No Such Thing as Humanitarian Intervention


Last week’s Australian withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq saw a flurry of establishment commentary on the rights and wrongs of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s decision.

Former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer wrote that, "despite the problems" in the war-torn country, "Australians should be proud that our contribution to Iraq has made that long-suffering country just a little bit better and the lives of its people just a little bit brighter." The Australian‘s Foreign Editor Greg Sheridan echoed his former master’s voice.

Let’s ignore for now last week’s revelations by the US Senate Intelligence Committee that indicated Iran may have infiltrated the Pentagon and fed bogus intelligence to push for war against Iraq.

The insatiable appetite for the ongoing occupation of Iraq is unsurprising, as recent reports indicate US plans to maintain an indefinite presence in the country. Polling in the US, however, indicates a strong desire for American troops to return home within one year.

The profound disconnect between elite thinking and the views of those actually having to provide the troops for these missions is stark. Perhaps the imperial imperative isn’t inherent in the American psyche, after all.

So, if the Iraq war is "won" and a "democracy" has emerged, according to Murdoch cheerleader Andrew Bolt, what’s stopping the West conducting similarly violent interventions in the future against other despots? The fact that, according to Iraqi sources, over a million Iraqis have likely died since March 2003 is obviously a price worth paying.

"Humanitarian intervention" is a term that gained supposed credibility in the 1990s during the troubles in the former Yugoslavia. The fact that the atrocities by Serbian forces only accelerated after the illegal Western bombing appears to be forgotten. Noam Chomsky explained in 1999 the rationale behind the bombing of President Slobodan Milošević, allegedly to protect the Albanians:

"The threat of NATO bombing, predictably, led to a sharp escalation of atrocities by the Serbian Army and paramilitaries, and to the departure of international observers, which of course had the same effect. Commanding General Wesley Clark declared that it was ‘entirely predictable’ that Serbian terror and violence would intensify after the NATO bombing, exactly as happened. The terror for the first time reached the capital city of Pristina, and there are credible reports of large-scale destruction of villages, assassinations, generation of an enormous refugee flow, perhaps an effort to expel a good part of the Albanian population – all an ‘entirely predictable’ consequence of the threat and then the use of force, as General Clark rightly observes."

The Western media blindly parroted the line that the Albanians were suffering "genocide" and Western assistance was essential to stop the worst ethnic cleansing since World War II. The International War Crimes Tribunal later discovered that less than 3000 people were discovered in "mass graves." Atrocities? Yes. Justification for massive bombing? No.

NATO bombed public transport, hospitals, schools, museums, media offices, churches, causing massive loss of life. In 2003, former UN commander in Bosnia, Major General Lewis MacKenzie, wrote:

"The Kosovar Albanians played us like a Stradivarius violin. We have subsidised and indirectly supported their violent campaign for an ethnically pure Kosovo. We have never blamed them for being the perpetrators of the violence in the early 1990s, and we continue to portray them as the designated victim today, in spite of evidence to the contrary."

Carla Del Ponte, the Swiss diplomat who became Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, wrote in a book this year how the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) abducted hundreds of Serbs in 1999 and took them to Kosovo’s fellow Muslims in Albania where they were killed, their kidneys and other body parts removed and sold for transplant in other countries.

The Western media often ignores such uncomfortable details. Although Saddam Hussein’s brutality is undeniable, his worst atrocities occurred when Washington supported and provided him with chemical weapons. The "humanitarian" arguments for invading Iraq – mostly made after weapons of mass destruction were never found – mirrored those in the late 1990s to "save" the Albanians. Despite the catastrophe in Iraq, both "liberals" and "conservatives" continue to agitate for the application of military force to unseat "bad" regimes.

Zimbabwe is a failed State run by a dictator. Robert Mugabe, in a desperate bid to maintain power in the run-off election in late June, is using violence against opponents and withholding food aid to the needy. International aid agency CARE and other international aid have been directed to suspend its operations after being accused of supporting the Opposition.

All these charges are impossible to verify and the MDC Opposition has clearly established bonds with foreign governments and institutions and leader Morgan Tsvangirai threatened violence against Mugabe in 2000. One Western diplomat said last week that a military coup had already occurred in Zimbabwe. A Human Rights Watch report is equally damning.

When I heard Tsvangirai speak in Sydney in August 2007 however, he appeared determined to democratically unseat Mugabe at the ballot box. But what if peaceful transition is impossible? How much support should the Western powers provide and what are the conditions on which this support is offered?

Take Burma. The military junta is brutal, corrupt and derelict in its duty to assist victims of Cyclone Nargis. There has been justifiable anger at the refusal of authorities to allow aid to reach the millions of displaced and starving refugees. Alexander Downer urged the use of military action to force aid into the country.

The US ordered a flotilla of naval vessels packed with emergency aid to leave last week after a month of trying fruitlessly to unload its payload. The country’s state media said it feared a US invasion to seize oil deposits. Laura Bush’s pronouncements didn’t help and was not welcomed by Burmese exiles.

An invasion is not an unjustified concern as Western multinationals are already operating there and colluding with the regime. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Ky once said, when opposing military intervention: "What about all these who trade with the generals, who give them many millions of dollars that keep them going?" She was referring to oil and gas companies such as Chevron, Total and Halliburton that assisted in the building of a key pipeline.

If the West were really serious about supporting rational voices in the country, it would demand these firms cease operating within Burma, but of course its outrage is saved only for those regimes over which it has little influence. It is merely a scrap of meat to appease baying columnists and a concerned public.

David Rieff is an American author, son of the late Susan Sontag, supporter of intervention against Milošević in the 1990s and supreme misanthrope (I spent time with him at the recent Sydney Writer’s Festival and was amazed by his ability to express contempt for seemingly everybody). In a recent column for the New York Times magazine, Rieff questions why Western nations so rarely intervene considering the UN-approved "responsibility to protect". He explains:

"After the Iraqi debacle, it is hardly surprising that we are hesitant to undertake interventions that may well involve regime change. And regime change – its moral legitimacy and political practicality – is the ghost at the banquet of humanitarian intervention. Use any euphemism you wish, but in the end these interventions have to be about regime change if they are to have any chance of accomplishing their stated goal. (That is why they are opposed in many parts of the formerly colonised world even as they are supported in the formerly colonising West.) After all, how can the people of Darfur ever be safe as long as the same regime that sanctioned their slaughter rules unrepentant in Khartoum? Or, for that matter, how can the Burmese Government be trusted to look after the slow business of reconstruction in the zones hit by the cyclone if it was unconcerned with the fate of Nargis’s survivors from the beginning?"

While Iraq has undoubtedly changed the rules of the game, Rieff conveniently ignores the concept that Western nations, especially the United States and Britain, will never intervene in a nation merely for benevolent reasons. There is gross hypocrisy in even debating military intervention in war-torn countries when places such as Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq remain mired in Western-caused carnage.

Are the Burmese people suddenly more worthy of help than the Palestinians in Gaza? Should the people of Harare be "rescued" from Robert Mugabe but the citizens of Baghdad have to suffer years more of US-backed Shia militias? A true internationalist either believes in equal rights for all or nothing. Tragically, the "war on terror" has unleashed lashings of moral outrage from the political and media elite but little reflection on the effects of military action. While major reform of the UN and international systems of government are essential, a rush to arms is rarely the best course of action.

As leading Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji writes in his new book, The Road to Democracy in Iran:

"We must make it clear that we are against war, against foreign intervention in Iran and against solutions imposed by outsiders."


Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.