Samantha Power on the Duty to Intervene
This week, the Barack Obama administration’s most eloquent and ardent advocate for humanitarian intervention overseas, Samantha Power, the ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted the following about the alleged Syrian chemical weapons attack: “Reports devastating: 100s dead in streets, including kids killed by chem weapons. UN must get there fast & if true, perps must face justice.”
Since then, she’s been publicly silent. Apparently, she’s on a previously scheduled, and unfortunately timed, vacation (which a handful of Republicans are casting as a scandal of some sort, Democrats not being allowed to take vacations in August).
Even if she were in town, Power most likely wouldn’t be tweeting, or speaking publicly. The administration is bollixed-up by this latest horrendous news from Syria, and the Pentagon has been pushing hard against the diplomats -- John Kerry chief among them -- who would like to see more direct American intervention. (For more on Kerry’s argument with the Pentagon, please see this column.)
But it’s not impossible to guess what Power might be thinking. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “‘A Problem From Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide,” published a decade ago, will be our useful guide.
I pulled the book off the shelf last night, and was reminded that it is brilliant, a carefully written, deeply researched indictment of American indifference in the face of atrocity. And I realized that the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria must be driving Power mad with frustration -- frustration, of course, with Bashar al-Assad's killer regime and frustration with the international community (so-called), in particular the Russians, who will do almost anything to protect the regime from censure, but also frustration with those in the administration who have spent the past two years looking for ways to distance the U.S. from the horror.
One caveat: The 100,000 dead in Syria do not count -- at least not yet -- as victims of genocide, as the word is traditionally understood, although I think a careful analysis of the civil war shows that Assad’s minority Alawite regime has directed its criminal violence almost exclusively against members of Syria’s Sunni Muslim population.
So I have a sense that Power would believe that the following statement, which she made in her book’s concluding chapter, would apply to Syria: “When innocent life is being taken on such a scale and the United States has the power to stop the killing at reasonable risk, it has a duty to act.”
In her conclusion, Power asks, “Why does the United States stand so idly by?” in the face of mass killing. And she explains the traditional behavior of Western leaders when confronted with proof of large-scale atrocities: “Western governments have generally tried to contain genocide by appeasing its architects. But the sad record of the last century shows that the walls the United States tries to build around genocidal societies almost inevitably shatter. States that murder and torment their own citizens target citizens elsewhere. Their appetites become insatiable.”
Her argument for intervention in cases of large-scale violence against civilians is not motivated merely by moral interests: “Citizens victimized by genocide or abandoned by the international community do not make good neighbors, as their thirst for vengeance, their irredentism and their acceptance of violence as a means of generating change can turn them into future threats.” Two years of Western inaction in Syria, of course, have helped turn what began as a nonviolent citizens’ rebellion into an al-Qaeda-dominated campaign of anti-regime violence.
To those analysts who argue that the American people, tired of the Middle East and weary of war, are comprehensively uninterested in engagement of any sort, Power, it seems to me, would recite this bit of cogent analysis: “The inertia of the governed cannot be disentangled from the indifference of the government. American leaders have both a circular and a deliberate relationship to public opinion.”
She goes on, “It is circular because their constituencies are rarely if ever aroused by foreign crises, even genocidal ones, in the absence of political leadership, and yet at the same time U.S. officials continually cite the absence of public support as grounds for inaction. The relationship is deliberate because American leadership has not been absent in such circumstances. It has been present but devoted mainly to minimizing public outrage.”
Power is alert to the short half-life of public outrage, on those rare occasions when public outrage manifests itself at all. She quotes Arthur Koestler on the subject: “‘You can convince them for an hour,’ he said, of the average citizen, but then ‘their mental half-defense begins to work and in a week the shrug of incredulity has returned like a reflex temporarily weakened by shock.’”
She writes elsewhere in her conclusion that the U.S. consistently fails to deter crimes against humanity, even when its government knows perfectly well the details of the crimes, and the identities of the perpetrators:
“What is most shocking about America’s reaction to Turkey’s killing of Armenians, the Holocaust, Pol Pot’s reign of terror, Iraq’s slaughter of the Kurds, Bosnian Serbs' mass murder of Muslims, and the Hutu elimination of Tutsi is not that the United States refused to deploy U.S. ground forces to combat the atrocities.”
She continues, “For much of the century, even the most ardent interventionists did not lobby for U.S. ground invasions. What is most shocking is that U.S. policy makers did almost nothing to deter the crime. Because America’s ‘vital national interests’ were not considered imperiled by mere genocide, senior U.S. officials did not give genocide the moral attention it warranted.”
As I read this morning that the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, expressed “shock” upon hearing of the alleged chemical weapons attack, I was reminded of this succinct and unsparing line from Power: “We are responsible for our incredulity.”