The National Interest, a periodical known for a staunchly realist stance in international affairs, carried an article by Jacob Heilbrunn about Samantha Power in its May-June, 2011 issue. Power, who presently heads the Office of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights in the National Security Council, has referred to herself as the “genocide chick”. TNI has put her picture on the cover of the aforementioned issue, with the title “Interventionista!” Along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, Power is given credit (or blamed) for having persuaded President Obama to intervene in Libya.
Power has been morally troubled by genocide for many years, and she has been a vocal advocate of intervention to prevent genocide and other atrocities. Born in 1970, she is a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law School. In her earlier career as a journalist, she was a close witness to the horrors of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Srebrenica is the Bosnian town where Serbian forces under General Ratko Mladic massacred a large number of Muslim men and boys. The town became for Power a key symbol of the human cost of non-intervention and “never again!” describes the moral mandate of her interventionism. In 2003 she published the book that made her well-known: A Problem from Hell, which passionately indicts the United States as well as other countries for silence and passivity in the face of genocide. The indictment covers a long list of horrors, from the Armenian genocide of World War I through the Holocaust of World War II to the more recent events in Cambodia and Rwanda. I don’t know Power. I have seen her speaking on television, and I have been struck by her picture on the TNI cover. Perhaps I am imagining this, but her face suggests an abiding sadness. Given the topics she has dealt with, this should not come as a surprise.
After her years as a journalist, Power went to Harvard for her law degree, specializing on the legal issues of human rights. She became a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and co-founder of its Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. She served as an advisor in Obama’s presidential campaign, from which she resigned after calling Hillary Clinton “a monster” in a newspaper interview. Evidently they have made up since then, and Obama appointed her to her present position early in his administration. Power has been at the hub of a new (and somewhat surprising) alliance between liberals and neoconservatives in urging so-called humanitarian intervention. In February 2011 a letter, signed by Martin Peretz and Leon Wieseltier from the former camp and William Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz from the latter, urged Obama to intervene in Libya. And so he did, though apparently with some hesitation and with the United States leaving the heavy lifting to its NATO allies.
Heilbrunn criticizes Power on a number of counts—for being selective in her choices of outrageous atrocities (no mention in the book of the genocidal actions of Stalin and Mao), for giving undue respect to endorsement of interventions by the United Nations, for painting too rosy a picture of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Brazilian diplomat murdered while on a UN mission in Iraq (he is the subject of another book by Power, Chasing the Flame, 2008). But he criticizes her mainly for “providing an ideological smokescreen for the use of American military power in dubious circumstances”. Heilbrunn savors the irony of Power having opposed George W. Bush’s intervention in Iraq and now justifying Obama’s in Libya. In defending the latter action, she (as well as Obama himself) sounds very much like Bush defending the invasion of Iraq. She insists on an important difference: Bush, though he tried, failed to get a UN endorsement; Obama acted with such an endorsement, thus seemingly in accord with the liberal creed of “multilateralism”.
As Heilbrunn points out, the problem is not new. He mentions the debate between William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli over the question of possible British intervention in the Balkans, to stop Turkish massacres of Bulgarian civilians. Disraeli’s hardnosed Realpolitik prevailed in this instance. Heilbrunn could have mentioned the earlier action by the British navy to stop the slave trade—a humanitarian intervention difficult to explain in “realist” terms of national interest. I assume that Heilbrunn would have come out on Disraeli’s side in the debate with Gladstone. He approvingly quotes an 1854 speech in Parliament by John Bright: “It is not my duty to make this country the knight-errant of the human race”. I don’t know if Bright intended this, but his use of the term suggests the most famous “knight-errant” of them all—Don Quixote de la Mancha, ever the defender of damsels in distress.
Here is the question posed by all this: Is humanitarian intervention an essentially Quixotic enterprise?
I think not. It is difficult not to sympathize with Power’s moral principle that those with the capacity to do so should come to the defense of victims of atrocity. But the general application of this principle is problematic. The intervention in Libya has been legitimated in terms of a relatively new doctrine in international relations (not yet firmly established in international law, but approved in several United Nations resolutions)—the doctrine of “the responsibility to protect”: States have the duty to protect their citizens. If they are unable or unwilling to do so, other states may have the duty to intervene, in the final instance by military means. Specifically, such intervention is justified in the case of four derelictions: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. The intervention has to be approved by legitimate authority—which turns out to be (surprise!) the United Nations. Very importantly, sovereignty cannot be used as a shield behind which any atrocity can be perpetrated.
This cannot be the place to go into the legal intricacies of the “responsibility to protect” (I am not competent to do so anyway), let alone to discuss the moral or realist merits of the invasions of Iraq and Libya. But it is within the broad purview of this blog to look into the moral reasoning behind this doctrine. I think it is essentially plausible. The insistence on the exclusive authority of the UN is much less plausible: The UN is not a world government, but a conglomerate of states, some of which are egregious violators of human rights. It seems to me that a “coalition of the willing, if the ”willing” consist of democracies with a respect for human rights, is a more plausible authority. Be this as it may, I would suggest that the moral reasoning here can be described as the “logic of the lone sheriff”.
Let us assume that there is one solitary sheriff responsible for the security of a village. Let us further assume that he fulfils this responsibility quite well. A neighboring village has no sheriff . If a serious crime is about to occur in the neighboring village, our sheriff will feel the right, even the responsibility to cross the boundary between the villages in order to stop the crime. Nothing Quixotic about this. It becomes Quixotic if the sheriff now goes from village to village, even far from home, looking for crimes to stop—even leaving aside the likelihood that, in this case, his own village will become insecure and perhaps go bankrupt.
It seems to me that this metaphor expresses a plausible moral logic. It remains plausible if one extends the logic to an imperial power, such as Britain in the nineteenth century or the United States today. American exceptionalism has been rightly criticized. In terms of this particular issue, America is not exceptional because it is morally superior, but quite simply because its power is exceptional. Whether by design or by happenstance, the United States is the only global sheriff. There is no one else to play this role. Much if not all the world is covered in a grid of Pentagon Commands. There are all these peasants, blissfully unaware that they are denizens of, say, Central Command—unless an American drone hits them, or unless a flotilla of American ships and planes comes to their relief after an earthquake or tsunami. Such power brings with it a “responsibility to protect” that is indeed exceptional. Yet even the United States cannot exercise its power all the time, in every place. If it tries to do so, it will indeed come to resemble Don Quixote. And it will very likely fall off its horse.
In his book The Idea of State Reason (misleadingly translated into English as Machiavellianism), the German historian Friedrich Meinecke wrote a magisterial account of the development of the concept of raison d’etat. He ends with the proposition that responsible statecraft will always live in the tension between power and morality, kratos and ethos. The tension cannot be easily resolved. Sometimes, as Machiavelli put it, the statesman will have to sacrifice the salvation of his soul for the good of the city.