There is no need to beat around the bush and no need to preach to the choir about this subject, about which so much has already been written. The thesis of “humanitarian intervention,” also known as “military humanism”—which consists of the argument that when faced with grave human violations committed at the national level, the “international community” reserves the right to undertake a military intervention—is an argument that has been used to legitimate a series of military initiatives taken by the United States, first in Bosnia and Kosovo, and then in Afghanistan and Iraq. More generally, premises such as “humanitarian intervention” and “the responsibility to protect” serve as rhetorical tools for garnering support for the United States as the hegemon of international capitalism.
In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, in rejuvenating the myth of “benevolent imperialism,” or to put it differently, “the white man’s burden,” deliberations about “humanitarian intervention” and “the responsibility to protect” have played a key role. The weakness of the socialist movement on a global scale, coupled with the humanitarian disasters generated by international crises, have unfortunately compelled some segments of the left to view such interventions of the “international community” in a relatively positive light.
These deliberations over “humanitarian intervention” have reemerged with the wave of Arab revolutions, first in Libya, and now in Syria, along with the use of chemical weapons in the latter case. Of course, a large segment of the Left, especially in the aftermath of the US occupation of Iraq, which resulted in a massive humanitarian disaster, is quite clear about the hypocrisy behind the arguments about “humanitarian intervention” or “the responsibility to protect.” Yet what is problematic is the fact that fundamental differences between the devastating aggression the US directed at Afghanistan and Iraq, on the one hand, and the imperialist interventions executed in Libya and still being deliberated over in the case of Syria, on the other hand, are not sufficiently discussed. In other words, we have not had a serious debate about the specific conjuncture in which imperialist aggression is taking place, and about the particular shifts in power relations that are shaping this conjuncture.
A significant part of the Left has viewed the current situation in Syria (and in some cases, even the entirety of the “Arab Spring” process) as a continuation of the attempt by the United States to “recolonize” the region—that is, as a “sequel” to the 2003 Iraq War. As will be remembered, imperialist aggression against Afghanistan, and especially against Iraq, had mobilized the Left on a world scale, provoking a truly global and massive anti-war movement. Quite a few would still claim today that the main responsibility of the Left consists entirely in building a barricade against US aggression and imperialist interventionism in “the region.”
Such an assessment is incorrect, however, not because imperialism has suddenly disappeared or because the sun of imperialist interventionism has set for good on Middle Eastern horizons. It is incorrect because we currently find ourselves, not in the post-9/11, but instead in the post-Tahrir conjuncture. At present, we are not confronted with a political landscape where Arab peoples are simply the passive victims of imperialist aggression; rather, they have themselves risen up, with all their constraints, problems, and regressions. Of course there will be imperialist interventions against this process; however, what characterizes this period are not the pre-emptive imperialist interventions, but the people’s movements that provoke them.
In other words, the matter is not simply about emphasizing imperialist interests, manipulations, and aggressions. Rather, it is about refusing to transform this just emphasis into a “memorized slogan,” independent of the concrete conjuncture and of the particular social struggles that are a part of existing power relations. To paraphrase Lenin, ignoring the specific historical conditions of political and strategic relations, and repeatedly invoking the word “imperialism” without discrimination in assessing particular situations, is anything but Marxism. In other words, failing to take account of the particular constellation of power relations in which imperial aggression is staged means underestimating anti-imperialist struggles themselves.
To put it bluntly, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars are best understood as interventions aimed at consolidating the US control over fossil fuel resources, hence deepening its already hegemonic position against potential rivals in a very wide region. Libya (and, in a limited and more indirect manner, Syria) is, on other hand, better approached as pre-emptive actions to manage and take control over a wave of uprisings developed outside the frame of imperialism. The purpose of the Libya intervention, legitimized on “humanitarian” grounds, was not to take control of fossil fuel resources (they were already “under control”). It was rather to establish control over the political and social turbulence in the region, and to smother the wave of people’s movements and uprisings, under the framework of imperialism.
Another important point is that the interventions in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan were forged while the US was at its imperial climax, during “a moment of singular polarity” when it had emerged out of the Cold War as the victorious Imperium. The deliberations over an intervention in Syria, on the other hand, are taking place at a time when an international crisis of capitalism has rippled through the imperial chain, and when changes in the hierarchical sequence of that chain seem more than likely. (It is on these grounds, and not because of Obama’s lack of perception or Putin’s diplomatic talent, that the US has been facing serious difficulties as far as this intervention in Syria is concerned—but that constitutes the topic of a different article.)
Taking stock of the vast differences between the interventions carried out when the capacity of the United States was at its climax, on the one hand, and those executed or deliberated at a time when the US is confronted with an indecisive and relative decline, on the other, is crucially important in enabling a revolutionary-radical Left to develop a regional strategy. If our task is to reach some political interpretations, representing and analyzing atrocious examples of imperialist interventionism that were carried out in two drastically different world-historical eras as if they are extensions of the same process of imperialism constitutes a grave mistake. Characterizing the already-executed intervention in Libya and the still-being-deliberated one in Syria as simple or unmediated extensions and continuations of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, in other words, ignores and sidelines the concrete situation on the ground, shaped by the generative forces of a variety of factors (especially given the surfacing of mass-scale people’s movements).
Ten years ago, the construction of an anti-war movement was a fundamental and defining factor in the struggle against US imperialism. Given the new situation in the region today, however, the construction of an anti-war movement could only be imagined in light of other “functions” of such a movement. The Post-Cold War Left across the region has found itself in a state of hopeless self-defense. With the current crisis of capitalism and the relative decline in the United States’ effect and capacity in the region, as well as the blossoming of popular uprisings and dissent, truly new and previously non-existent political spaces are being opened up.
Under these circumstances, it is no longer possible to retain only a defensive stance aimed at maintaining the present conditions in the face of imperialist intervention, as it was done in the early 2000s. The era in which we find ourselves (one that we became a part of in Turkey, through the rise of the Gezi Resistance) opens up a new political space that is imbued with the possibility of upsetting taken-for-granted power relations, leading to sudden and “unexpected” social uprisings. Therefore, we cannot make do with defense alone. The task we are confronted with now should compel us to show the skills of uniting in solidarity the labor union organizing of unemployed youth in Tunisia, the labor movement in Egypt, the human rights activists in Bahrain, local organizational initiatives in Syria (however weak they might seem), and, most critically, the social awakening and uprising in Rojava. What has been happening in Egypt over the course of the past month and a half should make it clear to us all how tightly the fates of all struggles in the region are imbricated with one another. In brief, we need, today more than ever, a regional analytic horizon, a regional strategy that includes some spatial attacks as well as defense, and a “practical” internationalism.
Since we are on the topic of “humanitarian intervention,” it might be helpful to open a parenthesis here: the real and potential stances of socialist movements toward anti-imperialist intervention often take shape based on a highly problematic political conceptualization. To put it plainly, an overwhelming majority of such stances rest on arguments crafted through the inherited jargon of the post-Westphalia inter-state legal order. Socialists’ opposition to international intervention, in other words, rests more often than not on the concept of “national sovereignty.” The principles of such an order include, among others, the inalterability of international borders, as well as non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state—principles that are being invoked in the case of Syria, for instance.
But the fundamental premise of a socialist movement’s opposition to imperialist intervention should not be the state or the nation, but rather class relations on national and international scales, and the power relations that the former generates for the latter. Let me be clear: Some principles of international law should definitely be invoked when one is confronted with clear imperialist aggression, in order to exhibit and reveal the underpinning dynamics of such imperialism. That said, the socialist stance should not be defined through national borders that have been constructed by the rules, principles, and organizations of the inter-state legal order. Neither the principle of the inalterability of borders nor that of non-interference in internal affairs should emerge as the crowning principles of a socialist opposition. A revolutionary stance that truly deserves the adjective of “internationalist,” more often than not, has necessitated and will again necessitate the violation of such principles. Hence the fundamental parameters of the socialist movement cannot, should not, rely on the premises and principles of an inter-state legal order—which itself needs to be defined in the last instance with the adjective “bourgeois.”
[An earlier version of this article was first published, in Turkish, on fotibenlisoy.tumblr.com; it can be found here. It was translated from Turkish by Emrah Yildiz.]