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.