As anyone would have expected, Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, has been a strong proponent of a unilateral bombing of Syria, something that clearly violates the UN Charter. She seems to acknowledge that such an action would not be technically legal, sidestepping a question about its legality in an NPR interview and adopting the word "legitimate" instead. During a speech at the Center for American Progress last Friday, she claimed that the United States had "exhausted" all diplomatic-only options. In light of the rapid evolution of events since then and the move toward a diplomatic option, her comments seem disingenuous, even risible. Someone with such contempt for diplomacy and the UN Charter should not be a representative to the United Nations. Earlier today, Matt Lee of the Associated Press cracked that Power made John Bolton "sound moderate." I don't know if I'd be quite that harsh, but she has certainly managed to fill a lot of contempt for multi-lateralism in her first month in her new position.
I want to highlight two illuminating analyses of the worldview of Samantha Power and the "humanitarian hawks" more broadly. Each article focuses on a particular blind spot in Power's worldview. The first critiques Power's blindness to the U.S.'s own complicity in genocide worldwide and her simplistic view of the U.S. as, in its very nature, a force for goodness and virtue in the world. The second looks at Samantha Power's dismissal of, perhaps even scorn for, domestic politics and the struggles for human rights and democracy on the home front, so to speak. Both articles are several years old but are must-reads in light of the events and debates of the past several weeks.
The first piece is "Care Tactics" (Sept. 1, 2009) in the American Conservative by Chase Madar, a civil rights attorney in New York. Madar criticizes Samantha Power and the "weaponization of human rights" that she so perfectly embodies. In the passage I excerpt, Madar highlights the telling sins of omission Power commits in her Pulitzer-winning book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, the book in which Power condemned the United States for "sitting idly by" while genocide occurred abroad rather than sending over the military to prevent such atrocities. Power, conveniently, ignores the U.S.'s own role in funding and supporting genocidal regimes.
In nearly 600 pages of text, Power barely mentions those postwar genocides in which the U.S. government, far from sitting idle, took a robust role in the slaughter. Indonesia’s genocidal conquest of East Timor, for instance, expressly green-lighted by President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger, who met with Suharto the night before the invasion was launched and carried out with American-supplied weapons. Over the next quarter century, the Indonesian army saw U.S. military aid and training rise as it killed between 100,000 and 200,000 East Timorese. (The figures and the designation of “genocide” come from a UN-formed investigative body.) This whole bloody business gets exactly one sentence in Power’s book.(Emphases added)
What about the genocide of Mayan peasants in Guatemala—another decades-long massacre carried out with American armaments by a military dictatorship with tacit U.S. backing, officer training at Fort Benning, and covert CIA support? A truth commission sponsored by the Catholic Church and the UN designated this programmatic slaughter genocide and set the death toll at approximately 200,000. But apparently this isn’t a problem from hell.
The selective omissions compound. Not a word about the CIA’s role in facilitating the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian Communists in 1965-66. (Perhaps on legalistic grounds: Since it was a political group being massacred, does it not meet the quirky criteria in the flawed UN Convention on Genocide?) Nothing about the vital debate as to whether the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths attributable to U.S.-led economic sanctions in the 1990s count as genocide. The book is primarily a vigorous act of historical cleansing. Its portrait of a “consistent policy of non-intervention in the face of genocide” is fiction. (Those who think that pointing out Power’s deliberate blind spots about America’s active role in genocide is nitpicking should remember that every moral tradition the earth has known, from the Babylonian Talmud to St. Thomas Aquinas, sees sins of commission as far worse than sins of omission.)
Power’s willful historical ignorance is the inevitable product of her professional milieu: the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. One simply cannot hold down a job at the KSG by pointing out the active role of the U.S. government in various postwar genocides. That is the kind of impolitic whining best left to youthful anarchists like Andrew Bacevich or Noam Chomsky and, really, one wouldn’t want to offend the retired Guatemalan colonel down the hall. (The KSG has an abiding tradition of taking on war criminals as visiting fellows.) On the other hand, to cast the U.S. as a passive, benign giant that must assume its rightful role on the world stage by vanquishing evil—this is most flattering to American amour propre and consonant with attitudes in Washington, even if it doesn’t map onto reality. A country doesn’t acquire a vast network of military bases in dozens of sovereign nations across the world by standing on the sidelines, and for the past hundred years the U.S. has, by any standard, been a hyperactive world presence.
For Samantha Power, the United States can by its very nature only be a force for virtue abroad. In this sense, the outlook of Obama’s human-rights advocate is no different from Donald Rumsfeld’s.
The second piece that I want to highlight is "Samantha Power Goes to War" (Mar. 30, 2011) in The Nation by veteran anti-war activist and director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center, Tom Hayden. Whereas Madar was writing around when Power joined the administration, Hayden wrote in the context of the war in Libya, of which Power was one of the most aggressive supporters in the administration (along with Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton). In particular, he looks at how Power's focus on human rights abroad coexists with a scorn for the concern for human rights and social justice problems at home:
Power generalized from her Balkans experience to become an advocate of American and NATO military intervention in humanitarian crises, a position which became known as being a “humanitarian hawk.” She began to see war as an instrument to achieving her liberal, even radical, values. “The United States must also be prepared to risk the lives of its soldiers” to stop the threat of genocide, she wrote. She condemned Western “appeasement” of dictators. She believed that “the battle to stop genocide has been repeatedly lost in the realm of domestic politics.” In her mind, domestic concerns like discrimination and unemployment were secondary to foreign policy crises, a common attitude in the national security circles she was entering.(Emphases added)
I remember wondering why, like the U2’s Bono, another Irish human rights activist, Power has been less preoccupied by the human rights abuses inflicted by the British during the thirty-year war in the northern part of her own country. If she wasn’t willing to take sides at home, so to speak, why was it easier to take sides in civil wars abroad? Wasn’t the creation of a “more perfect union” at home the foundation of any intelligent foreign policy abroad?
And who will remember the home front, and the Obama pledge to focus laser-like on the recession-ridden American economy? Who will address the crisis of aging nuclear power plants? Or the human rights crisis of America’s prison system, the largest in the world? Political pressure is already building to retain American troops and bases in Iraq and Afghanistan beyond the promised deadlines for withdrawal. The secret war in Pakistan has dropped off the front pages for the moment, but will surely erupt again soon.
Perhaps the greatest problem in Power’s worldview is an elitism that scorns domestic policy and politics, the very domain where she believes the crusade to stop genocide is so often “lost.” Anyone primarily concerned with domestic priorities, in her view, must be an isolationist and thus an obstacle to the global struggle for human rights. One can’t imagine Power worrying very much about, say, rent subsidies or pension funds.
The realities are quite the opposite. In a democracy, war requires the consent of the governed, expressed at the very least with the consent of the Congress and subject to the authorization of the federal judiciary. ….
The foreign policy caste worries about the intrusion of democracy on their domain…In their privileged world, they assume an unlimited budget for their unlimited foreign policy portfolio…Obama is ill-advised on foreign policy if his national security elite, including idealists like Power, assume that Americans will have to accept a declining standard of living to put a stop to dictators abroad. Human rights abroad cannot come at the price of democracy at home, but that is the course of liberal empire.
As Power wrote to me in a 2003 note, “With so many problems in hell, where are the Irish when we need them?” It was written in jest. But the answer is a serious one. The Irish are ten years into their peace process, and the Dublin government has been voted out of office for economic failures.
If you have time, you should read both articles in full. The appropriate links are, of course, above.