Another War of Jenkins' Ear

Resist The Pointless

The Plight of Samantha Power Interventionalists

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There’s a tendency to say there are three groups of foreign policy actors in American politics: cruise missile liberals, neoconservatives, and isolationists. But in the last decade, Samantha Power has tried to carve out a niche between the people reluctant to use any force and the cruise missile liberals like Michael O’Hanlon and some people at TNR who have dreams of intervening militarily literally everywhere.

McClatchy had a good summary of Power’s position on foreign policy:

Yet to dub Power an interventionist is to miss the nuance of the mission she began as a 22-year-old war correspondent in Yugoslavia, then nurtured through Harvard Law School and turns in think tanks, academia and as an author and columnist.

“The United States should not frame its policy options in terms of doing nothing or unilaterally sending in the Marines,” Power wrote in her book “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” for which she won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize. “America’s leadership will be indispensable in encouraging U.S. allies and regional and international institutions to step up their commitments and capacities.”

Power called Clinton administration officials to account for not doing more to save lives in Bosnia and Rwanda in the mid-1990s. She didn’t support the 2003 invasion of Iraq, criticizing the unilateral U.S. approach and questioning the Bush administration’s concern for Iraqis’ welfare.

In a 2006 commencement speech for Santa Clara University School of Law, Power said her life’s work was driven by a sense of obligation “to demand that our representatives are attentive to the human consequences of their decision making.” She advised the students to “let reason be your tool, but let justice be your cause.”

I was in college during the run up to the Iraq war and I’ve constantly regretted not being more informed (my own version of Iraq war guilt, I suppose, those I would characterize mine as a sin of omission rather than commission). The clearest and most persusaive theory I identified in since then was Samantha Power’s, adequately summarized here.

As a tentative supporter of actions in Libya, I’ve felt caught in the crossfire between those who would want to go in harder and those that are (in my opinion) overly reluctant to use military force. It’s clear the nation-building plan hasn’t worked in Iraq and Afghanistan. If this intervention leads to a stalemate, sending in the Army to do COIN will not be cost effective. But that doesn’t mean the world has to have let Gaddafi’s army have his way with Benghazi either. (Tom Ricks’ post today was good on along those lines).

I’d like to point out one other inconsistency in critics of any action in Libya: that we are simultaneously involved in a Libyan civil war (16.5 million results on google) and also that the Libyan rebels only have 1,000 trained soldiers and some of them are less than savory characters. My favorite such phrasing was during his press briefing today by US Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz saying ““But I don’t think we’re at a point where we can make a judgment that this is a 100 percent kosher, so to speak, group.”

Moreover, doesn’t that this is a civil war with one side drastically under armed and out manned make this worse? Tienanmen Square was a human tragedy, but I would add that the reign of the Khmer Rouge was worse. There are real humanitarian crises going on across the Arab world. It seems pretty clear none are as of yet rising to what Gaddafi credibly threatened against Benghazi. That does not take away the serious, humanitarian suffering of those in Bahrain, Iran, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, and elsewhere. But the constant arguing that the responses are uneven ignores that geopolitical circumstances really are different in those countries. Maybe the US could say or do more elsewhere; that’s certainly possible (even probable in the case of action in the Ivory Coast). But that’s not a compelling argument against US action in Libya (even if this particular version of action isn’t the wisest course – I’m no military specialist here).

I don’t find this persuasive – does anyone think the tragedy of the Rwandan genocide is implicated in any way by what ideology the Tutsis slaughtered had. It’s easy to highlight the pro-peace Tutsis, but I’m sure there were less than savory factions too. The people being murdered by the governments of Yemen and Syria to date are not all adherents to western liberal thought.

Benghazi has roughly 750,ooo to one million people, making it the size of roughly Portland Oregon. Gaddafi had pledged no mercy shortly before the no fly zone has been implemented; since then all he has done is do things like shell a hospital.

Is the US intervention perfect? No, and there are real ways it could go seriously awry. Will the west basically have to leave Libya before everything is settled? Sure. Will post-intervention aide to Libya be underfunded? Sadly, there’s no doubt. Should the US be making more efficient interventions overseas (the omnipresent example of anti-malaria tents)? Absolutely. It’s a mark against us that we don’t.

But are things at least somewhat better than they would have been? I think so. To use a domestic analogy, we are willing to have police intervene domestically to stop a murderer, but we’re less willing to spend as much to intervene against more pernicious but endemic harms such as high-fructose corn syrup, asthma in the inner city, or accidents while driving (not to directly compare any of them – just that they are somewhat endemic). And this is (in theory) the kind of intervention the US should be doing, as Power laid out.

From the NYT review of her 2003 book:

The same Washington, of course, is a place of defeatism, inertia, selfishness and cowardice. Warnings pass up the chain and disappear. Intelligence is gathered and then ignored or denied. The will of the executive remains steadfastly opposed to intervention; its guiding assumption is that the cost of stopping genocide is great, while the political cost of ignoring it is next to nil. President Bush the elder comes off as a stone-hearted prisoner to business interests, President Clinton as an amoral narcissist. Perhaps nobody looks worse than former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, on whose watch both Bosnia and Rwanda self-destructed. ”When innocent life is being taken on such a scale and the United States has the power to stop the killing at reasonable risk,” Power writes, ”it has a duty to act.” She objects not only to the fact that the United States declines to intervene militarily in genocidal conflicts, but also that frequently it declines to do anything — even to rebuke perpetrators publicly.

This does not mean the United States should fix everything wrong with a country, or that being at the nexus of an access of evil justifies lies about the war. It means that protecting Benghazi through international institutions is a legitimate US interest.

In short, I wish that more critics would be aware Power was a critic of the Iraq invasion and is not some cruise missile liberal. I know a lot of those type of liberals are really annoying. And they’re predictably bandwagon-ing here. That doesn’t mean everyone involved thinks that way.

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