The Empire and Left Illusions

Against the Current, No. 61, March/April 1996

Thomas Harrison

NATO INTERVENTION HAS stopped the bloodshed in Bosnia, for the time being, but at a terrible price. The Dayton accords are a defeat for the Sarajevo government and for Bosnians’ hopes for a reunited nation. They represent a victory for Milosevic and Tudjman (the presidents of Serbia and Croatia–ed.) and, of course, a public relations coup for Clinton.

U.S. leaders would have preferred the Balkan wars to end long before this with the surrender of Croatia in 1991, and then, failing that, the speedy capitulation of Bosnia. When the victims persisted in fighting back, Washington supported the effectively pro-Serbian diplomacy of Western Europe for several years and finally imposed a settlement of its own devising, one that more equitably rewards the two strongmen of the Balkans, at Bosnia’s expense.

In all this, U.S. leaders have had to do a certain amount of tacking and veering in response to the winds of public opinion; basically, however, they have acted pretty much according to their natural inclinations. NATO intervention was only incidentally designed to placate humanitarian concerns; this was a bonus, so to speak. Its primary purpose was to finalize the partition of Bosnia00the goal of all the Big Powers since the war began–and to expand NATO’s purview by testing its ability to act outside its traditional field of supposedly defensive operations.

What is less clear is whether Clinton’s initiatives in Bosnia have done much to enhance the domestic political credibility of interventionism as such.

 To be sure, U.S. foreign policy is not immune to public pressure. In the past, organized protest has won important victories, like forcing a Republican administration to impose sanctions on South Africa. But the total effect of U.S. policy is often the opposite of what sanctions and other ostensibly pro- human rights initiatives would seem to suggest.

Thus, the United States blunted the effects of sanctions on South Africa by continuing secret intelligence links with Pretoria and promoting the Quisling, Chief Buthelezi. In Somalia, the ineptitude and brutality of “Operation Restore Hope” proved to be a godsend for warlords like Mohamed Farah Aidid.

The occupation of Haiti has a put a stop, temporarily, to outright massive repression, but made Aristide and the popular movement political prisoners of the Clinton administration and the World Bank and thus effectively neutralized them–again, for the moment–as a threat to Haiti’s class structure.

The idea that some sort of Western military intervention might “save” Bosnia has been fairly popular among sections of the left–excluding, of course, those who take a neutral or pro-Serbian position on the conflict. At first glance, it is surprising that this idea has survived so tenaciously in the face of the obvious: that the policy of the UN, the United States and the other Big Powers has been consistently aimed at dividing up Bosnia.

But this stubborn orientation toward the chimera of “humanitarian intervention”–not only for Bosnia but for Haiti, Rwanda, Somalia and, indeed, these days almost any other place where people are under attack from highly armed and extraordinarily cruel oppressors–comes out of a deep pessimism about the possibility of people defending themselves primarily through struggles which they initiate and control.

For their own good, the assumption goes, the victims must stand aside and allow their fate to be placed in the hands of powerful and admittedly self-interested states, who, while far from ideal moral agents, are the best we’ve got in an imperfect world.

The Power of Magic

Those in the grip of this political despair tend to resort to a kind of magical thinking that resists empirical refutation. The record of U.S. foreign policy has little weight; this time, they insist, we must entrust the future of Bosnia, Haiti, or wherever to Uncle Sam’s tender mercies.

Their belief in the helplessness of the victims becomes a kind of pathos of pessimism that blinds them to real instances of victims fighting on their own behalf and even winning. Moreover, assuming that the oppressors are unbeatable often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Thus the failure of most of the Bosnian solidarity movement to concentrate on supporting Bosnia’s just war of self- defense against the Serbs–by repudiating Western “peacemaking” and pressing for an end to the arms embargo–actually did help perpetuate Bosnia’s military and political weakness as against the aggressors. What Bosnia needed was effective intervention from below, but this was not forthcoming.

None of these observations are meant to minimize the terrible difficulties that confront so many popular struggles today. But it is a tragic mistake to suppose that U.S troops can be called in as though they were cops, even corrupt and reactionary cops whom one would still not hesitate to summon to the aid of, say, a mugging victim.

The analogy is totally misleading. In the first place, U.S. troops in Bosnia, for example, if they are any kind of cops, are American cops; they are in no way accountable to Bosnians. The same goes, obviously, for any other foreign troops under NATO’s aegis. In the second place, however, they are not cops at all; Clinton has an agenda, about which he has been quite open, that has nothing to do with restoring the victim’s valuables or punishing the mugger.

It is not that Clinton and his advisors are especially malevolent; they must act this way. They are not really free to do what it would take to bring a truly just peace to Bosnia– restoring an integrated and democratic republic, disarming all the Serb and Croat militias there, returning all refugees to their homes.

Nor are they free to promote economic and social arrangements in poor countries that lessen their dependence on the West, for example. They are not free to help the Haitian masses win real power. These are not options. Instead, the officials of the American state act under the compulsions of a system which needs global predominance
to insure power and economic advantage.

The system over which this super-warlord presides as a jealous and insecure dominator needs a lot of little warlords, even if they sometimes get out of hand. U.S. leaders like to deal with securely entrenched elites or strongmen, who are relatively immune to pressure and demands from below. Inevitably, they feel that the stability they crave is more likely with, say, a Greater Serbia either dominating ex-Yugoslavia by itself or sharing it with a Greater Croatia.

During the Cold War there was broad popular support for massive defense budgets. Now there is not. On some level, millions of Americans suspect that we pay a catastrophic price for our government’s gargantuan military machine and its overweening imperial ambitions–that the United States cannot play the role of “superpower” and at the same time produce the things that make a decent life possible for its people.

The left–people who have a more elaborated understanding of imperialism and its political functions–seems unable to connect with these perceptions and deepen them. Yet the moment could hardly be more propitious. Americans are in a rebellious mood. Unless the left manages to clearly differentiate itself from the Democratic Party’s bankrupt neoliberalism and poses an organized alternative, it is the right that will succeed in taking advantage of popular discontent.

Words like “radicalism” and “revolution” are bandied about freely–mainly by Republicans, alas, but the sudden appearance of language long considered utterly marginal to American politics expresses a complex mood, including a healthy disgust with the establishment as well as more atavistic impulses.

In the absence of an obvious foreign threat, it is hard for our leaders to justify to the public a bloated military budget–which is probably why all the talk about new war-fighting scenarios that followed the end of the Cold War seems to have been succeeded by a conspiracy of silence.

Of course, the pursuit of empire has not been a serious issue in a national electoral campaign since the annexation of the Philippines at the turn of the century. Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy and George McGovern campaigned against the Vietnam War, but none of them really questioned NATO, nuclear deterrence and the whole panoply of U.S.

Today a few (ever fewer) liberal politicians call for (ever more modest) cuts in military spending, but none of them challenges the assumption that the United States has the right to dominate other peoples and, if necessary, sacrifice whole nations to its self-defined strategic imperatives. If we are ever to break up the deadly consensus of American high politics, the issue of an alternative foreign policy cannot be avoided.

ATC 61, March-April 1996