As I’ve been jogging around the internet today reading other thoughts about our new conflict* in Libya, I just can’t help but coming back to a book I read about three years ago that I think explains exactly why we are now “in” Libya. And if you’ve been following along today, it will sound familiar — so too will its author, Samantha Power, and her husband, Cass Sunstein.
As I mentioned earlier today, Power currently sits on the National Security Council, and she was counseling the president this week when he decided to take action in Libya. But nine years ago she wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “A Problem From Hell: American and the Age of Genocide.” A quick refresher shows it to be a type of primer for our intervention in Libya.
Having been a few years since I read the book, I picked it up this afternoon and paged through the introduction as well as some of the notes I had made in the margins. I was shocked. Here, it seems, I was looking at a form of the Obama doctrine we are seeing rapidly develop before our eyes.
Take for example what Power says in the introduction regarding America’s (and then President Bill Clinton’s) early approach to the mid-90s conflict in Bosnia:
But American resolve soon wilted. Saving Bosnian lives was not deemed worth risking U.S. soldiers or challenging America’s European allies who wanted to remain neutral. Clinton and his team shifted from the language of genocide to that of “tragedy” and “civil war,” downplaying public expectations that there was anything the United States could do. Secretary of State Warren Christopher had never been enthusiastic about U.S. involvement in the Balkans.
As hinted in that passage, and as is made clear later in the book, Power scoffs at the idea that committing U.S. forces, and risking U.S. soldiers, may not be in the best interest of the United States.
In her conclusion, she writes:
The United States should stop genocide for two reasons. The first and most compelling reason is moral. When innocent life is being taken on such a scale and the United States has the power to stop the killing at reasonable risk, it has a duty to act. It is this belief that motivates most of those who seek intervention. But history has shown that the suffering of victims has rarely been sufficient to get the United States to intervene.
The second reason, Power continues, is a round-about form of “self interest.” Channeling the advice of others before her she says, “They warned that allowing genocide undermined regional and international stability, created militarized refugees, and signaled dictators that hate and murder were permissible tools of statecraft.”
From the sound of Obama’s speech on Friday, it is evident Power has his ear. His reasoning for Libyan intervention was a paraphrase of Power’s conclusion:
Now, here’s why this matters to us. Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Qaddafi would commit atrocities against his people [Power's first point]. Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners [Power's second point]. The calls of the Libyan people for help would go unanswered. The democratic values that we stand for would be overrun. Moreover, the words of the international community would be rendered hollow. [Emphasis added]
Could it be that Power took a page out her husband’s book and gave Obama a “nudge?”
There are those who disagree with Power and her interventionist doctrine. David Fromkin in his book, “Kosovo Crossing: The reality of American Intervention in the Balkans,” takes one of Power’s favorite examples, Kosovo, and shows why intervention there may not have been wise:
It is a political truism that “the United States cannot be the world’s policeman.” As a matter of fact, whether or not it should be, the United States already is the world’s policeman.
The apparent success of the 1999 air war in the Balkans may well encourage future presidents to dispatch airplanes and missiles to other corners of the earth in support of American values. It is a temptation that in most cases should be resisted. [...]
There are frontiers that cannot be crossed: not even by the United States, even at the height of its glory.
Walter McDougall wrestles with the litany of foreign policy doctrines that have driven American interaction over the last 200 plus years in his book, “Promised Land, Crusader State.” He traces the delicate balance between protecting U.S interests and going “in search of monsters to destroy,” as John Quincy Adams once put it. It’s a balance Power would rather ignore.
Considering where we find ourselves today, all three books are worth a read. But if you want to understand the thinking driving the White House — and the person shaping the nation’s foreign policy — Power’s is a must.
Ironic, though, that the person who once was deposed for questioning Hillary Clinton is now seeing her [Power's] own foreign policy theories being implemented. Her husband is probably so proud.
By the way, Sean Hannity once named Power — along with Sunstein — one of the top 10 most dangerous people in the Obama administration:
*I’ll be the first to admit I’m struggling with exactly what to label this. It’s not technically war, but de facto it seems to be. Is it a conflict? Mission? Intervention? We’ll see.