Myths of "Humanitarian" Intervention

— Michael Parenti

CONTRARY TO POPULAR belief, U.S. leaders are no different from those of most other countries in that they have a dismal humanitarian record.

True, many nations including this one have sent relief abroad in response to particular disasters.But these sporadic actions are limited in scope, do not represent an essential policy commitment, and obscure the many occasions when governments choose to do absolutely nothing for other peoples in dire straits.

In addition, most U.S. aid missions serve as pretexts for hidden political agendas. They are intended to bolster conservative procapitalist regimes, build infrastructures (roads, ports, office complexes) that assist big investors, lend a cover for counterinsurgency programs, and undermine local agrarian self-sufficiency by driving independent farmers off lands that are then taken over by corporate agribusiness.

Be it the indigenous rain forest peoples of South America and Southeast Asia, or the Kurds, Biafrans or Palestinians; be it the overseas Chinese in Indonesia, or the East Timorese, Cambodians, Angolans, Mozambicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans or dozens of other peoples, U.S. rulers have done little to help rescue them from their terrible plights, and in most instances have done much to assist their oppressors.

Case Study: Haiti

Consider the "good intervention" in Haiti. For over three years of military rule, while some 10,000 political murders took place, Washington did nothing to restore democracy in that country. The CIA issued a report claiming that the deposed president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was mentally unbalanced.

In 1990, the left-populist Aristide had won an overwhelming 70 percent of the vote, much to the dismay of the U.S. State Department and White House.

In September, 1994 the White House invaded and occupied Haiti with the professed intent of reviving democracy and reinstating Aristide. But the restoration was to come at a heavy price.

Aristide was strongarmer into accepting a World Bank agreement that included (a) shifting some presidential powers to the conservative Haitian parliament, (b) massive privatization of the public sector, (c) a 50 percent cut in public employment, (d) a reduction in regulation and taxes on U.S, companies investing in Haiti, (e) increased subsidies for exports and private corporations, and (f) a lowering of import duties.

In addition, Aristide was made to drop his land reform and social security programs and any plans to boost the minimum wage from $2 to $4 a day (not an hour). World Bank representatives admitted that all these measures would hurt the Haitian poor but benefit the "enlightened business investors."

Former national security advisor James Schlesinger (ABC-TV, September 16, 1994) noted that U.S. forces were needed to prevent "the Aristide people from making reprisals." Many of them are poor, he said, and may want to loot the houses of the rich.

Indeed, U.S. troops were deployed to protect upscale neighborhoods. Meanwhile U.S. military intelligence worked closely with Haitian intelligence, and the United States prepared to bolster existing police and military forces with special training programs—over the protests of the Aristide government.

During the occupation, U.S. firms in Haiti have continued to fire people who try to unionize, while paying workers ten to twenty cents an hour for a ten-hour day. Meanwhile conditions go from bad to worse: According to the World Bank itself, the number of Haitians who live in absolute destitution rose from 48 percent in 1976 to 81 percent in 1985, ushering in serious spread of disease and malnutrition.

Learning the Lessons

While ballyhooed by the White House and the media as a rescue operation for democracy, the real purpose of "humanitarian" intervention in Haiti is no different from interventions in numerous other countries: to bolster the existing class structure, enhance the prerogatives of large investors, suppress or otherwise disempower popular organizations and their leaders, and engage in a mild facelift of the military and police by easing out some of the more notorious repressors while keeping the whole repressive system intact.

In 1915, the last time U.S. troops purified Haiti, they killed 15,000 Haitians and did not depart until 1934 – and then only after setting up an autocratic military apparatus that has remained more or less in place to this day, propped up by U.S. military force.

A number of countries have endured this process of having a reformist government subjected to U.S.-sponsored destabilization, the economy forced into a still more stringent colonization and the shell of democracy maintained or reintroduced after a period of covert violence or overt military repression.

One can think of Greece, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Chile and other nations as instances where political democracy is allowed to survive only if it is not used to initiate a genuine economic democracy.

In sum, the function of U.S. intervention is to protect U.S. investments in other countries and create opportunities for new investments. Even more important is the general commitment to safeguarding the global class system and its free-market capital accumulation process.

Irrespective of the amount of direct investment held by U.S., firms in any particular country, the overriding imperative is to keep the world’s land, labor, natural resources and markets accessible to transnational investors on the most favorable possible terms.

To carry out these functions it is necessary to suppress popular governments and movements<197>and even, as in Iraq, conservative military ones – that are economically nationalistic.

U.S. leaders find it necessary to convince the U.S. public that such things are being done for our benefit and security and in order to make the world a better place for all. The empire can survive only by expropriating the resources of the Republic. Thus a compliant public, willing to shoulder the immense costs of a globally repressive apparatus, is a necessary condition for intervention.

The left’s task is to show how U.S. citizens how their interests are being regularly violated, how they carry the costs of empire (exportation of jobs, high taxes, loss of loved ones in the military, impoverishment of domestic services), and how it is in their best interests and the interests of peoples abroad to oppose the aggressions of the U.S. national security state.

Call it the "New World Order," the "post-Cold War period," the "era of economic globalization" or whatever. Imperialism is the real name of the game. And while some of the tactics may change over time, the game itself remains essentially the same.

November/December 1995