Magazine article The American Conservative

Care Tactics

Magazine article The American Conservative

Care Tactics

Article excerpt

Samantha Power and the weaponization of human rights

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 counter-insurgency 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 Heil: 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 humanrights 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 genocida! 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 EastTtaiorese. (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. …

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