Friday, 25 March 2011

Bombing Libya: saving lives or pursuing empire?

"We own half the world, 'oh say can you see,'
and the name of our profits is Democracy
So like it or not you will have to be free,
'Cause we're the cops of the world, boys, we're the cops of the world." - Phil Ochs, 'Cops of the World' (1965)

Throughout history leaders have used humanitarian rhetoric to justify and legitimise their imperial goals. As Noam Chomsky explains:

"The French were carrying out a "civilizing mission", Mussolini was nobly uplifting the Ethiopians. If we had records from Genghis Khan when he was massacring tens of millions of people, he probably also had a "noble vision". See if you can find an exception"(Chomsky, 2005, 'Imperial Ambitions', Penguin Group, p.118).

The voices of those being massacred were always ignored. However, as the European empires crumbled in the aftermath of the Second World War, the oppressed consciousness of the colonial people was incorporated into the new theories of 'postcolonialism' that were being developed by writers such as Frantz Fannon and Edward Said. No longer was it considered respectable to portray the victims of colonialism as savage hordes that needed to be "civilised" for their own good.

In recent years, however, the claim that imperialism is primarily about power and profit has been pushed to the margins by stentorian sophists who feel no compunction about promoting the US as the benevolent empire. A concomitant issue that emerges from this new kind of political discourse, argues Anchin Vanaik,

"is also a much greater willingness to reassess in a much more favourable manner previous imperialisms such as the Pax Britannica with a view to providing historical insight and advice on how a Pax Americana can be instituted. Niall Ferguson's recent works are but one striking example of this turn toward a modern form of the "White Man's Burden" - the claim that British imperialism was (and by analogy US imperial behaviour today is) in fact primarily of benefit to its supposed victims, the colonized, rather than the colonizers."(Vaniak (ed), 2007,'Selling US Wars', Arris Books, p.1)

The notion that 'our' governments invade other countries to liberate rather than exploit or oppress is also ubiquitous in the mainstream media. The BBC’s Mark Mardell, for example, echoed Ferguson when he pondered on why 'our' leaders decided to use military force to interfere in Libya's internal affairs:

“They felt it was their duty to intervene. We don't focus on this nearly enough.

Why does the West feel this way, when no one else does? Is it a legacy of the enlightenment, a sense of responsibility and shared humanity? Or does it follow from colonialism, a feeling that it is their role to rule, that there is still a version of Kipling's "White Man's Burden", - the "savage wars of peace" - even if it is defined by geography, not colour.”

Some defenders of the doctrine of good intentions are willing to accept that colonialism was bad and that hundreds of thousands of people may have been slaughtered in Afghanistan and Iraq for rapacious reasons, but things are different this time, they argue. Our leaders really do care about democracy and human rights.

How can we put our leaders' sincerity to the test? The best way is to apply the technique pioneered by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky known as the study of paired examples. Simply put, we can consider how they respond to situations where it would be easy to help promote democracy and human rights, and situations where it is more difficult. Ian Sinclair makes the point well:

“Moreover, to effect change in Libya, the US has to actively and aggressively act by deploying billions of pounds of military hardware against an enemy regime. In contrast, to quicken "reform and democratisation" in Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia the US merely needs to stop supporting and arming friendly dictatorships”.

When Tony Blair was interviewed by Time magazine in 2001, shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan, he could not refute the charge of hypocrisy:

Time: Your wife chaired a press conference about the bad treatment of women in Afghanistan. What about Saudi Arabia? Do you approve of the way women are treated there?

Blair: I'm not going to get in the business of attacking the Saudi system.

Time: but you do attack the Afghan system.

Blair: Yes, but we are in a conflict with the Taliban regime...At the present time I don't think it's very helpful for us to tell the Saudis how they should live. (Time: 10 December 2001)

Clearly, then, Britain and the US will support any regime, no matter how brutal, that benefits most the economic interests of Western elites. In conlusion, the Pursuit of empire and the promotion of democracy and human rights are completely incompatible. Those who argue that ‘we’ need to do something about Libya must remember this.


  1. "Bombing Libya: saving lives or pursuing empire?" Doing what the Libyan people tell them, in fact. As much as the pacifists and penny-pinching reactionaries will allow, anyway.
    Less yak, more disintegrated Gadaffi tanks, please.

  2. @biginabox:
    Feel free to lead with your fine example.