The Perils of Humanitarian Intervention

Jean Bricmont’s Humanitarian Imperialism is a book that, to use the overwrought (but in this case true) rhetoric of book blurbs, should be read by anyone concerned with rebuilding the left, stopping the Iraq war, or with the future of humanity in general. The subject of his book is the human rights ideology which insists that the US/the West is morally obligated to military intervene to protect the political and civil rights of various peoples around the world. He argues that this line of thought has been absorbed by most of the left in Europe (and, we would add, in the US), and that it helps account for the listlessness of the struggle against the Iraq occupation. Not a timid writer, Bricmont expends no energy deconstructing the discourse of human rights, or expounding on its intellectual genealogy. Instead, he focuses directly on the argument itself, and its multiple variants (such as the use of dubious historical backdrops, including the failure of the left to be sufficiently critical of Stalin, and the example of World War II). He further keeps things simply by avoiding philosophical questions of cultural relativism, instead simply trying to answer whether the military interventionist strategy in fact promotes the human rights it claims to. One wonders how the many defenders of humanitarian imperialism would respond to the arguments laid out in the book. Of course, they will simply ignore it, or perhaps slander the author (defender of Saddam/Stalin, etc).

In a nutshell, Bricmont’s argument is that the US is the principle obstacle to progress in the global south, its military the ‘sword of damocles’ that hangs over any progressive political experiment there.

Instead, the US seeks to maintain an unequal world in which the wealthier countries are dependent on the poorer ones for raw materials, cheap labor, and even money (the debt crisis) and analytical minds (the ‘brain drain’).
Human rights ideology is basically an effort to refurbish the image of this war machine. ‘Successful’ interventions, like Yugoslavia (putting aside the details of the actual intervention and its aftermath) enhance the possibilities of future, larger wars (as has come to pass). Furthermore, greenlighting interventions because US and European intellectuals judge the human rights situation to be sufficiently bad destroys the simple principles of international law. Instead of the law that countries cannot invade other countries for reasons of their choosing, we are left with a chaotic situation in which the strongest country (the US) decides what is a just or unjust war. Rather than debating which human rights situations require US interventions, progressives should work to push back all the manifestations of US power (not only military, but also economic, media, political strategies) and work towards developing economies in the wealthy countries that are not dependent on the existence of an impoverished zone in the global south. As an alternative to intervention, Bricmont encourages cooperating with the sovereign leadership of states, and recognizing that one cannot simply solve all the problems one would like, particularly through military intervention. Strikingly, the book was published well before the explosion of interest in the situation in Darfur, which is renewing the arguments for humanitarian imperialism all over again.

Given this argument, it is not surprising that there is considerable overlap between Bricmont’s work and that of Noam Chomsky (although it should be said that Bricmont has a lighter touch in his prose). Readers of the latter are undoubtedly roughly familiar with the many coups the US has engineered, and the numerous crimes committed by the US military in places like Afghanistan and Iraq as it seeks to ‘export democracy’. Nevertheless, the book is well worth reading by people already familiar with Chomsky’s line of thinking. That is because Bricmont focuses much of his energy on fallacies prevalent on the left (including Chomsky’s own tendency to overestimate the capacity of the US to do whatever it wants). For example, Bricmont takes apart the ‘neither/nor’ approach (neither Milosevic nor NATO, neither Saddam nor Bush) for being both unrealistic (not waging war would ultimately strengthen the hand of the relevant foe, however this is a lesser evil the left should forthrightly come to terms with) and for obscuring the enormous power asymetries involved in these confrontations (now that Saddam has been hanged, and Iraq is in ruins, what equivalent judgment will fall on George W. Bush’s shoulders?). But he also challenges declarations that the left must support some force (the Iraqi resistance, the Zapatistas, Palestinians, etc). Unless people are planning to send money, arms, or themselves to fight alongside of those they support, such declarations are purely rhetorical, and simply obscure and complicate the message of the anti-imperialist forces. He also casts a skeptical eye on the production of proposals to resolve the situation in Iraq, Palestine, or elsewhere. Such proposals can create a false sense that a solution to the conflict is in sight, rather than focusing on shifting the balance of forces that will be necessary before a change in the situation will occur (I would add that focusing on this balance of forces question”asking what groups (churches, unions, portions of the population, etc) can be brought over to our side, and how our strength could be best mobilized, would be a valuable alternative to the opiate of thunderous, but repetitious denunciations of the Democratic leadership).

Bricmont also revitalizes several arguments of the ‘old left’, to good effect. For example, he reminds us that the third world socialism of the twentieth century was largely authoritarian in good part because US intervention repeatedly destroyed more democratic attempts at reform. Rethinking the slogan of the World Social Forum, he asks what sort of world might have been possible if Arbenz, Mossadegh, Allende, et al had not been overthrown. Bricmont also questions why political and civil rights are now held in such high esteem, while questions of social and economic rights are declared irrelevant. Is it so self evident that the free transmission of literature is more important than people having enough to eat? Is there nothing to be said for governments such as Cuba that have made real progress on the latter, particularly when compared with various democracies in the region that have not?

Bricmont has one strategic suggestion for the left that I think should be taken very seriously . Given the failure of existing human rights organizations to take issues of war and economic bullying seriously, he calls for the formation of an ‘imperialism watch’ that would focus on all the different expressions of US/Western imperialism. Such an organization could denounce not only military invasions, but also intervention in elections, the production of new military bases, high handed economic behavior, etc. Not unlike current human rights campaigns, it might help to produce campaigns around several of these issues at once, although, unlike the human rights groups, there would of course be no hint that intervention by the West might be a relevant last resort. I can see several advantages such an organization would have over the current expressions of the peace movement. It would not hinge its existence on stopping or ending one particular war. It would not invest messianic hopes either in those who are militarily opposing the US, or in those who are electorally opposing the current regime within the US. To the extent that such an imperialism watch was successful, another world might truly be possible.

STEVEN SHERMAN can be reached at threehegemons at He maintains the website .