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Samantha Power and the Weaponization of Human Rights

by CHASE MADAR

Yesterday Barack Obama nominated Samantha Power as UN Ambassador. This profile of Power by lawyer Chase Madar ran in CounterPunch on September 10, 2009.

American liberals rejoiced at Samantha Power’s appointment to the National Security Council. After so many dreary Clintonites were stacked into top State Department positions—Dennis Ross, Richard Holbrooke, Hillary herself—here was new blood: a dynamic idealist, an inspiring public intellectual, a bestselling author of a book against genocide, a professor at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights. And she hasn’t even turned 40. The blogosphere buzzed. Surely Samantha Power was the paladin, the conscience, the senior director for multilateral affairs to bring human rights back into U.S. foreign policy.

Don’t count on it. “Human rights,” a term once coterminous with freeing prisoners of conscience and documenting crimes against humanity, has taken on a broader, more conflicted definition. It can now mean helping the Marine Corps formulate counterinsurgency techniques; pounding the drums for air strikes (of a strictly surgical nature, of course); lobbying for troop escalations in various conquered nations—all for noble humanitarian ends.

The intellectual career of Samantha Power is a richly instructive example of the weaponization of human rights. She made her name in 2002 with A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. In this surprise global bestseller, she argues that when confronted with 20th-century genocides, the United States sat on the sidelines as the blood flowed. Look at Bosnia or Rwanda. “Why does the US stand so idly by?” she asks. Powers allows that overall America “has made modest progress in its responses to genocide.” That’s not good enough. We must be bolder in deploying our armed forces to prevent human-rights catastrophes—to engage in “humanitarian intervention” in the patois of our foreign-policy elite.

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.

Power’s faith in the therapeutic possibilities of military force was formed by her experience as a correspondent in the Balkans, whose wars throughout the ’90s she seems to view as the alpha and omega of ethnic conflict, indeed of all genocide. For her, NATO’s bombing of Belgrade in 1999 was a stunning success that “likely saved hundreds of thousands of lives” in Kosovo. Yet this assertion seems to crumble a little more each year: estimates of the number of Kosovars slain by the province’s Serb minority have shrunk from 100,000 to at most 5,000. And it is far from clear whether NATO’s air strikes prevented more killing or intensified the bloodshed. Even so, it is the NATO attack on Belgrade—including civilian targets, which Amnesty International has recently, belatedly, deemed a war crime—that informs Power’s belief that the U.S. military possesses nearly unlimited capability to save civilians by means of aerial bombardment, and all we need is the courage to launch the sorties. Power has recently admitted, perhaps a little ruefully, that “the Kosovo war helped build support for the invasion of Iraq by contributing to the false impression that the US military was invincible.” But no intellectual has worked harder than Samantha Power to propagate this impression.

A Problem From Hell won a Pulitzer in early 2003. America’s book reviewers, eager to be team players, were relieved to be reminded of the upbeat side of military force during the build-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Surely Saddam Hussein, who had perpetrated acts of genocide against the Kurds, needed to be smashed by military force. Didn’t we owe it to the Iraqis to invade? Hasn’t America played spectator for too long? Power, to her credit, did not support the war, but she has been mighty careful not to raise her voice against it. After all, is speaking out at an antiwar demonstration or joining a peace group like Code Pink really “constructive”? It is certainly no way to get a seat on the National Security Council.

The failed marriage of warfare and humanitarian work is also the subject of Power’s most recent book, Chasing the Flame, a biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN humanitarian worker who was killed, with 21 others, by a suicide bomber in Baghdad just months after the U.S. invasion. Most of the book is a sensitive and rather gripping account of Vieira’s partial successes and heroic efforts in refugee resettlement in Thailand, Lebanon, and the Balkans. He eventually rose to become the UN’s high commissioner on human rights—a position he left when asked by George W. Bush to lead a UN “presence” in Iraq. That the UN’s top human-rights official would rush to help with the clean-up after an American invasion that contravened international law may strike some observers as strange. (One can imagine the puzzlement and outrage if the UN’s high commissioner on human rights had trailed the Soviets into Afghanistan in 1979 to help build civil society.) But for Vieira, and for Samantha Power, there is nothing unseemly about human-rights professionals serving as adjuncts to a conquering army, especially when the prestige of the UN—scorned and flouted during the run-up to the war—is on the line. Besides, Vieira had the personal assurances of the U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer—a simply charming American: he even speaks a foreign language—that the UN taskforce would have a great deal of sway in how a new Iraq was built.

In June 2003, Vieira arrived in Baghdad and was surprised to find himself completely powerless. That Vieira and company believed the UN insignia would be more than a hood ornament on Blackwater’s Humvees bespeaks not tough-minded idealism but wishful thinking. Power herself claims that Kofi Annan’s main reason for sending Vieira off to Baghdad was to remind the world of the UN’s “relevance” by getting a piece of the action. But for him and his colleagues, this confusion of means and ends proved deadly, one of tens of thousands of blood-soaked tragedies that this war has wrought. The clear lesson is that humanitarian work is always fatally compromised if it’s part of a militarized pacification campaign: NGO workers wield no real power and serve mostly as window dressing for the conquering army.

But this isn’t the moral that Power draws. She is still looking for Mr. Good War. Today, her preferred human-rights adventure is an escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

For the past seven years Afghanistan has been the “right” war for American liberals, but this carte blanche is fast expiring, as more civilians and soldiers die, as the Taliban resurges, and as the carnage whirlwinds into Pakistan. The numerous humanitarian nonprofits in Afghanistan are no longer backed up by the military; it is they who are backing the armed forces, having morphed into helpmeets to a counterinsurgency campaign. This transformation has, according to one knowledgeable veteran of such work in Afghanistan, rendered humanitarian work unsustainable. But Power, like so many American liberals, remains committed to “success” in Afghanistan—whatever that means.

As a human-rights entrepreneur who is also a tireless advocate of war, Samantha Power is not aberrant. Elite factions of the human-rights industry were long ago normalized within the tightly corseted spectrum of American foreign policy. Sarah Sewell, the recent head of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard, has written a slavering introduction to the new Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual: human-rights tools can help the U.S. armed forces run better pacification campaigns in conquered territory. The Save Darfur campaign, more organized than any bloc of the peace movement in the U.S., continues to call for some inchoate military strike against Sudan (with Power’s vocal support) even though this disaster’s genocide status is doubtful and despite an expert consensus that bombing Khartoum would do less than nothing for the suffering refugees. Meanwhile, the influential liberal think tank the Center for American Progress also appeals to human rights in its call for troop escalations in Afghanistan—the better to “engage” the enemy.

Nor is the imperialist current within the human-rights industry a purely American phenomenon: the conquest of Iraq found whooping proponents in Bernard Kouchner, founder of Médecins Sans Frontières, now Sarkozy’s foreign minister, and Michael Ignatieff, also a former head of the Harvard’s Carr Center and poised to become Canada’s next prime minister. Gareth Evans, Australia’s former foreign minister and a grinning soft-peddler of Indonesia’s massacres in East Timor, is perhaps the leading intellectual proponent of the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P as it is cutely called, an attempt to embed humanitarian intervention into international law. Evans, who recently stepped down from leading the International Crisis Group, laments the Iraq War chiefly for the way it has soiled the credibility of his pet idea.

To be sure, the human-rights industry is not all armed missionaries and laptop bombardiers. Human Rights Watch, for example, is one of few prestigious institutions in the U.S. to have criticized Israel’s assault on Gaza, for which its Middle East and North Africa division has endured much bashing not just from right-wing media but from its own board of directors. That said, HRW’s rebuke was limited to Israel’s manner of making war, rather than Israel’s decision to launch the attack in the first place—the jus in bello, not the jus ad bellum.

Human-rights organizations can do a splendid job of exposing and criticizing abuses, but they are constitutionally incapable of taking stands on larger political issues. No major human-rights NGO opposed the invasion of Iraq. With their legitimacy and funding dependent on a carefully cultivated perception of neutrality, human-rights nonprofits will never be any substitute for an explicitly anti-imperialist political force. In the meantime, America’s best and brightest will continue to explore innovative ways for human rights to serve a thoroughly militarized foreign policy.

CHASE MADAR is a translator of Verlaine and Buñuel and a civil rights lawyer in New York. He can be reached at chasemadar@hotmail.com

This article originally appeared in The American Conservative.