Myths of “humanitarian” imperialism

By Stephen Gowans

Timothy Garton Ash, a columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian, has called on “people outside Zimbabwe” to “help the majority inside Zimbabwe have its democratic will recognized” by doing seven things, the first of which is to press their governments for stronger sanctions on Zimbabwe. Ash’s column is titled, “We don’t need guns to help the people pitch Mugabe from his perch.”

Ash’s argument, a call for “liberal” or “humanitarian” imperialism, is based on a false premise. It is also morally repugnant.

False premise: The idea that a majority in Zimbabwe is awaiting the help of Westerners is at odds with reality. If you check, you’ll discover that the governing Zanu-PF party won the popular vote in the March 29 elections, but owing to Zimbabwe’s first past the post system, won fewer seats than the MDC did. It would be more accurate to say that somewhat less than 50 percent of Zimbabweans would welcome the MDC coming to power, and fewer than that, I suspect, would welcome further misery from a stepped up Western intervention.

Morally repugnant: Ash’s argument amounts to this: Imperialism is fine, just so long as it isn’t pursued by military means. Lay aside his eagerness to outrage the sovereignty of Zimbabwe, but not, say, Ethiopia, whose brutal Meles’ regime steals elections, locks up the opposition, and has invaded and occupied Somalia, on behalf of London and Washington. People ought to ask themselves why they’ve heard so much about Zimbabwe, but not Ethiopia.

Non-military interventions can be just as harmful, if not more so, than military ones. The international sanctions regime imposed on Iraq led to the excess deaths of more than a million people, deaths caused by Western countries whose governments lied their only concern was freeing Iraqis from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, and then freed numberless Iraqis from life (and, if Washington and London get their way, from the benefits of their oil wealth.) Sanctions were denounced as sanctions of mass destruction, as devastating as campaigns of carpet bombing. No one should delude themselves into thinking that non-military interventions are free from grim humanitarian consequences.

Ash’s appeal for intervention, then, is based on three myths: (1) that a majority of Zimbabweans are opposed to the Mugabe government and would welcome Western intervention; (2) imperialism without guns is better than imperialism with guns; (3) Western intervention in Zimbabwe (which has already happened on a massive scale through funding of the opposition by Western governments and corporate foundations, and though financial isolation of the country) is motivated by humanitarian, not, imperialist goals (otherwise, why no indignant calls for intervention in Ethiopia — or in Egypt, where the president has hung on to power for as long as Mugabe has, but acts to promote British and US foreign policy goals?)

While it’s bad enough that the heirs of British colonialism press for neo-colonial interventions, it’s even worse when they wrap up their arguments in a tissue of myths.

5 thoughts on “Myths of “humanitarian” imperialism

  1. for this past yr or so, guardian’s “comment is free” was all about darfur [the genocide olympic] , burma, zim, tibet, china, sort of like saturation bombing 24 x 7.
    actually it was all about china — every one of these “basket case” was blamed on china.
    makes one wonder, is it merely coincidence that uk’s “most progressive” paper and uncle sham seem to be reading from the same script ?

    i had quite a number of posts deleted by the moderator there.
    the cif has just revamped itself into a new face, after this “upgrade”, the comments take eternity to load, often never at all. however, many threads are credited with a few hundreds of comments , apparently others dont encounter the same problem as me with the new design

  2. WSWS and the demonisation of Robert Mugabe continues.

    My letter to WSWS

    The talbot article:
    Ann talbot has written :
    ‘Such was the hostility to ZANU-PF that the MDC won a victory in the March elections against their own expectations. But it does not enjoy the type of active mass support that would allow it to combat Mugabe’s repression. Its aim has always been to win power courtesy of US and British backing for regime change. Even the MDC’s most active supporters are flocking to the MDC headquarters for protection only to be carried off to torture camps by the military’

    what torture camps? Care to provide any evidence? Why do you suppose in spite of the media demonisation Mugabe and ZANU are still so popular? Thats because the people of Zimbabwe understand they are for the people. MDC is for the neocolonial ambitions of US UK and Australia
    SHAME on WSWS for being a echo chamber of western propaganda.

    And again. WSWS MUST prove its allegations of torture camps.

    I will be posting this around the internet.


  3. Thanks for the article Stephen. Ive also posted replies to Gartons Garden Comment is Free hit piece.

    keep up the good work.

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