Friday, June 24, 2011

Humanitarian Imperialism by Noam Chomsky (2008)

Jean Bricmont’s concept “humanitarian imperialism” succinctly captures a dilemma that has faced Western leaders and the Western intellectual community since the collapse of the Soviet Union. From the origins of the Cold War, there was a reflexive justification for every resort to force and terror, subversion and economic strangulation: the acts were undertaken in defense against what John F. Kennedy called “the monolithic and ruthless conspiracy” based in the Kremlin (or sometimes in Beijing), a force of unmitigated evil dedicated to extending its brutal sway over the entire world. The formula covered just about every imaginable case of intervention, no matter what the facts might be. But with the Soviet Union gone, either the policies would have to change, or new justifications would have to be devised. It became clear very quickly which course would be followed, casting new light on what had come before, and on the institutional basis of policy.
The end of the Cold War unleashed an impressive flow of rhetoric assuring the world that the West would now be free to pursue its traditional dedication to freedom, democracy, justice, and human rights unhampered by superpower rivalry, though there were some—called “realists” in international relations theory—who warned that in “granting idealism a near exclusive hold on our foreign policy,” we may be going too far and might harm our interests. [1] Such notions as “humanitarian intervention” and “the responsibility to protect” soon came to be salient features of Western discourse on policy, commonly described as establishing a “new norm” in international affairs.
The millennium ended with an extraordinary display of self-congratulation on the part of Western intellectuals, awe-struck at the sight of the “idealistic new world bent on ending inhumanity,” which had entered a “noble phase” in its foreign policy with a “saintly glow” as for the first time in history a state is dedicated to “principles and values,” acting from “altruism” and “moral fervor” alone as the leader of the “enlightened states,” hence free to use force where its leaders “believe it to be just”—only a small sample of a deluge from respected liberal voices. [2]
Several questions immediately come to mind. First, how does the self-image conform to the historical record prior to the end of the Cold War? If it does not, then what reason would there be to expect a sudden dedication to “granting idealism a near exclusive hold on our foreign policy,” or any hold at all? And how in fact did policies change with the superpower enemy gone? A prior question is whether such considerations should even arise.
There are two views about the significance of the historical record. The attitude of those who celebrate the “emerging norms” is expressed clearly by one of their most distinguished scholar/advocates, international relations professor Thomas Weiss: critical examination of the record, he writes, is nothing more than “sound-bites and invectives about Washington’s historically evil foreign policy,” hence “easy to ignore.” [3]
A conflicting stance is that policy decisions substantially flow from institutional structures, and since these remain stable, examination of the record provides valuable insight into the “emerging norms” and the contemporary world. That is the stance that Bricmont adopts in his study of “the ideology of human rights,” and that I will adopt here.

One critical case was the Kennedy administration’s preparation of the military coup in Brazil to overthrow the mildly social democratic Goulart government. The planned coup took place shortly after Kennedy’s assassination, establishing the first of a series of vicious National Security States and setting off a plague of repression throughout the continent that lasted through Reagan’s terrorist wars that devastated Central America in the 1980s. With the same justification, Kennedy’s 1962 military mission to Colombia advised the government to resort to “paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents,” actions that “should be backed by the United States.” In the Latin American context, the phrase “known communist proponents” referred to labor leaders, priests organizing peasants, human rights activists, in fact anyone committed to social change in violent and repressive societies.
These principles were quickly incorporated into the training and practices of the military. The respected president of the Colombian Permanent Committee for Human Rights, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Alfredo Vásquez Carrizosa, wrote that the Kennedy administration “took great pains to transform our regular armies into counterinsurgency brigades, accepting the new strategy of the death squads,” ushering in what is known in Latin America as the National Security Doctrine,…not defense against an external enemy, but a way to make the military establishment the masters of the game [with] the right to combat the internal enemy, as set forth in the Brazilian doctrine, the Argentine doctrine, the Uruguayan doctrine, and the Colombian doctrine: it is the right to fight and to exterminate social workers, trade unionists, men and women who are not supportive of the establishment, and who are assumed to be communist extremists. And this could mean anyone, including human rights activists such as myself.

The reasons for intervention, subversion, terror, and repression are not obscure. They are summarized accurately by Patrice McSherry in the most careful scholarly study of Operation Condor, the international terrorist operation established with U.S. backing in Pinochet’s Chile: “the Latin American militaries, normally acting with the support of the U.S. government, overthrew civilian governments and destroyed other centers of democratic power in their societies (parties, unions, universities, and constitutionalist sectors of the armed forces) precisely when the class orientation of the state was about to change or was in the process of change, shifting state power to non-elite social sectors...Preventing such transformations of the state was a key objective of Latin American elites, and U.S. officials considered it a vital national security interest as well.” [5]
It is easy to demonstrate that what are termed “national security interests” have only an incidental relation to the security of the nation, though they have a very close relation to the interests of dominant sectors within the imperial state, and to the general state interest of ensuring obedience.

The term “stability” is used here in its standard technical meaning: subordination to Washington’s will. There is no contradiction, for example, when liberal commentator James Chace, former editor of Foreign Affairs, explains that the United States sought to “destabilize a freely elected Marxist government in Chile” because “we were determined to seek stability” (under the Pinochet dictatorship).

(extract from Humanitarian Imperialsim- The doctrine of Imperial Right ~Noam chomsky website

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