“Humanitarian” Intervention?

Against the Current, No. 43, March/April 1993

The Editors

SHORT-TERM HISTORICAL AMNESIA is a wondrous thing. The government that gang-raped Nicaragua and sponsored death-squad murders across Central America, while pouring weapons into the Shah’s and then Khomeini’s Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia—and Siad Barre’s Somalia—is now hailed for a “humanitarian mission to feed the starving children of Somalia.” It is putting the bullies, warlords and drug-dealing gangsters of Somalia in their place as an act of charity and world leadership, untainted by mere considerations of military or political interest. Right.

A hundred thousand civilians are dead in Iraq from disease and deprivation caused by U.S. sanctions. Every day 40,000 Third World children under the age of five die from malnutrition and disease that simple access to dean water would save. The allocation of ten percent of the military budget of the major capitalist powers would fund the prevention of these deaths within a decade. Better yet, if the United States government is interested in preventing starvation in Third World countries, it could cancel their debts.

It is important to attempt to understand Somalia, but it is more important first to understand the United States government and its motivations. And the most basic and necessary understanding is that there is no humanitarian imperialism. Let’s be clean Any alleviation of suffering that happens under U.S. auspices in Somalia is welcome of course in itself, but very limited—and secondary in relation to what this intervention is about.

What is it about? For some on the left who are seeking to make sense of this rather new and confusing situation, it appears to be a move by the United States to secure a military base as a strategic counterweight against militant Islamic movements in the Middle East. Well, maybe, but we’re not convinced. For one thing, Washington could have created a permanent massive military land base in Kuwait, but saw no need. And anyway, doesn’t it pay the state of Israel five billion dollars a year for that kind of thing?

It appears to us more likely that the intervention in Somalia has to do with a new phase in imperialist politics—not any major strategic stakes in Somalia itself. Indeed, a great part of the tragedy there results from the fact that the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti), which used to be strategic for the superpowers, ceased to be so when the Cold War system collapsed. Stuffed with weapons from old proxy wars, particularly from the sponsorship of the Siad Barre dictatorship by the United States, Somalia after the dictatorship fell entered into internal war without end, a war which was ultimately about nothing but itself.

Thus, according to the newly fashionable imperial terminology promoted by the outgoing and incoming administrations, Somalia is a “failed state” that needs to be taken over as an international protectorate (for its own good). There is not and cannot be respectable discussion of a failed system, called world capitalism, of which not only Somalia but the entire African continent is among the chief victims. Nor is it acceptable to extend the “failed state” concept to the United States of America, where a large portion of the African-American and Latino population in cities from Washington D.C. to New York to Los Angeles lives under conditions that beg for emergency resolutions to be implemented by the U. N. Security Council.

Perhaps there are two clues to the meaning of this allegedly humanitarian intervention. First, the fact that (in contrast to the instantaneous mobilization for Operation Desert Shield/Storm/Slaughter) it took place only after mass starvation was looming in Somalia for at least a year suggests it is not driven fundamentally by a material interest like control of oil or military-strategic calculations. Rather, this relatively reluctant intervention ultimately responded to the need and opportunity to assume the appearance of a friendly policeman, intervening to put down the bully on the block—and to hide the reality of who actually destroyed the neighborhood.

Second, the promulgation of the ideology of “failed states suggests an alternative: that this intervention has an important legitimating function for continued post-Cold War militarism, and possibly for a whole new phase of interventions. Without claiming that this explanation is definitive or conclusive, we will briefly explore its implications as a hypothesis.

Keep Those Weapons Coming

The Gulf War was a stunning military success, and an even more amazing political failure. Bumper stickers crowing “These Colors Don’t Run” gave way to “Saddam Hussein Still Has a Job, Do You?” Contrary to all expectations the war failed to reelect Bush; and it left the Gulf region itself less stable and more miserable than before. (Will the next Official Menace be the threat of Iran arming with ex-Soviet nukes?)

Understandably enough, the general U.S. populace and even parts of the ruling class have the strange idea that the resources expended in forty-five years of Cold War confrontations should be re-directed to rebuild a rotting society and economy at home, that foreign adventures have lost much of their reason as well as effectiveness. There is no longer an evil empire, and interventions to “stop the spread of Communism” lack credibility and even relevance.

Worse, with the electoral victory of the Democrats, people who voted for Clinton might get the mistaken impression that his promise to “focus like a laser beam on the economy” meant that the United States would stop being the cop of the world. If not effectively addressed, this notion might revive peace-dividend hopes and become the basis for a real ideological threat to the continuing $300 billion military budget.

Not only does this prospect haunt the military profiteers—who influence the government but do not control it—more importantly it runs counter to the basic intentions of Clinton himself. Clinton desperately hoped at the beginning of his administration to avoid foreign military crises. He never intended to end militarism–and there is a huge difference! The problem: How to demonstrate to the naive population that the military machine must be preserved nearly intact?

For such a purpose, Somalia suddenly presented itself as a nearly ideal intervention, at least initially. The landing presented no military risk, inasmuch as the strategic targets were already occupied by a mass of electronic news media ready to feed the ultimate prime-time infotainment experience to North American living moms. The intervention was an unusually popular one, particularly with a large segment of the African American community, which historically has had the sharpest and most critical understanding of U.S. interventions from Vietnam to the Gulf.

Somalia also affords the outgoing and incoming administrations the opportunity to demonstrate once again, to the domestic population and to governments around the world, that the United States is the only candidate for world policeman. This is both a strength and weakness for U.S. imperialism. It has no military-political rivals on a world scale; there are no regional forces in Africa or the Middle East who could assemble a coalition to distribute food, let alone begin to address the crisis in Somalia. United Nations efforts had failed almost completely.

U.S. power thus stands alone. But for that very reason, having entered Somalia the United States might find it difficult to leave. Imperialism has no strong “second team.” The United Nations, well aware of its own impotence, is pressuring Bush and Clinton to commit to a deeper political intervention—disarming the military factions, brokering a truce, creating a new police force and government structure—than could possibly be accomplished in a quick operation, if ever. Precisely because of its unique strength, U.S. intervention could far outlast its domestic support Small wonder that policy planners fear getting “bogged down” in a quicksand of their own making. That would be ironic justice indeed.

Capitalism and Chaos

Somalia is undoubtedly a distinctive crisis, but not necessarily a unique one in the New World Disorder. As 1993 opens, the world from the Balkans to the former Soviet Union, to the Middle East, to Africa and the Indian subcontinent offers a spectacle of national disintegration, social collapse and ethnic cleansing never seen in the lifetime of the post-World War II generation.

Tragically, at least for the moment we are witnessing not social revolutions or successful national liberation struggles, but the consequences of a failing world capitalist system, without the immediate rise of working class and progressive alternatives. That is why the present situation is a difficult, sometimes demoralizing one for the left. Yet we should remember that it also fraught with crisis for imperialism, not because capitalism is presently threatened by a rival political-military state system or by an immediate threat from below but because it is itself a rotten and imploding system.

This system, unable to promote authentic development in Russia or Poland or the global South or South Central Los Angeles for that matter, requires some kind of global cop. And the only available cop remains the United States military machine, even if its own people and even some of its ruling elites lack enthusiasm for the job—with the United Nations to play an auxiliary or cosmetic role depending on the circumstances.

Somalia is perhaps, at least partly, a “demonstration intervention” to give imperialism legitimacy for its police actions in other arenas. The first responsibility for the left, then, is to deny that legitimacy, in Somalia or anywhere else. The children of Somalia are not beneficiaries, but victims, of this system and the rich white ruling classes who run it.

March-April 1993, ATC 43