Western interventionists: Why are they still talking?

As the debate has moved on in light of the West’s dismal Middle East record, interventionists keep making the same case.

Levy is credited with persuading Sarkozy to spearhead NATO's war against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 [AP]

If you’re from the Middle East, you can all just relax right now, because the liberal interventionists are here to help. Again. These well-meaning liberals can be relied upon to pipe up every time the Middle East makes the front pages. And so, although public opinion and the decision-making chunk of the political spectrum does not currently back Western military intervention in Iraq’s turmoil (with bold-lettered caveats, of course, provided by certain politicians), we have been gifted with another round of moral crusading from interventionist-in-chief Tony Blair and his trusty chorus on both sides of the Atlantic.

But the question is: why? How does the belief in Western military intervention as a force for good in the Middle East prevail, despite all evidence to the contrary? And why do advocates of such moral missions, so fundamentally premised on a Western superiority complex, keep talking about such anachronistic concepts more suited to – though no less odious coming from – a previous era?

According to Roger Mac Ginty, professor of peace and conflict studies at the UK’s Manchester University, the fault is hard-wired into the system.

“The nature of liberalism means that western powers believe they are Mr Fix-it,” he says. “Liberalism convinces its proponents that people and institutions can be changed for the better.”

This, he adds, is what results in the military interventionist’s overarching belief that “something must be done”.

It also goes some way to explaining why interventionists insist that the bad consequences of intervention are in fact good outcomes. Witness Bernard Henri Levy, the French philosopher credited with persuading French President Nicolas Sarkozy to spearhead NATO’s “humanitarian war” against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

A moral success?

Levy told a currently re-airing Al Jazeera Head to Head discussion that the NATO intervention was “a moral success, for sure” and that we have to be proud and that the consequences of it were “not so bad”. What’s his measure? First, of course, that Libyans were “liberated” from a long and bloody dictatorship. And also that “fundamentalists” – his term for the Muslim Brotherhood – “are not in power” as a result of Libya’s first democratic elections. So the nation is now overrun with weapons and extremist militants against whom parliament is powerless; violence is rife, instability reigns and the country teeters on the verge of cracking into two – but it managed not to elect Islamists as a majority in government and therefore should be eternally grateful for the Western intervention that facilitated this happy state of affairs.

Head to Head – Meddling in other people’s business?

The writer and historian Alex von Tunzelmann holds that interventionist views persist because they represent an “imperialist echo”. Describing modern-day clamours for intervention as reminiscent of British and US imperialism of the past two centuries, Tunzelmann says that today’s interventionists still advocate civilising missions, surmising these as the view that: “In a gentle way, we must confer the blessings of western progress upon the rest of the world. That we, being the west, have an obligation to calm storms and spread light.”

Tunzelmann explains that this strain of “benevolent imperialism” has always had its well-meaning advocates. For example, Lord Curzon, Britain’s Governor General of India at the turn of the 20th century, described the country as “the land not only of romance but of obligation”. This reference to obligation doesn’t seem a million miles removed from Levy who, on Al Jazeera’s Head to Head programme, responded to critics of interventionism thus: “What should we do? Cross our arms and let these massacres [in Libya or Syria] go on?”

This is where the seemingly noble desire to help runs into a pack of problems. First up is the liberal meddler’s assumption that if the West does not intervene militarily it is, by default, doing nothing – which conveniently glosses over the times when the West gets involved and creates problems, or make things worse. So in Syria, for example, the fact that Western powers have actively been supporting and arming extremists within the opposition (through Gulf allies) does not count as “doing something”. Similarly, Western backing and financial support for Iraq’s President Nouri al-Maliki, despite his corrupt, sectarian and authoritarian leadership, and the utterly devastating consequences of that for Iraqis, also does not count as “doing something”.

Conversely, nothing but weaponry will do in the interventionist’s morally superior urge to help; forceful diplomacy simply isn’t in the playbook or somehow never works when you’re a liberal trying to save a country.

The credibility of interventionists

Moreover, a big stain on the credibility of interventionists is the lack of consistency. Neither Levy nor Blair are supporters of “doing something” in Bahrain, or Palestine, or Yemen – but why not? Are these struggles less worthy of our support? And these armchair military experts, time and again – from Afghanistan and Iraq through to Libya – show no capacity for the crucial follow-through; for what happens when the West’s liberating bombs come to a stop.

On the plus side, some analysts suggest that the influence of Western interventionists is waning. Professor Neil Cooper, associate dean at Bradford University’s Peace Studies department, explains that the rise of liberal interventionism was tied to the end of the Cold War – when the West was deemed to have “won” the ideological argument and the US was the only superpower left standing.

“That era of western ideological dominance and US uni-polarity gave the US in particular and West in general scope to militarily intervene in way that was not possible during the Cold War,” Cooper says. But now, post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan, he adds: “The wheels have seriously come off that idea.”

By this analysis, the debate on interventionism has shifted, with liberal hubris giving way to a war-weary recognition of the West’s dismal track record in these matters. It’s an edifying thought – but history tells us that the paternalistic preaching from interventionists over the Middle East just won’t go away for good.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.