On September 16, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs Bernard Kouchner warned the world that when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program: “We have to prepare for the worst, and the worst is war.”
The statement, predictably, caused great uproar, with criticism focused on what Sir John Holmes, head of the U.N. refugee agency, called the “Iraq taint.” After the scandal about Weapons of Mass Destruction as the excuse for invading Iraq, evoking such a threat forever lost its credibility. Why should we believe the United States and its allies now, when we have already been so brutally deceived?
There is, however, another aspect of Kouchner’s warning that is much more worrying. When the newly elected French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, nominated Kouchner, the great humanitarian who is politically close to the Socialists, even some of Sarkozy’s critics hailed the move as a pleasant surprise. Now the meaning of this nomination is clear: The return in force of the ideology of “militaristic humanism,” or even “militaristic pacifism.”
The problem with this label is not that it is an oxymoron, a reminder of the “War is Peace” slogans from Orwell’s 1984. The simplistic pacifist position “more bombs and killing never brings peace” is a fake, because one often has to fight for peace. Nor is the problem that, much like Iraq, the new target is chosen not out of pure moral consideration, but because of un-admitted geopolitic and economic strategic interests. No, the true problem with “militaristic humanism” resides not in “militaristic,” but in “humanism,” in the way a military intervention is presented as humanitarian aid. Justified in the name of depoliticized universal human rights, such interventions suggest that anyone who opposes them is not only taking the enemy’s side in an armed conflict, but also making a criminal choice that excludes him from the international community of civilized nations.
This is why, in the new global order, we no longer have wars in the old sense of regulated conflicts between sovereign states in which certain rules apply (the treatment of prisoners, the prohibition of certain weapons, etc.). What remains are “ethnic-religious conflicts” that violate the rules of universal human rights. They do not count as wars proper and thus demand the “humanitarian pacifist” intervention of Western powers–even more so in the case of direct attacks on the United States or other representatives of the new global order. These attackers are not considered soldiers, but rather “unlawful combatants,” criminally resisting the forces of universal order. In this conflict, it is impossible to even imagine a neutral humanitarian organization like the Red Cross mediating between the warring parties, organizing the exchange of prisoners, etc. Instead, one side in the conflict (the U.S.-dominated global force) already assumes the role of the Red Cross, perceiving itself not as one of the warring sides, but as a mediating agent of peace and global order that crushes particular rebellions and, simultaneously, provides humanitarian aid to “local populations.”
The key question is thus: Who is this “we” on behalf of whom Kouchner is speaking? Who is included in it and who is excluded from it? Is this “we” really the “world,” the apolitical community of civilized people acting on behalf of human rights?
[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on November 6th, 2007. (full text).]