America, Genocide, and the Future of War

A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide

by Samantha Power

Basic Books

Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos

by Robert D. Kaplan

Random House

Both of these books under consideration, Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide and Robert D. Kaplan’s Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, seek to offer an informed alternative to America’s foreign policy. For Power, this is accomplished by tracing both the evolution of genocide as a legal framework from which to engage aggressors as well as the manner by which the Western powers, and primarily the United States, has missed opportunities to halt genocide. For Kaplan, it is less of a task to address specific failures of foreign policy as it is a process to clarify and inform it. Both, in their own ways, address crucial areas of concern, specifically the nature of intervention in foreign affairs with out military. In a surprising fashion, both offer interpretations that are not too distinct from one another.

Throughout her work, Power consistently illustrates the manner in which the United States State Department and Executive Office have refused to confront the specter of genocide when it has been proven to exist and have instead used national interest as a pretext to do nothing to halt aggressors. Despite the wealth of facts and history she recounts in this narrative, the theme remains consistent. For Power, the question is never what America should do but why it failed to act when there was compelling evidence that thousands of individuals were being slaughtered. The reasons she lists remain fairly consistent. First, the intransigence of the executive office should never be underestimated. Faced with a host of political concerns, most Presidents refused to undertake any action that could be either politically liable or costly. Political capital, costly to obtain, should never be spent on events with relatively little positive outcome.

Second, positive outcomes are always construed in the narrowest possible terms. That is, according to the Powell/Weinberger doctrine, military action is appropriate only when it meets a clear objective, has a clear exit strategy, retains full public and Congressional support and must be used as a last resort in order to serve some sort of national objective. Failing any of these requirements, military action should be avoided.

Third, if there is no public outcry, there can be no action. As she demonstrates, this last criterion is often a Catch-22 situation that initiates a vicious circle of logic. She states:

“Six months before Pearl Harbor, 76 percent of Americans polled favored supplying aid to Britain but 79 percent of Americans actually opposed entering World War II. Once the United States was involved, of course, support soared… A week after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, before President Bush had mobilized support for U.S. combat, a majority of Americans opposed invading Iraq or even staging air strikes against military bases. Four out of ten went so far as to say that the United States should not get involved in a land war in the Middle East even if Iraq’s invasion means that Iraq permanently controls Kuwait.” (304).

Time and time again, she demonstrates that the “rally around the flag” mentality usually entices the public to support military action once troops are committed. Unfortunately, this course of action relies on creative leadership to demonstrate an imperative to action, and upper level politicians often cite the lack of political will as an excuse to act.

Lastly, perceptions of the conflict are clouded by two crucial errors that either preclude action or facilitate politicians in deducing completely erroneous conclusions. The first error is an unwillingness to perceive the aggressors “as really bad people.” Elected officials, as well as upper level bureaucrats, alike continue to view wars of genocide and aggression through yesterday’s myopic lens. Thus, aggressors are seen as rational agents pursuing objective goals and these goals are themselves tangible objects. However, in each of the instances under consideration, the objectives are not rational, or if they are, they observe a rationality alien to our minds. Politicians refused to consider that the end result was not merely a pretext to a larger objective, say land or natural resources, it was the final goal. Time and time again as field reports arrive, those charged with the capability to do something remained incredulous and refused to acknowledge the veracity of these reports. Instead, they vacillate in acting as they search for some other type of corroboration. This hesitation, she demonstrates, inevitably leads to more suffering. Commenting on the fall of the area of Srebenica, Powers cites both John Shattuck, the assistant secretary of state for human rights and Assistant secretary Holbrooke. As she cites John Shattuck:

“‘We assumed we would eventually get access to these guys and that they’d be badly roughed up.’ Many would be beaten in slow torture, they would be starved, they would be humiliated, and some would even be killed. But most would be kept alive to dig trenches or to serve as booty in a prisoner exchange. The Serbs were presumed rational actors, who followed predictable patterns… Assistant Secretary Holbrook rejects the claim that what followed in Srebrenica could have surprised senior Clinton administration officials. ‘We didn’t need specific intelligence to know something terrible was going on,’ Holbrooke says. ‘In fact, the search for intelligence is often a deliberate excuse to avoid or at least delay action. We knew what needed to be done. If we’d bombed those fuckers as I had recommended in November and in May, Srebrenica wouldn’t have happened.” (410).

As is often the case, inaction is often an easier choice than the hard task of doing what is right.

In conjunction with this disbelief, when government officials were forced to acknowledge the magnitude of the suffering, they often viewed both participants as equally culpable. Cast into a deterministic framework, all parties were not only held responsible but were seen as historically destined to fight. For this reason, officials often spoke of the futility of acting as if any action would be destined to fail. These excuses were used heavily in the suffering of Rwanda as well as the former Yugoslavia. Yet, as she decisively demonstrates, this logic is at best a naive attempt to avoid responsibility and at worst, a racist policy of inaction.

Yet, for all her reasoning and demonstrations of several administrations failure to act, her advice and guidance remains uncomfortably vague. Certainly genocide is a tragedy that no country that espouses ideals such as the United States should tolerate, yet, where does one draw a line? Are all holocausts equal? To note one exception, based upon the legal definition adopted under the auspices of the United Nations, one could certainly object to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as tantamount to genocide. Shall we then censor them? Or, what about a country such as China that maintains the ostensible goal of liquidating an entire class of individuals, isn’t this genocide? Does this mean we need to intervene in their affairs? While this response is not intended to be crass or overly simplistic, it should be evident that pointing out past errors is no substitute for offering a solid framework from which to evaluate genocidal acts and guide a course of action. For this reason, much of the closing chapter is geared less towards defining the contours of any tentative foreign policy and is oriented towards reaffirming the recourse to various deterrents once a potential aggressor is identified.

Second, Power never quite indicates the tenuous relationship that exists between domestic and foreign affairs and how this tension can be successfully resolved. While there is a clear relationship between the two, political experiences, longstanding tradition and sheer indifference on the part of the American public has generally considered the two as separate. Her assumptions on how the relationship between the two could be strengthened in order to prevent genocide rest on reevaluating political considerations from a narrow perspective to a larger perspective. However, this expansion never remains complete and only serves to be an implicit assumption instead of overt analysis.

Third, to a great degree, Power confuses between the values of what ought to be and the realities of what is. Although I agree with her sentiments and the need to do something, as the sole superpower, we have an obligation and a right to shape the world according to our interests, I believe she strongly underestimates the ability to affect change within the bureaucratic structure of the federal government. The national government, a superstructure that embodies moral inertia, is a difficult and bewildering beast to steer. Coupled with this reality is the entrenched idea at the executive level that foreign policy is utilized to preserve the status quo, not to change it. It should come as no surprise then that what Power articulates is nothing short of an about face. She envisions a shift in policy from one that is merely reactive to external threats and conservative in approach to one that is founded on critical assessments and the risky procedure of intervention in external affairs. This is a proposal that has never been popular.

In direct opposition then, Robert D. Kaplan offers an insightful commentary that utilizes classical, Greek, Roman, and even Chinese interpretations of history and warfare to interpret foreign affairs. “Pragmatic realism,” the outlook he espouses is offered as a corrective to those who favor intervention strictly on moral grounds. Unlike Powers, he doesn’t seek intervention as a tool to redress moral wrongs per se, instead, he views the goals of foreign policy to offer balance and maintain order in an increasingly fractious political world. Constantly referring back to examples such as Winston Churchill, Macchiavelli, Thomas Hobbes and others, he works from the belief that individuals are basically, if not evil, somewhat nasty and need to have their behavior contained. Government is the tool best suited to contain individuals and maintain peace and in this new era, the United States as sole superpower is the ideal leveler.

Kaplan’s idealized statesmen would be those individuals who are well versed in the psychology of individuals. He praises the ability for leaders to “see through” the foibles of others as well as understanding the shifting geopolitical landscape. After awhile, one suspects that in an ideal situation a quasi-warrior/philosopher king would be Kaplan’s choice for leader. Charisma and a willingness to do what it takes to accomplish a goal, in this case a preservation of peace, are the only rules. To accomplish this goal one must be confident enough to accomplish one’s goals and ruthless in the undertaking. For Kaplan then, there is no meritorious action to be undertaken, merely the outcome of history to render a judgment. Crude calculation is as much a criterion as are ethical or rational considerations. For this reason, history becomes the arbiter of whether someone is a Nixon or a Roosevelt, a Caligula or a Christ.

So, while Kaplan agrees that the crises that engulfed the former Yugoslavia were horrible, there is no certainty that America should have been involved. One could certainly surmise that the conclusion to be drawn was that it was just as feasible for us not to have been involved. For Kaplan, the crucial argument was not based on humanitarian grounds, but on preserving the prestige of NATO. Action was necessary if we were to deter future European aggressors and it was not to prevent any further worldwide outbreaks of genocide.

Ultimately, Kaplan links this enterprise with a reevaluation of a Pagan or Warrior ethic, one that eschews Judeo-Christian morality (as if they were a related concept), and embraces a willingness to break bones, if necessary. In a dangerous world, there is no time for religious sentimentality he argues. However, one could just as easily argue that the religious sentimentality he denounces may be an indispensable tool to guide action. Ronald Reagan denouncing the Soviet Union as an evil empire used language that was intended to highlight the religious dimension of the problem. Likewise, Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi also relied on a language infused with religion to gather support. Religion was not merely component of their discourse, it was the discourse that they relied upon. Kaplan tacitly addresses this in his passing discussion of Reinhold Niebuhr, the foremost Protestant theologian of the last century who emphasized and legitimated an aggressive foreign policy for America.

For what he lacks in depth and academic rigor, Kaplan makes up with a journalistic style that is breezy and succinct. At under 160 pages (compared to Power’s 450 plus page history), his point is to persuade and inform rather than articulate a coherent address of power. But in many ways, Kaplan shares a similar goal as does Power. Power seeks to curb or eliminate genocide because it is evil and morally repugnant and she would do so by using a wide range of political and military tools. For her, action and active engagement with the world is necessary. Kaplan draws from a broader canvas and seeks to provide a theoretical framework that legitimates American action or inaction as the causes warrant. But compared against the pale anemia of the past administration, both it seems would favor a more active policy than has been pursued.

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