“Going down in flames if that was required”: The Limits of Liberal Interventionism


Frenzied diplomatic action is taking place in Geneva and around the world to prepare for an eventual conference to try to halt the continuing fighting and grave human rights, humanitarian law violations in Syria. Originally scheduled for June, the conference is now being touted as perhaps taking place in July in Geneva.

Against this background, President Obama has chosen Susan Rice to be his new national security adviser and Samantha Power as his nominee to succeed Ms. Rice as the United States ambassador to the United Nations. Both are in their forties - relatively young for such positions - and extremely well-educated at prestigious schools. Rice has a degree from Stanford and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford; Power has degrees from Yale and Harvard Law School as well as a professorship at the Kennedy School at Harvard. Both have experience in government; Rice has been a National Security Council official, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and ambassador at the U.N; Power served as a foreign policy adviser during the 2008 Obama campaign and later as a National Security Council official. Both have a strong working relationship with the President.
Politically, both are outspoken advocates of human rights and American interventionism. As a journalist, Power wrote a best-selling book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” that argues for direct action, including military force, when confronted by genocide. While at the U.N., Rice pushed for tougher sanctions against Iran and North Korea. As reported in the International Herald Tribune – the global edition of the New York Times – on June 6, “Ms. Rice and Ms. Power teamed up in 2011, along with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, to persuade Mr. Obama to back a NATO-led intervention in Libya, designed to head off a slaughter of the rebels in Benghazi.”
In the same article, it is noted that Ms. Rice, having served in the Clinton administration during the Rwanda debacle, was so affected by the inaction there that she was convinced never to let it happen again. The article says, “Years later, she [Rice] told Ms. Power, then a journalist, that ‘I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.’”
The article continues: “With the death toll in Syria surpassing 80,000 and the growing threat of a regional proxy war, Ms. Rice and Ms. Power may face that reckoning soon.”
Ms. Rice and Ms. Power “may face that reckoning soon,” but what about President Obama? Secretary of State John Kerry is frantically working with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov to determine who will come to the Geneva conference. Among the possible invitees are: representatives of the Assad Government, possible users of chemical weapons; Hezbollah, an organization considered to be terrorists; the various opposition groups with no central leadership or legitimacy that might also be using chemical weapons; the Islamic Republic of Iran which has no diplomatic relations with the United States. What could be possible outcomes? A cease fire to be monitored by whom? Humanitarian corridors to be monitored by U.N. forces coming from where? Immunity from prosecution for war crimes or crimes against humanity for which persons? An eventual election involving Assad who insists he will not step down and opposition forces backed by the United States and the West which has publicly said Assad must go?
The “responsibility to protect” was an idea developed over time to protect civilians when their government was incapable or unwilling to protect the population during conflicts. The intervention in Libya went beyond this by supporting regime change. In the face of genocide, Ms. Rice and Ms. Power have supported interventions, part of a long history of humanitarian interference in the internal affairs of countries. Now that they are senior government officials, they no longer have the luxury to “go down in flames if required” in terms of an intervention guided by their compassion more than national interest and prudence.
John Kerry must juggle the lobbies of Ms. Rice and Ms. Power with international voices, especially the Russians and Chinese, who have become more and more hesitant about “humanitarian intervention” and “the responsibility to protect” post-Libya, seeing it as a guise for pro-Western power politics. Mr. Kerry’s frenzied diplomacy around the organization of a Geneva conference shows the enormous complexity of the Syrian situation. This is not to favor inaction, but just to point out that to be a fervent advocate of human rights and humanitarian law need not necessarily lead to military intervention in the internal affairs of another country (in this case, Syria). Secretary of State Kerry, being pragmatic, must juggle these divergent voices in organizing the conference, with President Obama, the final determiner of the U.S. position, juggling them all. For a President dealing with high domestic unemployment and outcries over governmental abuses of civil liberties, this is one juggling act he’d prefer to avoid if possible.

Daniel Warner

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