Professor Robert Fine has written in the Guardian as a response to Simon Jenkins piece against what has been termed “Liberal Interventionism”. The title given to his response – “It is better to liberally intervene than stand by and do nothing” – exhibits the same conundrum as the argument found within the article itself. That is the reduction of intervention to military means, whilst ignoring any previous actions and relationships that the "intervening" powers had been a part of in the region.
The basic point that Fine makes is that non-intervention is itself a policy decision which can be a barbaric doctrine, expressing what he terms as “the indifference of power to human suffering”. He points out that non-interventionism in Rwanda and the Balkans allowed ethnic cleansing to take place in both areas. On the other hand, the original liberal interventionists were not Western powers at all but others such as India and Tanzania intervening in East Pakistan and Uganda respectively, therefore implicitly denying that the formula is simply imperialism under another name.
And herein lies another possible weakness at the heart of Fine’s argument. As he noted, his examples of what we can only assume he believes were successful interventions were always done with “other interests at stake”. Which leads onto the problem that Fine then goes on to state in that “Liberal interventionism can be abused by powers and politicians”- which is what has been suggested by one of the arguments that Jenkins made in his piece regarding the West’s rush to intervene in Libya while ignoring the worse humanitarian situations found in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I have previously detailed the hypocrisy in the stance of the British government vis-a-vis Libya here.
Anyone seeking a practical demonstration of the realpolitik that has guided Western policy in the Middle East while at the same time using the (now very flimsy and transparent) camouflage of liberal intervention can look at the double standards exhibited in their responses to the actions in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as well as their policy towards the Gulf in general. There continues to be solid support thrown behind what are thinly disguised absolutist monarchies, who maintain their grip on power through the arbitrary detention and torture of their citizens whilst banning any form of public gathering or protest to hold them to account. Some have justified this by arguing that the bloodshed in Libya far outweighs the number of deaths so far in Bahrain. While this arguably explains a lack of any moves to intervene militarily on supposed humanitarian grounds, it cannot justify or explain the continued full backing of the autocratic ruling family there, nor the largely silent assent to their banning of demonstrations, arrest and torture of dissenting voices, and their attacks on civilians and medical staff. Others (possibly Professor Fine amongst them if we were to take his argument to its natural conclusion on a practical level) believe that whatever the interests of the intervening power, the force of argument for the intervention on humanitarian grounds is enough of a justification. What is clear is that within government such arguments have very little to do with policy formation, and everything to do with post-decision legitimation.
Fine’s conclusion that “Those who treat non-intervention as absolute demonstrate a genuine imperialist disdain for the lives of non-western others” is perhaps the most interesting line in his article, turning the accusation of imperialism upon those who would speak against intervention. What is implicitly meant is that Western non-intervention should not be treated as an absolute. As I mentioned at the beginning, such a position assumes that those who call upon liberal intervention to justify their ultimately interest-led actions had absolutely nothing to do with the historical/ political situation which led to the civil strife. Another look at Libya highlights the paradox of claiming to be a neutral party intervening for humanitarian reasons when NATO planes are destroying an Army largely built and trained by Western Europeans belonging to a government which had been doing major business with the West, and whom intelligence services have praised for their work in helping to suppress the kind of dissent that the West feels is unwelcome. This is without going further back to the questions of the creation of Libya and the legacy of its colonial history.
In other words - there has not been a policy of non-intervention, it is just that the intervention has taken different forms from direct political control under colonialism to indirect interference through political support for the autocratic dictatorships and monarchies of the region. It is worth remembering that colonial escapades were often justified in moral terms, and as interference in the Middle East and Africa continues we witness the White Man's Burden being constantly rewritten in contemporary terminology.
There would be much to admire if a government adopted a foreign policy based upon altruistic reasons, but such a formulation has not been seen from any influential power of the last century, never having been practically forthcoming (though often invoked) from any of the Western imperial nations, the previous Soviet Union, and nor is it likely to be much of a consideration by the rising power of China. While realism dominates the field of practical politics in the international arena it is doubtful that any such policy will emerge. Any theoretical or philosophical discussion of the justifications behind liberal (read Western) led military intervention today which avoids taking into account colonial history, the historical political and military relationships between the governments in question, as well as economic interests at stake - alongside the interest driven calculations of the actors in question - will continue to simply be used by the decision makers as the proverbial lipstick on a pig.