Playing the genocide card

The Politics of Genocide, an unflinching attack on Western meddling in foreign affairs, challenges the idea that external intervention can be a force for good.

Tara McCormack

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What does it mean to oppose Western intervention and military campaigns today? In a sense, it appears to be a mainstream position, as the million-strong protests against the Iraq War showed. Anti-war sentiments are not only found amongst certain protest-prone sections of the public; they are also expressed amongst the highest echelons of the political class. For instance, UK prime minister David Cameron recently accused Israel of creating an open-air prison in Gaza, and Lib-Con deputy prime minister Nick Clegg claims to have been against the Iraq War form the outset. Clare Short, who was a key member of the New Labour administration, never tires of denouncing the military intervention in Iraq as a form of neo-imperialism.

However, while a kind of ersatz anti-interventionism and criticism of government propaganda is now mainstream in relation to Iraq, critiquing Western powers’ meddling in other conflicts – such as those in the Former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sudan – invites serious charges, including comparisons with Holocaust denial. These conflicts have become fixed moral signifiers in an age otherwise ridden with moral and political uncertainty. They have come to be understood as simple cases of good vs evil, conflagrations that have sprung up in previously harmonious societies, in which one side, driven by vicious ethnic hatred, attempts to exterminate their fellow citizens. To speak of political root causes or the impact of external intervention here will invite derision and fury – and in particular from those on the left.

In fact, one of the most striking aspects about the Western response to the conflicts in the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in particular was the way in which large sections of the left abandoned some core left-wing positions on foreign policy. There was a religious-style conversion to the merits of Western intervention. Erased from memory was the recent history of the West in the developing world (and in the poorer states of Europe): the exploitation, the establishment of murderous ‘friendly’ regimes, the role of the West in creating instability and war. In the 1990s, many on the left claimed that in the post-Cold War era, Western states could be a ‘force for good’ in the world. Demands for ‘humanitarian intervention’ became common; such intervention symbolised for many a new progressive post-national politics. Conflicts were no longer interpreted through a political framework, but through a moral one of victims and aggressors, innocents and ‘genocidaires‘.

Certainly no one could accuse Edward Herman and David Peterson, authors of The Politics of Genocide, of being part of the new left that cheers on the humanitarian potential of Western guns and bombs. At times, their book reads like an old-school, left-wing polemic against Western intervention and the way in which the killing of millions by the West is widely ignored or accepted as a necessary evil.

The fundamental point of their book is that all killings are not treated as equal. We might assume that, in an era in which human rights are meant to be triumphant and the rule of law is supposedly being spread by supranational institutions such as the International Criminal Court, all ‘crimes against humanity’ will be judged equally. Yet mass murder committed by the US and its allies tends either not to be regarded as such or to be deemed as necessary for the greater good, as part of the fight against terrorism, the suppression of women, and so on.

Herman and Peterson begin with a discussion of what they term a ‘constructive genocide’: the sanctions inflicted on Iraq during the 1990s. The consequences of these sanctions have remained little discussed, despite later widespread opposition to military intervention. Yet this collective punishment of a nation resulted in the collapse of what had been a more or less developed country and in the deaths of hundreds of thousands due to extremely harsh limits on everything from medical equipment to basic tools.

In 1996, Madeleine Albright, then US secretary of state, was asked in a television interview if she thought that the reported deaths of half a million Iraqi children due to sanctions was a price worth paying. She replied that she did indeed think so. And, not content with the deaths of half a million Iraqi children, Albright went on to play a key part in the bombing of Serbia in 1999. In light of the ever-tightening sanctions on Iran by the Obama administration, this should give pause for thought to anyone who thinks that non-military intervention is more ‘humane’.

Herman and Peterson describe other mass killings as ‘benign bloodbaths’ – those committed by Western allies and which are far removed from normal media outrage, like the thousands of Turkish Kurds killed by Turkey during the 1980s and 1990s. While the US, under the Clinton administration, and the UK, under the Tony Blair-led New Labour government, were regularly bombing Iraq during the 1990s to enforce a ‘no-fly’ zone, ostensibly in order to protect Iraq’s Kurdish population, Turkey was engaging in a military campaign against its own Kurdish population. Turkey even regularly bombed the adjoining Kurdish area of Iraq, its military planes taking off from the same airport that British and American planes would take off from to patrol the ‘no fly’ zone in defence of Kurds…

Herman and Peterson also discuss the massacres committed by Indonesia after its occupation of East Timor in 1975. Whilst East Timor became a fashionable humanitarian cause in 1999 and 2000, journalists had largely ignored Western complicity in the arming and installing of General el-Haj Mohammed Suharto as leader of Indonesia as part of US-backed coup in the mid-1960s. Today, some of the key figures in the contemporary human-rights crusading brand of journalism, such as Samantha Power, Roy Gutman and Christiane Amanpour, simply tend to ignore Western-backed violence in their fiery polemics alerting the world to ‘war crimes’ and ‘human rights abuse’. As always, all rights are not equal and whether or not the world will pay attention to your plight depends on your relationship to powerful states.

In a sense, Herman and Peterson’s discussions of Iraq, Turkey, Indonesia and Latin America go over old ground. However, their arguments about Rwanda, Yugoslavia and Darfur threaten some of the most cherished certainties of the post-Cold War left. They argue that the wars in Yugoslavia have been completely misrepresented by the West as a simple tale of evil nationalistic Serbs seeking to exterminate innocent Muslims. And much of what has been accepted as indisputable fact has turned out to be totally fabricated. For example, the death toll has been vastly inflated and Serbs have been wrongly accused of setting up ‘rape camps’.

It is a little-known fact that the biggest single act of ‘ethnic cleansing’ during the Yugoslav civil wars was conducted by Croatian forces (trained by American private military contractors and supported by NATO jets) in 1995, when Croatia expelled the Serbian population of the Krajina region. But Serbs had been so demonised by the Western media by then that little attention was paid to the event other than perhaps to say that they got what they deserved. This was not considered an act of ‘genocide’, nor was it brought up at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Yet the expulsion of 250,000 Serbs from Croatia was, in Herman and Peterson’s terminology, a ‘benign bloodbath’.

The same process of propaganda and misrepresentation occurred in Kosovo in 1999. At least this time there were some vocal critics in the UK against Western intervention and against the way in which the conflict was being presented. Figures in the British Labour Party, such as Tony Benn, Tam Dalyell and Alice Mahon, were very vocal in their arguments against the NATO bombing and against the demonisation of the Serbs. At the time Clare Short, self-professed anti-war heroine during the Iraq invasion, compared her critical colleagues to Nazi appeasers.

As for the 1994 killings in Rwanda, Herman and Peterson suggest these may have been even more misrepresented than the Yugoslav wars. The events in Rwanda have been portrayed as one of the greatest acts of evil in the twentieth century, an event of unimaginable barbarism. The accepted narrative is simple: genocidal Hutus launched a sudden and inexplicable attack on fellow Tutsi citizens, massacring hundreds of thousands until stopped by the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) led by Paul Kagame. Herman and Peterson argue that this turns the real history of the conflict on its head. Kagame and the RPF, trained by American forces, in fact launched an invasion and occupation of Rwanda.

Any kind of evidence that has challenged the established tale has been quashed or dropped. For example, research done by the academics initially sponsored by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTFR) revealed that by far greater numbers were killed in areas controlled by the RPF than in those controlled by government forces. In 1994, a UN investigation and report commissioned by the UN High Commission for Refugees found similar patterns, but was subsequently suppressed. When a former ICTFR investigator brought forward evidence that the infamous assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana (supposedly a signal for the Hutu attacks to commence) was actually perpetrated by members of the RPF (which would clearly challenge the entire Western presentation of the conflict), chief prosecutor Louise Arbour dismissed his evidence. She argued that it was not within the remit of the ICTFR.

Kagame has gone on to rule Rwanda with an iron fist, killing thousands of Hutu refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and has been a key actor, along with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, in the destabilisation and looting of the DRC. In his spare time, Kagame hangs out with members of the global elite, such as former US president Bill Clinton, Microsoft-millionaire Bill Gates, and Starbucks-founder Howard Schultz.

The Politics of Genocide is a compact, sharp and unflinching attack on Western aggression, demolishing the propaganda that has structured Western orthodoxies around international conflicts. The only caveat is that Herman and Peterson raise several questions that they do not, in the end, answer. For instance, to the authors the explanation for post-Cold War Western involvement, deception and propaganda is simply ‘business as usual’ – the pursuit of Western interests. But when it comes to Iraq and Rwanda, for instance, it is unclear exactly what interests were at stake for the West.

Herman and Peterson argue that America sponsored Kagame as he was a willing ally, yet Habyarimana was not in the slightest hostile to Western interests. As for Saddam Hussein, he in no way threatened Western interests – quite the opposite, he was a loyal ally. Even his invasion of Kuwait was done with America’s knowledge. Yet Western powers turned Saddam into a pariah and began to stop Iraq from selling its oil.

In order to understand contemporary Western intervention we have to move beyond an assumption that material interests lie at the heart of it and reconsider the realities of the post-Cold War political context.

Tara McCormack is a lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester. She is author of Critique, Security and Power: The Political Limits to Critical and Emancipatory Approaches to Security, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

The Politics of Genocide, by Edward S Herman and David Peterson, is published by Monthly Review Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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