Yes, this is a humanitarian war – that is what makes it so deadly

No more terrible fate can befall nations like Libya than to become objects of Western liberal pity.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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They’re back. Having spent the past 10 years pretending to be anti-war – describing the attack on Iraq as ‘criminal’ and the war in Afghanistan as ‘a trifle ill-judged’ – the liberal and left-wing set that originally invented the idea of ‘humanitarian warfare’ in the 1990s are once more at the forefront of public debate. They’ve cast off the anti-imperialist garb that they temporarily donned to make their disappointment with Blair and their snobbish disdain for Bush appear principled, to reveal that, underneath, there lurk the same old laptop bombardiers keen to visit their moralistic fury upon some wayward nation. This time they have Libya in their sights.

The speed with which observers who attacked Blair and Bush over Iraq have lined up behind Cameron and Obama over Libya is remarkable. Deputy British prime minister Nick Clegg says his war on Libya is a ‘different scenario from Iraq’; where Iraq was a product of the ‘trigger-happy policies’ of Blair’s ‘vigilantism’, the bombing of Libya is ‘[UN] sanctioned and driven by humanitarian concerns’. More akin to Kosovo 1999 than Iraq 2003, ‘it is liberal interventionism’, says Clegg. This sentiment is echoed across the serious press that was so critical of the ‘cowboy’ Iraq venture. ‘In the case of Libya, the principle [of humanitarianism] stands as clear as ever’, says one columnist. It will no doubt be of great comfort to Libyans to know that their deaths are occurring in the name of ‘humanitarian principles’ rather than ‘vigilantism’.

These anti-war critics turned pro-war cheerleaders might have no shame and few principles. But they do have a point. The bombing of Libya is a ‘humanitarian war’ – and that is what makes it so terrifying. For ‘humanitarian warfare’ is, if anything, even worse than yesteryear’s Western invasions of the Third World in the name of territory, stuff or realpolitik. Driven more by moralism than by political calculations, underpinned by childlike assumptions about good and evil, utterly disconnected from the realm of geopolitical interests or gain, ‘humanitarian intervention’ is extraordinarily unpredictable and destabilising. It makes even the crimes of colonialism look rational in comparison.

The first thing that should be shot down is the nonsense notion that there’s a world of difference between the wars cheered by liberals (Kosovo in 1999, Libya today) and the wars led by the Bush administration (Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003). Reading recent commentary, you could be forgiven for thinking that there are two, implacably divergent camps of foreign interventionists, one of which is good and pure (the ‘humanitarians’) and one of which is wicked and self-interested (the ‘neoconservatives’). This is one of the most fantastic fallacies in modern political discourse. In reality, the humanitarians and neocons share precisely the same urge: to escape the drab domestic sphere by acting out battles between good and evil in the international sphere. And they share precisely the same assumption: that they have the right to interfere in other states’ affairs.

Indeed, the ‘neocon’ ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq were underpinned by what was known as the ‘Chicago doctrine’ – a speech given by then ‘humanitarian’ Tony Blair in Chicago in 1999 in which, to the whooping and high-fiving of liberal hacks everywhere, he outlined the circumstances in which the West might launch military ventures. He called for a shift away from the Cold War era emphasis on the sanctity of state sovereignty and towards a new willingness to intervene in ‘regimes that are undemocratic and engaged in barbarous acts’. His call for a rethinking of the overly legalistic postwar set-up – which was championed in an Observer editorial that said ‘the UN’s imprimatur cannot be the sole trigger for international action to right an obvious wrong’ – is known to have influenced Bush and his cronies, then waiting in the wings. It’s just that where Blair’s demand that we move beyond the obsession with sovereign integrity was widely described as ‘brave’, when the Bush administration suggested likewise they were denounced as ‘law-breakers’.

Whether they are saving Kosovo Albanians from evil Milosevic, Afghan women from the evil Taliban or Benghazians from ‘mad dog’ Gaddafi, the interventions of both the ‘humanitarians’ and the ‘neocons’ have been narcissistic and highly moralised, in which they themselves play the role of knights on white chargers and the people of Third World have at best a walk-on part as pathetic victims in need of rescue. Everyone mocked Bush when he used terms like ‘Axis of Evil’ in relation to wicked foreign states and somewhat apologetically said ‘some worry that it is undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong…’ Yet it was Blair and his ‘humanitarian’ cheerleaders who first super-moralised international affairs, with Blair describing NATO’s war on Serbia in 1999 as ‘a battle between good and evil; between civilisation and barbarity; between democracy and dictatorship’.

The distinction made between ‘humanitarians’ and ‘neocons’ is utterly false. It is a case of linguistic gymnastics, where the ultimate aim is to distance liberals from the barbarism of the Iraq War. Keen to wash their hands of that mayhem, which was in fact set in motion by their zealous moralisation of the international sphere in the 1990s and their complicity in the development of a doctrine that pushed aside legal norms in favour of doing what was ‘right’ against ‘evil’, they branded it as ‘neocon’ in order to present it as alien, strange, a mistake, ‘nothing to do with me guvnor’. In truth, it had everything to do with them. All Western interventions of the past 15 years have been ‘humanitarian’ – and that is why all have been such unmitigated, bloody disasters.

The key problem with the ‘humanitarian’ outlook is its downgrading of old-style political interests in favour of pursuing the moral imperative. That is, the thing that its supporters claim as its virtue – its alleged selflessness – is the very thing that makes it so destructive. This is not to say that wars in pursuit of a clear political goal or territorial gain, with which history is littered, are, by contrast, good. But those old interventions were at least anchored, rooted and directed by goals and endgames, giving rise to an instinct on the part of the Western invaders to know something about the territory they were invading, to cultivate Western-friendly political movements, and to have an endpoint in mind. In contrast, the humanitarians’ aim is to display their moral righteousness against an entity they have judged to be evil, and thus they’re more likely simply to launch PR stunts in foreign lands, whether ‘shock and awe’ in Iraq or ‘Odyssey Dawn’ in Libya. The consequences of such stunts are highly unpredictable.

Back when he was a ‘humanitarian’, and thus loved by the smart set, rather than a ‘neocon’, and thus despised by the smart set, Tony Blair said that NATO’s bombardment of Serbia in 1999 was ‘not a war for territory but for values… [it is] a battle between good and evil’. He unwittingly echoed Ayatollah Khomeini, who in 1984 said of Iran’s war with Iraq: ‘This is not a war for territory. It is a war between Islam and blasphemy.’ Blair’s postmodern, post-territorial injection of Ayatollah-style religiosity into international affairs has been embraced by the neocons in relation to Iraq: this is ‘not a war for wealth’, they told us, but ‘for hearts and minds’. On Libya, Obama has spoken a little bit about America’s national interests – primarily as an assurance that Washington won’t commit ground troops or spend too much money – but he says these interests are outweighed by the moral imperative to ‘act on behalf of what’s right’. This self-conscious elbowing aside of national interests in preference of pursuing values has given rise to an international sphere bereft of rules and dangerously morally charged.

The humanitarians’ moralisation of other people’s conflicts, their treatment of everything in simplistic terms of good and evil, has huge potential to destabilise countries further and to up the military ante. Many claim that the West had to intervene in Libya to prevent a massacre in Benghazi, yet the intervention itself has created the perfect breeding ground for intensified violence. After all, when a political conflict is redefined as a battle between good and evil, as an apocalyptic event, where is the scope for a ceasefire or negotiation?

The international isolation of Gaddafi’s regime, the description of him as ‘evil’ (far more evil than those carrying out massacres in Bahrain apparently), creates a situation where he has little left to lose. Transformed into a pariah, he is starting to act like one, possibly deciding that to go out with all guns blazing would be preferable to ending up in The Hague. What’s more, the West’s treatment of the self-appointed leaders of the rebel movement as ‘good’, despite the fact that we know little about them, could ossify the Libyan uprising, handing the initiative to groups that remain largely mysterious but which have been anointed by kneejerk Western humanitarians as pure and decent representatives of the Libyan people. The history of humanitarian interventionism tells us that the transformation of relatively low-level civil conflicts into historic wars between evil men and their whiter-than-white opponents does nobody any good.

In terms of the so-called coalition in the West, its ‘humanitarian’ instincts mean that it has launched a war without leadership, without war aims, and without any tangible endpoint. Motored by the humanitarians’ narcissistic desire, not to win territory or create pro-Western political movements, but simply to advertise their values of decency and morality, Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama rushed into a bombing campaign without giving a second thought to what its consequences might be. This recklessness, this fatal rashness on the part of Western leaders, is a direct product of the ‘humanitarian’ outlook: the elevation of values over territorial ambition, of moralism over realpolitik, of narcissism over old-style political gain, creates a situation where wars are launched for effect, to send a message, with little analysis or intelligence about what might happen later. Libya has been transformed, not into the latest outpost of any kind of Western Empire, but into a stage for the amateur yet deadly dramatics of Western politicians and hacks desperately seeking moral momentum.

Jonathan Freedland at the Guardian, who supports the bombing, says the trouble with the intervention ‘is not with the abstract principle but with the concrete practice’: ‘The effort is too rushed, with key operational decisions – including command – not fixed.’ In fact, it is the very ‘principles’ of humanitarianism, its downgrading of realpolitik in favour of big, loud, fleeting displays of shallow Western moralism, which give rise to the confused practice. It was the humanitarian urge to ‘do something’ in Libya which led to a war where ‘key operational decisions’ were not made beforehand. It is in the very essence of ‘humanitarianism’ to rush into conflict zones, show off one’s values, make things worse, and then leave and forget all about it.

That is why spiked is opposed to this doublespeak humanitarian war on Libya: because it is reckless, unpredictable, destructive, and it puts off further the day when ordinary Libyans, rather than those blindly picked by the West, might take command of their affairs.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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