Divide et Impera

The US is using a hoary imperial tactic dating back to the Romans to dominate Iraq and to justify a long-term military presence in the country

By Stephen Gowans

A US-financed program to build a Sunni paramilitary Guardian organization in Iraq, and US proposals for a soft partition of the country, are the latest steps in a divide and rule strategy the US is pursuing to keep Iraqis fighting among themselves so they won’t fight the occupation. Sectarian strife also provides the US with the pretext it needs to establish a long-term military presence in the country.

The US occupation authority has made ethnicity and religion salient in Iraq, where once it was a matter of little moment in the daily political lives of Iraqis. The US organized elections and the army along sectarian lines. It decided which parties could run in elections, favoring those that emphasized religious affiliations (Sunni vs. Shia) and ethnicity (Arab vs. Kurd), while banning the largest non-sectarian party, the Baath party. Key government positions were doled out along sectarian lines. The interior ministry was turned over to the Badr Brigade, a sectarian Shia paramilitary organization. From head to toe, Iraq has been transformed from a secular society into one in which religious and ethnic identity matter. Imagine the Department of Homeland Security being turned over to the KKK, the Pentagon to Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, while the Democrat and Republican parties are banned and replaced by religious and ethnic parties. If ever there was a recipe to get people fighting among themselves, this is it.

The most recent manifestation of the US divide and rule policy is a program to create a Sunni paramilitary Guardian force whose mandate is to protect Sunni neighborhoods (1). Imagine Washington creating a Black paramilitary Guardian force, a White paramilitary Guardian force, and a Hispanic paramilitary Guardian force in the US. The effect in sparking racial tension would be the same.

Now, some US policy makers are talking about partitioning Iraq into Kurd, Sunni and Shia regions. Leading advocates include senior politicians and US ruling class foundations. Joseph Biden, chairman of the US Foreign Relations Committee and a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination endorses “soft” partition, as does Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the influential Council on Foreign Relations (2). Last year, the two put together the Biden-Gelb plan, which calls for a “soft” partition of Iraq. Soft partition would see Iraq divided into three distinct ethno-religious regions: Kurdistan, Shiastan and Sunnistan, held together by a weak federal government.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues the “time may be approaching when the only hope for a more stable Iraq is soft partition (3).” The Brookings Institution, associated with the Rockefellers, is one of the most influential US ruling class policy-making organizations.

Western politicians portray Iraq as a country whose simmering sectarian tensions were held in check by the brutal repression of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who ruled on behalf of the Sunni population and its political vehicle, the Baath party. It’s only now that Mr. Hussein’s tyranical rule has ended that sectarian conflict has slipped its restraints and come to the surface. At least, that’s the favored US view. Trouble is, it’s a crock of shit. When “the Committee of Debaathification issued a list of 100,000 senior Iraqi Baathists who would not be allowed to enjoy government posts,” 66,000 of them turned out to be Shiites (4). And anyone who cared to check the deck of cards used to list the 55 top Iraqi officials the US invasion force wanted dead or alive, would discover that half were Shiite, and the remainder a mix of Sunnis, Christians and Kurds (5).

The former Ottoman territory that is now Iraq was governed as a single territory before 1880. The three provinces that were pieced together in 1921 to form modern Iraq had no “clear sectarian identities (6).” “For much of Iraq’s history, the two communities (Shia and Sunni) co-existed peacefully (7).”

Partitioning the country would be no mean feat. “The geographic boundaries do not run toward partition. There is no Sunnistan or Shiastan.” On the contrary, conditions are “highly commingled” with people “totally intermixed, especially in the major cities (8).” Five million Iraqis would have to be moved were the country to be divided into homogeneous ethno-religious slices (9).

More importantly, most Iraqis don’t want their country partitioned. “Apart from the Kurds in the north, there is no unanimous, popular demand for federalism or soft partition or any partition at all (10).”

The 1920 Revolution Brigades, one of three resistance groups to form the political office of the Iraqi resistance, rejects the idea of a sectarian division in Iraq. “Our position,” says its spokesman, “is that there are two kinds of people in Iraq: not Sunni and Shia, Kurdish and Arab, Muslim and Christian, but those who are with the occupation and those who are against it (11).” Sectarian divisions in Iraq have been amplified, he says, “as part of the ‘British imperial tactic of divide and rule (12).’”

The British employed the Roman principle of divide et impera to enslave colonial peoples. The US has taken up the tradition. “Our endeavour,” remarked Lieutenant-Colonel Coke, Commandant of Moradabad during the middle of the nineteenth century, “should be to uphold in full force the (for us fortunate) separation which exists between the different religions and races, not to endeavour to amalgamate them. Divide et impera should be the principle of Indian government (13).” Lord Elphinstone, Governer of Bombay, seconded the motion. “Divide et impera was the old Romon motto, and it should be ours (14).”

Adumbrating US imperial tactics in Iraq, the British devised a system of separate electorates in India and separate representation by religion, caste and ethnicity. Sound familiar? “The effect of this electoral policy,” observed one commentator, was “to give the sharpest possible stimulus to communal antagonism (15).” Prior to British rule in India there was no trace of the type of Hindu-Muslim conflict that later emerged under British rule (16).

“There is no natural inevitable difficulty from the cohabiting of differing races or religions in one country (17).” Mulsim and Hindu lived side-by-side peacefully until the British arrived in India; Sunni and Shiite commingled peacefully before the US imposed its occupation on the country. “The difficulties arise from social-political conditions. They arise, in particular, whenever a reactionary regime is endeavouring to maintain itself against the popular movement (18).”

In the USSR, diverse religions and races lived together amicably. Germans and Jews lived together peacefully under Germany’s Weimar Republic. It wasn’t until the Nazis emphasized national identity to weaken growing working class consciousness that systematic persecution of Jews began.

The strategy is simple. The last thing an occupying power wants is for the people it’s dominating to recognize their common situation and interests. Were they to do that, they might mobilize their energies to fight their common enemy. So occupied countries are organized by their occupiers along color, religious and ethnic fault-lines. Iraqis mustn’t think of themselves as Iraqis, but as Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, locked in a struggle with each other for access to resources.

The same is true within imperialist countries. People who work for a living mustn’t identify with their class, but with their ethnic, religious or racial cohorts, or must be imbued with patriotism, so that they equate their personal interests with those of their ruling class. In this way, Americans and Britons who have nothing to gain personally from their country’s occupation of Iraq, and much to lose, are bamboozled into supporting the war. Likewise, employees who have much to gain from coming together as a class are diverted by racism, religion and patriotism.

Another thing the US divide et impera tactic provides is an excuse to maintain a military presence in Iraq, and therefore, the continued domination of Iraq by Washington. For liberals, the argument that the US can’t leave Iraq now, otherwise a full-scale civil war will erupt, is decisive. But what this view ignores is that the possibility of a full-scale civil war is the product of the occupation itself. Had the US not fomented ethnic and religious divisions, the possibility of a civil war would never have arisen. On the other hand, were the US to cease efforts to pit Iraqi against Iraqi, the occupation – already greatly challenged by the resistance, despite US divide and rule tactics – would surely be defeated, an outcome the US will never willingly consent to. Soft partition, then, seems to those seeking both sectarian peace and US withdrawal, to be the answer. But slicing the country up into Sunnistan, Shiastan and Kurdistan, won’t set the stage for a US pull-out. On the contrary, “senior military planners caution that should partition become American policy, withdrawal almost certainly wouldn’t. Partition would require a stabilization force – code for American military presence – of 75,000 to 100,000 troops for years to come (19).” Heads I win, tails you lose. No matter what, the US figures to be hanging around Iraq for a long time, using sectarian tensions as the justification for its ongoing presence. What will foil these plans are non-sectarian groups, like the 1920 Revolution Brigades, that recognize there are only two kinds of people in Iraq: those who are with the occupation and those who are against it.

1. New York Times, August 19, 2007.
2. The CFR brings together CEOs, government and military officials and scholars, to recommend policy to the US State Department. The policy recommendations are typically responses to problems identified in corporate boardrooms, or exclusive clubs catering to the ultra-wealthy. The State Department relies on very little internal expertise, and uses the ruling class funded, directed and staffed think tanks and foundations to suggest policy. The CFR is the most important and influential of these organizations in matters of US foreign relations. See G. William Dumhoff, Who Rules America? McGraw-Hill, 2005.
3. New York Times, August 19, 2007.
4. Workers World, February 11, 2007.
5. Ibid.
6. Reidar Visser, who studies Iraq’s sectarian issues at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, quoted in New York Times, August19, 2007.
7. New York Times, March 26, 2006.
8. Joost Hilterman, deputy director of Middle East programs for the International Crisis Group, quoted in New York Times, August 19, 2007.
9. New York Times, August 19, 2007.
10. Hilterman.
11. Guardian (UK), July 19, 2007.
12. Ibid.
13. R. Palme Dutt, The Problem of India, International Publishers, New York, 1943, p. 98.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid., p. 101.
16. Ibid. p. 97.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid.
19. New York Times, August 19, 2007.


According to a December 19, 2007 Washington Post article (All Iraqi Groups Blame U.S. Invasion for Discord, Study Shows) “Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the U.S. military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of ‘occupying forces’ as the key to national reconciliation, according to focus groups conducted for the U.S. military last month.”

“D3 Systems, a Virginia-based company that maintains offices in each of Iraq’s 18 provinces…showed [in a survey conducted in September] the same widespread Iraqi belief voiced by military focus groups: that a US departure will make things better. A State Department poll in September 2006 reported a similar finding.”

“Few [focus group participants] mentioned Saddam Hussein as a cause of their problems.”

Film-makers Steve Connors and Molly Bingham spent five months with resistance fighters in Iraq, from April to August 2003. They discovered that “the idea that has recently become common currency, that Iraq is a country riven by ancient sectarian hatreds, is a claim for which [they] found little evidence…Indeed, the research [they did for their documentary film Meeting Resistance] indicates that any existing fissures in Iraq at the time of the 2003 invasion were exploited and exacerbated by coalition forces and administrators in order to enable the success of the occupation.”

Faith in UN Intervention in Darfur Misplaced

By Stephen Gowans

Many Western activists have rallied around calls for sanctions on Sudan and UN intervention in Darfur. But a review of recent Western interventions in the world’s trouble spots suggests their faith is misplaced. While the US and its allies, and the UN Security Council, point to lofty goals as the basis for their interventions, the true goals are invariably shaped by the economic interests of the corporations and investment banks that dominate policy making in Western countries. Worse, intervention has typically led to the deterioration of humanitarian crises, not their amelioration.

Conflict as Pretext

The United States and other imperialist powers look for conflicts, or provoke conflicts, in countries they do not dominate politically. They use these conflicts as pretexts to intervene in other countries in multiple ways: militarily, through proxies (which may include the UN), by funding an internal opposition, or by some combination of these means. The goal is to exploit these countries economically. Political control, through a strongman or puppet government, allows great nations to protect and enlarge the investments of their corporations and banks and to open doors to their exports. That is, the United States and other imperialist powers are engaged in a relentless pursuit of political domination of countries they do not currently dominate, in order to exploit their resources, assets and markets, by creating or looking for conflicts that provide pretexts for intervention.

In Yugoslavia, the US, Germany and the UK encouraged secessionists to unilaterally declare independence from the Yugoslav federation and helped ethnic Albanian Kosovars wage a guerrilla war to establish Kosovo as an independent country. The ensuing conflicts with the federal government were used as a pretext by NATO to intervene militarily to bring the conflicts to an end. The secessionist governments and KLA guerrillas were portrayed by the Western media as the victims while the federal government, which was reacting to the provocations, was portrayed as the instigator. The result was that Yugoslavia was re-balkanized and brought under the control of the US and Germany, who have since imposed a neo-liberal tyranny and whose corporations, banks and wealthy investors have bought up the former federation’s state- and socially-owned assets. (1)

In Iraq, the US uses the conflict between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, as a pretext to remain in the country as an occupying force. Were troops withdrawn too early, we’re told that an all-out civil war would ensue (as if a state of all-out war, sustained by the presence of US and British troops, does not already exist.) Likewise, we’re assured that if troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan, al Qaeda will resume its use of the country as a base for its operations, leading to a string of 9/11s. More than a decade ago, the US provoked a conflict in the Gulf – or at least allowed one to go ahead – when Iraq wasn’t turned down by the US ambassador, April Glaspie, after it sought permission to invade Kuwait. Iraq was thereby entrapped into undertaking an invasion Washington used as a pretext to launch the Gulf War. The effect was to begin the process of bringing Iraq, and its considerable petroleum resources, under the control of the US. (2)

Sudan is not today under US political control, and like Iraq, is a source of immense oil reserves and the potential for gargantuan petroleum profits to be reaped by foreign oil companies. The Bush administration complains that the Sudanese government interferes in Sudan’s petroleum and petrochemical industries. Khartoum is not, then, a partisan of the three freedoms that matter most in Washington: free trade, free enterprise and free markets. This, from Washington’s point of view, is a threat to US foreign policy (i.e., corporate) interests. If Sudanese policy prevents US oil companies from exploiting the country’s oil resources, Sudan is a threat to the foreign policy interests of the United States. Accordingly, it must be treated as an enemy. And indeed it is an enemy – but only an enemy of the class of corporate board members, hereditary capitalist families and investment bankers in whose interest free trade, free enterprise and free markets are promoted and enforced. Sudan, its people, and the economically nationalist policies of its government are not, however, enemies of the bulk of Americans. (3)

There are existing conflicts in Darfur which the US and its allies have used to argue for Western intervention. There is a conflict over water and land between sedentary and nomadic peoples, made worse by desertification. There is a conflict between rebel groups, which have attacked government installations, and the government itself. And there is a conflict among rebel groups. These conflicts are used by the US and its allies as pretexts to impose sanctions and to argue for intervention. But the US is no more interested in resolving these conflicts than it was in resolving conflicts in Yugoslavia. It’s interested in dominating Sudan politically, so that US and British oil companies can amass huge profits from Sudan’s vast petroleum reserves.

A record of deception

There was no genocide in Kosovo. When forensic pathologists went looking for the scores of thousands of bodies NATO said were hidden throughout Kosovo, they found two thousand – a number that was consistent with a small scale guerrilla war, not a campaign of genocide. But after NATO intervened militarily with a 78-day bombing campaign, thousands fled, bridges, factories, schools and hospitals were destroyed and hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians were killed. What was a low intensity guerrilla war was turned into a humanitarian crisis by NATO. (4)

There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But after the US and Britain invaded, some 600,000 Iraqis died as a result of violence provoked by the invasion, four million fled their homes, poverty became rampant and infrastructure destroyed by US and British bombs remained in a state of disrepair. A once modern country that had used its oil revenues to develop itself economically and to build a robust system of social welfare was turned by the US and Britain into an almost peerless humanitarian disaster. (5)

According to the UN commission appointed to investigate Washington’s charges that the Sudanese government is pursing a policy of genocide, the accusations have no foundation. It’s true, the commission found, that Khartoum has responded disproportionately to attacks on government forces by rebel groups, and it’s true that Khartoum is implicated in war crimes, but the commission found no evidence the Sudanese government is engaged in the project of seeking to eliminate an identifiable group, the defining characteristic of a policy of genocide. As far as humanitarian disasters go, the disaster in Iraq is far worse. So who would trust the perpetrators of that disaster – who, after all lied about there being a genocide in Kosovo and banned weapons in Iraq — to intervene in Darfur to resolve the humanitarian crisis there? That would be like giving your car keys to a known thief and pathological liar. (6)

Ignoring conflicts

The other side of the coin is that there are countries the United States already dominates in which terrible humanitarian disasters and human rights violations occur about which very little is said. When conflicts occur in these countries, the conflicts are ignored by the Western media, because they’re not needed as a pretext for intervention by Western governments. In fact, it’s in the interests of Washington that these conflicts not be brought to the attention of the public.

In Ethiopia, for example, thousands of members of the opposition were imprisoned after elections were disputed. Recently, the government threatened to execute dozens of opposition leaders on treason charges. Foreign reporters and human rights groups have been expelled from the country. Because Ethiopia is politically dominated by the US, there’s no reason to bring its deplorable record to the public’s attention. There is no need to build a case for intervention. Ethiopia is already under the US thumb. Accordingly, few people know anything about what’s going in the country because Ethiopia is off the Western media’s demonization radar screen. But they are likely to know about Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, who many believe has committed all the crimes Meles Zenawi, the prime minister of Ethiopia, has committed. Except Mugabe hasn’t arrested thousands of members of the opposition or threatened to execute the opposition’s leaders. The difference between Zenawi and Mugabe is that Zenawi is a US puppet and Mugabe isn’t. For opposing imperialist meddling in southern Africa and seeking to indigenize Zimbabwe’s economy, Mugabe is in the dead center of the West’s demonization radar screen. (7)

There are about half a million people displaced in Somalia as a result of an invasion by Ethiopia, undertaken at the behest of the US government. This is a humanitarian disaster created by a US proxy. There is no Save Somalia Campaign. (8)

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is a conflict provoked by the former intervention of US proxies Rwanda and Uganda that has led to the deaths of four million people since 1997. The 200,000 deaths in Darfur (80 percent from starvation and disease; 20 percent from violence) are dwarfed by the millions of deaths in DR Congo. But while there’s a Save Darfur campaign, there is no Save Congo campaign. (9)

The solution to Darfur

If UN intervention in Darfur isn’t a solution – and it isn’t — what is? While it sometimes seems that the UN is a neutral body that democratically decides how to resolve conflicts, that’s not what the UN really is. The UN, in all important respects, is the UN Security Council, a small group of mainly imperialist powers who do what imperialist countries do: try to divide the world up among themselves. The United States, the dominant member of the Security Council, has no interest in resolving the conflict in Darfur. It’s interested in establishing a permanent military presence to wrest control of Sudan’s oil from the Sudanese government. If the US can induce other countries to commit troops to carry out its objectives, so much the better. Bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, a UN military mission to secure the US goal of bringing Sudan under US domination is a welcome development in Washington.

It should be clear that the record of UN and NATO interventions is one in which small conflicts are turned into humanitarian disasters. Gordon Brown, the prime minister of Britain, says Darfur is the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster. There are 200,000 dead in Darfur but there are probably 600,000 dead in Iraq. There are four million refugees in Iraq and far fewer in Darfur. (10)

Liberal public intellectuals like Michael Ignatieff, the former Harvard professor and now aspirant to the job of Canadian prime minister, said a war needed to be waged on Iraq because of what Saddam did to the Kurds. US military intervention under the authorization of the UN was supposed to deliver peace, prosperity, human rights and democracy between the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. What it delivered was something far worse than when Saddam was around. (11)

The solution to Darfur is to stop pressuring the US government to intervene in Sudan and start pressuring the one rebel group that won’t sign a peace accord to do so. Khartoum has sat down with the rebel groups to work out a peace deal and one group has refused to even participate in the talks. Conflicts cannot be resolved if one side is uninterested in peace. Nor can they be resolved if powerful forces are using the conflicts as pretexts to invade and impose sanctions.

If pressure is imposed on the hold-out rebels to arrive at a peace with Khartoum, and peace ensues, what then? Will the activists who agitated for Western intervention in Darfur turn their attention to rescuing the Congo from its humanitarian crisis? Will grassroots pressure be brought to bear on Ethiopia to withdraw from Somalia? And what of Iraq? Will the same people who worked themselves up into high moral dudgeon over Darfur demand immediate withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq? Shouldn’t they demand this first? After all, the dimensions of the Iraq disaster are worse than those of the Darfur disaster, and it is the activists’ own governments that have authored the larger disaster. One would think Americans and Britons would give priority to working for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, rather than channelling their energies into pressing the governments that lied about and created tragedies in Yugoslavia and Iraq to intervene in yet another oil-rich country. Activists have an obligation to understand the institutional patterns of behaviour of their own governments, to inquire into the forces that shape those patterns, and to prevent emotion from undermining reason and analysis. It does no good to allow our own governments and media to mobilize our energies to work on behalf of imperialist goals, while diverting us from projects that are legitimately in the interests of the bulk of humanity.

(1) Michael Parenti, To Kill a Nation, Verso, 2002; Elise Hugus, “Eight Years After NATO’s ‘Humanitarian War’: Serbia’s new ‘third way’”, Z Magazine, April 2007, Volume 20, Number 4.
(2) David Harvey, The New Imperialism, Oxford University Press, 2005.
(3) Nativdad Carrera, “U.S. imperialists increase efforts to recolonize Sudan,” Party for Socialism and Liberation, November 3, 2006, http://www.pslweb.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5949
(4) Parenti; Stephen Gowans, “Genocide or Veracicide: Will NATO’s Lying Ever Stop?” Swans, July 23, 2001, http://www.swans.com/library/art7/gowans02.html
(5) Stephen Gowans, “The Unacknowledged Humanitarian Disaster,” What’s Left, August 1, 2007, https://gowans.wordpress.com/2007/08/01/the-unacknowledged-humanitarian-disaster/
(6) Stephen Gowans, “Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and the Politics of Naming,” What’s Left, July 9, 2007, https://gowans.wordpress.com/2007/07/09/ethiopia-zimbabwe-and-the-politics-of-naming/
(7) Ibid.
(8) Ibid.
(9) Ibid.
(10) The Unacknowledged Humanitarian Disaster
(11) Stephen Gowans, “Ignatieff’s Mea Culpa,” What’s Left, August 5, 2007, https://gowans.wordpress.com/2007/08/05/ignatieff%e2%80%99s-mea-culpa/

Ignatieff’s mea culpa

Even in apologizing for backing the war, Ignatieff defends “imperialism lite”

By Stephen Gowans

Former Harvard professor and now Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff is admitting he made a mistake in backing the 2003 US invasion of Iraq (1). But not because the invasion was based on a fraud, but because the humanitarian goals he and others attributed to the invasion have not been achieved.

Ignatieff’s mea culpa comes on the heels of an Oxfam report that paints a grim and disturbing picture of an Iraq that has become a shocking charnel house, where four million are displaced, infrastructure remains in a shambles, and poverty is rampant. More than Darfur, Iraq is a humanitarian disaster; it is an acute embarrassment for those who plumbed for war on humanitarian grounds, promising the ouster of Saddam Hussein would usher in an era of peace, prosperity and the flowering of human rights between the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates.

That doesn’t mean that Igantieff is backing away from the doctrine of humanitarian intervention he and others championed to justify the “imperialism lite” that has wrought such misery in Iraq. On the contrary, his mea culpa is a defense of the thinly disguised justification for military imperialism left-liberal public intellectuals have promoted since Yugoslavia to elevate wars of conquest waged on behalf of the corporate elite to human rights crusades.

Ignatieff says his support for the war grew from the moment he “saw what Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds (2).” It was at that point he became convinced that Saddam Hussein had to go, and that a war to remove him could be justified on those grounds alone. Others, including Noam Chomsky, also believed the Iraqi leader was a menace whose forced removal from power would constitute a major gain for humanity, though, to be sure, not all of those who shared this view backed the war. With hundreds of thousands dead as a result of the invasion, and a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since WWII, one wonders how many of those who invested the war with moral gravitas by demonizing the Iraqi leader, regret their craven pandering to Washington’s propaganda requirements. I suspect few do.

That doesn’t mean, however, that a few soft-left public intellectuals are not squirming in embarrassment. Ignatieff, for one, can no longer leave unaddressed the uncomfortable gulf between the reality of what the invasion has created and the promises of the war’s ameliorative effects the humanitarian interventionists inveigled the public into accepting.

Ignatieff’s error, he says, was in letting his good intentions cloud his judgment. He didn’t realize it would be so difficult to hold Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites together without “Saddam’s terror” or that it would be impossible to build a “free state” on the foundations of “35 years of police terror.” What’s more, his revulsion at Saddam’s repression of the Kurds (apparently one he doesn’t feel for the Turk’s repression of the same people, at least not enough for him to plead for a war on Turkey on humanitarian grounds) left him blinded to the reality that just “because America defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo (didn’t mean) it had to be doing so in Iraq.”

Ignatieff’s mea culpa has enough references to “Saddam’s terror” to make plain he still regards the invasion as justifiable on moral grounds (as in, it’s all right to kill 600,000 to depose one man from power, especially when he keeps giving away all the oil concessions to the wrong countries.) Moreover, his claim that US intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo represented a defense of human rights and freedom genuflects to the myths upon which the doctrine of humanitarian intervention is built. Ignatieff isn’t apologizing for “imperialism lite”; he’s defending it.

The United States no more defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo than it is doing today in Iraq and Afghanistan, except for the rights of those who own income-producing property and the freedom of US corporations, banks and investors to secure profitable investments, i.e., rights that are against the interests of you and me but are dearly held by those who give Ignatieff high-profile academic posts, open the op-ed pages of the New York Times to him, and encourage him with money and advice in his bid to become Canada’s prime minister.

Ignatieff speaks the language of the bamboozler. It is enough, he knows, to invoke the terms human rights and freedom, without in any way indicating whose rights he’s talking about and what referent he’s pairing freedom with (free to achieve what or be free from what?) to get people to at least acquiesce to the idea of war. This, George Bush, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown also know. And so, in his mea culpa, human rights and freedom get star billing. Ignatieff wants us to believe his intentions, like those of America, were good; it’s just that his zeal to promote human rights and freedom kept him from seeing that Saddam had poisoned the soil in which the US government has so painstakingly tried to plant the seeds of democracy.

It’s impossible to take Ignatieff seriously. His self-appointed role is to justify the US ruling class’s naked pursuit of its class interests by dressing them up in the galvanizing language of humanitarianism to bring the rest of us onboard. His job is to enlist you and me to be the dupes who will sign up to fight in, promote, or acquiesce to, wars Bechtel, Exxon-Mobil, Lockheed-Martin, Chase Manhattan and scores of wealthy investors will profit from.

For this he is amply rewarded with high-profile academic positions, a pulpit in high-circulation establishment newspapers, and financial backing for his dalliances with electoral politics. Were he a German in Hitler’s Germany he would be on Goebbels’s payroll, putting a humanitarian gloss on the Fuehrer’s aggressions; in Mussolini’s Italy he would be demonizing Haile Selassie, pleading for an Abyssinian invasion; and in Tojo’s Japan, he would be calling for the invasion of China to liberate Asia from Western imperialism.

Like the sophists who hired out their forensic skills to the highest bidder, Igantieff is an intellectual whore who trades his credentials and skills of persuasion to shape public opinion in support of his patron’s wars for profits. His mea culpa is no apology; it is simply an attempt to save face now that the humanitarian disaster of Iraq has become an embarrassment that can no longer be ignored.

(1) Michael Ignatieff, “Getting Iraq Wrong”, The New York Times, August 5, 2007.
(2) Ignatieff’s deep feelings of humanitarian solidarity extend only to ethnic minorities whose plights Washington uses as a pretext to intervene in the affairs of other countries. Ignatieff feels sympathy for the Muslim community of Bosnia and ethnic Albanian Kosovars, but not for Palestinians or Lebanese. During the summer, 2006 Israel re-invasion of southern Lebanon, Ignatieff dismissed deaths of Lebanese civilians by Israeli forces as something “he wasn’t losing sleep over.” Globe and Mail, August 31, 2006.

The Unacknowledged Humanitarian Disaster

By Stephen Gowans

In a speech before the UN General Assembly, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called the conflict in Darfur “the greatest humanitarian disaster the world faces today.” (1)

Britain, along with the United States and other Western countries, have been pushing Sudan to accept a beefed up contingent of peacekeepers in Darfur. The new mission, which will operate under UN command, will replace the current African Union mission.

The AU mission represented a compromise between African nations and the West.

“The Americans and Europeans promised…that as long as the Africans deployed in these kinds of situations, (they) would pay for the soldiers and equip them.” (2)

That suited the Sudanese government, which feared the West would use a UN peacekeeping mission to re-colonize Sudan.

But Washington wasn’t pleased. The Bush administration complained of “the pervasive role played by the government of Sudan in Sudan’s petroleum and petrochemical industries,” describing Khartoum’s stewardship of the country’s oil resources as a threat to “U.S. national security and foreign policy interests.” (3)

Western financial support for the AU mission began to dry up. Soon after, Washington started to call for a UN force, arguing that the (underfinanced) AU mission was too small and too underequiped to be effective.

After months of pressure, cajoling and threats from Washington, the UN Security Council finally gave Washington want it wanted. It authorized the deployment of 26,000 soldiers and police to Darfur under UN, not AU, command.

Brown’s describing the conflict in Darfur as “the greatest humanitarian disaster the world faces today” was intended to raise support for the new UN mission.

But is Darfur really the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster?

Not by a long shot. There are many humanitarian disasters, but few are as great as one Brown’s own government shares a large part in creating: Iraq.

“Iraq’s civilians are suffering from a denial of fundamental human rights in the form of chronic poverty, malnutrition, illness, lack of access to basic services, and destruction of homes, vital facilities, and infrastructure, as well as injury and death,” (4) reported Oxfam International just days before Brown declared Darfur the world’s principal humanitarian disaster.

Eight million Iraqis – one-third of the population – “are in urgent need of water, sanitation, food and shelter.” Seven in 10 do not have adequate access to potable water, up from 50 percent in 2003, when US and British forces invaded on fraudulent grounds. More than one-quarter of children are malnourished, up from 19 percent in 2003. (5)

It’s unclear how many people have been displaced by fighting in Darfur. The UN says 686,000. (6) Other estimates reach as high as 2.5 million. While these figures are alarming, they’re not as alarming as the figures for Iraq. Some four million Iraqis have fled their homes since the US and Britain invaded, the greatest refugee crisis in the Middle East ever, topping the Nakbah of 1948 and as great as the refugee crises of WWII Europe.

An estimated 200,000 have died in Darfur, most from malnutrition. But in Iraq, a 2006 Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study estimated there had been between 426,000 and 794,000 excess civilian deaths since the start of the invasion in 2003. (7) Considering there were 150,000 civilian deaths as a result of the Gulf War, 1.5 million deaths as a result of 13 years of sanctions, and somewhere in the order of 650,000 deaths as a result of the latest Anglo-American war on Iraq, the total death toll reaches as high as 2.3 million.

The US and Britain are the authors of this unacknowledged disaster – a disaster on a greater scale than the one that bedevils Darfur. Who, but the truly naïve, would believe a UN Security Council dominated by the US and Britain can solve – or indeed, is even genuinely interested in solving — the crisis in Darfur?

(1) New York Times, August 1, 2007.
(2) John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group, Washington Post, May 12, 2007.
(3) Cited in Nativdad Carrera, “U.S. imperialists increase efforts to recolonize Sudan,” Party for Socialism and Liberation, November 3, 2006.
(4) The Washington Post, July 31, 2007.
(5) The Independent, July 30, 2007.
(6) Guardian, June 23, 2007.
(7) New York Times, October 11, 2006.