Libya — Lather, Rinse, Repeat — Syria: Liberal Imperialism and the Refusal to Learn

Two of my favorite quotes come into play here, one by the English poet, Alexander Pope, who explained that “some people will never learn anything . . . because they understand everything too soon,” and George Bernard Shaw, much more resigned and ironic in stating that “we learn from experience that men never learn anything from experience.”  From various misguided and superficial “open letters” to “the left” on Libya, to the recent renewal of righteous interventionism with respect to Syria, it seems that the greatest deficit in Western thinking about these unruly and barbarous others is not a deficit in sincerity, as I once mistakenly thought, but a learning deficit.  One detects a strong tendency among liberal imperialists and assorted self-designated “progressives” to think of their actions and thoughts as being above history, as if residing in some altostratus of unimpeachable rectitude.  If they pretend to act and think as if they were gods, it is not an historical accident.  At the end of their day, as believers in Western progress, they remain convinced that they are at the high point of evolutionary teleology.  At the last stage of a dying empire, imperial advocates (not confined to any one ideology) are still gripped by the conviction that theirs is the highest stage of human achievement.  They resent history (inevitable imperial decline) as much as they resent particularity (difference they can never tolerate).  High up in the clouds, perched on the wings of various stealth bombers, they preach the ideology of universal, individual human rights.  Blinded by their own wind, they lose the ability to see that even their own “universal declaration of human rights” contained distinct concerns for social and economic rights — though buried at the end, past the point of the current imperial attention deficit disorder (Arts. 21-27).  If people have the right to eat, but not the right to tweet, then they are judged to be living under tyranny.  This is shallow humanitarianism, callous in its disregard for the materialities that make human life possible, a humanitarianism at the end of empire and as bankrupt as the state powers whose authority the humanitarians invoke.

Here are two recent examples, both involving Syria, but really much more about us than about Syria.  In fact, Syria really does not exist — you could insert the name of any nation-state outside of Greater Europe (Europe and its settler states), or even a fictitious name the way that NATO and the Pentagon do — let’s say Southland.  First, there is Robert Fisk.  Some fancy Fisk to be a radical reporter, a courageous speaker of truth.  He fancies himself as such too, declaring himself “in favour of the suffering.”  I regard him as a little old Englishman, prone to betraying the prejudices of his dominant class.  He finds radical difference rather distasteful, as his comments on Hamas tell us, and wishes everyone could stand in single file behind his preferred world order.  He has now taken to snapping at NATO, not for what it has done and is doing to Libya, but for what it failed to do to Syria.  “The trouble is,” Fisk informs us, “that everyone has been running out of patience with Syria since the spring.”  Everyone.  Patience.  We are uniform, and we have certain demands.  “Had Messrs Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama stopped short after they saved Benghazi” (they saved Benghazi?), Fisk adds, “they may have had the spittle . . . and the munitions to destroy some of Assad’s 8,000 tanks.”  An American militarist might have worded this slightly differently, preserving the same meaning: “they lack the cojones to royally kick some Syrian ass.”  Fisk objects to UK Foreign Secretary William Hague for “waffling on about how little the West can do to stop Assad” — the West, I did not insert that.  “This is rubbish,” Fisk of Arabia adds, before proceeding to give some military advice: “Britain’s RAF bases in Cyprus are infinitely closer to Syria than to Libya.”  He is quite clear that he wants regime change, and for the West to carry out that regime change — though again, and as always, it violates international law (not that it matters, that is the law of the strong against the weak).  Fisk writes, “The Israelis don’t want regime change in Damascus.  Do the Americans?”  But then he ends: “Assad is almost certainly doomed” — well alright then, so do you want/need Western intervention to fulfill your goals, or not?  Perhaps he is uncertain about the certainty, or just not thinking . . . historically.  All regimes are always doomed: not a single Egyptian pharaoh, Inca or Roman emperor is alive to disagree.  The question is when, how soon, and here Fisk would like to see more Western agency in taking over from Syrian protesters, even after they repeatedly proclaimed that it is precisely Western intervention of Fisk’s liking that they do not want.  Come to think of it, theirs are the only voices absent from Fisk’s call to Western arms.

However, even less sensitive than Fisk to the irony of Saudi tyrants calling for human rights to be respected in Syria is Amnesty International.  Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, in “UN Security Council Must Act to End Repression in Syria” begins, with the very title, by admitting to basic, ahistorical naïveté.  The UN Security Council has never acted to end oppression anywhere, it is a tool of the most oppressive powers on earth, and if they act to end anyone else’s oppression it is only to superimpose their far greater oppression.  Sucking up to imperial powers, as if these were the guarantors of human rights, says a lot about Amnesty’s Eurocentric agenda.  It is an agenda as bankrupt as the powers to which it pleads.  Like Fisk, Shetty (as well as those in Amnesty behind him, I assume) finds that “the UN Security Council’s continuing inability to react adequately to the carnage is deeply frustrating and dispiriting.”  Shetty condemns the UN’s presidential statement: “it falls far short of what is really needed.”  And what really is needed?  Shetty never actually gets to articulating that — “something must be done — and done now” — so he leaves it to be understood by reading between the lines.  Like Fisk he writes: “The Council’s impotence in relation to Syria stands in stark contrast with the quick and decisive action it took in the case of Libya.  But, in fact, it is the aftermath of its resolution on Libya that has paralyzed the Council.”  The “quick and decisive” action against Libya — when he could have said the foolish rush to regime change that has prolonged war and violated the human rights of many more Libyans than were at stake back in February.  At any rate, Libya is now made to stand as the benchmark for good action.  (It’s wonder that these people do not invoke the good old days of the genocidal “oil for food” program applied by the UN, among its other sanctions, against the people of Iraq.)  Shetty wants Brazil, South Africa, and India to prevail upon the Security Council to get beyond political disagreement and do “something” about Syria.  Having posited military action in Libya as the starting point of discussion, his lament about lack of action on Syria at least implies a desire for military action: then Syria and Libya would be equal in their reception of the generous care and loving attention of NATO.  Shetty, who is from India, and so should know better (if anything, just from reading past and current Amnesty documents on India), hails India as a “vibrant democracy” and as a “free and open democracy” in spite of the continuing reality of a brutal counterinsurgency war, discrimination against tribal peoples, land grabs, and vast inequalities maintained by force.  He says that a “free and open democracy” like Brazil cannot be accused of “neo-colonialist ambitions” — oh no?  Just ask countless Indigenous Amazonians about that, or, if too lazy, at least consult with Survival International.  Would Brazil, India, and South Africa be the ones to carry out actions against the Syrian government — because if not, why bother with all the flattery?  Or is it that they are the best window dressing for NATO warfare?  More than unbelievable is that Shetty invokes the moral authority to speak of Syria’s Arab neighbors: “such key players as the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council and now the Saudi Arabian government have spoken out against the killings there [in Syria].”  Fisk was neither as funny, nor as incompetent.  This is Amnesty International, invoking Saudi opinion on human rights, invoking the voices of Gulf state tyrants, an Arab League of dictators.  “Now is the time. . .” says Shetty, mimicking the sentence construction currently en vogue in Obama’s Washington, “to stand and be counted.”  Stand up, and do what?  Be counted . . . by whom?  “They should not fail the Syria test,” he ends, and not too soon.

In the name of democracy, freedom, human rights, and openness, Amnesty deleted the comment I posted in disagreement with them.  Perhaps they thought being called “shameless and irresponsible” was too much to openly bear, democratically, or the persistent pointing out of the absurd irrationality of Shetty’s argument for “something.”

These are people who would train us not to think, not to learn, but to simply react.  Always Be Reacting.  Like NATO’s propaganda outfit for the war against Libya, operated by the likes of Tim Kilbride of the Rendon Group, the vision of our humanity that liberal imperialists entertain is one which constructs us as shrieking sacks of emotion.  This is the elites’ anthropology, one that views us as bags of nerve and muscle: throbbing with outrage, contracting with every story of “incubator babies” (in Iraq, now Syria), bulging up with animus at the arrest of Gay Girl in Damascus, recoiling at the sound of Viagra-fueled mass rape.  From Twitter, to Avaaz, we turn to NATO.  And this is NATO’s sociology: societies can be remade through a course of high-altitude bombings and drone strikes.  It can be heard in the words of the Manchester police: “We want to make it absolutely clear . . . there has been no spark that has led to this” — we are animate, but headless.  Bags.  Absolutely clear.

In our “social media”-induced state of psychotic frenzy, we scream for action.  Which action?  Whatever, any action, “do something . . . stand up and be counted,” no time to think, just act.  Libya — lather, rinse, repeat — Syria.

Maximilian C. Forte is an associate professor in anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.  His website is at

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