Susan Rice, Power and Empire


What comes close to an imperial formula, but pretends to be something else?  President Barack Obama’s distillation of it, a version where violence is carefully projected, directed and rendered, to use that ghastly term from international relations speak, “soft”.  A bit of killing must be done, but generally speaking, the world’s citizens will still wish they could muster an American in their vitals to come forth and take the stand for Uncle Sam.  The appointment of Susan E. Rice to the position of national security advisor exemplifies this.

This is a punch padded by the velvet glove, though that particular item is fraying. On announcing Rice’s appointment, the President outlined a few of his reasons which had the rancid smell of empire.  “With her background as a scholar, Susan understands that there’s no substitute for American leadership.”  Start the beat of the tom-toms. “She is at once passionate and pragmatic.  I think everybody understands Susan is a fierce champion for justice and human dignity, but she’s mindful that we have to exercise our power wisely and deliberately.”

Rice had been sabotaged as an appointment to the position of US Ambassador to the UN after Republicans pounced on her incorrect assertions that the Benghazi affair had been a result of protests against a YouTube video.  That hardly mattered, despite Senator Lindsey Graham’s assertions that Rice proved to be “an essential player in the Benghazi debacle.”

Powerful positions in US politics tend to be unelected, a curious anomaly for a democracy, but one typical of a heaving republic drunk on power. The Secretary of State has become increasingly irrelevant.  John Kerry seems very much a ceremonial bauble, while individuals like outgoing national security advisor Tim Donilon have gone about the business of negotiating such gatherings as the upcoming California meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

It was the aggressive, sometimes bullying Donilon who moved the wheels of American empire more towards Asia, with a “wind down”, as opposed to the more defeatist appellation “withdrawal”, of US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.  And, along with John Brennan, he has played a significant role in the shadow wars of counter-terrorism.

Such is the language of brute force, one that is always premised with the hope that temporal and overwhelming power be “exercised wisely”.  The unfortunate feature of that is that those with it tend to misbehave.  The corollary of imperialism is mischief, and the Obama administration is far from averse from it.  While Bush Jr. stormed his way through like a mentally challenged thug breaking the family china, Obama has given the same behaviour a smoother accent.  As with so much in politics, it all comes down to the manner of delivery.

With Rice coming in, and Donilon moving out, we have a significantly noisy shuffle in the security ranks behind Obama.  The humanitarian misfits are moving in.  Samantha Power, whose own humanitarian flag is about to flutter before global delegates, is moving into the position Rice occupied.  Obama on Power: “She knows the U.N.’s strengths. She knows its weaknesses.”  Read: She knows how it can be subverted, knows how it can be bypassed.  But wait, Obama offers a counter to that assertion. “She knows that American interests are advanced when we can rally the world to our side.”  Let’s leave aside the fact that many states are quite happy not to be rallied, thank you very much.

It did not take long for the neoconservative largesse to come Power’s way.  More than Rice, Power is one of the trumpeters of the interventionist doctrine, something she set out most clearly in A Problem from Hell.  There, she portrayed Washington’s inertia in the face of possibilities to correct and prevent matters of genocide, more or less suggesting that global police power be exercised under the auspices of US control.

“Power is a good pick because she is a very capable and principled advocate of humanitarian intervention,” suggested an almost swooning senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations Max Boot (The Cable, Jun 5).  Dismayed as Boot was at Obama’s indifference to intervening in the Syrian bloodbath, he was pleased about the appointment. “I think it’s obvious that Samantha has had a meteoric rise due to her great work as a journalist and advocate of humanitarian intervention.”

What is running in the waters of Washington at the moment must be infectious. Power has similarly received praise from John McCain (R-Az) and Joe Lieberman who claimed that she was “more personally interventionist” in her writings “as a matter of American foreign policy based on human rights than this administration has been.”  Peter Yeo of the Better World Campaign has made the puzzling assertion that, as “neoconservative intellectuals have always been interested in the subject of civilian protection”, Power would be regarded as a naturally attractive choice (The Cable, Jun 5).  That neoconservative doctrine only regards civilians as the bolster for broader assertions of power is something that even many human rights watchers miss.

Expect exertions of force justified by the high minded tones of humanitarianism, as fine a trick in international relations as any.  We can only wish, as Albert Camus did, for the rake that doesn’t kill to the high-minded puritan who happily does so.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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