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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.

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.

(Emphases added)

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.

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.

(Emphases added)

If you have time, you should read both articles in full. The appropriate links are, of course, above.

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Comment Preferences

  •  So what? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    phenry, sviscusi

    That the US did bad things in the past, that are now recognized (including by our current government) as bad, doesn't strike me as especially relevant...at least not just in one direction, of nonintervention.  One could equally argue, and I imagine that Power would if pushed, that the fact that we sat idly by and/or abetted evil in the past is all the more reason for us to take an active anti-evil (and yes, that's shorthand) role now.  

    So that's to your first point.  (BY the way, I'm guessing that's the first and last appearance of a "civil rights attorney" in the pages of The American Conservative, a publication I'm fond of in a not totally ironic way because it doesn't sugar-coat.)  To your second point, it doesn't really matter to me that Power is dismissive of domestic concerns, because it's a division-of-labor government.  It's her role to propose to the President what she thinks is best from an America-in-the-world perspective, and there are plenty of other people (starting with the President and VP) to weigh that, if that even accept it on its own terms, against domestic political considerations, domestic economic needs, etc.

    So I don't see those as blind spots at all.

    You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

    by Rich in PA on Wed Sep 11, 2013 at 06:25:59 PM PDT

  •  I have been reading up on her and on the (7+ / 0-)

    political doctrine that she is espousing. I suppose that it is not technically entirely accurate to lump her in with the necons as the underlying philosophical justification isn't the same. However, the practical impact on policy produces very similar results.

    The Responsibility to protect protocol that has been developed over the past 10 years has a great deal of value to it. However, it is rooted in the authority of the UN and stipulates that the UNSC is the sole international body with the legal authority to authorize military intervention.

    Power is IMO a zealot. She has been a close associate of Obama since he was in the senate. It seems pretty clear to me that he is being strongly influenced by her radical policy advice.  

    •  Responsibility that can never be invoked.... (0+ / 0-)

      ...is a funny thing.  That's the current situation.  If you give me a choice between that kind of mostly-fictitious collective responsibility and unilateralism, I would have to go with the latter.

      You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

      by Rich in PA on Wed Sep 11, 2013 at 06:49:35 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  The problem comes when one nation (5+ / 0-)

        decides to set itself up as the arbiter of what constitutes human rights. In the present global configuration the US is about the only nation with the military power to enable it to do that and get by with it. That doesn't strike me as a desirable situation.

        What has happened in practice is that political considerations determine when the US decides that duty calls. We are willing to ignore serious human rights problems in places where we have no political interests. That doesn't qualify as responsibility and integrity in enforcement.

        The day may come when we no longer have such unchangeable power. There might be people who would want to enforce their notions of human rights on us.  

        •  That second paragraph is a common complaint (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          sviscusi

          I don't understand it, though.  The fact that we don't do right all the time hardly seems like a good reason to do right none of the time.  It makes more sense to deny or at least to question if we're doing right in the first place, which is the essence of your first paragraph.  Although you do say something interesting there--we're the only country that can project its power like that.  That's an unnatural situation, and I'd be happy to do away with it, but while we have it I don't see the problem is using that power if we think as a country that it's the right thing to do.  I'm reminded of Lincoln's letter to McClellan, asking to borrow the Army of the Potomac if McClellan isn't using it.

          You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

          by Rich in PA on Wed Sep 11, 2013 at 07:01:11 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Law enforcement is never perfect, but (6+ / 0-)

            we do expect police to investigate every report they receive of possible criminal activity and to refer it for prosecution if there is sufficient evidence. That is even handed law enforcement. They are not suppose to pick the cases that they feel like dealing with. That is what I am talking about.

            If the US is taking action based on recognized international norms about human rights, then they should do so in an even handed manner. That is not what happens. When they use human rights as a justification for something that is actually driven by political/economic interests, then that invalidates their claims to be acting under a responsibility to protect doctrine.  

            •  Even in the worst-case scenario you presume... (0+ / 0-)

              ...in other words, that we pick our spots out of self-interest, that would mean we're doing right at least some of the time, which to me is better than not at all.  I think the only argument that holds up is that we wouldn't be doing right at all.  I wouldn't agree with that, but it wouldn't have the weird results I'm seeing here.

              You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

              by Rich in PA on Thu Sep 12, 2013 at 04:46:38 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

      •  Well, I tend to agree in principle, (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        3goldens

        except that if we're going to go it alone we had better be damn sure we know exactly what we're doing, why we're doing it, what the likely outcomes are, and why we're not taking any alternative actions. Right now all I see is a bunch of neoconservative and liberal interventionist argle bargle. Not good enough.

        Code Monkey like freedom / Code Monkey like peace and justice too
        Code Monkey very nerdy man / With big warm fuzzy bleeding heart
        Code Monkey like you!

        Formerly known as Jyrinx.

        by Code Monkey on Wed Sep 11, 2013 at 06:56:33 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  And her husband is another bad influence (5+ / 0-)

      She's married to Cass Sunstein. What a power couple for bad influence....

  •  Thanks for the diary. (4+ / 0-)

    I have been feeling ill about all the support for bombing, especially here of all places.

  •  There are two legal assertions (5+ / 0-)

    that are being made by the Obama administration. Neither of them are new to this administration.

    1) The POTUS has the authority to launch military attacks without the authorization of congress.

    2) The US is not constrained by the UN in its decisions to launch military attacks.

    Taken together that means that the POTUS has very little restriction on his power to rain down death and destruction.

    I find that frightening.

  •  I'm sure any day (2+ / 0-)

    She will be demanding President Deby of Chad step down! Because here her global demand for human rights is so much different than a neo-con.....

    I mean she is all bent out of shape of humanitarian crisis and the way people run their countries.

    So obviously a country like Chad, that has had the same leader for years and has a terrible human rights record would be on her radar.

    According to the U.S. State Department, "The government's poor human rights record deteriorated further during the year; security forces committed numerous serious human rights abuses." Among the abuses listed were extrajudicial killings, beatings, torture, and rape by security forces; limits on freedom of speech and the press and freedom of assembly; arbitrary arrest and detention; and widespread corruption.[1] Security forces commit these and other abuses with "near total" impunity.[1][3][4]
    Oh wait. That would interfere with France's Uranium supply. Never mind.

    But still, she pretends to care differently for human rights than a neo-con. A neo-con is just in it for money.  While the neo-liberals are in it for....well I'm sure there is a reason why the neo-liberals pick the same countries to blow up the neo-cons do, but they are different damn it! Trust me!

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