Jean Bricmont
Humanitarian Imperialism
Reviewer: Michel Collon
One of the striking features of today's public discourse, from right to left, is the extent to which political ethics are entirely dominated by what can be called the intervention imperative.  We are constantly being called upon to defend the rights of oppressed minorities in distant countries (Chechnya, Tibet, Kosovo, Kurdistan), to protest against violations of human rights in Cuba, in China or in Sudan, to call for abolition of the death penalty in the United States or to defend Muslim women from persecution. The practical effect of these protestations is of little interest, insofar as the "right to intervene", once asserted, tends to be seen as a moral obligation.

        As a corollary to this situation, we see that peace movements are only a shadow of what they were as recently as the missiles crisis of the 1980's, while movements in support of third world liberation have virtually disappeared.  There was scarcely any opposition to the 1999 war against Yugoslavia, presented as the very epitome of a "humanitarian" war, and very little to the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.  True, on the eve of the Iraq war, the uniquely gigantic and widespread protest demonstrations seemed to augur the rebirth of a vigorous worldwide peace movement. But no sooner had the Bush administration proclaimed victory than public opinion, at least in the West, fell largely silent, even as Iraq continues to be ravaged by combats that are far from being rear guard operations.

Indeed, Fallujah has been a Guernica without its Picasso.  A once-thriving city without water, food or electricity, whose 300,000 inhabitants are driven out and parked in camps. Then methodical bombing and recapture of the city, block by block.  The occupation of a hospital is justified by The New York Times on the grounds that it served as a propaganda center by exaggerating the number of victims. And how many victims are there, by the way? Nobody knows, as there is no body count of Iraqis.  When a carefully calculated and conservative estimate was published by the esteemed scientific journal Lancet, the figures were publicly rejected as "exaggerated" by commentators who had not read the report.

And meanwhile, where are all the protests?  How many demonstrations in front of U.S. embassies?  How many petitions callling on our governments to demand of the U.S. government that it put an end to its destruction of Iraq? Where are the champions of "civil society" and non-violence to remind us that the destruction of Fallujah began shortly after the invasion when its inhabitants demonstrated peacefully, whereupon the Americans fired into the crowd, killing 16 people?

The combination of these two observations - the pervasiveness of the intervention ideology on the one hand, and the weakness of opposition to imperial wars on the other - is at the origin of this book. The author examines critically the prejudices underlying the intervention ideology and raises a certain number of questions which are rarely asked and even more rarely answered: what is the nature of the agent that is supposed to intervene?

Inasmuch as it is in practice a matter of powerful nations, why should we believe in the sincerity of their humanitarian proclamations?  What is the long term effect of Western intervention in the third world? Is the traditional vision of international law, which prohibits unilateral intervention, truly a thing of the past?  Does our own development model give us the right to tell other countries what they should do?  Is the policy of intervention genuinely internationalist?

Furthermore, a certain number of questions can be adressed to progressive, peace or ecological movements. In particular, aren't these movements overly inclined to lend credence to statements by the media and Western leaders? Are those demonized third world leaders really so many "new Hitlers" with whom the slightest compromise would amount to a "new Munich"? Does European construction provide the hope of an alternative to United States hegemony?

The critical examination of these questions is not based on any sort of moral or cultural relativism. The author accepts entirely the desirability of all the aspirations expressed in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nor is his criticism limited to the relatively familiar denunciation of the hypocrisy of U.S. power, which supports dictatorships in some places while claiming to impose democracy in others. Rather, the author seeks to challenge the legitimacy and impact of Western policies toward the third world from a global viewpoint, and within a universalist framework.

Finally, the author attempts to sketch a political approach different from the one based on intervention, starting from a radically alternative vision of North-South relations and the firm intention to restore the critique of imperialism to the center of our political preoccupations.  In this way, he hopes to contribute to the rebirth of a strong and confident opposition to present and future American agression.