New Internationalist

The compassionate case against foreign intervention

debris in Homs
Destruction in the Syrian city of Homs Reuters/Yazan Homsy/Freedom House, under a CC License

‘We aren’t on the wrong side in the Vietnam War; we are the wrong side’Vietnam whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg

There has always been a battle between an isolationist approach to intervention (if it doesn’t affect us, leave well alone) and a humanitarian case for intervention (injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere). However, a growing number oppose intervention precisely because they subscribe to the humanitarian view. These people have come to the reluctant and disheartening conclusion that we, in the West, are not the good guys. To send war ravaged nations our governments, corporations and armed forces as saviours, is like sending a second Big Bad Wolf into the forest after Red Riding Hood.

The Corporate State and media outlets have become expert in the manipulating our basic concern for fellow human beings. As Syria burns, we will likely face calls to intervene again soon.

Ahead of the Iraq war, the stated case for intervention was that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, deployable within 45 minutes.

Since the war, justification for the interventions has been sought with a new cover story. They argue, often in rhetorical tones that Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on his own people and that he was an evil dictator; ‘are you saying Iraq was a better place without democracy?’

One can easily appear to defend a dictator or open themselves up to a ‘sin by omission’ argument e.g. ‘So you would just do nothing and let all those people die?’ But Iraq is actually the perfect case against intervention. It has already been a democracy: the US funded the Ba’ath party to perform a military coup against elected President Arif in 1968, to prevent him continuing his Arab Socialist programme and talks of reunification with Syria and Iran.

Britain’s Thatcher government spent $1.5 billion of taxpayer money propping up the Hussein dictatorship throughout the 1980s. In the early 1980s Saddam’s bellicose Iraq launched a bloody war against Iran that was to last the best part of a decade The Scott Inquiry of 1996 found that the Thatcher government had operated in secret to ignore the United Nations arms embargo and supply military support to Iraq. This war cost over one million Iranian lives, and up to half a million Iraqis.

When people claim Saddam used chemical weapons on his own people, they refer to the chemical gas attack on Halabja in 1988, which killed thousands of Kurdish civilians. This attack was carried out in the dying months of the Iran-Iraq war, while Thatcher’s government was providing military support to his regime.

One might also argue that these were mistakes that we can now rectify with a democratic Iraq. But what kind of democracy is Iraq? The beleaguered installed government hangs on by a thread. A recent string of co-ordinated car bombs across Baghdad killed 66 people just two days ago. April 2013 was the deadliest month in Iraq since 2008, with more than 700 people killed.

The war has also been of great financial cost to the US and British taxpayer. A recent Harvard Study found that Iraq and Afghanistan have added $2 trillion to the US national debt, 20 per cent of the debt incurred between 2001 and 2012.

So if not the ordinary people of Iraq, Britain or the US – who exactly did profit from the invasion of Iraq? Big business.

Corporations received $138 billion (10 per cent of US GDP) of US taxpayer money for government contracts in Iraq. Ten companies took 52 per cent of this sum. Included in their number was Halliburton, a company linked to both the then US Vice President Dick Cheney andthe President George W Bush. Halliburton received $39.5 billionn of contracts in Iraq, without needing to compete against bids from other firms.

Be it Pol Pot, Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein, or even The Taliban – the US and UK governments have supported countless undemocratic organizations to take over nations, so long as they sign contracts which profit our companies and support our foreign policy agenda.

To acknowledge that ‘we’ are not the good guys is not easy, and it does require searching for alternative ways of intervening where we feel compelled to act.

Our new model of intervention won’t be ready by the time the calls come to intervene in Syria. But that does not mean we need to support an already failed policy.

It behoves us to consider alternative models for intervention and action, which don’t hand our taxes, and foreign lives and resources, directly into the hands of corporate criminals. It is time to find another way. We do not have to turn our backs, but we do have to change our tactics.

Richard Falk’s paper ‘The Failures of “Intervention from Above”: Is There and Alternative Model for Humanitarian Intervention’ explores this topic further.

This is an edited version of a post which first appeared on the Scriptonite blog.

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  1. #1 KarenP 06 Jun 13

    ’It is time to find another way.’ Here is another thoughtful perspective from folks joining you in seeking a better way.

  2. #2 Matt in London 07 Jun 13

    Tough subject... It is always painful to see corporate leeches such as Halliburton / Blackwater and co. dismantling a country and sucking their wealth all the way through their tax havens. Equally painful, though, is to see people aspiring to a ’normal’ life being oppressed (or sometimes shred to bits) because some power-hungry cretin got some muscle power and is using it against his own people for whichever inane reason. So, interventionism or not? There is probably no simple answer. Obviously, what happens currently in Syria (Russia arming Assad, Qatar arming the hardline rebel factions ... and your average Syrian being caught in the middle) doesn't incite to any optimism. But it is good that we are starting to think about alternatives (the document linked at the end of the article gives some interesting insights).

  3. #3 Rory Fogarty 10 Jun 13

    I would disagree that Iraq is a good example as intervention. An intervention is normally were external actors augment 'positive' internal factions, or seek to freeze a conflict in its tracks and limit violence.

    Lybia was an intervention. Mali was an intervention. Iraq was and invasion.

    I agree totally with the premise of the argument, that attitude towards intervention (both through force and aid) needs to be re-evaluated. I however think we should look at interventions of the last 10-15 years, versus those that took place before.

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About the author

Kerry-anne Mendoza is a writer, blogger and activist. She is the author of the Scriptonite Daily blog which explores matters of current affairs, politics, economics and ideas. She is also a contributor to New Internationalist, openDemocracy, Trebuchet Magazine, the Occupy News Network and others. She left her career as a Management Consultant having held senior positions in banking, local government and the NHS to be part of the Occupy Movement and has since worked as a writer and campaigner for social, economic and environmental justice.

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