Current arguments about intervention are invisibly linked by a common thread. What is really at stake are attitudes to imperialism. If most of those who took part in this one-dimensional debate were honest with themselves, they would admit that they do not in principle believe that the United States can do any good overseas for anyone but the American government, its armed forces, or privileged American elites. While this proposition may be true, it deserves some scrutiny. And, as applied in practical conditions, it requires some refinement.

To state my own prejudices clearly, I should say that as a British socialist I once took, in the heartland of imperialism, a straightforward anti-intervention position. The argument was for bringing the troops home, emancipating the colonial subjects and putting an end to the conscription of young workers to act as bewildered gendarmes. Then came 1965, when a white supremacist junta seized power in what was then Rhodesia, and challenged a Labour government to do something about it. For the first time in history, a revolt against the authority of the Crown in Africa was not met by force. Conservative statesmen and members of the officer class appeared on television and in the newspapers, hymning the virtues of conciliation over confrontation and calling for a negotiated settlement. Mention was made by military experts of the extreme difficulties of the terrain, and the risk that intervention would provoke a bloodbath. This sudden outbreak of establishment pacifism masked a reluctance—usually expressed in private—“to send British boys to shoot their own kith and kin.” The overt racism of this had its confirming counterpart in the fact that, at the self-same moment, “British boys” were deployed in South Yemen and Aden, attempting to maintain the imperial “East of Suez” posture by repressing an Arab nationalist revolt. The terrain in Yemen was difficult, to put it no higher, yet there seemed to be no problem in committing troops indefinitely. It therefore seemed like a good satire to me, and to many others, to disrupt the speeches of government ministers by shouting “Out of Aden—Into Rhodesia.” We had the law and a treaty on our side, because Britain had bound itself at the United Nations never to grant independence to Rhodesia before making arrangements for a majority rule election. Nevertheless, I admit that I felt uneasy shouting for the British army to do its stuff and denouncing waverers for their defeatism. (In the end, London sold out to the Ian Smith regime and majority rule only came after nearly two decades of bloody and debilitating guerrilla war.)

Then there is the Irish question (or the English question as it’s more properly known in Ireland) which displayed ironies of a rather different kind. In August 1969, the British government committed armed soldiers as policemen on the streets of Belfast and Derry. The proximate cause of the commitment was a pogrom mounted against the Catholic minority (and I’m using “pogrom” in the proper historical sense for once, to denote an attack by an armed mob which enjoyed, and which knew it would enjoy, local police protection). Many working class Catholics and nationalists actually welcomed British soldiers with flowers and cups of tea—an almost surreal moment—and regarded them as deliverers. Large sections of the British left dropped, pro tem, their historic opposition to the stationing of troops in Ireland. On this, though, I quarreled with my comrades. In the first instance, troops are always sent with a “humanitarian” and peace-keeping purpose. That was how the U.S. Marines had gotten to the Philippines and Cuba, and it was also the pretext for western intervention in the Congo. As an excuse, it ranks only slightly higher than the degrading idea that intervention is necessary “to protect our nationals”—another jingoist standby. The subsequent evolution of the British presence in Ulster has done nothing to change my mind.

In Cyprus in 1974, an undefended republic was attacked by two NATO military regimes—the Greek and the Turkish—which, while professing hate for one another, were in fact bent on partitioning the island. Great Britain, which had a treaty obliging it to defend Cyprus (a treaty which it had itself negotiated in return for large bases there) did not use its considerable local military clout to intervene. Later disclosures of British and American foreknowledge of the Greek and Turkish operations convince me that the government acted, in concert with Henry Kissinger, to help impose a great-power partition on a troublesomely independent people. The main weapon of this strategy was inaction; the sure guarantee that Greek and Turkish mainland aims could be consummated. Thus it seemed correct at the time to demand that Britain keep its part of the treaty, and to denounce the government for hypocrisy and complicity when it refused.

In the case of the Falkland/Malvinas archipelago, it appeared that Britain had the right of self-defense under the U.N. charter and also that the Argentine junta had tried to salvage its domestic front by a cheap military adventure in the South Atlantic. A compromise of the kind put forward by Jeane Kirkpartrick and Alexander Haig (who were using the same Argentine torturers and fascists to train the Nicaraguan contras) would have left the junta in power, and very probably in possession. Opposed as I was to this collusion, I didn’t take the standard British left line that Thatcher was whipping up chauvinism and imperialist nostalgia. The insular John Bull position seemed to ignore the wider imperial context, and it was on the whole pleasurable and instructive to see the dismay on the faces of the Reaganites when they realized that they were going to have to drop either their British or Argentine allies.

I have given this slightly solipsistic account of recent history in the hope that it reminds readers of some of their own dilemmas. In all the post-Cold War arguments over the principle of intervention, most honest anti-interventionists have found themselves reluctant to admit or acknowledge one of two things. First, that the pretext might be high-sounding but the actual motive cynical. Second, that the blood-stained empire might have no right to be mentioned in the same breath as a concern for justice and human rights. Can Satan, as it were, cast out Satan?

In the liberal press, the issue is more or less deliberately muddied and mangled by spurious analogies from Vietnam. The word “quagmire” is often employed, as if the United States got itself into Indochina by an excess of naive good intention. (Only recently on NPR, I was matched against an extreme British Tory, who had supported the Vietnam war at the time and was arguing that the Serbs should be allowed to consolidate their hold on Bosnia. He had the nerve to argue that Vietnam should have taught the United States to stay out of other peoples’ civil wars.) Of course, the whole history of the Vietnam war and of the anti-war resistance is being rewritten before our eyes. But that means we should be extra careful not to collude with the process. In the anti-intervention polemics mounted at the time of the Gulf War, what I call the “body bag” argument eventually dominated the anti-war movement and culminated in the ridiculous idea of “supporting the troops but not the war.” In this analysis, the names on the Vietnam wall are the reason for opposing the aggression in Indochina. In practice this meant that the most atrocious part of the Gulf War—the betrayal of the Kurds and the massacre of Iraqis and others leaving Kuwait—occasioned no protest from the anti-war forces because the “war” as such was over and could be discussed in tones of relief. I remember thinking that I did not want to be that disgusted again for a considerable time.

But there wasn’t much relief or respite. Milosevic’s war of cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina forced a grumbling and self-centered political community to confront the issue of, if not fascism, something uncommonly like it. Perhaps Bosnia was not much of a state (no harm in that, I hope) but it was an identifiable society and culture based on the principle of multi-communal solidarity. And it was appealing for help. Military help at that, since it was threatened with military extinction. Shall I rehearse the reasons for inaction? Serbs in other parts of Yugoslavia had a legitimate beef, what with Croatia’s Nazi past and all. Intervention might “prolong the war” (proponents of a short war at least did not disguise their obvious partisanship for the victor). “Millennial and tribal quarrels,” “ancient fratricide,” and other minatory terms were employed, as if one could only consider taking a side in disputes with no history. Pro-intervention arguments were hardly less sectarian, with some voices urging that rape made Bosnia “a women’s issue.” And the Clinton administration maximized the confusion by creating a false alternative between inaction and air strikes, while ignoring the Croatian role in the Molotov-Ribbentrop replay that was dividing Bosnia between Serb and Croat extremists. In the whole of this period, during which thousands and thousands of Bosnians lost their lives and the great multi-cultural city of Sarajevo was almost levelled, no serious march or rally expressed any solidarity with the Bosnian cause. It was as if the fear that such solidarity might be misconstrued as a demand for bombing or intervention had paralyzed the limited forces of internationalism altogether. Like Medusa’s head, the very word “intervention“ had turned principles into stone. Those of us who signed the call for an end to the highly interventionist arms embargo against Bosnia were in fact hoping to allow the Bosnians to defend themselves without outside help, and also to create a center strong enough to resist the Beirutisation and degeneration that has now overtaken militia-plagued Sarajevo. But even this appeal stayed on the fringes of debate, because it seemed to call upon the U.S. government to act in some sense as a morally confident agent, and thus could not be right.

It was noticeable but unnoticed during this time that the United States military establishment was suffering from a positive seizure of pacifist sentiment. Lives could be lost, terrain could be tough, tensions could be exacerbated, blood could be shed, unintended consequences could result—these were the words of the Colin Powell Pentagon, which went further in the usurpation of presidential and civilian authority than it had done even in the more hotly-discussed matter of gays in the military. You would hardly think that, only a year or so earlier, these same forces had described Saddam Hussein’s proposal for a phased withdrawal from Kuwait as “the nightmare option”—precisely because it would deprive them of the chance to wage an exemplary war.

There is here a noticeable difference between the American and the European left. In England especially, but in other Western European countries also, there were insistent calls for intervention on the Bosnian side, and denunciations of NATO complicity with the Tudjman/Milosevic partition plan. In my opinion, this was an echo of the great international campaign to defend the Spanish Republic between 1936 and 1939, where the words “non-interventionist” became a term of contempt unloosed against the European realpolitik which used them as an alibi for permitting unfettered Italian and German intrusion into Spanish affairs. There never was, at that period in Europe, the “isolationist” option which seduced so many American liberals and radicals of the 1930s into believing that a replay of 1914 was in the making: the then equivalent of today’s “Vietnam syndrome.”

The intervention inhibition has also succeeded in paralyzing most discussion of policy toward Haiti. Even though Haiti is a semi-colony of the United States and, via a client military, the object of daily U.S. intervention in what could be called its internal affairs, there is tremendous squeamishness about the idea of using force to secure the rights of the Haitian people. In turning tail before a single junta tugboat in mid-October of 1993, and withdrawing a large U.S. Navy vessel with the touching name Harlan County without a shot being fired, the Defense Department counted on a public opinion conditioned to resent “foreign entanglements.” It also counted, I believe, on a certain degree of subliminal racism. The junta organized quayside demonstrations for the cameras, in which the prepared slogan “Not another Somalia!” was chanted. Before long, Robert Dole had risen in the Senate to say with maximum sententiousness that the cause of President Aristide was “not worth a single American life.” The Pentagon spokesman, in advance of the Harlan County’s mission, had been scrupulous enough to say “one shot and we’re out of there,” thus tenderly apprising the Cédras junta of the low cost of defying the world’s largest military machine. Confronted with a Haitian army of 7,500 men, the empire backed off. It did so without arousing any principled protest in the United States, because it was able deftly to exploit the public misgivings created by its own pet operation in Somalia—a classically imperial operation which had been mounted without even the pretense of consulting Congress or the electorate.

It is, in short, going to be very hard to discuss foreign policy in the future if the main thrust of radical and critical argument is purely non-interventionist. In real terms, this will amount to abstention from the debate rather than participation in it. And serious “interventions,” such as the involvement of the Pentagon in Haiti and the involvement of the State Department in the dismemberment of Bosnia, will pass uncriticized because they come cloaked as alternatives to military action. The fact is that this, too, constitutes manipulation of public opinion by the military-industrial establishment.

One avenue of approach to this dilemma might be to take the Pentagon up on its new fastidiousness, and to demand that in that case there be deep cuts, build-downs and peace dividends. If a point of principle like genocide in Bosnia is too difficult to uphold, and if a dependency of the United States like Haiti is too tough to discipline, then clearly we could be getting by with a very much smaller armed forces budget, and could probably dispense with NATO altogether. But the same Clintonoid reformers who have kow-towed to the defense establishment on matters like Bosnia, Haiti, and gay rights have also committed themselves to a Bush level of spending on the upkeep of this privileged military nomenklatura.

It ought to be remembered, in simplistic arguments between “isolation” and “intervention,” that isolationism never meant what it said. The same political forces that wanted to avoid entanglement in Europe were extremely keen, for example, on the Marines in Nicaragua and Mexico and Panama. Conversely, many of the liberal “anti-colonialists” turned out to be the moral and intellectual architects of the war in Vietnam. With the end of the Cold War, however, the old polarities of the 1930s have been gradually reasserting themselves, and it is easier to see how the militarist supporters of Colonel Lindbergh and “America First” once made hay by calling for a strong America that would be neutral in the world battle against fascism, while American liberals were accused of elitism and sympathy for empire when they supported Britain against Hitler.

A rule of thumb is turning out to be that when the military-political barons call for intervention and shows of strength, they must be distrusted for the usual reasons. But when they tell you how difficult and how complicated everything is, they must be distrusted even more.