Libya: ‘Vital Interests,’ Samantha Power, and US Intervention

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Waging Nonviolence

Libya: ‘Vital Interests,’ Samantha Power, and US Intervention

Congress needs to decide if U.S. involvement with the NATO intervention in Libya must continue.  President Obama’s March 19 declaration committing American troops and resouraces to aid Libyan rebels fight against Col. Gaddafi now needs Congressional approval, according to the War Powers Act, if the Obama administration decision to intervene in the civil war is to proceed. It is unclear whether Obama will receive the Senate resolution he seeks, let alone what such a resolution would do toward hastening an end to the conflict – or U.S. involvement in it.  In his speech on North Africa and the Middle East, Obama offered the following defense for intervention:

But in Libya, we saw the prospect of imminent massacre, had a mandate for action, and heard the Libyan people’s call for help. Had we not acted along with our NATO allies and regional coalition partners, thousands would have been killed. The message would have been clear: keep power by killing as many people as it takes.

There is general consensus among the international community – including the Left – that the Gaddafi regime was repressive, violent, and authoritarian.  In fact just last week, international human rights lawyers led by Luis Moreno-Ocampo indicated that Col. Muammar Gaddafi and two others were facing possible charges of crimes against humanity in their attempt to maintain their dictatorial grip over the recent Libyan protests and uprisings.  The International Criminal Court in The Hague has yet to declare a warrant for Gaddafi’s arrest but it seems likely that its issuance is forthcoming.

Meanwhile, the war between troops loyal to Gaddafi and Libyan rebels, along with NATO support, seems to be reaching a “stalemate,” according to a May 11 BBC report.   While the initial call to arms was trumpeted by Britain and France, the United States’ role in the intervention was a decisive, albeit controversial, move for the Obama administration.  As a few commentators (1, 2, 3) and the New York Times have noted, the U.S.-NATO intervention and rhetoric for humanitarian reasons bears the distinct thumbprint of the work of Samantha Power – an Irish-American human rights lawyer, journalist and foreign policy advisor to Obama. (Power was on his Senatorial staff and election staff until she left after some very uncouth remarks about then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.)

Power is perhaps best known for her in-depth work on genocide, foreign policy, and (non)intervention.  In her 2002 book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, she makes the case for liberal intervention to prevent crimes against humanity such as genocide, mass murder, and ethnic-cleansing and documents how failures of American leadership and policy to intervene contributed to prolonging the bloodshed.  Cutting her teeth as a correspondent and analyst in the Balkans, it is clear that Power is deeply concerned with the official silence and complicity in the face of grave horrors and evil that could have been prevented.  Moved by compassion and an experience that has witnessed the costs of inaction – Power uses the term to signify military inaction – she promotes an agenda of humanitarian intervention that can be quick and effective in confronting genocidal crimes before they start.  Power writes in her book:

It is daunting to acknowledge, but this country’s consistent policy of nonintervention in the face of genocide offers sad testimony not to a broken American political system but to one that is ruthlessly effective.  The system, as it stands now, is working.  No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence.  It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.

Indeed it is a sad but convincing argument that Power offers by drawing from official U.S. response to atrocities such as the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Hussein’s campaign against the Kurds in Iraq, Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and Rwanda.  Evidence of what we now call “crimes against humanity” were evidenced by the intelligence community, journalists, refugees, and human rights supporters in almost real time – and in some cases, American officials in the State Department could predict, with striking accuracy, the genocides before they occurred.  But deferring to a foreign policy that preeminently placed “vital interests” above humanitarian concerns, top U.S. decision-makers – presidents, Cabinet level secretaries, the Joint Chiefs of Staff – resisted intervention when direct American interests were not involved and public embarrassment for inaction was unlikely.

Yet for as astute and well-researched as her accounts and arguments are, one must be wary of the distinctly elite-American perspective she articulates her claims from.  As Joseph Nevins points out in his book review of A Problem from Hell, Power is selective in the cases she chooses to explicate regarding the American relationship to genocide:

Even though she acknowledges that the United States sometimes directly and indirectly aids genocidal regimes, the overall effect of her examples and the manner in which she frames the book is to situate Washington as an outsider to such horrors. In the book’s final pages, for example, she asks, “Why does the United States stand so idly by?” In this sense, Power’s choice of cases is quite safe. Had she looked beyond the parameters of the conventional and examined instances in which the American role in mass slaughter has been less that of a bystander and more that of a partner-in-crime perpetrator, her call for greater levels of US intervention would seem at best unpersuasive and at worst hypocritical and potentially dangerous. Three cases–those of Indonesia, East Timor and Guatemala–illustrate this point.

Nevins then goes on to offer a brief but poignant synopsis of direct U.S. involvement and support for genocidal regimes.  Return now to Libya.  In the lead up to U.S.-NATO intervention, Libyan deputy ambassador to the UN Ibrahim Dabbashi appeared on the BBC claiming that “genocide” was happening.  The blogosphere, media outlets, and heads of state stayed on message: Gaddafi is headed to Benghazi and the city, and everyone in it, is facing a “bloodbath.”   While the U.S. got involved quickly to stop a “massacre,” there is little evidence that such an indiscriminate slaughter was impending.  Alan J. Kuperman, at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at University of Texas at Austin, penned a recent op-ed claiming “President Barack Obama grossly exaggerated the humanitarian threat to justify military action in Libya.”   Without downplaying the seriousness of the Gaddfi regime’s crimes (like using rape as a weapon), it appears that genocide – “the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group” – was not occurring in Libya (political groups are not covered in the 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide).

It is difficult to estimate the casualties but before U.S.-NATO intervention, the World Health Organization estimated 2,000 had been killed in the civil war – most at the hands of loyalist forces.  Current guesses suggest that as many as 8,000 – 10,000 may have been killed.  To give some perspective, 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered by Hutu nationalists in 100 days during the genocide in Rwanda.  In Kosovo -  the so-called first “humanitarian war” which Power describes as “the first time in history that the United States or its European allies had intervened to head off a potential genocide” – 3,000 ethnic Albanians had been killed by Serb forces but the evidence of ethnic cleansing, particularly after the systematic massacres in Srebrenica and Bosnia made clear Milosevic’s intentions.

In Libya, there was civil unrest that led to a civil war.  To be sure, crimes against humanity are often masked by civil war and foreign governments tend toward skepticism, as Power notes, when accounts of genocide begin to leak to the outside world.  Being aware of this skepticism and tendency to dismiss crimes against humanity until authentication and verification of sources can be guaranteed, the international community historical bias has been slow to react.  Not so in the case of Libya.  While the Gaddafi regime has openly executed activists and dissidents, the Libyan authoritarianism was – and is – not much different than many other repressive regimes that the United States and Europe maintain political ties with, for example, President Saleh in Yemen (it should be noted that diplomatic relations were broken with Libya in 1981).

Perhaps it is impolite to question humanitarian involvement in armed conflict, but as both Power’s own analysis and Nevin’s critique reveals, the United States’ primary concerns – contrary to the hope-filled words of Obama’s Middle East speech that echoed the campaign rhetoric of “change” and “yes we can” – are rarely, first and foremost, humanitarian.  A few of the questions raised by critics of military intervention but left unanswered by NATO and the U.S. suggest that the paradigm of Obama’s foreign policy schematic is more complicated than dictator = bad; democracy = good.  And to dismiss critical thought and cautionary warning flags as being supportive of Gaddafi is nothing but a manipulative ad hominem attack.  Additionally, Matthew Shaffer, in the National Review, raises some excellent questions about Power’s framework as articulated in A Problem from Hell and Libya:

[T]here are some patterns of her thought which may be inapplicable to current policy regarding Libya…Power argues that there is a set of ideas that get repeated in, and hence enable, each genocide. The first is the belief that there is an ambiguous and morally complex conflict between rival groups where there is in fact a simple relationship of victimizer and victimized (policymakers, she complains, “render the bloodshed two-sided and inevitable, not genocidal”). In some cases — like the Holocaust — her view is obviously correct. But it is less obvious in Libya. Observers from security expert George Friedman to New YorkTimesman Thomas Friedman have pointed out that Libya’s sectarian conflict has been painted over by media-savvy Libyans and intoxicated Western journalists to portray a unified democratic uprising against Qaddafi, where there are in fact strong elements of tribal power rivalries.

Power also condemns those who argue that humanitarian interventions can have unpredictable consequences that could eventually add to the harm. Policymakers, she writes, “insist that any proposed U.S. response will be futile. Indeed, it may even do more harm than good, bringing perverse consequences to the victims and jeopardizing other precious American moral or strategic interests.” This, she implies, is an excuse for moral cowardice. Maybe so. But maybe it’s also true.

None of this is to say that Libyans should be left to fend for themselves; or that NATO-led intervention will not save some lives as well as cause unnecessary damage to civilians and infrastructure.  All of this has happened and will continue to happen.  The point is that the U.S. is involved not just because Samantha Power, the “genocide chick,” is the Senior Director of Multilateral Affairs on the National Security Council; the U.S. does not get its hands dirty unless its “vital interests” are at stake.  Power herself makes this argument in her book as a reason for U.S. nonintervention in other countries’ “internal conflicts.” But when the U.S. has “vital interests” at stake, as Nevins noted above, it U.S. foreign policy has no reservations engaging in multilateral action – even of the not-so-savory kind.  In Libya, U.S. intervention may have prevented a Gaddafi-inspired massacre – although not likely on the scale of a Pol Pot or Saddam Hussein – but such humanitarian benefits are secondary to why the U.S. is in Libya.

The Asia Times and others have been reporting on the interests at play in Libya, which should not be a surprise: oil and military bases.  In her provocative article for Truthout, attorney and author Ellen Brown asks:

So, is this new war all about oil or all about banking? Maybe both – and water as well. With energy, water and ample credit to develop the infrastructure to access them, a nation can be free of the grip of foreign creditors.

The United State’s quick involvement in Libya should give us pause because its out of the realm of normal foreign policy behavior – at least from the humanitarian perspective.  The U.S. has never reacted, on humanitarian grounds, as fast as it did in the case of Libya.  Is a new foreign policy being birthed?  Not likely, considering simultaneous involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  As much as I wish it were otherwise, the saying “it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks” seems appropriate for considering U.S. intervention in Libya to be on grounds other than humanitarian (although not exclusive to it).  As Stephen Zunes’ wonderful history lesson on U.S.-Libya relations points out, how much of the general public knows of the U.S. bombing of Benghazi and Tripoli in 1986 as a response to terrorist attacks in Berlin? Gaddafi’s daughter was killed in the bombing.  What about Gaddafi’s nationalization of Libyan oil production, much to American dismay?

There is a bitter history between the U.S. and Gaddafi’s Libya that suggests the U.S. wants him gone.  And while intervention may have altered the course of a possible brutal, murderous rampage in Libya – something Power may be proud about seeing her own foreign policy vision in action (and difficult to dispute)  – according to Power’s own thesis and analysis, had the U.S. not had vital interests motivating interventionist action, it’s a pretty safe bet Libyan rebels would be on their own.  So what does all of this point to?  The need for alternatives, especially nonviolent ones, to military/humanitarian intervention as a foreign policy-driven initiative because the waters get too muddy when those calling the shots (U.S.-NATO) stand to reap enormous benefits external to Libyans’ individual and collective well-being.  A foreign policy which is fundamentally built upon the “vital interests” of human rights, humanitarian action, and international law is something each nation should aspire to.  Unfortunately the United States interest in Libya is not as humanitarian as it claims itself to be.

Jake Olzen


Jake Olzen is a farmer, activist/organizer and journalist. He lives and farms at the Lake City Catholic Worker in Southeast Minnesota. Follow him on twitter @jakeolzen

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