The elevation of liberal firebrand Samantha Power to the post of America’s ambassador to the United Nations is an interesting, if dangerous, choice for President Obama. On the one hand, Power represents everything that a liberal progressive could wish for in a UN ambassador. On the other, her unflinching support of the use of force in support of humanitarian goals is sure to make some protest in outrage.
It is not, however, the politics of her selection that makes her dangerous, but the strength of the ideological convictions Power brings with her – convictions that are remarkably similar to the neoconservative architects of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. This is because, like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle or any of the other members of that merry band of militaristic tricksters, she is an idealist who thinks the strong use of US military power abroad can fundamentally change the world for the better.
As such, she represents the liberal hawk wing of the progressive movement in America – which in many ways is a mirror image of the right’s neoconservatives. Take for instance her position on Libya – widely seen as a key factor in President Obama’s decision to intervene there militarily in 2011, it is substantively no different from the position taken by the likes of Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both of whom argued for muscular action to bring down the tottering Qaddafi regime.
In case one gets the idea that Libya was a one-off affair, Ms. Power has long articulated that the proper response to atrocities carried out abroad should be a strong one. Her 2002 book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, is largely an indictment of U.S. foreign policy in the area of atrocity prevention and argues that Washington should concentrate on saving lives — militarily if need be — rather than adhering to a narrowly defined national interest.
All this is well and good of course – no one actually likes seeing genocides being carried out – but Power, a journalist turned academic who hitherto was serving a stint on the National Security Council as President Obama’s Atrocity Prevention Board, believes that armed humanitarianism should be an option far more often than not. In the words of one critic, this could in turn “replace a problem from hell with a solution from hell.”
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The situation in Syria is a case in point. The Assad regime is odious to be sure, but there is no indication that armed intervention to oust Assad would lead to the establishment of a liberal, democratic Syria. It could, but it might also pave the way for some other ethnic faction or sectarian group to ruthlessly seize power in order to set up its own authoritarian rule.
The fact of the matter is that we simply do not know enough about the situation on the ground to intervene effectively even if we wanted to – a point made obvious this past week by McCain’s trip to Syria. Photos revealed that one of the men the senator met with had allegedly been involved in the kidnapping of Lebanese Shi’ite pilgrims a year ago. A McCain spokesman denied the Arizona lawmaker knew of the allegations, but this only highlights the larger point that intervention opens the door to working with all sorts of unsavory types who might not have truth, justice, and the “American Way” in mind when they use our cash, arms, and expertise for their insurrectionary aims.
This can clearly be seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, where initially successful regime-change operations swiftly got bogged down in long, bloody occupations. In Afghanistan, we found ourselves allied with drug lords and glorified bandit kings, while in Iraq we simply replaced one form of tyranny and insecurity with another. Even in Libya, which might be considered Power’s war and thus a test of her proposition that the U.S. can effectively wield force for humanitarian ends, the situation there remains terribly insecure and unstable even as regional blowback to Qaddafi’s fall prompted the French to intervene militarily in Mali a year later.
More troubling still, a humanitarian case widely seen as successful – NATO intervention into Bosnia – may have stopped the killing, but the result has been a cold, stillborn peace in a country effectively reduced to the status of a European protectorate: a status which does not look to be ending anytime soon.
There was also the half-baked intervention in Somalia at the outset of the Clinton administration. There, an ill-conceived humanitarian mission not only failed to stop the fighting, restore order, and alleviate suffering, but also got several U.S. Army Rangers killed and their bodies dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.
All this is not to say that Power’s moral stance is wrong, or that we should always do nothing when mass killings break about abroad — far from it — but it reinforces the hard fact that successful humanitarian intervention is a devilishly difficult thing to pull off. It takes immense resources, equally immense amounts of patience, and the willingness of warring parties to talk peace once U.S. military power makes itself felt. Absent any one of those things, the intervention can not only fail dramatically, but devolve into in open-ended commitment that stretches on interminably for years, if not decades, at far greater cost than initially conceived. After all, it is not called “nation-building” for nothing.
Failed interventions that prove costly and bloody, though, are not the worst pitfalls that can trap an unwary Washington. Internationally, such adventurism is also profoundly unsettling. U.S. intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s, for instance, angered Russia and later gave Moscow the justification it needed to attack Georgia in 2008, on — you guessed it — humanitarian grounds. Fear of another Libya has in turn spurred Russia to support Syria with weapons and the deployment to the Eastern Mediterranean of Moscow’s only aircraft carrier. A policy that makes an enemy of Russia or a similarly powerful country does not, in the end, seem like a wise one.
Whispers in the president’s ears
Which is why Ms. Power is ultimately such a dangerous pick, for like the neoconservatives the Obama administration replaced, she too is whispering into the ears of a U.S. president the fantasy that military power can and should be used to right wrongs and slay monsters abroad — easily, costlessly, and with few consequences.
The record shows that reality points to just the opposite – that intervention into foreign societies is hugely expensive in time and effort, is done at great risk, and usually has little chance of establishing the democratic foundations we would be proud of, let alone admit was worth the sacrifice in U.S. blood and treasure.
Atrocity and dictatorship are terrible things. No one supports them. But using our ideological distaste for them as justifications for military action abroad whenever we see a chance to intervene is simply counterproductive in the long run – as the last twenty years of U.S. military action overseas has ably demonstrated. It would be a shame, then, if Americans were forced to relearn the hard lessons dealt to it so recently for a second time, this time by the well-meaning Mr. Obama. His choice of Ms. Power as his UN Ambassador suggests we may just have to.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.
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