Jacob Heilbrunn (Samantha and Her Subjects):
HUMANITARIAN INTERVENTION—the conviction that American presidents must act, preemptively if necessary, to avert the massacre of innocents abroad—is steadily acquiring a new prominence in the Obama administration. For America’s foreign-policy elite, it is a precept that provides a way to expiate the sins of the past, either bellicose action (Vietnam) or complacent inaction (Rwanda). It not only holds out the expectation of protecting endangered civilians but also the promise of acting multilaterally to uphold international laws.
Yet the consequences of such intervention have rarely been more vexing. As the world’s leading military power—it devotes more to defense than the next ten biggest-spending countries combined—America finds itself lurching from conflict to conflict, often with little idea of how they will end, other than the hope that the forces of righteousness will prevail, even as Washington becomes progressively more enmeshed in local disputes. In its quixotic quest to create a global and irenic order by force, it is flouting Shakespeare’s admonition that it is best to “fling away ambition: By that sin fell the angels.”
This is particularly so in the Middle East, where the Obama administration and, to a lesser degree, Europe face nothing less than a potential cataclysm of engagements, until the entire region is in tumult. The result is a self-reinforcing doctrine of permanent revolution. In creating, or abetting, chaotic conditions, it becomes necessary to intervene again and again, all in the name of averting further chaos.
These incursions embrace the idea—some more, some less—of humanitarian intervention. The conceit is that when America intervenes, it is not doing so on the basis of sordid national interests but, rather, on the grounds of self-evidently virtuous human rights or, in its most extreme case, to prevent genocide. This development—to call it a mere trend would be to trivialize its true import—has been a long time in the making.
What is missing from Power’s work, however, is a political context. There seems to be the assumption that Washington can always be on the right side of history—that American presidents can ignore domestic and international considerations simply to plunge into conflicts on the side of the beleaguered whenever they feel like it.…It is also notable that Power, in her extended case studies of genocide, ignores some of the biggest examples of the past century. There is no mention of Stalin’s man-made Ukrainian famine. There is no mention of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which killed tens of millions … As Saul Bellow once observed, “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.”…Where does Power draw the line? The bar for preventing genocide may well have been set too high in the past, as she argues. But she, in turn, may be setting it too low, providing an ideological smokescreen for the use of American military force in dubious circumstances, something she never adequately addresses. She runs the risk of exposing America to the charge of hypocrisy for not intervening in countries where brutal mistreatment of the local population is taking place, as in Zimbabwe, while providing a validating and dangerously palatable logic for American overextension. Power’s solution to the conundrum that has bedeviled the Democratic Party since Vietnam—when to sanction the use of force abroad—is to support wars of national liberation. This is likely not a solution at all.
The new round of engagements abroad by the Obama administration may well come to be seen as the last glimmerings of American hubris. “Kings can have subjects,” George F. Kennan once observed, “it is a question whether a republic can.” … It would be no small irony if, in her zeal to reshape American foreign policy in the image of liberal internationalism, Power were to usher in its demise.