“Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak.” – John Adams
Every state attributes to itself the noblest of intentions.
But because these attributions are expected in advance of every action, they are meaningless. Very rarely, if ever, will a nation admit that they are carrying out the supreme international crime of aggression against another state for the purpose of advancing their own interests.
So they must contrive a pretext, and almost uniformly, the main tenet of the pretext is “self-defense,” the claim that the great, noble state is defending itself against the terrorism and savage barbarism of another state or group.
This is not to say that there are never valid claims of self-defense. But because these claims are so uniform, and because they are expected, they must be met with close scrutiny.
And indeed the claims are met with close scrutiny, when an enemy country makes them. But when the leaders of the homeland cry self-defense, the people and the media dutifully rally behind them, willing to comply with every order.
Norman Finkelstein, in his book Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, explores the most profound instances of states claiming their right of self-defense.
He finds that, in the cases he explores, the claims cannot withstand critical scrutiny. Rather, the more powerful state issues a pronouncement that they must defend themselves in order to provide cover for an imperialistic agenda.
Every mission of conquest conceives its use of force as a justifiable act of ‘self-defense’ against ‘aggression’.
Finkelstein runs through several major cases: “the British conquest of North America”, the Nazi conquest of Eastern Europe, and “the Zionist conquest of Palestine.”
He also mentions other more specific cases, such as the US invasion of South Vietnam (which was justified in the name of “resisting ‘internal aggression'”) and the French war on Algeria.
The common thread that these cases share is quite eery; most of them resort to almost identical language in describing the necessity of their conquest, in the name of saving themselves from an irrational and immoral enemy.
Hitler claimed that his attack on the Soviet Union was a preemptive strike against the threat posed by ‘Bolshevik barbarism’. Indeed, the Nazis justified the genocide against the Jews as an act of self-defense.
The Nazis also proclaimed that they “had the moral right” and the “duty” to “destroy this people which wanted to destroy us.
Thomas Jefferson defensively declared that, if ‘constrained’ by the Indians resisting American expansion to ‘lift the hatchet…, we will never lay it down till the tribe is exterminated, or is driven beyond the Mississippi.’
Finkelstein goes on to compare these instances to the Zionist conquest of Palestine, and the expulsion of the indigenous Palestinian people. There is a common theme throughout pro-Zionist scholarship of a so-called “defensive ethos” that permeated Zionist ideology; but as Finkelstein shows, this was simply a cover for expansionism.
Finkelstein cites Raul Hilberg as observing,
…in Hitler’s eyes, the Jews were Germany’s principle adversary. The battle he fought against them was ‘defense’.
Along the same lines, “the Zionist leader Moshe Sharett perhaps truly believed that ‘preventing Arab rule in Palestine is defense.'”
The first Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion essentially conceded that claims to self-defense were, in some sense, farcical:
When we say that Arabs are the aggressors and we defend ourselves – that is only half the truth. As regards our security and life we defend ourselves….But the fighting is only one aspect of the conflict which is in its essence a political one. And politically we are the aggressors and they defend themselves.
Finkelstein concludes that, after looking past the self-congratulatory rhetoric of self-defense,
The ‘defensive ethos’ was never the operative ideology of mainstream Zionism. From beginning to end, Zionism was a conquest movement.
And the same can be said for every other nation or movement dead-set on expansion and domination. From the Nazi conquest of Eastern Europe to the US invasion of South Vietnam to the Zionist conquest of Palestine, claims of self-defense abound, but none of them hold up under the slightest bit of examination.
The point is that claims to self-defense should never be taken at face value. There are, as mentioned above, legitimate instances of self-defense which should be taken seriously. However, one must look beyond the rhetoric and explore, closely, the actions and the ideologies that steer the vehicle of power.
One should keep in mind the “crucial insight”, to which Finkelstein refers, of Joseph Schumpeter:
…every war is carefully justified as a defensive war by the government involved, and by all the political parties, in their official utterances’.