HUMANITARIAN INTERVENTION—the conviction that American presidents must act, preemptively if necessary, to avert the massacre of innocents abroad—is steadily acquiring a new prominence in the Obama administration. For America’s foreign-policy elite, it is a precept that provides a way to expiate the sins of the past, either bellicose action (Vietnam) or complacent inaction (Rwanda). It not only holds out the expectation of protecting endangered civilians but also the promise of acting multilaterally to uphold international laws.
Yet the consequences of such intervention have rarely been more vexing. As the world’s leading military power—it devotes more to defense than the next ten biggest-spending countries combined—America finds itself lurching from conflict to conflict, often with little idea of how they will end, other than the hope that the forces of righteousness will prevail, even as Washington becomes progressively more enmeshed in local disputes. In its quixotic quest to create a global and irenic order by force, it is flouting Shakespeare’s admonition that it is best to “fling away ambition: By that sin fell the angels.”
This is particularly so in the Middle East, where the Obama administration and, to a lesser degree, Europe face nothing less than a potential cataclysm of engagements, until the entire region is in tumult. The result is a self-reinforcing doctrine of permanent revolution. In creating, or abetting, chaotic conditions, it becomes necessary to intervene again and again, all in the name of averting further chaos.
These incursions embrace the idea—some more, some less—of humanitarian intervention. The conceit is that when America intervenes, it is not doing so on the basis of sordid national interests but, rather, on the grounds of self-evidently virtuous human rights or, in its most extreme case, to prevent genocide. This development—to call it a mere trend would be to trivialize its true import—has been a long time in the making.
Indeed, in an essay published in The National Interest (now reprinted in The Neoconservative Persuasion), Irving Kristol contended that human rights had become a kind of unquestioned ideology. Kristol traced its origins back to the debates between William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli over intervention in the Balkans, when the Turks massacred some twelve thousand Bulgarians. The realist Disraeli, who sought to check Russia, was unmoved by Gladstone’s humanitarian appeals to endorse self-determination for the Balkan states. But perhaps an even earlier instance came in the lead-up to British involvement in the Crimean War, revolving as it did around the “Eastern Question”; the Turks and Russians could fight it out for influence in the Mediterranean—and the French could get in their squabble over Catholics, without much bother to the Brits. As liberal politician John Bright argued on March 31, 1854, in his great speech to Parliament against squandering power in foolish adventures abroad:
How are the interests of England involved in this question? . . . it is not on a question of sympathy that I dare involve this country, or any country, in a war which must cost an incalculable amount of treasure and of blood. It is not my duty to make this country the knight-errant of the human race, and to take upon herself the protection of the thousand millions of human beings who have been permitted by the Creator of all things to people this planet.
Transforming the United States into a knight-errant, though, is at the heart of liberal internationalism. As in nineteenth-century Britain, so in modern America; just as with Gladstone, the current manifestation of this impulse first became apparent in the Balkans, when NATO established a no-fly zone there, during the bombings of 1995. And so a new generation of liberal hawks emerged, overcoming the discomfiture associated with the use of force in Vietnam, seeing themselves as divine intervenors for mistreated ethnic minorities abroad. It amounted, in some ways, to a multicultural foreign policy, or at least one that sees America as key to creating a new democratic order. Madeleine Albright, for example, announced during the Clinton administration, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall, and we see further than other countries into the future.”
The hubris of ascribing a unique percipience to the United States was hardly confined to Albright. It also amounted a fortiori to the credo of the George W. Bush administration, which witnessed a fusion of neoconservatives and liberal hawks. “Damn the doves,” Christopher Hitchens announced in the conservative London Spectator in 2001 as the United States readied to topple Saddam Hussein. While in Dissent, Michael Walzer declared that the Left was being “stupid, overwrought, grossly inaccurate” and should accept America’s imperial status, modeling any opposition to the Iraq invasion on the Little Englanders during the Boer War.
Then, as the insurgency developed, the alliance melted away. A notable defector was Peter Beinart, who first wrote a book calling for a nationalistic Democratic Party, then issued a second one taking it all back.
Now the alliance between liberal hawks and neocons is returning, epitomized in an open letter sent to the White House in February 2011 by the Foreign Policy Initiative (successor to the Project for the New American Century), demanding that President Obama act to avoid a humanitarian disaster in Libya. Signed by Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol as well as Martin Peretz and Leon Wieseltier, the old gang was back together again. Robert Kagan declared Obama’s speech on Libya to be “Kennedy-esque,” the ultimate term of neocon approbation. Intellectuals as a class have become habituated to demanding military action to make up for America’s failure to prevent various atrocities and genocides. As David Rieff observed with vexation:
This war—let us call it by its right name, for once—will be remembered to a considerable extent as a war made by intellectuals, and cheered on by intellectuals. The main difference this time is that, particularly in the United States, these intellectuals largely come from the liberal rather than the conservative side.
No doubt the Obama team was itself torn on the issue of intervention. It entered office emphasizing realist tenets. Now it is jettisoning them. The intellectual incoherence of the White House was epitomized by a statement from Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes:
What we are doing is enforcing a resolution that has a very clear set of goals, which is protecting the Libyan people, averting a humanitarian crisis, and setting up a no-fly zone. Obviously that involves kinetic military action, particularly on the front end.
But Washington is not “getting into an open-ended war, a land invasion in Libya.”
The plan, however, seems to be for America to act as an arsenal of freedom rather than to promote its own domestic welfare. Today this Wilsonian doctrine is sold as a form of atonement for past wrongdoings—that, unless we intervene decisively in what is often a civil war to tip the balance of the scales to one side, America will once again have blood on its hands. Never again, in other words, will become ever again.
IT WOULD be hard to think of a more ardent promoter of this doctrine than Samantha Power. Power is not just an advocate for human rights. She is an outspoken crusader against genocide. She has referred self-deprecatingly to herself as the “genocide chick.” She has made it her life’s mission to shame American statesmen into action and to transform U.S. foreign policy. And as she seeks to create a new paradigm, she is becoming a paradigmatic figure. She is a testament to the collapse of the old foreign-policy establishment and the rise of a fresh elite. This elite is united by a shared belief that American foreign policy must be fundamentally transformed from an obsession with national interests into a broader agenda that seeks justice for women and minorities, and promotes democracy whenever and wherever it can—at the point of a cruise missile if necessary. The same century-long progressive expansion of the democratic franchise that has taken place at home is also supposed to occur abroad. She is, you could say, the prophet armed.
Along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, Power has become closely—and publicly—identified as one of the advisers most responsible for pushing Obama to intervene in Libya. It is a stunning turnabout. Power served then-Senator Obama as a top aide on foreign policy, taking a leave of absence from the Kennedy School at Harvard. But during the presidential campaign, Power announced that Hillary Clinton (not yet in Barack’s employ), who had been relentlessly bashing her boss, was a “monster.” A furor erupted. Power resigned. Her career with Obama was over.
Only it wasn’t. The late diplomat Richard Holbrooke, a close friend, called her “mesmerizing.” Once Obama was elected, she landed a post as a senior adviser on the National Security Council, where she has become an increasingly influential and distinctive voice. Her rise there is even more astonishing given that National Security Adviser Tom Donilon was a deputy to Warren Christopher in the Clinton administration—and Power bitterly assailed that secretary of state for his dithering over Bosnia.
Power, unlike many liberal hawks, was an opponent of the Iraq War. When I hosted a panel with her in 2004 at UCLA that included journalist James Mann and scholar Chalmers Johnson, I asked how she was able to reconcile her espousal of humanitarian intervention with failing to put a stop to Saddam Hussein’s depredations. Her response? The Bush administration was not acting multilaterally and Saddam’s actions, at that point, didn’t meet the definition of genocide even if they had in the past. It is an answer that I never found fully satisfactory, at least for someone who was otherwise championing the cause of stopping mad and bad dictators around the world.
Indeed, absent Power, Obama may not have intervened in Libya. Obama now uses arguments to justify the intervention that are somewhat redolent of Bush’s about Iraq. Power has almost single-handedly revived the alliance between liberal hawks and neocons; as one of the chief promoters of the Iraq War, Fouad Ajami, declared in the Wall Street Journal:
In Bosnia, as in Libya a generation later, the standard-bearer of American power had a stark choice: It was either rescue or calamity. Benghazi would have been Barack Obama’s Srebrenica, the town that the powers had left to the mercy of [General] Ratko Mladic.
An icon among the human-rights lobby, she has made it her personal crusade to ensure that American presidents act decisively to forestall, impede or halt the murder of civilians abroad. When President Obama gave his speech at the National Defense University in March, he explained military action in Libya protected the innocent; he was channeling Power:
To lend some perspective on how rapidly this military and diplomatic response came together, when people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians.
In fact, a few hours before Obama’s speech, Power herself told an audience at Columbia University, in words that anticipated Obama’s, that “in the Balkans it took three years for the international community to use air power to prevent heavy weapons from firing on civilians. In Libya it took a little more than a month.”
The invocation of Bosnia was not adventitious. It has become the siren song of liberal interventionists. Part of the legend of Power is her first mission to Bosnia, where she filed reports for the Boston Globe and other publications about Serbian belligerence and Western inaction. Power became the anti–Rebecca West—where West lionized the Serbs standing up to fascism in the 1930s in her book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Power became a heroine chastising America and Europe for their lassitude in confronting contemporary fascist impulses from West’s former freedom fighters. This was, at bottom, a new Spanish Civil War for Power and her cohort—a chance to choose sides, to experience good and evil, not vicariously but up close, and to denounce it. It is important to remember that when Power traveled to Bosnia, she frequently met with and chastised government officials, including Ambassador Peter Galbraith, for not doing more against Serbian iniquities (a favor he returned as Obama hesitated about intervention in Libya). Not for her the Weberian Wertfreiheit, or objectivity, that American newspapers inculcate. Power epitomizes an older model—the crusading journalist.
BUT POWER’S journalistic triumphs were a dress rehearsal for her next career as a professor and author of “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, which won a Pulitzer Prize.
It is a bold effort. Stylishly written, packed with vignettes and sharp portraits, it essentially rewrites much of twentieth-century American history in the shadow of genocide. She observes that, again and again, Western powers looked away from massacre. The problem, she famously declared, wasn’t that America’s policy failed. It was that it worked. Reticence about protesting mass murder was a constituent part of America’s hard-nosed, realist approach to foreign affairs. What is missing from Power’s work, however, is a political context. There seems to be the assumption that Washington can always be on the right side of history—that American presidents can ignore domestic and international considerations simply to plunge into conflicts on the side of the beleaguered whenever they feel like it.
It is also notable that Power, in her extended case studies of genocide, ignores some of the biggest examples of the past century. There is no mention of Stalin’s man-made Ukrainian famine. There is no mention of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which killed tens of millions.
Perhaps this is because these cases don’t quite fit with her theory that the American government’s deliberate indifference has invariably been key in the failure to stop mass deaths. Rather, many on the American and British left were bedazzled by what they saw as Communist dictatorships greatly leaping forward, whatever the human toll might be. It was active blindness on the part of these intellectuals, a shameful historical legacy that nothing can efface. As Saul Bellow once observed, “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.”
The true strength of Power’s book is as a literary work, a ringing and idealistic call to arms. It does not merely recount. It instructs its reader what is to be done. Power’s work begins with a bang—the 1921 assassination in Berlin of Mehmed Talat, the former Turkish interior minister who presided over the massacre of Armenians. It was one of the few actions, as Power notes, taken to punish the Turks. Woodrow Wilson, eager to remain neutral in World War I, had resisted the calls of his ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, to protest the killings of Armenians. Power castigates Wilson for refusing to “declare war on or even break off relations with the Ottoman Empire.” She would have taken America onto the European battlefields—and into the bloodbath—far earlier. In going to war against Germany, Wilson told Congress, “it seems to me that we should go only where immediate and practical considerations lead us and not heed any others.” According to Power, “America’s nonresponse to the Turkish horrors established patterns that would be repeated.”
What Power does not discuss is Wilson’s conduct of the war, namely his decision to intervene after he had promised Americans he would not. If anything, Wilson, who promised the war to end wars, was wildly idealistic, anything but a hardened realist, someone who was bamboozled during the Paris peace negotiations by his French and British counterparts, the champion of the League of Nations, whose headquarters in Geneva became a testament to fecklessness during the 1930s. It seems peculiar to condemn Wilson for not having been idealistic enough.
When it comes to World War II, Power has a far stronger case to make. The wartime Allies, confronted with the crime of the century, focused on battling Nazism rather than exposing its genocidal campaign against the Jews and other ethnic and religious minorities. Her hero is the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin who invented the neologism “genocide.” He was pivotal to the new United Nations’ adoption of a convention declaring genocide a violation of international law, though America refused to sign it for four decades. Now it provides a basis for military intervention.
Which returns us to Bosnia yet again. Power does an excellent job of limning the reluctance of the George H. W. Bush administration to intervene. As then–Secretary of State James Baker famously put it, “We don’t have a dog in this fight.” Instead, to quell charges of its heartlessness, the White House sent American troops to Somalia in a humanitarian venture—a disastrous decision that got America bogged down in a bloody civil war. Next, the Clinton administration came under fire for doing the same sort of hand-wringing over Bosnia as its realist predecessor—surely the Left could be counted on for compassion? Yet then it remained reticent about Rwanda, allowing the Hutus to conduct mass killings of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis.
Power’s verdict is withering:
The real reason the United States did not do what it could and should have done to stop genocide was not a lack of knowledge or influence but a lack of will. Simply put, American leaders did not act because they did not want to. They believed that genocide was wrong, but they were not prepared to invest the military, financial, diplomatic, or domestic political capital needed to stop it.
Power hopes to once and for all turn the tide against American lassitude, against the Democratic slogan propounded by presidential hopeful George McGovern in the 1972 campaign—“Come Home, America.” Liberals were then opposed to Ronald Reagan’s support for the Nicaraguan contras, even though he portrayed that partly as a humanitarian venture, pointing to the human-rights abuses perpetrated by the Sandinistas. Reagan, for all the bellicosity, was loath to send American troops into combat, withdrawing them from Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in 1983. What Power overlooks, or minimizes, is the political context of a country in which the term “no more Vietnams” carried, and continues to carry, great political weight. It is these old thought patterns that Power wants to refashion, turning the United States into a nation that wields force wherever it deems fit—not for security, but for the betterment of others, secure we will not squander resources because of the justness of our cause.
Power has a penchant for dramatizing history through people rather than considering broader forces. She states in the acknowledgments to “A Problem From Hell” that a friend from Hollywood advised her to create a drama by telling the story through characters. And that is what she did.
AS HER other tome about the United Nations official Sergio Vieira de Mello—Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save the World—makes clear, however, Power champions her own kind of great-man history in which a lonely hero stands up for truth, justice and the international way. She produces a morality play rather than a conventional history. In a sense, Power, you could argue, is addicted to hero worship, beginning with Raphael Lemkin and ending with Obama. In fact, in her acknowledgments, she observes that she offered “whatever help I could to Barack Obama, the person whose rigor and compassion bear the closest resemblance to Sergio’s that I have ever seen.”
This seems excessive. Vieira de Mello was a Brazilian United Nations bureaucrat. He served the UN in a number of hot spots—East Timor, Rwanda, Cyprus, Cambodia, Lebanon and the Balkans (where Power first met him in her capacity as a journalist). He was a UN high commissioner for human rights and was murdered along with twenty other members of his staff in August 2003 when he was the secretary-general’s special representative in Iraq. He served bravely. Perhaps he would have become secretary-general. But to elevate him, as Power does, into the stuff of legend defies credulity. For her Vieira de Mello serves as a beacon, a symbol of what true internationalism might accomplish.
As Power portrays it, Vieira de Mello is everything the United States was not under George W. Bush—dignified, restrained, attentive to local conditions, eager to negotiate with foreign tyrants. His death in the bombed-out Canal Hotel serves as a sign of the blundering malignancy of the land of the free. Obama, like Vieira de Mello, is supposed to personify the better side of America. He represents patience and understanding, and a readiness to negotiate with authoritarian leaders when necessary rather than refusing to deal with them at all.
But as Michael Massing observed in an incisive review in the June 9, 2008, issue of the Nation, Vieira de Mello actually reflected many of the worst traits of the UN. According to Massing:
While she presents him as embodying the UN system at its best—its dedication to humanitarianism, multilateralism and dialogue—a strong case can be made, based on the evidence she presents, that he represented the UN system at its worst—its timidity, mediocrity and zeal for self-protection.
Instead of being a crusader, Vieira de Mello was ready to compromise. For example, Power writes that when it came to protecting the rights of Vietnamese boat people,
he could have gone to greater lengths to use his pulpit at [the UN’s refugee agency] UNHCR to try to ensure that the Vietnamese were more fairly screened in the camps and were better treated en route back to Vietnam. This was the first of several prominent instances in his career in which he would downplay his and the UN’s obligation to try to shape the preferences of governments. By the 1980s he had come to see himself as a UN man, but since the organization was both a body of self-interested governments and a body of ideals, he did not seem sure yet whether serving the UN meant doing what states demanded or pressing for what refugees needed.
Such tentative statements, as Massing observes, are acutely at odds with the fire-breathing Power of “A Problem From Hell.” There she denounced statesmen for doing what Vieira de Mello did. This raises the question of whether Power is willing to make any accommodation necessary to cater to her own new boss.
Nor did the role that Vieira de Mello played in Bosnia turn out any better. It’s hardly a secret that the UN disgraced itself in the Balkans, where it served as a de facto accomplice to the Serbs. Power recounts that Vieira de Mello was touring the former Soviet Union while Serbian General Ratko Mladic
presided over the systematic slaughter of every Bosnian man and boy in his custody, some eight thousand in all. When the Serb mass graves were discovered six weeks later, Vieira de Mello was stunned. “I never thought Mladic was this stupid,” he said, projecting his own reverence for reason onto one who clearly observed different norms. “The massacre was totally unnecessary.”
(What massacre, incidentally, is necessary?) In this telling, Vieira de Mello, who sought to curry favor with leading Serbs, sounds less like an international statesman than a gullible technocrat. Power’s implicit criticisms of Vieira de Mello suggest, as Michael Massing notes, that she is wrestling with the contradictions of espousing an idealistic credo and implementing a policy. (Such would seem to be the case, for example, when she defends Obama administration policy on Guantánamo Bay, wildly at variance as it is with the president’s promises circa 2008 to shutter the detention facility promptly.)
Power recounts other less-than-inspiriting episodes. She notes that in 1999, after the Washington Post reported that several UN weapons inspectors in Iraq were sending information to the Clinton administration, Vieira de Mello almost resigned. Fabrizio Hochschild, his special assistant, thought that some kind of démarche to Richard Butler, the head of the UN inspections team, was required. But he was, Power reports, “taken aback when he saw Vieira de Mello greet Butler on his next visit as if nothing had happened. No matter how great his outrage, Hochschild noted, Vieira de Mello remained as reluctant as ever to make an enemy.” There can be no doubting that Vieira de Mello’s extensive experience in war zones would have made him a valuable adviser, if the Bush administration had been disposed to listen to his advice, which it was not. He had, as Power observes, frequently “watched as promising postwar transitions collapsed because of a failure to fill the security void.”
Power’s assumption appears to be that given the right approach, Iraq might not have degenerated into sectarian warfare. There can be no doubting that the Bush administration botched the occupation. But it is unclear such interventions ever turn out well. It is not just the hubristic evildoers on the right who fail to build up new and better societies in the wake of war; incursions of this sort may simply be doomed. Doesn’t Iraq, in fact, cast further doubt on the efficacy of so-called humanitarian ventures?
NOW POWER is behind the rush to fill the security void in Libya. As Secretary Clinton told ABC News in March:
We learned a lot in the 1990s. We saw what happened in Rwanda. It took a long time in the Balkans, in Kosovo to deal with a tyrant. But I think . . . what has happened since March 1st, and we’re not even done with the month, demonstrates really remarkable leadership.
Power provided the tutorials these past years, both to Obama and to an entire class of liberal hawks. She may be the most influential journalist-turned-presidential-adviser since a young Walter Lippmann drafted the Fourteen Points for Woodrow Wilson, only to become a chastened realist after the Treaty of Versailles made a mockery of Wilsonianism and the internationalist dream.
Perhaps Power’s next destination is to become United Nations ambassador. Maybe she will follow in the footsteps of Madeleine Albright and ultimately become secretary of state. In his memoir, The Audacity of Hope, Obama observed that Power “combed over each chapter.” Now she has begun to exercise the same influence over his approach to foreign affairs. Obama entered office, like George W. Bush, promising to repudiate the arrogance of his predecessor, only to be seduced by the lure of militant democracy.
Power’s argument that there is a coincidence between humanitarian intervention and American national interests marks a profound shift in justification for military action. Rhetorically, she espouses a move away from fighting Islamic terrorism to battling aggressors under the banner of humanitarian intervention. This is supposed to mark a fundamental break with the Bush administration, whose approach to confronting terrorism she denounced in a lengthy essay in the New York Times in 2007. Whether it amounts to one in practice is another matter.
Even Obama didn’t try to argue that genocide was taking place in Libya. Instead, this was a preemptive strike (ah, how redolent again of the 2003 Iraq invasion) against a potential massacre, one that would have profound implications for the region. It was in America’s national interest to intervene. And so he plunged the United States into a new conflict. Where does Power draw the line? The bar for preventing genocide may well have been set too high in the past, as she argues. But she, in turn, may be setting it too low, providing an ideological smokescreen for the use of American military force in dubious circumstances, something she never adequately addresses. She runs the risk of exposing America to the charge of hypocrisy for not intervening in countries where brutal mistreatment of the local population is taking place, as in Zimbabwe, while providing a validating and dangerously palatable logic for American overextension. Power’s solution to the conundrum that has bedeviled the Democratic Party since Vietnam—when to sanction the use of force abroad—is to support wars of national liberation. This is likely not a solution at all.
In a speech in 2006, Power told graduating students at Santa Clara University Law School “to demand that our representatives are attentive to the human consequences of their decision making.” The new round of engagements abroad by the Obama administration may well come to be seen as the last glimmerings of American hubris. “Kings can have subjects,” George F. Kennan once observed, “it is a question whether a republic can.”
It would be no small irony if, in her zeal to reshape American foreign policy in the image of liberal internationalism, Power were to usher in its demise.
Image © Associated Press/Charles DharapakImage: Pullquote: Power is not just an advocate for human rights. She is an outspoken crusader against genocide. She is, you could say, the prophet armed.Essay Types: Essay