Monitor Mideast

The New White Man’s Burden? A review of Humanitarian Imperialism

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Jean Bricmont’s powerful Humanitarian Imperialism is a timely critique of Western interventionism — that which is argued as being for the sake of human rights and which has been a subject of great debate as of late due to the ongoing conflict in Syria.


Humanitarian interventionism is defined by Bricmont as follows:

“…[that] which concedes much too much to the idea that our “universal values” give us the right and even the duty to intervene elsewhere…” (page 10)


He argues within the first chapter that the manner in which war has been legitimized as of late is no longer by way of Christianity or “white man’s burden” but “a certain discourse on human rights and democracy […] which justifies Western interventions in the Third World in the name of defence of democracy and human rights.”


Moving on to highlight what he calls “the ideology of human rights”, Bricmont discussed in chapter 4:


“…essentially it comes down to the idea that Western states have the right, or duty, to interfere in the internal affairs of other states in the name of human rights.” (page 26)


Bricmont goes on to produce not only a set of strong arguments against war but weak arguments as well:

“To allow construction of a more effective opposition to current wars it is necessary to distinguish, among arguments heard against those wars, which ones are solid and which ones are not, and combat that influence of the dominant discourse on the discourse with the opposition. Weak arguments are those that are based, at least in part, on the suppositions of the dominant discourse.” (page 91)


His strong arguments‘ begin with the defense of international law — the basic principle of which he loosely defines as being “that no country has the right to send its troops into another country without the consent of its government” and that said government need not be an “elected government” or even one that “respects human rights” but “simply has to be who effectively controls the armed forces”.


The next argument against war is an anti-imperialist perspective:

“What would happen if a country put into practice the ideas of various anti-globalization or “global justice” movements? Not only measures such as the “Tobin tax” which, depending on how it was defined, might possibly be integrated into the system without too much trouble, but more radical measures such as widespread debt repudiation, reappropriation of natural resources, (re)construction of strong public services, significant taxation of profits, etc. I see no reason to believe that the reaction would be very different from what it was with Allende, Castro, Mossadegh, Lumumba, Arbenz, Goulart, and many others.


The reaction would occur in stages: first of all, more or less economic sabotage, in the form of capital flight, a stop to investments, credit and “aid,” etc. Should that not suffice there would be encouragement of internal subversion, provoked by social, ethnic, or religious groups with specific demands difficult to satisfy. Any repression of those groups, even if their activities were illegal and would be equally repressed anywhere else, would be condemned in the name of human rights. The economic or political complexity of the situation would be forgotten. All this would take place under constant thread of military coup d’état, which could be welcomed by a part of the population tired of “chaos.” And, if all that should fail to do the trick, the United States or it’s allies would resort to direct military intervention.


The point is that even if the last measure is not taken the moment each new crisis arises, it nevertheless looms in the background of all the others. If economic sanctions or internal destabilization measures don’t work, one can expect a new Bay of Pigs, a new Vietnam, or a new Contras.” (page 101-102)


Bricmont’s Humanitarian Imperialism is riddled with samplings from history — from the silent genocide imposed on Iraq (i.e. US sanctions) to East Timor and Afghanistan.


In chapter 6, The Guilt Weapon, we are introduced to one of the most pervasive of mechanisms used by humanitarian interventionists in order to guilt critics. The example used in this chapter is the subjugation of Afghan women, who were used as pawns by US regimes looking for a more stable argument for the ongoing war — should the “war on terror” not convince critics then this more “noble” justification would do:


“The horrors inflicted on Afghan women by the Taliban did the trick. Many activists, doubtless with perfect sincerity, suddenly expressed urgent concern today. Why? Because everyone is quite aware, then as now, that we are not capable of solving all the world’s problems, and especially that such problems as the oppression of women are not solved overnight. But the strength of propaganda in favour of war is such that even people who are against it feel obligated to express their agreement with the objectives that have been proclaimed in order to justify it, instead of simply denouncing the hypocrisy of the whole manoeuvre. It seems likely that that this sense of obligation stems from the fact that the last thing anti-war activists want to be accused of is “supporting the Taliban.” The notion of “support is in fact at the center of the guilt-trip mechanism.”

His stunning book ends with Prospects, Dangers and Hopes:


“People who have been appealing to human rights for thirty years in order to flatter the American superpower risk finding themselves, perhaps against their will, the “objective allies” of monstrous undertakings. In any case, the question of the “soft landing” is the major political problem of our time, as well as the principle challenge that needs to be met by progressive, peace or global justice movements.”


All those who prefer peace to power, and happiness to glory, should thank the colonised peoples for their civilizing mission. By liberating themselves, they made the Europeans more modest, less racist, and more human.”


Bricmont’s close still holds true to this very day:

“Let us hope that the process continues and that the Americans are obliged to follow the same course. When one’s own cause is unjust, defeat can be liberating.


Roqayah Chamseddine writes for