The appointment of Suzanne Nossel, a former State Department official and longtime government apparatchik, as executive director of PEN American Center is part of a campaign to turn U.S. human rights organizations into propagandists for pre-emptive war and apologists for empire. Nossel’s appointment led me to resign from PEN as well as withdraw from speaking at the PEN World Voices Festival in May. But Nossel is only symptomatic of the widespread hijacking of human rights organizations to demonize those—especially Muslims—branded by the state as the enemy, in order to cloak pre-emptive war and empire with a fictional virtue and to effectively divert attention from our own mounting human rights abuses, including torture, warrantless wiretapping and monitoring, the denial of due process and extrajudicial assassinations.
Nossel, who was deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs under Hillary Clinton in a State Department that was little more than a subsidiary of the Pentagon, is part of the new wave of “humanitarian interventionists,” such as Samantha Power, Michael Ignatieff and Susan Rice, who naively see in the U.S. military a vehicle to create a better world. They know little of the reality of war or the actual inner workings of empire. They harbor a childish belief in the innate goodness and ultimate beneficence of American power. The deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents, the horrendous suffering and violent terror inflicted in the name of their utopian goals in Iraq and Afghanistan, barely register on their moral calculus. This makes them at once oblivious and dangerous. “Innocence is a kind of insanity,” Graham Greene wrote in his novel “The Quiet American,” and those who destroy to build are “impregnably armored by … good intentions and … ignorance.”
There are no good wars. There are no just wars. As Erasmus wrote, “there is nothing more wicked, more disastrous, more widely destructive, more deeply tenacious, more loathsome” than war. “Whoever heard of a hundred thousand animals rushing together to butcher each other, as men do everywhere?” Erasmus asked. But war, he knew, was very useful to the power elite. War permitted the powerful, in the name of national security and by fostering a culture of fear, to effortlessly strip the citizen of his or her rights. A declaration of war ensures that “all the affairs of the State are at the mercy of the appetites of a few,” Erasmus wrote.
There are cases, and Bosnia in the 1990s was one, when force should be employed to halt an active campaign of genocide. This is the lesson of the Holocaust: When you have the capacity to stop genocide and you do not, you are culpable. For this reason, we are culpable in the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda. But the “humanitarian interventionists” have twisted this moral imperative to intercede against genocide to justify the calls for pre-emptive war and imperial expansion. Saddam Hussein did carry out campaigns of genocide against the Kurds and the Shiites, but the dirty fact is that while these campaigns were under way we provided support to Baghdad or looked the other way. It was only when Washington wanted war, and the bodies of tens of thousands of Kurds and Shiites had long decomposed in mass graves, that we suddenly began to speak in the exalted language of human rights.
These “humanitarian interventionists” studiously ignore our own acts of genocide, first unleashed against Native Americans and then exported to the Philippines and, later, nations such as Vietnam. They do not acknowledge, even in light of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, our own capacity for evil. They do not discuss in their books and articles the genocides we backed in Guatemala and East Timor or the crime of pre-emptive war. They minimize the horror and suffering we have delivered to Iraqis and Afghans and exaggerate or fabricate the benefits. The long string of atrocities carried out in our name mocks the idea of the United States as a force for good with a right to impose its values on others. The ugly truth shatters their deification of U.S. power.
Nossel, in the contentious year she headed Amnesty International USA before leaving in January, oversaw a public campaign by the organization to support NATO’s war in Afghanistan. She was running Amnesty International USA when the organization posted billboards at bus stops that read, “Human Rights for Women and Girls in Afghanistan—NATO: Keep the Progress Going.” Madeleine Albright, along with senior State Department officials and politicians, were invited to speak at Amnesty International’s women’s forum during Nossel’s tenure. Nossel has urged Democrats to stay the course in Iraq, warning that a failure in Iraq could unleash “a kind of post-Vietnam, post-Mogadishu hangover” that would lamentably “herald an era of deep reservations among the U.S. public regarding the use of force.” She worked as a State Department official to discredit the Goldstone Report, which charged Israel with war crimes against the Palestinians. As a representative on the U.N. Human Rights Council she said that “the top of our list is our defense of Israel, and Israel’s right to fair treatment at the Human Rights Council.” Not a word about the Palestinians. She has advocated for expanded armed intervention in countries such as Syria and Libya. She has called for a military strike against Iran if it does not halt its nuclear enrichment program. In an article in The Washington Quarterly titled “Battle Hymn of the Democrats,” she wrote: “Democrats must be seen to be every bit as tough-minded as their opponents. Democratic reinvention as a ‘peace party’ is a political dead end.” “In a milieu of war or near-war, the public will look for leadership that is bold and strident—more forceful, resolute, and pugnacious than would otherwise be tolerated,” she went on. In a 2004 Foreign Affairs article, “Smart Power: Reclaiming Liberal Internationalism,” she wrote: “We need to deploy our power in ways that make us stronger, not weaker,” not a stunning thought but one that should be an anathema to human rights campaigners. She added, “U.S. interests are furthered by enlisting others on behalf of U.S. goals,” which, of course, is what she promptly did at Amnesty International. Her “smart power” theory calls on the U.S. to exert its will around the globe by employing a variety of means and tactics, using the United Nations and human rights groups, for example, to promote the nation’s agenda as well as the more naked and raw coercion of military force. This is not a new or original idea, but when held up to George W. Bush’s idiocy I guess it looked thoughtful. The plight of our own dissidents—including Bradley Manning—is of no concern to Nossel and apparently of no concern now to PEN.
Coleen Rowley and Ann Wright first brought Nossel’s past and hawkish ideology to light when she became the executive director of Amnesty International USA a year ago. Rowley and Wright have written correctly that “humanitarian interventionists,” in or out of government, see no distinction between human rights work and the furtherance of U.S. imperial power. Nossel, they noted, “sees no conflict between her current role and having been a member of the executive staff whilst her President and Secretary of State bosses were carrying out war crimes such as drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan and shielding torturers and their enablers in the Bush administration from prosecution.” (For more on this see Rowley’s article “Selling War as ‘Smart Power.’ ”)
Is this the résumé of a human rights advocate in the United States? Are human rights organizations supposed to further the agenda of the state rather than defend its victims? Are the ideas of “humanitarian interventionists” compatible with human rights? Are writers and artists no longer concerned with the plight of all dissidents, freedom of expression and the excesses of state power? Are we nothing more than puppets of the elite? Aren’t we supposed to be in perpetual, voluntary alienation from all forms of power? Isn’t power, from a human rights perspective, the problem?
The current business of human rights means human rights for some and not for others. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, the Peace Alliance, and Citizens for Global Solutions are all guilty of buying into the false creed that U.S. military force can be deployed to promote human rights. None of these groups stood up to oppose the invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan, as if pre-emptive war is not one of the grossest violations of human rights.
The creed of “humanitarian intervention” means, for many, shedding tears over the “right” victims. Its supporters lobby for the victims in Darfur and ignore the victims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Gaza. They denounce the savagery of the Taliban but ignore the savagery we employ in our offshore penal colonies or our drone-infested war zones. They decry the enslavement of girls in brothels in India or Thailand but not the slavery of workers in our produce fields or our prisons. They demand justice for persecuted dissidents in the Arab world but say nothing about Bradley Manning.
The playwright and fierce anti-war critic Arthur Miller, the first American president of PEN International, fearlessly stood up to McCarthyism and was blacklisted. He denounced the Vietnam War. He decried the invasion of Iraq. PEN, when it embodied Miller’s resistance and decency, stood for something real and important. As the U.S. bombed Iraq into submission and then invaded, Miller, who called the war a form of “mass murder,” said indignantly: “It’s a joke that the U.S. government wheels out the Geneva Convention when they themselves have turned away or flouted so many international treaties.”
The posing of government shills such as Nossel as human rights campaigners and the marginalization of voices such as Miller’s are part of the sickness of our age. If PEN recaptures the moral thunder of the late Arthur Miller, if it remembers that human rights mean defending all who are vulnerable, persecuted and unjustly despised, I will be happy to rejoin.
All systems of power are the problem. And it is the role of the artist, the writer and the intellectual to defy every center of power on behalf of those whom power would silence and crush. This means, in biblical terms, embracing the stranger. It means being a constant opponent rather than an ally of government. It means being the perpetual outcast. Those who truly fight for human rights understand this.
“Whether the mask is labeled Fascism, Democracy, or Dictatorship of the Proletariat, our great adversary remains the Apparatus—the bureaucracy, the police, the military … ,” Simone Weil wrote. “No matter what the circumstances, the worst betrayal will always be to subordinate ourselves to this Apparatus, and to trample underfoot, in its service, all human values in ourselves and in others.”