Material World: Campaigners for humanitarian intervention: “useful idiots” of militarism

There is nothing new in governments claiming to be motivated by humanitarian concerns when they go to war. To take a couple of old examples: tsarist Russia supposedly fought the Ottoman Empire in order to rescue Armenians from massacre by the Turks, while British intervention following the German invasion of Belgium in 1914 was justified by lurid drawings of Huns skewering babies on their bayonets ( The enemy atrocities might be real, as in the first example, or imaginary, as in the second, but in both cases the claim of humanitarian motivation was fraudulent. Governments decided for or against war on the basis of (sometimes erroneous) calculations of economic and strategic interest.


That remains true today. Never, however, has it been more important for governments to win public support for wars by claiming humanitarian motives. As in the past, some of the facts underlying the claims are fabricated. Thus, Tony Blair repeatedly claimed that 400,000 bodies had been found in Iraqi mass graves, although the number of corpses uncovered was only 5,000.


But again, the claims are false even when the facts are true. Often this is obvious because the atrocity occurred long before foreign governments expressed any outrage over it. Why bring the matter up just now? Britain and the US had no objection when Saddam used poison gas on Kurdish villages in 1988 because at that time he was their ally. The weeks preceding the dispatch of British troops to Afghanistan were marked by a media campaign against the oppression of women in that country, with even Cherie Blair roped in. The issue was then dropped as suddenly as it was raised.


A public movement for humanitarian intervention

What is new is the emergence, within the broader human rights movement, of a loosely organized network that campaigns for military intervention wherever that seems to be the only effective means of halting or preventing genocidal atrocities against some ethnic group. Currently, for example, there is an international campaign for intervention in Darfur (Sudan).


During my non-socialist period, I was involved for a while in one of the organizations that makes up this network: the Institute for the Study of Genocide (ISG). My research, publicized through the ISG, helped to bring the massacres of Bosnian Moslems by Serb militias to the attention of the US media and politicians including, notably, Bill Clinton, who at that time was campaigning for president. Later Clinton did intervene militarily in Yugoslavia, though over Kosovo rather than Bosnia.


Unlike governments, anti-genocide activists like the ISG have quite genuine humanitarian motives. They recall how the world sat by and allowed the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust to proceed. (Though at war with Nazi Germany, the Allied command turned down pleas to bomb the railway lines leading to Auschwitz.) They are determined to establish humanitarian considerations as an integral part of policy making, so that we will not let such terrible things happen again.


Any decent person will sympathize with this line of thought. But there is a problem with it. Let us shift our focus from the moral imperative of effective action to the political forces capable of such action. Who is the world? Who is we? The only we capable of intervening is governments with their armed forces. But governments do not exist for humanitarian purposes. They are therefore loathe to intervene for humanitarian reasons, and it is close to impossible to compel them to do so.


Pros and cons

From the point of view of governments, the existence of a public movement for humanitarian intervention has both pros and cons. It is irritating and embarrassing to have to face down emotional public demands to intervene in places where no important national interests are at stake in Rwanda, for instance, or Darfur. On the other hand, when you are inclined to intervene anyway for other, more important reasons it is extremely convenient to have a public movement pressing for intervention. That makes it much easier to drum up public support for war, and at the same time you can enhance your democratic credentials by responding to public opinion.


In the case of Yugoslavia, the demand to intervene effectively over Bosnia was resisted, but the campaign in which I participated prepared the ground for intervention over Kosovo. The evidence now available suggests that in Kosovo, in contrast to Bosnia, there was never any real danger of genocide (as opposed to the usual ethnic cleansing). In Kosovo, however, and again in contrast to Bosnia, significant interests were at stake, such as a major oil pipeline and metal-mining complex (see April 2008 Socialist Standard).


Illusory success

It may appear to campaigners for humanitarian intervention that they have a certain limited success. They win some and lose some. But if we look more deeply into the real interests involved we see that their success is largely illusory. It is by no means clear that their efforts have the net effect of reducing the amount of suffering in the world. In fact, by supporting and helping to legitimize brutal and devastating wars they may well increase the total of suffering.


The epithet useful idiots (or useful fools) was used to pillory Western pacifists who supposedly served the interests of the Soviet Union, though without intending to do so and for the best of all possible motives. Jean Bricmont borrows the expression for a different purpose, calling campaigners for humanitarian intervention the useful idiots of Western militarism and imperialism (Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2006). Again, this is not meant to cast any aspersions on their motives.


As socialists we would only question the stress on Western. In principle such people could equally well serve as useful idiots for non-Western (Russian, Chinese, Indian, etc.) militarism and imperialism, though in practice they are active mostly in Western countries.


Calls for humanitarian intervention only make sense in terms of a false conception of the nature and functions of government. They feed a delusion that obscures the reality of our capitalist world, thereby making it harder to overcome that reality.


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