Incinerated Iraqi soldier on the 'Highway of Death', 1991; despite Iraq having already agreed to pull out of Kuwait and its forces leaving, the US attacked the departing Iraqis, bombing, strafing and incinerating them for hours

Incinerated Iraqi soldier on the ‘Highway of Death’, 1991; despite Iraq having already agreed to pull out of Kuwait and its forces leaving, the US attacked the departing Iraqis, bombing, strafing and incinerating them for hours

This article was written 18 years ago and appeared in just the second issue of revolution magazine (June/July 1997). Its analysis of the trend to greater imperialist intervention in the Third World remains startlingly relevant, along with its argument that an anti-imperialist movement is badly needed in this country. The introduction to the original article stated, “Over the past few years there has been a dramatic increase in Western military intervention in the Third World. At the same time there appears to have been a collapse of opposition within the West to such intervention.” In the reprint below we have added about a few words in several places – about a dozen words altogether – in order to clarify a couple of points for a 2015 audience.

by Grant Pheloung and Phil Duncan

Today, imperialism is on the rampage. Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s, the Western powers had a hard time justifying themselves, they now intervene wherever and whenever they like. The US administration openly discussed when it should invade Haiti, for instance, with few voices of dissent being heard. Similarly, the West intervened in Somalia with scarcely a word of criticism or public protest. From Albania to Zaire to Papua New Guinea, Western powers discuss or carry out direct intervention. Meanwhile, the International War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague churns out its predictable verdict against Serb Dusko Tadic for ‘crimes against humanity’.

The absence of protests against the sham trials in the Hague and the imperialist logic behind them, Western intervention in ex-Yugoslavia, US bombings of the Serbs and the deployment of 20,000 US ground troops, are indicative of the degree of the collapse of radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, in New Zealand the left groups which fell over themselves to join the middle class populist outrage over French testing failed to organise a single protest against the 18-month deployment of NZ troops in Bosnia. It is now generally accepted that the West has the right to tell people in the Third World how to conduct their affairs and to send in its armed forces whenever it wants.

How has this situation come about and what can we do to change it?

There are three main factors explaining the new situation: the collapse of the Soviet bloc; the growing economic and political malaise within the main Western powers; and the disintegration of traditional opposition currents such as national liberation movements in the Third World and ‘peace’ groups and ‘the left’ within the main capitalist powers.

Soviet collapse

The claim that the Soviet bloc and ‘communism’ were the obstacles to peace and that their removal would bring a new era of harmony to world relations has been revealed as a lie of the Western powers. While the collapse of the Soviet bloc is welcome, the main result of this in terms of international relations is that the West now has an unrestricted hand to intervene in the Third World.

The United Nations, for example, has increasingly been reduced to little more than a wing of the US State Department. Countries long exploited and oppressed by imperialism are now even more under the heel and more likely to be invaded if they step out of line.

At the same time, the Soviet bloc’s implosion has served to strengthen the hand of Western financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank. Attempts by Third World countries to find a road between capitalism and socialism – always a utopian project – can no longer depend on Soviet material assistance. Moreover, ideas that there is an economic model based on planning as opposed to the free market have also fallen into disfavour.

Impasse in the West

Yet while the Western powers appear to have won the Cold War, the major capitalist societies themselves have reached an impasse. Economic slump is more and more combined with a loss of authority by traditional institutions, many of them put in place during the Cold War. There is a combined economic and political malaise in most of the countries in the West today.

Unable to solve the problems of economic slump and political disintegration in their own countries, the Western ruling classes seek to shore up their authority by waving the big stick in the Third World. They try to re-establish their ‘moral’ credentials by demonising impoverished countries and peoples.

Another key element in this Western malaise, which is also related to the collapse of the Soviet bloc and restoration of capitalism in China, is that the tensions between the main capitalist powers – generally submerged during the Cold War – are now coming to the surface. There is greater economic, political and military competition between these powers. Each one is trying to assert its authority and establish its place at the top of the table in the new world order. The Cold War may be over, but we are now in an era of trade wars and new hot wars.

Intensifying intervention

The relative decline of the US, the implosion of the Soviet bloc and the generalised and long-term nature of the slump have ensured the breakdown of postwar international relations. A redivision of the world is in its initial stages. As the United States has lost its economic edge over countries such as Germany and Japan it has sought to militarise world affairs in order to stay on top. Britain has much less economic muscle and, unable to rely so much on the United States for s;ponsorship to stay at the top table now the Cold War is over, also has to revert to more militarised uses of power. Similarly, France, which is intervening in Algeria, Chad and Rwanda. The Western powers are also playing out this scenario in the former Yugoslavia.

Once one Western power gets in somewhere, the others are sure to follow least they fall behind in the power stakes. The people who pay the cost of this are the inhabitants of the Third World countries on the receiving end of intervention and the working class in the West who furnish the indispensable troops and have their living standards cut to pay for these interventions.

A moral mission?

The real nature of imperialism and the fact that it is the source of the problems of the Third World are obscured today by the form and rhetoric taken by Western intervention. The US invasion of Somalia, codenamed ‘Operation Restore Hope’, was symptomatic of the way in which intervention is presented now as a ‘humanitarian’ mission.

Demonising people in the Third World and old Soviet bloc is a key aspect of the politics of most Western governments. From Somali ‘war lords’ to Saddam Hussein in Iraq to ‘gooks with nukes’ in North Korea to the Serbs in ex-Yugoslavia, the theme is the same: these countries are populated by people who are smewhat less than human. These lesser beings are supposedly activated by irrational hatreds stretching back into the mists of time, prone to the most horrific blood lusts and savagery and therefore in need of regulation by the ‘civilised’ West.

An important justification for Western intervention today is the idea that people in the Third World cannot manage the nation state. The idea is even embraced by sections of the postmodern and old anti-colonial left, including the late Basil Davidson (see, for instance, Davidson’s The black man’s burden: Africa and the curse of the nation state, New York, 1992). But in Western foreign policy circles it has been taken up with enthusiasm.

According to US analysts Walter Clarke and Jeffrey Herbst, “the idea that all new postcolonial societies can sustain durable state institutions is exposed as a myth. . .” Third World nation states, they argue, should be dissolved by Western fiats which allow “the United States or the United Nations” to take over and restore “civic order” (See NZ and the New World (Dis) Order, reviewed on page 26, for an analysis of the Clarke-Herbst view). The fact that at least 6000 Somalis were killed by the armed American restorers of ‘hope’ and ‘civil order’ is pushed to the side.

Little is also heard of the UN sanctions on Iraq and the effects of the vast amounts of US bullets tipped with depleted uranium which were used in ‘Operation Desert Storm’. Since the end of the Gulf War of the early 1990s, in which tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed by the US-led hi-tech war machine, the sanctions on the people of Iraq have been horrific. According to a fact-finding team of doctors sponsored by the UN’s own Food and Agriculture Organisation, at least 576,000 children have died there since the military war ended.

Former US Attorney-General Ramsay Clark has described the sanctions as “a crime against humanity that excels all others in this last decade in its magnitude, cruelty and portent. More than one million people have died, mostly among the elderly, the chronically ill, children and infants.” An international appeal supported by Algeria’s first president Ahmed Ben Bella, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega and former Chilean vice-president Clodomiro Almeyda, among others, has condemned the sanctions as “a weapon of mass destruction directed at a whole people”. The effects of the depleted uranium have also been horrendous.

Needless to say there will be no ‘official’ war crimes tribunals to judge the deaths brought about by US policy in places such as the Gulf, Somalia and Panama. Indeed, this new era of intervention, cloaked beneath a moral mantle of liberal humanitarian concern, has met with little opposition.

Collapse of opposition movements

In the past, Western intervention was usually directed against radical national liberation movements. But over the past decade national liberation politics appear to have reached the end of the road. From Nicaragua to South Africa, yesterday’s guerrillas have become today’s yuppies, forsaking combat fatigues for business suits. The FSLN, FMLN, ANC, PLO and now Sinn Fein/IRA are being integrated into the systems they once struggled to overthrow.

In Central America the FSLN and FMLN embraced market capitalism back in the late 1980s; in South Africa the ANC is ensuring the continued availability of the cheap black labour which made South African capitalism competitive on the world market. In Palestine, the PLO now police the occupied territories on behalf of Israel. In Ireland, the highest horizon of IRA/SF is a place at the table where negotiations take place to decide the new arrangements under which the country will remain dominated by Britain.

In the West, growing militarism has met little public opposition. The ‘peace’ politics of previous decades have proven completely inadequate to the new conditions of inter-imperialist rivalry and Western intervention in the Third World. In fact, many former ‘peace’ campaigners now support Western intervention, provided it is dressed up in ‘humanitarian’ garb and/or endorsed by the UN. We are thus witnessing a new form of the 19th century ‘white man’s burden’ argument.

The new age of imperialism requires a new movement of opposition. It is necessary to rip away the humanitarian mask covering the brutal and exploitative reality of Western relations with the Third World.

In New Zealand we have a particular obligation to oppose our own state’s interventions, whether in Bosnia, the Pacific or anywhere else. In short, we need a real anti-imperialist movement.


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