in a selective and self-serving manner, ignoring their own abuses and those of allies
while using the wrongdoing of unfriendly regimes as an excuse to justify intervention
The criteria for such intervention have become more arbitrary and self-serving, and their form more destructive, from Yugoslavia to Afghanistan to Iraq.
Until the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the large parts of the left was often complicit in this ideology of intervention-discovering new “Hitlers” as the need arose, and denouncing antiwar arguments as appeasement on the model of Munich in 1938.
Jean Bricmont’s Humanitarian Imperialism is both a historical account of this development and a powerful political and moral critique.
It seeks to restore the critique of imperialism to its rightful place in the defense of human rights.
It describes the leading role of the United States in initiating military and other interventions, but also on the obvious support given to it by European powers and NATO.
It outlines an alternative approach to the question of human rights, based on the genuine recognition of the equal rights of people in poor and wealthy countries.
Timely, topical, and rigorously argued, Jean Bricmont’s book establishes a firm basis for resistance to global war with no end in sight.
When the "Good Fight" Is Anything But
As the U.S. invasion of Iraq got underway in 2003, anti-interventionists on both the left and right were blasted by the pro-war establishment as callous isolationists indifferent to the suffering of Iraqis under Saddam Hussein.
There seemed to be little space for anti-interventionism in the new foreign policy consensus that stretched from liberal humanitarians like Michael Ignatieff and Michael Walzer to neoconservative hawks like William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer.
Four years later, the course of the Iraq war has led to increased introspection by former "humanitarian hawks", and has opened new political space for members of both the anti-imperialist left and isolationist right.
It is with Iraq squarely in mind that Jean Bricmont, a French theoretical physicist who made his name as a critic of postmodern theory, takes aim at the doctrines of humanitarian intervention that rose to the fore during the 1990s debates over Rwanda and Kosovo.
His latest book, Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War, is a provocative indictment of the ways in which human rights rhetoric feeds into a militarism that ends up damaging the cause of human rights worldwide.
Bricmont begins with the sensible observation that nearly every regime claims altruistic motives for its actions, however self-interested or malicious they may be, and therefore that using a regime's humanitarian rhetoric to judge its intentions is close to useless.
He goes on to provide a damning account of the anti-democratic violence that has been perpetrated by the United States under the rhetoric of "spreading freedom", ranging from the CIA-backed coups in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s to the funding of the Nicaraguan Contras 30 years later.
These examples and others effectively make the point that the United States and other Western powers have always deployed human rights rhetoric in a selective and self-serving manner, ignoring their own abuses and those of allies while using the wrongdoing of unfriendly regimes as an excuse to justify intervention.
What is surprising is not that regimes have falsely claimed altruistic motives for their military actions, but that self-described humanitarians so often believe them.
Particularly, Bricmont shows, the fact that so many of the Iraq war's architects had previously supported gross violations of human rights in Latin America and elsewhere should have been a warning sign to liberal humanitarians.
One of the book's particular insights is its portrayal of a sort of interventionist "ratchet effect".
Often, Bricmont notes, the failure of one form of Western intervention creates a humanitarian crisis that the West takes as evidence that an even more extensive intervention is needed.
Rarely do foreign policy analysts step back and take the lesson from these crises that the wisest solution would have been to avoid interfering in the first place.
Foremost among the safeguards against interventionist militarism, Bricmont argues, is international law, and he sets out a defence of international law against the doctrine that human rights violations annul national sovereignty.
He demonstrates the almost unconscious sense of U.S. exceptionalism that underlies this doctrine with a few simple yet effective counterfactuals.
How would the U.S. respond, he asks, if Brazil were to unilaterally invade Iraq to install a democracy?
Or if India were to respond to terrorist attacks by taking it upon itself to "liberate" the populations that produced the terrorists?
Bricmont also gives a good account of some of the pathologies that have driven the interventionist urge, particularly the fixation on fascism and the Second World War to the exclusion of all other history.
The yearning to experience the internationalist heroism of the "good fight" against fascism, as he documents, has led leftists like Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen to back policies a long way removed from the anti-imperialism of their hero, George Orwell.
"Humanitarian Imperialism" thus demonstrates the hypocrisy behind the U.S.'s self-image as a champion of human rights, and offers a convincing argument that nations often deploy human rights as a smokescreen to conceal self-interest and militarism.