Never Trust Imperialists
(Especially When They Turn Pacifist)
by Christopher Hitchens
Current arguments about intervention are invisibly linked by a common thread.
What is really at stake are attitudes to imperialism. If most of those who took
part in this one-dimensional debate were honest with themselves, they would
admit that they do not in principle believe that the United States can do any
good overseas for anyone but the American government, its armed forces, or privileged
American elites. While this proposition may be true, it deserves some scrutiny.
And, as applied in practical conditions, it requires some refinement.
To state my own prejudices clearly, I should say that as a British socialist
I once took, in the heartland of imperialism, a straightforward anti-intervention
position. The argument was for bringing the troops home, emancipating the
colonial subjects and putting an end to the conscription of young workers
to act as bewildered gendarmes. Then came 1965, when a white supremacist junta
seized power in what was then Rhodesia, and challenged a Labour government
to do something about it. For the first time in history, a revolt against
the authority of the Crown in Africa was not met by force. Conservative statesmen
and members of the officer class appeared on television and in the newspapers,
hymning the virtues of conciliation over confrontation and calling for a negotiated
settlement. Mention was made by military experts of the extreme difficulties
of the terrain, and the risk that intervention would provoke a bloodbath.
This sudden outbreak of establishment pacifism masked a reluctance ã usually
expressed in private ã "to send British boys to shoot their own kith and kin."
The overt racism of this had its confirming counterpart in the fact that,
at the self-same moment, "British boys" were deployed in South Yemen and Aden,
attempting to maintain the imperial "East of Suez" posture by repressing an
Arab nationalist revolt. The terrain in Yemen was difficult, to put it no
higher, yet there seemed to be no problem in committing troops indefinitely.
It therefore seemed like a good satire to me, and to many others, to disrupt
the speeches of government ministers by shouting "Out of Aden ã Into Rhodesia."
We had the law and a treaty on our side, because Britain had bound itself
at the United Nations never to grant independence to Rhodesia before making
arrangements for a majority rule election. Nevertheless, I admit that I felt
uneasy shouting for the British army to do its stuff and denouncing waverers
for their defeatism. (In the end, London sold out to the Ian Smith regime
and majority rule only came after nearly two decades of bloody and debilitating
Then there is the Irish question (or the English question as it's more properly
known in Ireland) which displayed ironies of a rather different kind. In August
1969, the British government committed armed soldiers as policemen on the
streets of Belfast and Derry. The proximate cause of the commitment was a
pogrom mounted against the Catholic minority (and I'm using "pogrom" in the
proper historical sense for once, to denote an attack by an armed mob which
enjoyed, and which knew it would enjoy, local police protection). Many working
class Catholics and nationalists actually welcomed British soldiers with flowers
and cups of tea ã an almost surreal moment ã and regarded them as deliverers.
Large sections of the British left dropped, pro tem, their historic opposition
to the stationing of troops in Ireland. On this, though, I quarreled with
my comrades. In the first instance, troops are always sent with a "humanitarian"
and peace-keeping purpose. That was how the US Marines had gotten to the Philippines
and Cuba, and it was also the pretext for western intervention in the Congo.
As an excuse, it ranks only slightly higher than the degrading idea that intervention
is necessary "to protect our nationals" ã another jingoist standby. The subsequent
evolution of the British presence in Ulster has done nothing to change my
In Cyprus in 1974, an undefended republic was attacked by two NATO military
regimes ã the Greek and the Turkish ã which, while professing hate for one
another, were in fact bent on partitioning the island. Great Britain, which
had a treaty obliging it to defend Cyprus (a treaty which it had itself negotiated
in return for large bases there) did not use its considerable local military
clout to intervene. Later disclosures of British and American foreknowledge
of the Greek and Turkish operations convince me that the government acted,
in concert with Henry Kissinger, to help impose a great-power partition on
a troublesomely independent people. The main weapon of this strategy was inaction;
the sure guarantee that Greek and Turkish mainland aims could be consummated.
Thus it seemed correct at the time to demand that Britain keep its part of
the treaty, and to denounce the government for hypocrisy and complicity when
In the case of the Falkland/Malvinas archipelago, it appeared that Britain
had the right of self-defense under the UN charter and also that the Argentine
junta had tried to salvage its domestic front by a cheap military adventure
in the South Atlantic. A compromise of the kind put forward by Jeane Kirkpartrick
and Alexander Haig (who were using the same Argentine torturers and fascists
to train the Nicaraguan contras) would have left the junta in power, and very
probably in possession. Opposed as I was to this collusion, I didn't take
the standard British left line that Thatcher was whipping up chauvinism and
imperialist nostalgia. The insular John Bull position seemed to ignore the
wider imperial context, and it was on the whole pleasurable and instructive
to see the dismay on the faces of the Reaganites when they realized that they
were going to have to drop either their British or Argentine allies.
I have given this slightly solipsistic account of recent history in the
hope that it reminds readers of some of their own dilemmas. In all the post-Cold
War arguments over the principle of intervention, most honest anti-interventionists
have found themselves reluctant to admit or acknowledge one of two things.
First, that the pretext might be high-sounding but the actual motive cynical.
Second, that the blood-stained empire might have no right to be mentioned
in the same breath as a concern for justice and human rights. Can Satan, as
it were, cast out Satan?
In the liberal press, the issue is more or less deliberately muddied and
mangled by spurious analogies from Vietnam. The word "quagmire" is often employed,
as if the United States got itself into Indochina by an excess of naive good
intention. (Only recently on NPR, I was matched against an extreme British
Tory, who had supported the Vietnam war at the time and was arguing that the
Serbs should be allowed to consolidate their hold on Bosnia. He had the nerve
to argue that Vietnam should have taught the United States to stay out of
other peoples' civil wars.) Of course, the whole history of the Vietnam war
and of the anti-war resistance is being rewritten before our eyes. But that
means we should be extra careful not to collude with the process. In the anti-intervention
polemics mounted at the time of the Gulf War, what I call the "body bag" argument
eventually dominated the anti-war movement and culminated in the ridiculous
idea of "supporting the troops but not the war." In this analysis, the names
on the Vietnam wall are the reason for opposing the aggression in Indochina.
In practice this meant that the most atrocious part of the Gulf War ã the
betrayal of the Kurds and the massacre of Iraqis and others leaving Kuwait
ã occasioned no protest from the anti-war forces because the "war" as such
was over and could be discussed in tones of relief. I remember thinking that
I did not want to be that disgusted again for a considerable time.
But there wasn't much relief or respite. Milosevic's war of cleansing in
Bosnia-Herzegovina forced a grumbling and self-centered political community
to confront the issue of, if not fascism, something uncommonly like it. Perhaps
Bosnia was not much of a state ( no harm in that, I hope) but it was an identifiable
society and culture based on the principle of multi-communal solidarity. And
it was appealing for help. Military help at that, since it was threatened
with military extinction. Shall I rehearse the reasons for inaction? Serbs
in other parts of Yugoslavia had a legitimate beef, what with Croatia's Nazi
past and all. Intervention might "prolong the war" (proponents of a short
war at least did not disguise their obvious partisanship for the victor).
"Millennial and tribal quarrels," "ancient fratricide," and other minatory
terms were employed, as if one could only consider taking a side in disputes
with no history. Pro-intervention arguments were hardly less sectarian, with
some voices urging that rape made Bosnia "a women's issue." And the Clinton
administration maximized the confusion by creating a false alternative between
inaction and air strikes, while ignoring the Croatian role in the Molotov-Ribbentrop
replay that was dividing Bosnia between Serb and Croat extremists. In the
whole of this period, during which thousands and thousands of Bosnians lost
their lives and the great multi-cultural city of Sarajevo was almost levelled,
no serious march or rally expressed any solidarity with the Bosnian cause.
It was as if the fear that such solidarity might be misconstrued as a demand
for bombing or intervention had paralyzed the limited forces of internationalism
altogether. Like Medusa's head, the very word "intervention" had turned principles
into stone. Those of us who signed the call for an end to the highly interventionist
arms embargo against Bosnia were in fact hoping to allow the Bosnians to defend
themselves without outside help, and also to create a center strong enough
to resist the Beirutisation and degeneration that has now overtaken militia-plagued
Sarajevo. But even this appeal stayed on the fringes of debate, because it
seemed to call upon the US government to act in some sense as a morally confident
agent, and thus could not be right.
It was noticeable but unnoticed during this time that the United States
military establishment was suffering from a positive seizure of pacifist sentiment.
Lives could be lost, terrain could be tough, tensions could be exacerbated,
blood could be shed, unintended consequences could result ã these were the
words of the Colin Powell Pentagon, which went further in the usurpation of
presidential and civilian authority than it had done even in the more hotly-discussed
matter of gays in the military. You would hardly think that, only a year or
so earlier, these same forces had described Saddam Hussein's proposal for
a phased withdrawal from Kuwait as "the nightmare option" ã precisely because
it would deprive them of the chance to wage an exemplary war.
There is here a noticeable difference between the American and the European
left. In England especially, but in other Western European countries also,
there were insistent calls for intervention on the Bosnian side, and denunciations
of NATO complicity with the Tudjman/Milosevic partition plan. In my opinion,
this was an echo of the great international campaign to defend the Spanish
Republic between 1936 and 1939, where the words "non-interventionist" became
a term of contempt unloosed against the European realpolitik which used them
as an alibi for permitting unfettered Italian and German intrusion into Spanish
affairs. There never was, at that period in Europe, the "isolationist" option
which seduced so many American liberals and radicals of the 1930s into believing
that a replay of 1914 was in the making: the then equivalent of today's "Vietnam
The intervention inhibition has also succeeded in paralyzing most discussion
of policy toward Haiti. Even though Haiti is a semi-colony of the United States
and, via a client military, the object of daily US intervention in what could
be called its internal affairs, there is tremendous squeamishness about the
idea of using force to secure the rights of the Haitian people. In turning
tail before a single junta tugboat in mid-October of 1993, and withdrawing
a large US Navy vessel with the touching name Harlan County without a shot
being fired, the Defense Department counted on a public opinion conditioned
to resent "foreign entanglements." It also counted, I believe, on a certain
degree of subliminal racism. The junta organized quayside demonstrations for
the cameras, in which the prepared slogan "Not another Somalia!" was chanted.
Before long, Robert Dole had risen in the Senate to say with maximum sententiousness
that the cause of President Aristide was "not worth a single American life."
The Pentagon spokesman, in advance of the Harlan County's mission, had been
scrupulous enough to say "one shot and we're out of there," thus tenderly
apprising the Cédras junta of the low cost of defying the world's largest
military machine. Confronted with a Haitian army of 7,500 men, the empire
backed off. It did so without arousing any principled protest in the United
States, because it was able deftly to exploit the public misgivings created
by its own pet operation in Somalia ã a classically imperial operation which
had been mounted without even the pretense of consulting Congress or the electorate.
It is, in short, going to be very hard to discuss foreign policy in the
future if the main thrust of radical and critical argument is purely non-interventionist.
In real terms, this will amount to abstention from the debate rather than
participation in it. And serious "interventions," such as the involvement
of the Pentagon in Haiti and the involvement of the State Department in the
dismemberment of Bosnia, will pass uncriticized because they come cloaked
as alternatives to military action. The fact is that this, too, constitutes
manipulation of public opinion by the military-industrial establishment.
One avenue of approach to this dilemma might be to take the Pentagon up
on its new fastidiousness, and to demand that in that case there be deep cuts,
build-downs and peace dividends. If a point of principle like genocide in
Bosnia is too difficult to uphold, and if a dependency of the United States
like Haiti is too tough to discipline, then clearly we could be getting by
with a very much smaller armed forces budget, and could probably dispense
with NATO altogether. But the same Clintonoid reformers who have kow-towed
to the defense establishment on matters like Bosnia, Haiti, and gay rights
have also committed themselves to a Bush level of spending on the upkeep of
this privileged military nomenklatura. (See Conetta, Knight, and Leavitt in
this issue of the Boston Review.)
It ought to be remembered, in simplistic arguments between "isolation" and
"intervention," that isolationism never meant what it said. The same political
forces that wanted to avoid entanglement in Europe were extremely keen, for
example, on the Marines in Nicaragua and Mexico and Panama. Conversely, many
of the liberal "anti-colonialists" turned out to be the moral and intellectual
architects of the war in Vietnam. With the end of the Cold War, however, the
old polarities of the 1930s have been gradually reasserting themselves, and
it is easier to see how the militarist supporters of Colonel Lindbergh and
"America First" once made hay by calling for a strong America that would be
neutral in the world battle against fascism, while American liberals were
accused of elitism and sympathy for empire when they supported Britain against
A rule of thumb is turning out to be that when the military-political barons
call for intervention and shows of strength, they must be distrusted for the
usual reasons. But when they tell you how difficult and how complicated everything
is, they must be distrusted even more.Ý
Originally published in the December 1993/
January 1994 issue of Boston Review