Humanitarian interventionists dig in

In his new book Anti-Totalitarianism, Oliver Kamm makes a shrill and inconsistent defence of the Iraq war.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

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Two weeks ago, a motley gathering of parliamentarians, pundits and academics announced themselves as the Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson Society in the Palace of Westminster. A small flurry of newspaper reports tried to divine the meaning of the argument they initiated over the discipline of International Relations, and its relevance to their political allegiances (1).

Among them were Labour MPs Gisela Stuart and Denis MacShane, as well as Tory Michael Gove and Ulster Unionist David Trimble: something of a broad church (2). Testing for the reporters was the proposition that the Henry Jackson Society were critics of something called ‘realism’ (sometimes ‘cynical’ or ‘hands-off realism’) and supporters of liberal internationalism.

Easier to understand was that this was a rally in support of the government’s war in Iraq. But muddying the waters again was the question: left wing, or right wing? To help us understand this mess of labels comes the Henry Jackson Society’s own Oliver Kamm, sometime Times contributor and prolific blogger, with his book Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy (Social Affairs Unit).

Unfortunately, Kamm’s college debating style, lively enough by the page, is quite incoherent overall. It is more confusing than elucidating that Kamm and his fellows have pinned their political argument on an interminable difference in the academic discipline of International Relations: that between so-called realists and liberal internationalists.

The realists in IR take the nation state, pursuing its interests, to be the irreducible element of international relations, and so set a relatively high store by the concept of state sovereignty. They tend to be sceptical of state-building and democratisation programmes. They have been heard to counsel the foreign policy objective of maintaining a ‘balance of power’, and rejecting the idea of permanent alliances.

By contrast, liberal internationalists see the moral case against despotism abroad as a principle that trumps sovereignty. They reject the monopoly of states over international relations, pointing to other actors, the many international non-governmental organisations, like Human Rights Watch. They want to see international institutions enforce justice against recalcitrant states.

The trouble with trying to understand world conflict and diplomacy in these terms is that neither school fully captures the essence of the issue. Rather, both emphasise one-sidedly different aspects of international society. The realists are right that as long as political power is not globally unified, then states are obliged to compromise with one another, or to go to war. And the liberal internationalists are right that nations cannot hold on to their own ideals without aspiring to universalise them, by exporting them abroad, at the same time. Both are, in their own way, expressions of the imperfect form of modern society, fragmented into competing nation states. Any attempt to see through either a wholly realist or wholly internationalist policy will end in confusion.

It is disingenuous of Kamm to insist that his is a ‘left-wing case’ – by his own account his Labour Party membership lapsed many years ago, and so far his sole political intervention has been to support his uncle Martin Bell’s anti-party campaign in the Tatton by-election, and to endorse the pro-war Tory candidate in his constituency in 2005. He makes an attempt to ground his liberal internationalism in the Cold War Atlanticism of Labour’s right (hence the nod to the Democratic Party’s Cold Warrior Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson). But the formative event in Kamm’s thinking is the Conservative government’s failure in 1992 to support military intervention against Slobodan Milosevic’s regime in the Former Yugoslavia.

It was then that Kamm, and many others, framed their arguments in terms of liberal internationalism (that is, military action) as opposed to the ‘cynical realism’ attributed to John Major, and his foreign secretary Douglas Hurd. In Anti-Totalitarianism, Kamm rehearses the historical parallels between Tory appeasement of Hitler in 1939 and Tory appeasement of Milosevic in 1992 – as well as projecting forwards to damn opponents of the Iraq war as appeasers of that other Hitler, Saddam Hussein. These are, of course, absurd parallels that mangle any sense of the specifics of each case. But that is the shortcoming of abstract moral categories. They soak up any empirical content, annihilating the real differences between circumstances.

What makes Kamm’s argument sound so shrill, though, is not its logic, but the shifting sands of public opinion. In the 1990s the case for humanitarian intervention was, if not exactly popular, occupying the moral high ground of politics. For the chattering classes, Major’s failure over Bosnia was emblematic of his government’s exhaustion, and the case for humanitarian intervention was like pushing at an open door. On taking office in 1997, Labour vindicated the liberal internationalists by instituting an ‘ethical foreign policy’ that eschewed the mere pursuit of national interests.

Since then, however, the tide has turned. Growing disenchantment with Tony Blair’s support for the American campaign in Iraq finds the liberal internationalist case on the back foot. The same chattering classes that sounded off against inaction in the former Yugoslavia have been marching against the war in Iraq. Much of the argument is the same, but the interventionist case is no longer getting a free ride on popular disenchantment with the government. Rather the opposite – the disconnect between politicians and people takes the follies of the Iraq war as its main bone of contention.

The sands shifting beneath the case for intervention have led to some re-naming of the arguments. The case for war is no longer called ‘liberal internationalism’, but ‘neoconservatism’ – principally by its critics. That is useful for those mostly left-wing critics of the war who want to differentiate their own previous support for action against Milosevic from George W Bush’s war against Saddam.

In fact, the Bush administration had both realists and idealists in foreign policy. ‘Foreign policy in a Republican administration will … proceed from the firm ground of the national interest, not from the interests of an illusory international community’, promised Condoleezza Rice (3). Conversely, the supporters of the Project for the American Century, like Richard Perle, wanted to see the export of democracy across the Middle East. Before 11 September 2001, the main complaint made against the administration in Europe was that it was disengaging from international commitments. After 9/11 the need to project American values under fire saw the idealists gain the upper hand. They had to have a name, and so they were called neoconservatives, having mostly been supporters of Ronald Reagan.

Oliver Kamm’s thesis rightly emphasises the continuity between the liberal internationalists of the Nineties and the neoconservative case for exporting democracy in the new millennium – hence ‘the left-wing case for a neoconservative foreign policy’.

But he cannot sustain the argument that he is for liberal internationalism against cynical realism. The great advantage of the moral critique of the shabby compromises of power was that it was never tested in practice. Liberal internationalism remained a debating point, not a policy. But now that the policy has been put into practice all the repulsive details of waging war are unavoidable. Worse still, they are amplified by squeals of outrage from the middle classes, out of love with Tony Blair.

It is no good Kamm (or David Aaronovitch or Stephen Pollard) wringing their hands over torture in Abu Ghraib, or the continuing insecurity and loss of life in Iraq. Now that the policy has been put into practice it is no use continuing to talk about an ideal of humanitarian intervention: this is it.

Worse still, the arguments, never as robust as they appeared, are quickly falling apart under pressure and Kamm’s snidey blogging style is not really equal to the task of holding them together. He struggles to recover the moral high ground of the 1990s, but over and again cuts his cloth to suit practical realities today. Stung by association with Tony B. Liar, Kamm assumes the pompous officialese of the barrack-room lawyer: ‘It seems plausible that Tony Blair persuaded himself of the cogency of the intelligence conclusions about Saddam’s WMD, where a more empirically minded person would have demurred.’ Recalling that this is supposed to be a defence of Blair, Kamm insists that such an approach is ‘far from being a disqualification for political office; on this issue it may be an asset’. Note to Kamm: when you are in a hole, stop digging.

Kamm says he is for exporting democracy, but not, because ‘democracy may be the tool of the illiberal…as would be the case if, say, the Islamists were to win in Iraq’. Retreating to the position that liberty (which seems to reduce pretty much to the liberty of Westerners to purchase Iraqi assets) is more important than democracy, Kamm ties himself in knots again: ‘The inevitable abridgements of liberty that a military campaign requires are not sufficiently well-designed to allow us to maintain for long the appearance – and reality – of fairness and due process.’ Which tortured prose means that fairness and due process are suspended for the duration. How long? ‘The anti-totalitarian struggle is one that will probably last decades’ and ‘what are initially designed as emergency measures may, therefore, last indefinitely’. All of which sounds suspiciously like George Orwell’s perennial war-emergency in Nineteen-Eighty Four.

And lastly, of course, Kamm has to abandon his intellectual affiliation to liberal internationalism. Understanding that the liberal critique of this war that runs ‘why not in Sudan?’ presents an infinity of obligation, the Henry Jackson Society must compromise with reality and ‘accept that we have to have priorities’ (4). For Kamm, the importance is to close down the anti-war argument that the international community, not America or Britain, ought to be the instrument of justice. So he retreats to the realist position that ‘the international order, unlike a constitutional democracy, is anarchic’. In fact, he thinks that it is a ‘good thing’, as well as ‘an inevitable feature of modern international politics’ that ‘there is no supra-national body that exercises sovereignty’.

Indeed, Kamm also retreats from the idea that it is possible to build democratic states, citing coalition authority adviser Noah Feldman’s argument that we only ‘have an obligation to stay in Iraq until its government has a monopoly of force’. Are some now suggesting that Saddam’s crime was not the denial of democracy or liberty to his people, but that he was no longer trusted to maintain the monopoly of force?

It is true that Kamm digs out some of the more absurd allegiances of the Stop the War Coalition, like their soft spot for Islamism. But Kamm cannot resist calling anyone who is not 100 per cent with him an appeaser of fascism. Worse still, his columnist’s preference for the provocative argument over coherence undermines even that line of attack. In an aside that I thought had to have been inserted by a malevolent Trotskyist typesetter, Kamm veers off into a historical defence of…the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. With all the authority of the newly opened Moscow archives, he insists that the Republic was nothing more than an outpost of ‘Stalin’s foreign policy’, whereas ‘Franco’s was a vicious, clerical reactionary despotism, but with regionally circumscribed significance’ – or as Kamm means it, the lesser evil.

James Heartfield is a member of the Sovereignty and its Discontents workgroup. Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy by Oliver Kamm is published by the Social Affairs Unit, 2005.

(1) David Clark, ‘The Neoconservative temptation beckoning Britain’s bitter liberals’, Guardian, 21 November 2005

(2) ‘Statement of Principles’, Henry Jackson Society website. The Society’s ‘international patrons’ are more clearly drawn from the right wing of American politics, like former Rumsfeld advisor Richard Perle, ex-CIA head James Woolsey, foreign policy-wonk Robert Kagan and US Conservative William Kristol.

(3) Foreign Affairs, January 2000

(4) ‘Statement of Principles’, Henry Jackson Society website.

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Topics Politics


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