Like the sensationalist political pamphlets of the early stages of the printing age, today’s humanitarian activists’ purpose is to, artificially, stir public sentiment through their writing. Samantha Power’s manifest A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide and the professor’s rhetoric seem to nowadays produce the same effect on those who read it.
Early in the last decade, when the name Paul Wolfowitz was controversial, Power had nothing but compliments for the Bush Administration’s “Iraqi Freedom” hawk. An uncomfortable truth considering that the Democratic Party withdrew its endorsement of the invasion of Iraq once weapons of mass destruction were found not to exist. Certainly if one takes into consideration that for some in the ranks of its pro-war intellectual base, the weapons were never the issue (a propos, a mirror image of French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner). But an even bigger embarrassment if we take into account that she currently sits on President’s Barack Obama’s National Security Council.
This should not come as a surprise since both the Republican neoconservatives and the Democratic liberal interventionists aspire to the best tradition of no other than John F. Kennedy. A wildly loved, charismatic and young president whose term was cut short right before it actually had to pick up the pieces of the many idealist policies he enacted.
This Peace Corps generation keeps leaving its mark on the minds of the youth MTV humanitarians and Bono-Brangelina peaceniks with wars of excellence such as Libya, where the no-fly zone was actually an intervention, where the “matter of days” timeframe turned into months, where the war is to be called only conflict and all to avoid a genocide that wasn’t.
In the run up to the Libyan campaign, Power’s voice was heard loudly, as The New York Times reported that she was one of the main instigators of action. Once again the Rwanda precedent was used to incite military action where few American interests were actually at stake.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, Rebecca Hamilton writes of the inceptive influence that A Problem from Hell had on Lorne Craner, an assistant to Colin Powell who in 2004 organized the State Department investigation into whether Darfur should be classified as genocide or not. And who really would be surprised today if rumors surfaced of her militancy for action in Uganda?
Power’s activist legacy stretches as far back as the Yugoslav wars and the Clinton Administration. For her Kosovo is the model to follow—which bodes poorly for Libyans. But Samantha Power isn’t alone. Other high officials of the Obama Administration like Anne-Marie Slaughter certainly harbor the same fantasies of the liberal interventionist creed and the biblical terminology is ever present in their language. One of Slaughter’s friends (Sarah Chayes—surprise, surprise, a former Peace Corps volunteer) who was advocating for an American nation building effort in Afghanistan wrote a book entitled Punishment of Virtue.
Like the high priestess of the Church of Human Rights, Power and the Libints embody today what the papal envoys represented in Europe up to the sixteenth century: diverters of national interests on behalf of a morality which they alone could arbiter. The Treaties of Westphalia would eventually redirect Europe and its dominions into the path of sovereignty and rational diplomacy but only after the bloodiest conflict since the Hundred Years’ War had ravaged the old continent. Who better than the Jesuit of humanitarianism to let us all know what awaits those of us sinful enough to ignore “a problem from hell”?
Many pointed fingers at George W. Bush’s lack of tact when in one of his many slips of the tongue he called the intervention in Iraq a “crusade”. Would they by as critical of Power? The term suits her agenda so well.
For the politically correct academia and civil society the hallmark of sophistication is now “Responsibility to Protect” (or R2P for the t-shirt makers). R2P is a humanitarian’s “limited sovereignty” doctrinal version. It draws on international humanitarian law—a field of law which is still in its early stages and being written based on principles instead of practicality or empiricism—to claim that states are obligated to protect their citizens and that whenever they fail in this mission, the international community gains the legal right to intervene. In its light form, the territory is to simply be “civilized” by the missionaries of liberal democracy. In its worse form, military force is to be applied promoting forceful regime change.
As strategy blogger Joseph Fouché put it, R2P is for Libints what Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) was for neoconservatives—a doctrine in which to ground the Pentagon’s approach to belligerence. RMA was supposed to allow small deployments of hyper sophisticated forces to promote regime change en masse and simultaneously in different theaters around the planet in an effort to overcome undemocratic regimes. It didn’t work because as it turns out some populations aren’t that eager to be freed and as in Iraq, they must be helped to “liberate themselves.”
R2P on the other hand bases itself on international law (unprecedented and inapplicable) to argue for small deployments of military forces in service of transnational human rights, mainly in a peacekeeping capacity but able to rapidly change into peace enforcement. If Iraq was the neocon moment, Libya is the Libint one but if Libya is indeed Obama’s Kosovo, then the post-Cold War reality of America is one of centrist consensus on idealist interventionism.
Neocons failed because they put belligerence at the service of ideals rather than interests and attacked a regime which actually served American interests—by keeping geostrategic balance in the Middle East. Libints and R2P will fail for the same reason. They abandon allies that don’t comply with their version of morality and without courage (or money) to go after big targets, they occupy themselves with campaigns in insignificant countries. Insignificant countries bring insignificant gains and what little is gained can quickly turn into a big loss when regional powers that don’t share American interests decide to exert influence against it in the political vacuum the idealists don’t want to fill with troops or support for less moral proxies.
Ultimately, because Libya isn’t essential to American strategy, there’ll be no incentive to keep American involvement which will award the country’s foreign policy with yet another example of erratic and counterproductive interventionism.
(Originally published in the Atlantic Sentinel)