July 04, 2006

Liberal Hypocrisy in the Name of "Humanitarianism"

By highlighting some notably ignorant and propagandistic remarks from Henry Hyde on behalf of the exceedingly dangerous notion of "Executive war" and, more generally, on behalf of illegal, non-defensive foreign interventionism, I don't want to leave the grossly mistaken impression that it is only Republicans who would lead us into hell via this particular route. Even a cursory examination of the recent historical record reveals that it is Democrats and liberals who have done the greatest damage in this regard -- and who, in fact, laid the foundation on which Bush and his gang of thugs have cashed in. Many liberals and progressives loudly condemn the manner in which Bush and Blair have trampled basic precepts of international law underfoot, while they studiously ignore how they themselves (and/or their intellectual compatriots) defended the identical approach when it was utilized by political leaders who were members of their gang.

I realize that in our current cultural atmosphere, where everything is politicized and every debate is a conflict between "us" and "them," intellectual consistency is too much to expect from anyone. Nonetheless, it must be noted that the level of hypocrisy and bullshit is truly overwhelming. Almost anything is permitted if "our" gang does it -- and almost nothing is allowed if "their" gang does it, even when "it" is, in principle, the same exact thing. It is a measure of the lack of seriousness in our political debates, and of the fact that obvious hackery is allowed to pass as in-depth commentary, that this game continues without challenge. And I wouldn't care that these propagandists relegate themselves to the edges of intellectual respectability and far beyond, but for the fact that a hell of a lot of people get killed along the way, and that we thereby create an even more dangerous world.

Brendan O'Neill is one of the best writers of whom I'm aware who highlights this issue with dependable and admirable regularity. Here is O'Neill writing about how liberals themselves seriously degraded international law, while they now condemn Bush and Blair for doing the same:
Philippe Sands makes me laugh - and not in a good way. For the past year or more he has been bashing Bush and Blair for their cowboyish disregard for international law, while wilfully overlooking the fact that it was President Bill Clinton in the 90s, loudly supported by liberal academics and journalists, who started the assault on the UN charter.

On Comment is free today, Sands describes how Clement Attlee's government helped to establish international rules and regulations, and complains that the "present Labour government has done a great deal to undo this precious legacy and undermine the international rule of law".

This is an idiot's guide to international affairs. We are presented with gallant internationalists writing laws 60 years ago and self-serving Blairites ripping them up today.

What about the period in between? ...

Worse, Sands's story would make you think that international law survived the 90s intact and was only dismantled by big bad Bush and his nasty sidekick Blair post-9/11. Wrong. International law was undermined much earlier, by some of the very same people who bleat about Bush and Blair today.

In the 90s, "liberal humanitarians" said international law was an ass and demanded that it be scrapped. They called on western powers to rewrite or simply to ignore the UN charter, in order to facilitate interventions everywhere from Somalia to the Balkans to Kosovo.

It was a formidable consensus of both left and right, comprised of politicians, academics, journalists and NGO activists. And if you argued against this consensus promoting international intervention over sovereign equality, as I and others did, you could expect to be denounced as an appeaser, an apologist or even a fascist, as someone described me when I protested against the (illegal) bombing of Kosovo in 1999.

These "humanitarians" helped to create the lawless world in which Bush and Blair can treat the third world as a private shooting range.

For example, the Guardian today protests against the illegal war in Iraq. Yet it supported and justified Blair and Clinton's equally illegal Kosovo campaign six years ago. ...

Like Iraq 2003, the Kosovo campaign failed to win the unanimous support of the UN security council, forcing Blair and Clinton to rely on Nato instead. And, like Iraq, Kosovo was sold to us by a combination of fearmongering and bullshit: we were told that a "genocide" was taking place, a "new Holocaust".

After the war, the foreign affairs select committee determined that the Kosovo venture was "contrary to the specific terms of what might be termed the basic law of the international community: the UN charter".


It seems that rules don't matter when you allegedly have right on your side. Funnily enough, this is the exact same argument made by Blair over Iraq today. "I might have broken the rules but, hey, I did the right thing."


The entire "humanitarian era", from the end of the cold war through to today, has been premised on the idea that the old international laws are bad because they act as a barrier to intervening in trouble spots around the globe. In 1993 an adviser to Clinton spelt out the new approach to global affairs: "Nationhood as we know it will be obsolete. All states will recognise a single global authority..."

The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, who today wrings his hands over the illegality of Bush and Blair's Iraqi venture, in the 90s wrote: "State sovereignty, in its most basic sense, is being redefined by the forces of globalisation and international cooperation. Meanwhile, individual sovereignty has been enhanced by a renewed consciousness of the right of every individual to control his or her own destiny." This effectively dusted down and re-polished the idea of the White Man's Burden for the post-cold war world, legitimising western intervention in the name of protecting vulnerable individuals from their evil rulers.

Such explicit disdain for sovereign statehood, everywhere from newspaper offices to the academy to UN headquarters, represented a significant shift.

There was often a gaping chasm, of course, between the theory and the practice; western powers often overrode states' "sovereign equality". Yet the UN charter sought to instil some order into world affairs in the aftermath of the second world war, by codifying the principle of non-intervention save in extreme circumstances.

The "humanitarians" blew that notion out of the water, making military intervention into the rule of international affairs rather than the exception - and they were cheered all the way by more than a few liberal commentators. The consequences were utterly dire: thousands were killed in Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans and Iraq by these "caring" imperialists.

Should we really be surprised, then, when today a US cowboy and his British deputy sheriff launch an invasion of Iraq that doesn't play by the old rules? Ours does indeed look like a lawless world, but some liberals are not in a position to complain about it. They got what they asked for.

Let's not beat around the bush: today's instability is a product of their earlier narcissistic fantasies about being the saviours of mankind in the post-cold war era.
Our repellent narcissism is on full display in connection with one major "defense" of Clinton's Balkans intervention: there were no U.S. casualties. Well, golly gee, such casualties aren't too likely when you do all your bombing from high altitudes. Of course, such bombing kills a lot of innocent civilians -- but they're not our civilians, so who the hell cares, right?

Beyond this issue, defenders of Clinton's illegal interventionism refuse to acknowledge the disastrous consequences of our actions, even when those consequences are directly related to the primary foreign policy challenge of today. I excerpted another O'Neill article on this subject in "The Folly of Intervention." Here are those excerpts again:
The missing link in the debates about terrorism, about the shift from the more politically-oriented violence of the past to the blindly ruthless attacks of today, is the West's foreign interventions of the 1990s. It is by examining these that we can start to make sense of today's seemingly senseless terror. Such interventions, particularly in the Balkans, did much to create the conditions for the rise of the new stateless groups that are so different from old-style nationalist movements.

The end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and early 1990s gave rise to new rounds of Western intervention in the third world - interventions that were justified as defending beleaguered peoples against ruthless dictators and upholding human rights across the globe, rather than in the selfish, national interests of Western elites. From Operation Restore Hope in Somalia in 1993, to the dropping of bombs to bring 'peace' to the Balkans in the mid-90s, to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair's Kosovo war of 1999, the battles over territory and influence that defined the Cold War period were replaced with new wars that would, we were told, liberate people from tyranny.

Yet for all its stated aims, humanitarian intervention powerfully destabilised the world order, undermining the institutions that had cohered the international order in the postwar period. At the heart of the new humanitarianism there was a distinct hostility to the sovereign nation state, which had been the building block of international affairs for nearly 50 years. The Clinton administration, king of the humanitarian age, made clear its disdain for the old idea of non-intervention in sovereign states' affairs. In the early 1990s Clinton adviser Strobe Talbott outlined their preferred approach to world affairs: 'Nationhood as we know it will be obsolete. All states will recognise a single global authority.... A phrase that was briefly fashionable in the mid-twentieth century - citizen of the world - will have assumed real meaning by the end of the twentieth century.'


In undermining state authority, humanitarianism created the space for the rise of non-state actors - and it encouraged their movement across borders. This double impact of Western interventionism reached its zenith in the Balkans.

From the start of the 1990s, outside intervention in the Balkans internationalised local tensions. German recognition of the Croat and Slovene republics in 1991, Russian backing of the Serbs, American recognition of the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992 and its support for the Bosnian Muslim side - all of this transformed Yugoslavia's internal political differences into heated international issues, paving the way for a prolonged war. Western meddling ruptured Yugoslavia's internal structures, while ensuring that external pressures were increasingly brought to bear on the region. As part of this destabilising process, the USA permitted the movement of Mujihadeen forces from the Middle East and Central Asia to fight alongside the Bosnian Muslims against the Serbs.

In 1993, as documented in David Halberstam's seminal War In a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals, President Clinton gave a 'green light' to the arming of the Bosnian Muslims by Iran and Saudi Arabia, even though this defied a UN embargo against arming any side in the Yugoslav conflict (8). From 1993 to 1996 there was an influx of weapons and military advisers into Bosnia, largely organised by Iranian and Saudi officials. This opened the floodgates to the arrival of Mujihadeen fighters from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria and elsewhere, to fight with the Bosnian Muslims. All of this took place under the watchful eye of a Clintonian policy of 'no instruction' - in short, such movements should not be interfered with and, if possible, should be encouraged by a 'green light' (9).


Since 9/11, the US State Department and European officials have fretted about the consequences of the movement of Mujihadeen forces into Europe. The State Department is concerned that Bosnia-Herzegovina has become a 'staging area and safe haven for terrorists', including 'extremists with ties to bin Laden'. Some may now be looking at Russia after the Beslan school siege and asking what the hell they unleashed; they will no doubt support the Russian government's condemnation of foreign and Arab extremists in Chechnya. Yet targeting individual Arabs and attempting to rein in those forces unleashed in the 1990s will do little to bring peace to these regions. The underlying problem is contemporary Western intervention and its corrosive impact, rather than handfuls of mad Arabs.


The Mujihadeen was created and financed by the right in the 1980s, by the Reagan administration and the Thatcher government, to take on the Soviets in the Afghan war of 1979 to 1992 - that last gasp of the Cold War. In the 1990s, the baton was passed to the left; Mujihadeen forces effectively became the armed wing of Western liberal opinion, moving across borders to fight what politicians and liberal commentators in the West considered to be 'good wars', from Bosnia to Kosovo and also in Chechnya. It was the internationalisation of local conflicts by Western governments that encouraged the internationalisation of the Mujihadeen, transforming what had been a specific Afghan-based phenomenon into an effectively global force.
No wonder that defenders of these "humanitarian" interventions want to ignore this particular history altogether.

Here's still another example of genuinely colossal liberal hypocrisy, once more from O'Neill:
Many in my profession -- journalism -- were understandably outraged to discover that in a get-together with his partner in crime Tony Blair in April 2004, President Bush allegedly made a bad-taste gag about bombing the Qatar headquarters of the Arab TV channel al-Jazeera.

There is a memo doing the rounds, leaked by two British civil servants to the Daily Mirror, which reportedly refers to a conversation between Blair and Bush, in which Blair talked Bush out of a "plot" to attack al-Jazeera's buildings in the business district of Doha, the capital city of Qatar.


[T]he revelations have caused a transatlantic firestorm. Al-Jazeera staff held a 15-minute protest in Qatar, and more than 100 of them signed a petition calling on the Bush administration to end its "attacks and incitement against al-Jazeera." Britain's attorney general – the government's legal adviser – has dramatically threatened to use the draconian Official Secrets Act to prosecute anyone who dares to publish the contents of the memo.

British journalists have rightly taken umbrage at the attorney general's bully-boy tactics. ...

It is not surprising that writers would wish to defend fellow writers and broadcasters overseas from a trigger-happy president, especially since the U.S. military has already bombed al-Jazeera's offices in Kabul in November 2001 and targeted al-Jazeera journalists in Iraq. But I have a question. Why, right now, do some journalists seem more outraged by the alleged threats and slurs made by President Bush against a TV station than they were about an earlier president's actual bombing of a TV station?

Why are they red-faced with rage and indignation over the Bush and al-Jazeera incident, yet they turned a blind eye – or even tried to justify – President Bill Clinton's outrageous bombing of Serbian TV during the Kosovo War in 1999, which left journalists dead and maimed?

I don't mean to be a pain, or to rain on the current attacks on Bush for his alleged scurrilous aside to Blair. Rather, this is a serious question – and I think that in attempting to answer it we might uncover an uncomfortable home truth about the inconsistent approach taken by some liberal-left journalists to opposing bloody wars of intervention.

When NATO – with Clinton and Blair at the helm – bombed the headquarters of RTS (Serbian state television and radio) in central Belgrade on April 23, 1999, it was no joke. It was the real thing. In the middle of the night – at 2:20 a.m. – cruise missiles rained down on RTS headquarters, destroying the entrance and leaving at least one studio in ruins. Over 120 people were working in the building at the time; at least 16 were killed and another 16 were injured – all of them civilians, most of them technicians and support staff. The BBC's John Simpson described seeing "the body of a make-up artist … lying in a dressing room."

This was an intentional attack on civilian workers in the media. NATO officials talked openly, and without shame, about using such attacks as a means of scoring points in the propaganda war and further weakening President Slobodan Milosevic's hold on Serbia. NATO declared: "Strikes against TV transmitters and broadcast facilities are part of our campaign to dismantle the FRY propaganda machinery which is a vital part of President Milosevic's control mechanism."

Today journalists wonder whether or not Blair laughed at Bush's joke about bombing al-Jazeera. Never mind all that. Here is what Blair said – on the record and in public – about bombing and killing journalists in the Kosovo campaign: the media "is the apparatus that keeps [Milosevic] in power and we are entirely justified as NATO allies in damaging and taking on those targets."

Former British minister Clare Short – who resigned over the Iraq war and who now fancies herself an antiwar warrior – also justified the bombing of journalists in 1999. She said: "This is a war, this is a serious conflict, untold horrors are being done. The propaganda machine is prolonging the war and it's a legitimate target." Tell that to the family of the make-up girl.

The attacks were designed to cause maximum damage to the TV station and, in the words of one U.S. official, it was hoped that the bombings would have "maximum domestic and international propaganda value" for NATO. The military journal Jane's Defense Weekly reported in July 2000 that NATO military planners assessed which parts of the TV headquarters were most likely to contain the controls for fire alarms and sprinkler systems – and the missiles were programmed to hit these spots so that the fire caused by the bombing would spread fast and prove difficult to put out.


This disparity between the mainstream media's challenge to Bush over al-Jazeera and their earlier response to Clinton's bombing of Serbian TV is revealing.

From Clare Short to Guardian reporters to union officials, some of those who today ridicule Britain and America's illegal war in Iraq were at the forefront of supporting an equally illegal war over Kosovo (that intervention also did not win the unanimous backing of the United Nations). Indeed, some of the arguments they used to justify the attacks on Yugoslavia – including the need to punish a "genocidal dictator," to protect a "vulnerable population," and to fulfill an "international obligation" to spread peace and harmony – have been repeated by Bush and Blair in relation to Iraq.

Journalists, especially of a liberal-left persuasion, are strikingly inconsistent in their attitudes to Western wars of aggression. This means they are not in a very good position to complain about aspects of the war in Iraq, considering that their unquestioning support for the Kosovo war can be seen as helping to pave the way for subsequent interventions in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

It also means that, sometimes, their current criticisms of Bush ring a little hollow. It is time we were consistently critical of the claims made by our leaders about the need for military intervention overseas.
With all these issues clearly in mind, I think it is fair to ask that defenders of earlier interventions acknowledge, at long last, the illegality of those actions and their deleterious consequences. Alternatively, they can simply admit that they are the basest kind of hypocrites, whose pronouncements on these and related subjects can be entirely ignored.

And until they are prepared to acknowledge and deal with these gaping holes and blatant contradictions in their intellectual armament, there is not the slightest reason for anyone to take their views on foreign policy and on the legitimacy or its absence of interventions overseas with anything but the largest grains of salt.

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