all, Ignatieff cannot even assess military power except according to a double standard. A country’s military capabilities are normally judged by its capacity to accomplish military tasks. To judge Israel more powerful than its neighbors, for instance, is not simply to count up tanks, planes, and missiles. It is to look at the actual functioning of the military machine given training, intelligence, generalship, morale, and every other factor that goes into military defeat or victory. But for Ignatieff and many Western political commentators, this standard applies only to the natives. For white folks, the excuses are unending. So it is with contempt that commentators tell us how the Iraqi army didn’t make good use of its fancy military equipment, didn’t show fighting spirit, didn’t have comptent generalship, and so on. In short, if the Iraqis don’t use what they have effectively, that’s weakness. However, if white folks like the Americans don’t use what they have effectively–if their war plans are bad, if the troops’ morale is low, if their leaders want to do things on the cheap, if their intelligence is, well, unintelligent, if their responses are clumsy, crude and ineffective–*that’s* not military weakness at all! On no, it’s as if the fearsome lion, still asleep, has not yet girded its loins to display its awesome power. But you can’t have it both ways. Either the non-whites are also sleeping lions, or the white folks are also weaklings. And no matter which way you decide to go, the conclusion cannot be that America, despite its consistently bad strategy, bad leadership, overhyped technology and unwillingness to endure heavy losses, can play nation-builder wherever it likes. American military power must be measured, not by the theoretical capabilities of its forces, but by its track record. That record suggests America is not powerful enough to establish its empire and fulfill Ignatieff’s dreams.

Real outcomes: the imperial record

Perhaps American can change, and become more competent. But change into what? Is there in fact some plausible imperial model for nation-building? Does the historical record suggest that such projects can succeed?

Once you dispose of Ignatieff’s numbskulled conflation of building your own nation with building someone else’s, you quickly realize that the latter has literally never happened. Ignatieff’s examples–the reconstruction of Germany and Japan after World War II–prove only that he confuses nation-building with nation rebuilding. Before the war, Germany already possessed a full-fledged federal democracy which met or surpassed Iggy’s not-very-demanding standards. Even Japan emerged from the occupation much as it had emerged from feudalism in the early 20th century–as a country run by oligarchs on a feebly democratic parliamentary system. The occupation did not build a nation in either case; it tinkered with the political structures of two already existing nations–very tight-knit, deeply ordered, highly advanced industrial ones.

Beyond this, what do we have? The British did successfully build two overgrown trade emporiums, Hong Kong and Singapore. Even Britain’s non-disasters certainly don’t qualify as anything Ignatieff could call a success. In Ghana, for instance, which became independent in 1957, John Kufuor became the first elected president to succeed another elected president…in 2001. Colonial ventures have almost always produced catastrophes, from the huge massacres that marked Indian independence to the Lebanese civil war to the Indonesian genocide. Egypt, where colonial powers were preceded and followed by strong indigenous ‘nation-builders’ like Mohammed Ali and Nasser, is practically the only place the British did not make a mess of things. And if the French did not do quite as badly in North Africa, they too did not leave behind them a single democracy, and wasted over a million lives in a futile effort to hang on to Algeria. In fact it is quite striking that the much-reviled Gulf states, dominated but never colonized, have on the whole escaped the mass murder and crushing poverty that followed in the wake of colonial attempts to build nations.

It’s not just that imperialism has virtually never built successful nations. It’s also that it failed to do so in much easier conditions. Imperialists usually didn’t construct their empires in real ‘trouble spots’–quite the contrary. Most of these areas became trouble spots only *after* the imperialists took over.

So Ignatieff’s vision of nation-building, in its idealistic version, is not something any imperial power would ever undertake, nor is it something any imperial power has actually accomplished. Its ‘realistic’ version does not in fact even promise freedom and democracy. But non-imperial, non-white powers have indeed built nations. For him, this somehow doesn’t count.

Alternatives to White Imperialism

Ignatieff and others have recently discovered that, before you can have freedom and democracy, you must have something they call ‘the rule of law’. This can’t mean that you have a nice state which guarantees human and civil rights, because those rights are supposed to come when, or if, democracy gets established. So the pundits’ ‘rule of law’ simply means something like ‘law and order’, and they have labored to produce breath-taking triviality. Yeah, if you have people running around completely unrestrained–if you have no state–you can’t have a democratic state. Who ever didn’t know this?

But all this is part of Ignatieff’s double-dealing. When it comes to nation-building, even a weak version of the rule of law is all he demands of the imperialists. When it comes to anyone else’s nation-building, the standards change. Anything short of full-fledged democracy is a ‘failure’, or at best a sort of unsuccessful success like Vietnam, “one country, ruthlessly consolidated under an authoritarian leadership”.(EL 117) Odd: wasn’t Ignatieff worried that America’s interventions might not be ruthless *enough*?

Suppose, unlike Ignatieff, we apply one standard for all races. That shouldn’t be the standard of democracy, because Ignatieff all but admits that no one is going to meet it. (Remember how that Gallic shrugger Kouchner was ‘too consultative’?) So say that building a nation requires, first and foremost, civil order and the sort of basic economic progress without which–as even liberal thinkers like John Rawls agree–civil rights have no value. It then becomes clear that the most successful nation-builders don’t need anyone’s tutelage. They build their economies in the face of great adversity, they keep public order, they educate and feed the poor, they establish a working infrastructure and public health system, and they have strong popular support. But they are not Iggy’s sort of people. They are communist, like Cuba or Vietnam.

These countries, though undemocratic, do not merely offer their people real independence from the imperial powers, and from the deep misery and violence that besets ‘democracies’ like Brazil or Mexico. They also far surpass the imperial powers in their ability to perform humanitarian intervention and even contribute to nation-building. Thus Cuba, when it defeated the South African army in Angola, laid the groundwork for Angolan nationhood and contributed substantially to the end of white domination in South Africa. And there is no doubt that Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia was one of the great humanitarian success stories of our era, as fine a case of nation-building (lite) as we’ve ever seen. These countries may have intervened largely out of self-interest–Vietnam, at least, said it was acting in its own defense–but of course this is something Ignatieff applauds in white nations. Perhaps non-white nations might be permitted the same mixed motives.

This is not to recommend communism, or to deny that Stalin killed a lot of people. It is to state facts. Though Ignatieff pretends to gritty realism, he is laughably obtuse about the role of communists and imperialists even in his stomping grounds, Afghanistan and ‘the former Yugoslavia’. In the former case, imperial powers quite correctly feared the nation-building efforts of the Soviet client Najibullah, and thought it clever to back Bin Laden and the Taliban. In the latter case, imperial powers had fun breaking up the multiethnic nation almost miraculously constructed by the communist Marshall Tito, and then congratulated themselves on constraining the catastrophic civil war they fomented. (Ignatieff with typically slimy ambiguity, speaks only of ‘the ruins of the Yugoslavia Tito had left behind.’ EL 118)) A Martian would have some trouble with the notion that Karzai and Dostum are greater gifts to mankind than Castro. Shouldn’t we have some trouble with the notion that imperialism ‘heavy’ is more beneficent than post-Stalinist communism? How then can Ignatieff pretend that America offers the best available humanitarian alternatives?

The last resort

When pressed, Ignatieff and his ilk make a simple appeal to consequences. Look, he says, we have a terrible régime like Saddam Hussein’s. Are we going to do something about it, or not? This question deserves three others: About what? What do you mean by ‘something’? and the classic “who’s we, white man?”

If there was a humanitarian emergency in post-9-11 Iraq, it had to do with shortages of food and medical supplies. It required doing less, not more: ending the sanctions, not invading. Perhaps there was no such crisis, but then there was also no humanitarian case for invasion. This is not leftist cant but what emerges from the Human Rights Watch reports for 2000 and 2001 (issued 2001 and 2002). The reports describe what are rightly called gross human rights violations committed by the Iraqi government. But these violations affect dozens or hundreds, not thousands or hundred of thousands. They cannot be compared to what was and is happening in the Congo and probably in other parts of the world such as Liberia, nor to what did happen in Rwanda. Nor was worse to be expected: Saddam Hussein had consolidated his power in those areas he still controlled; he was not about to be suppressing any revolts. Intervention will do nothing for those he had already killed, and no amount of killing ten or twenty years ago makes for a humanitarian crisis in the present.

But suppose there actually was a case for humanitarian intervention, for the relatively small-scale military actions which are designed to stop a slaughter. This is no case for war itself. Ignatieff, who clearly thinks the American war machine is kinda cool, ignores what could not be more obvious: war destroys the very things that humanitarian interventions are supposed to protect. It destroys people, rights and all. Often it destroys societies. World War II, the ‘good’ war, cost about 50 million lives. It was forced on the Allies; it was not their little stab at nation-building. It cannot be invoked to justify an imperialism which, faced with tasks far less demanding than what faced the Allies in 1945, decides that open-ended occupation and warlordism is good enough for the natives. But that’s just what Ignatieff, in the end, recommends.

No doubt the ever-supple Ignatieff will soon tell us that America messed up in Iraq. But Ignatieff’s own recommendations for ’empire heavy’ suggest something like a commitment of 500,000 troops for ten years, plus hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq alone, plus at least that much again for dealing with ancillary problems elsewhere in the Middle East, plus whatever the US might need for other adventures during those ten years. Such an effort would produce rivers and lakes of blood. It would require a wisdom and competence we have absolutely no reason to expect. And what’s the good news? For Ignatieff, it’s some humanitarian paradise which his ‘realism’ consigns to some ever-receding future.

If Ignatieff were simply informing us of harsh realities–if it really were up to strong, brave America to build nations, if the Europeans really were wimps, if the natives really were contemptible except when transfixed by the hysterics of ‘modern nationalism aroused’–then the charge of racism would be as idiotic as he no doubt imagines it to be. But his supposed realities are fantasies. His version of tempered optimism amounts to the suspicion that, despite Anglo-American moral and military supremacy, the natives may be too benighted to taste the glories of white democracy. His smarmy overconfidence and his obliviousness to non-Western, non-imperial alternatives are all too familiar. There is nothing humanitarian about them. They can be understood only as liberalized white supremacism, no less vulgar for being confined to the Anglo-Saxon race. It will lead to more misjudgments and more deaths.

MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He can be reached at: mneumann@trentu.ca.


Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at mneumann@live.com