An Intervention on Intervention

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.



18 thoughts on “An Intervention on Intervention

  1. AndyT

    As the saying goes, rules are applied to enemies, but can be “tweaked” for “friends” – and the worst result of such an attitude (beside giving some murderous regimes a free pass) is breeding cynicism and hostility even when an intervention could be needed:

    – Millions dying in a civil war in a far away Country? Who cares – none of our business.

    – A U.S. intervention? Imperialists going there for oil and gas.

    – A regime beats, jails dissidents? Great leaders pissing off the yankees and their puppets!

    That’s a prevalent point of view in several circles, and it’s gaining ground in the West.

  2. Paul Canning (@pauloCanning)

    ‘No successful interventions’

    Mali, Timor Leste, Sierra Leone. Just off the top of my head.

    There are also numerous proposals to aid civilians IN Syria, which all come from Syrian opposition sources, which always get mischaracterised, always hysterically reduced to ‘but we can’t bomb people!’ when they are not. See my friends at Syria Solidarity UK

    If the left can’t think smarter about how to actually help and just yells about intervention (often drowning out the voices of fellow lefties from the countries concerned in a way that closely resembles Orientalism) it’s not very internationalist now, is it?

    1. Makhno

      I don’t recall a liberal interventionist military campaign in East Timor. Unless of course you mean the support given by the US, UK and Australia for Indonesia to invade and massacre in the first place.

      1. Makhno

        I recall that a UN mandated Australian peacekeeping force was sent to East Timor. Again, not really comparable.

  3. Makhno

    And, in crazy third post mode, both Mali and Sierra Leone were interventions at the behest of existing state structures within these countries. All interventions with the intention of regime change and “building democracy” have ended in disaster, as those attempting to build that democracy have little idea of how to do it, other than a dash of neoliberal economics and shoring up and generally corrupt internal structures (e.g. Karzai).

    As Jim states, in most of these cases: “the intervention that is being proposed is bad because it won’t do what it says it will, and will probably cause more problems”

      1. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Tanzania’s invasion was a response to Uganda’s invasion of their territory. They never would have even contemplated it had Amin not first gone to war with them, and then lost so poorly (his troops stole the Libyan’s trucks to get back to their capital faster).

        The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia was also a response to the hostile and violent actions of the Khmer Rouge regime against Vietnamese in the borderland.

        None of these really count as humanitarian interventions.

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Of course if someone said “ALL FOREIGN MILITARY INTERVENTION IS ALWAYS BAD!!” then all those examples would definitely count, and I bet you such a person probably has some example of a foreign intervention they think was justified for some logically inconsistent reason.

  4. Nicholas Lecchi

    The fact that Libya is cited by interventionists as a success story is, I think, quite curious when you take into account how the collapse of order in the country has prompted it’s citizens to migrate to Italy for refuge, which in turn, has served to fuel the rise of far-right parties there that are amenable to Kremlin interests (the far-left, as you might imagine, also contains segments that are pro-Putin). In the event that Italy (a NATO/EU member, and a country in close proximity to France) goes the nativist/anti-globalization route in it’s next election, then I question whether the proponents of intervention will still continue considering Libya the great success story that they tout it as.

    A curious inconsistency of the prevailing form of interventionist thinking, then, is that it’s declaration of collective responsibility, the cry “we have to do something!”, is doomed to be either selectively enforced (ie: we stand idle while countries adjacent to the target of our intervention suffer the consequences brought about by our actions), or force us into further intervention. This, of course, isn’t meant to suggest that intervention is invariably the wrong course of action, but it does suggest that those who necessarily view surges of troops and regime change as the optimal method of solving problems recourse to some very simplistic conceptions concerning the nature of power, order, action, and obligation on the international level.

  5. Paul Canning (@pauloCanning)

    Owh you’re a clever one Jim. So we’re all agreed Sierra Leone is it then? That’s certainly the one that’s foxed Corbyn a few times (they never ask about the Balkans). I just thought of the Gambia, recently, but they never actually crossed the border and that was West Africa rather than us.

    1. Makhno

      We’ve already covered Sierra Leone. Again, this was an intervention at the behest of an already extant state structure, not regime change with no effective roadmap for what to change it to. No one is arguing against any and all military intervention, although you appear to be under the impression that this is the case. You also appear to be under the impression that Jeremy Corbyn has something to do with this discussion, for some reason. You should probably see someone about that monomania, you’re starting to sound like some rabid STWC type screaming “BLIAR” at everything, whether it’s got anything to do with the dictator-fancier himself or not.

    2. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Makhno kind of handled Sierra Leone, but there are existing humanitarian interventions that could have gone another way if the people in charge had actually thought things out beyond the “we gotta DO something!” phase.

      Take Libya for example. Suppose instead of using airstrikes to support the rebels, NATO made it clear that it would absolutely defend Benghazi and then propose a ceasefire and negotiations, along with a UN peacekeeping force. Give Gaddafi assurances of his safety should negotiations not go his way and he needs to leave. Maybe launch some limited strikes on Gaddafi’s army just to make it a point that they’re serious.

      Lately the problem hasn’t so much been intervening, but rather half-intervening, calling for bigger intervention, but not actually doing anything and getting stuck with the worst of both worlds.

      In Syria a similar thing could have been tried when Assad had lost control of much of the country and his back was against the wall. NATO probably could have got Russia on board as well- just basically make it clear to Assad that he’s lost control and will have to accept some kind of partition as reality. Russia would probably be game so long as they could be assured of Assad’s coastal rump state because then they’d still have their precious naval “base” (it wasn’t much of a base until 2015, actually).

      In neither case would the goal be regime change, but rather something like a coalition government as an alternative to bloody civil war.

      Sound too far fetched? Well look what’s actually happened in those countries. It was probably worth a shot.

  6. Makhno

    On an additional note, it’s difficult to see how the likes of the US and UK (without UN backing) have the moral authority for the more grand scale interventions, considering 1. that their actions in the aftermath of previous outings have been somewhat less than altruistic, to put it mildly, and 2. it’s only relatively recently that we were sending civilians on rendition flights to be tortured by the like of, erm, Syria and Libya.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Another good point. At least in Japan and Germany there was this idea that money had to be invested to build up those nations. Today the free market dogma rules. That’s why you have absurdities like a fact-finding mission to Afghanistan circa-2003 to determine the feasibility of a five-star luxury hotel in Kabul (this is mentioned by Michael Scheuer in his book Imperial Hubris. He said it would be a great holiday destination for tourist who want to be a target for 107mm rockets).

      1. Makhno

        Heh. Although I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if that came to fruition, considering the mind-boggling venality of Karzai and family.

        Regime change level intervention will also mean that K Street will be hanging out their bunting for the “economic liberation” in order to throw stacks of money at hungry members of Congress from both sides. All this whilst the current Leader of the Free World is a handsy narcissistic uberchud (who also happens to be matey with the former boss of Blackwater).

        So, whilst humanitarian intervention isn’t necessarily a bad thing per se, I’m not really sure it’s at all feasible in the current climate.

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