As some readers know, I’ve recently become a big fan of the Chapo Trap House podcast. I think where they really shine is when they highlight everything that is wrong with American Democratic party “radical centrism,” the political ideology that’s totally not an ideology and which constantly tells you not to expect anything better while demanding your loyalty at the ballot box. Today’s episode had a particularly great dressing down of one of these centrist Democrat asshats who simply cannot admit that he was wrong when he supported a hands down immoral war that has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths over the past few years.
At one point they quite correctly note that the standard humanitarian intervention model has never worked, or at least never worked as it is sold to the American public. In the past, they have often called out this liberal mantra, heard throughout almost every major international crisis (if it’s not the work of a major US ally), the mantra of “We have to do something!” Basically it’s the foreign policy equivalent of Helen Lovejoy’s hysterical catchphrase, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?!”
What’s wrong with “we must do something?” Well the answer is in the phrase itself; centrists and neocons always want to “do something,” something almost always being a military action that kills people. On a good day, they actually end up killing the people they actually targeted, the designated “bad guy.” It’s not that the bad guys in question aren’t bad, but oftentimes these conflicts are between multiple bad actors or there’s the danger of creating a power vacuum which can be filled by new villains.
I know of no humanitarian intervention that has actually had a real positive effect to date. Somalia was a complete bust, made famous for the needless deaths of about a couple dozen US servicemen. Kosovo was supposed to stop the Serbs’ ethnic cleansing, and then the territory was largely cleansed of ethnic Serbs. Afghanistan is a mess. Iraq is…do I even need to explain Iraq at this point? These days the centrists love to point to Libya as their one success case, but they can do this only by comparing it to Syria. It’s worth noting that Syria has experienced foreign intervention in the name of doing something, nearly all of it terrible. In any case, Libya is still not a stable unified democracy and while the death toll hasn’t approached that of Syria, it’s slowly gaining.
Does this then mean, as the Chapo boys seemed to imply in this podcast, that intervention for humanitarian reasons is always wrong, or more accurately, that the anti-intervention crowd has always been right? I’d have to say no, for two reasons.
First of all, it’s possible for both sides to be wrong, and historically the anti-intervention, anti-war movement has often had its moral inconsistencies. One glaring example is their willingness to overlook the foreign intervention of other powers, such as Russia and Iran. Not only that, they often go way too far, actually praising or at least actively regurgitating the propaganda of such countries. Second, with the exception of maybe anarchists and die-hard pacifists, almost everyone in the anti-war crowd has some foreign intervention they think was justified. As to their arguments, your mileage may vary.
Another mistake the knee-jerk anti-interventionalist crowd makes is the naive idea that only America or “the West” has nefarious designs in the world. This is true even among self-proclaimed Marxists, the very people who ought to know better. Russia, as much as it varies from the system we see in the liberal democracies, is a capitalist nation. It has a ruling capitalist class. Yes, that ruling class is far more integrated into the state, but that does not change the fact that Russia is ultimately ruled by capitalists. Russia is integrated into the global capitalist economy and it does not operate according to very different rules.
As such Russia invaded and occupied Ukraine not for any purely ideological reason, but first and foremost to secure the interests of its ruling class, including the survival of the Putinist system. The Russian and Ukrainian economies were extremely intertwined even more than a year into the war, and there are still many ties today. It was never about “protecting Russian speakers,” which is made evident by the fact that the Russian occupiers are literally shelling those same Russian speakers nearly every day. Nor was it about “opposing NATO expansion” or standing up to American imperialism. It was Russian imperialism, plain and simple.
Look at Iran for another example. It obviously has imperialist designs in its region, and as former CIA operative Bob Baer writes in his book The Devil We Know, it has a very strong position from which it could seriously cripple the global economy by closing the straits of Hormuz if it absolutely must. What anti-war types don’t realize when they stick up for Iran is that Iran’s leadership doesn’t give a flying fuck if Edgy McRebel gets totally screwed because gas shot up to $10 a gallon. Iran’s rulers, just like Russia’s, have their own power and wealth to think about. They don’t give a flying toss about you and your “dissent.”
All this is saying is that we live in a capitalist world, and there is no real alternative camp out there. Those governments your Western media and politicians are criticizing all the time are often just as bad as they say, it’s just that nobody’s really offering a decent alternative. That’s a task for people who actually care about making a better world- there needs to be an alternative.
Next, the knee-jerk anti-interventionalist view can really have a dark side at times. This usually takes the form of enthusiastic support for some regime all because it is being demonized in the Western media, to the point of cheering as government riot police beat down protesters in the street. The protesters are often dismissed as being paid by Western governments or George Soros. As such, it’s almost a positive thing that President Trump and his defenders have taken to alleging that leftist protesters are being paid. Perhaps some of those protesters will stop and think about how easily they dismissed thousands of people in Syria or Ukraine as paid agents of the CIA. A lot of Western leftists toss around the word “solidarity” without actually living it in situations like Arab Spring or Maidan.
Lastly on this point, even today there are times when US intervention is undeniably positive. The US mission to help the YPG/YPJ in Syria is a perfect example. And yet in spite of the solid revolutionary politics of the YPG/YPJ, some leftists have tumbled so far down the “anti-imperialism” rabbit hole that they have actually condemned them as imperialist puppets for accepting American assistance. I’ve often seen those who once called themselves Communists morph into actual Assadist Baathists all because of their slavish devotion to the outdated cult of “anti-imperialism.”
Clearly what this means is that the traditional anti-war movement or anti-interventionist movement needs an ideological overhaul. There needs to be more moral consistency. The argument shouldn’t be so oversimplified as “all intervention is bad,” but rather “the intervention that is being proposed is bad because it won’t do what it says it will, and will probably cause more problems.” When people start asking why every proposed intervention is like this, then there’s an opening to explain the problems of capitalism, imperialism, and so forth. It starts by raising the question.
As for the defenders of centrism and humanitarian intervention, I can only say the following. Your way has failed every time it has been tried. Folks like you love saying the same about socialism, yet for some reason you don’t think a 100% failure rate invalidates your worldview or methodology. At least socialism managed to produce some things of value in the 20th century, unlike your humanitarian interventions.
Your vision of a rules-based world is lovely indeed, but you have not spent your time building such a world. When it suited you or your allies, you broke those rules with impunity. The world you want is desirable, but you have to prove that you’re willing to work towards it. Yes, the international community needs to stand up to Russia, to Iran, Assad, China, and other such regimes. It also needs to stand up to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and yes, even the United States, especially now that President Jack-o-Lantern is in charge. If this is something that you centrists are unwilling to do, then perhaps it’s time to admit that you don’t really want a world governed by law and respect for human rights. Perhaps the Russians have got you figured out.