I’m usually a staunch supporter of foreign intervention by the west, including in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya, and I’ve debated with opponents of such actions on many occasions. While many of their arguments are cogent and considered, others – and these are often the most commonly heard – are incredibly weak. Very simply, the sadly common argument that western intervention abroad is hypocritical and imperialistic is, even if you accept its assertions at face value, incredibly deficient, and does not itself pose any serious challenge to the case for action.
The argument is made of two main component assertions: that western foreign policy is inconsistent and therefore not ethical, and that the west has ‘imperialist’ motivations for those interventions it does undertake. I’m not asking if the west is in fact hypocritical or imperialistic, but rather, so what? Hypocrisy or imperialistic motivations are not enough to invalidate military action by themselves.
Let’s start with the charge of hypocrisy. Taking Iraq as our example, there are two ways that the charge of hypocrisy could be introduced. The first is to point out that America and the West backed Saddam Hussein against Iran in the Eighties, and the second is that we haven’t intervened in other countries with deplorable governments such as Zimbabwe or North Korea. There are perfectly good geopolitical and strategic answers to both these criticisms, but if you examine what must be the underlying logic behind using these arguments to try to prove the case against war, all you find are glaring deficiencies.
Why does the fact that we supported Saddam Hussein in the past make toppling him now morally worse than continuing to support or ignore him? If supporting one of the twentieth century’s worst regimes was wrong (as I’m sure everybody advancing this argument believes), it was because he slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people, consistently persecuted ethnic minorities, oppressed Iraq’s Shia majority and turned the country into an isolated, dystopian police state. For the hypocrisy argument to stand, one has to believe that a u-turn in western policy is somehow intrinsically more harmful than allowing this brutal dictator to remain in power – which is clearly nonsense.
The same applies to the “but we’ve not invaded here” formulation. One of the most common examples is to point out that we’ve not overthrown Robert Mugabe, but we have overthrown Saddam Hussein, thus once again showing western hypocrisy at work. The problem is that the fact that the Iraq invasion inconsistent with other foreign policy decisions doesn’t make it wrong.
Bringing up the Zimbabwe/Iraq inconsistency in an argument about Iraq has three possible meanings. First, to argue that overthrowing dictators is right and that leaving Mugabe in power is wrong – clearly we’re not talking about that one. Second, that overthrowing dictators is wrong and that leaving Mugabe in power is right – the problem here being that the objection expressed isn’t to hypocrisy but to intervention under any circumstances. The third meaning – and the only one where hypocrisy is the main criticism – holds that the wrongness of being inconsistent in our treatment of dictators is so great that actual moral consideration of the consequences of dictatorship isn’t even required. When presented with two despicable governments, it is better to overthrow neither than one, because there is no greater sin than inconsistency. Why is it better to allow two horrific regimes than stop one? I’ve never got a decent answer. This is the logic behind trying to use ‘western hypocrisy’ to win an argument on the rightness of any given war, and I hope you can see it’s insane.
The Iraq/Zimbabwe comparison also often leads to the second great shibboleth of many opponents of war – the assertion that western involvement in country X is ‘imperialist’ and thus, apparently, wrong. This argument suffers from the same problem that the hypocrisy argument does: even if you accept the assertion that a western action is ‘imperialist’, without analysis as to why an imperialist action is worse than ethnic cleansing, genocide or repression it isn’t actually an argument against war at all. If we ascribe to America the very worst of motives and claim it went into Iraq for the oil, if this brings about an improvement in the lives of Iraqi people why is it worse than leaving Saddam Hussein to oppress and butcher his people in peace? Why is a liberal empire worse than a system of oppressive nation states?
Using ‘imperialism’ as an argument is not the same as arguing, as some do, that Saddam’s Iraq wasn’t all that bad or that the botched occupation has only made things worse. To oppose war on the grounds of imperialism is to posit that even if a war fought for imperialist reasons deposes an awful government and improves the lives of the residents of the target country, the imperialist motivations equate to a greater harm than the continued rule of the dictator. Once again, it begs the question “why?”
I get the impression that many who make it have a lurking, perhaps subconscious understanding that the ‘imperialism’ argument is seriously deficient, as it often comes hand in hand with large dose of cultural relativism. This has the astonishing effect of transforming what I consider to be the benefits of intervention – the opportunity to hold elections, educate women, enjoy freedom of speech and association and various other things we in the west consider fundamentally important – into imperialist harms. Universal human rights become the tools of western hegemonic attack on the cultures of the people we impose them on, while dictators and oppressive systems are sanctified by supposed tradition and removing them becomes an attack on the very people they oppress.
Quite why government brutality, sexism, homophobia and theocracy are dismissed as inviolable elements of foreign cultures by many of the same people who strive diligently to expunge them from our own is a mystery to me. So is the reason why, if liberal democracy is a product of imperialism, that fact apparently makes democracy worse rather than imperialism better. The fact that the west is inconsistent or self-interested doesn’t make intervention in Libya, Iraq or anywhere else automatically wrong.
The decision to go to war is a serious one and must always be properly debated and considered. There are many good reasons from all manner of viewpoints to oppose foreign intervention and conflict: the human cost, the risk of overstretch, national self-interest, national sovereignty et al. Genuine opponents of war owe it to themselves to use good arguments to try to bring round pro-war people to their point of view. So next time we’re thinking of intervening in a foreign country, please don’t waste time telling me that it’s imperialist or hypocritical. Tell me instead why it’s wrong.