A Diplomat From Hell

Samantha Power and The Quest For Eternal War

Why don’t I quit my job at Harvard and come and intern in your office and answer the phones or do whatever you want?

—  Samantha Power to Senator Barack Obama, 2005

Before Samantha Power is buried in shrill hysteria by the fantasy-obsessed GOP, it might be a good idea to recognize that she is a poor choice to be U.N. Ambassador not because she will aid Washington’s enemies with her preoccupation with “human rights,” but because she will continue anti-human rights policies that earn us enemies we needn’t ever have had in the first place.  Ho hum.  What else is new?

Power, a self-styled “genocide chick,” wrote the shelf-busting tome, A Problem From Hell:  America and the Age of Genocide, which places the problem of genocide squarely on the shoulders of others, a neat trick in a world regularly subjected to invasions and/or massacres by Washington and its client states, with quite a few of them meriting consideration as genocides under current definitions of that term.  But you don’t get to work on “human rights” for the President of the United States by stating the embarrassingly obvious fact that the U.S. opposing genocide is like Coca Cola opposing sugar.

A good place to bring Power’s thought into focus is by contrasting it with that of a genuine human rights advocate.  Here’s how she characterizes U.S. dissident intellectual Noam Chomsky’s work (which has its flaws, but not those claimed by Power):

For Chomsky, the world is divided into oppressor and oppressed. America, the prime oppressor, can do no right, while the sins of those categorized as oppressed receive scant mention. Because he deems American foreign policy inherently violent and expansionist, he is unconcerned with the motives behind particular policies, or the ethics of particular individuals in government. And since he considers the United States the leading terrorist state, little distinguishes American air strikes in Serbia undertaken at night with high-precision weaponry from World Trade Center attacks timed to maximize the number of office workers who have just sat down with their morning coffee.

Here we see the usual fanciful invention characteristic of liberal intellectuals, who are actually more dishonest than their reactionary jingoist counterparts in the GOP, who freely lie to achieve their goals, but far less often delude themselves as to what they are up to.  In any event, Chomsky has never taken the dogmatic position that “America can do no right;” in fact, quite the contrary, since Chomsky as recently as the Libya disaster cautioned anti-interventionists not to adopt a knee jerk opposition to the establishment of a no-fly zone in Libya, on what he regards as the mistaken assumption that an imperial state can do no right.  Admittedly, Power wrote her critique of Chomsky before the Libya intervention, but Chomsky has evidenced this capacity for ideological nuance throughout his intellectual career.  More importantly, Chomsky regularly pushes for a citizen-controlled U.S. government, one that would be far more likely than the current government to “do right,” because the people would be motivated to avoid the hideous blowback that inevitably accompanies U.S. empire around the world.  Establishment elites, on the other hand, are only too happy to incorporate such catastrophes into their plans for universal and permanent domination of the world and outer space.  Power evidences no tendency to challenge this insanity.

As to Chomsky’s views on U.S. empire, the words he uses most often to critique it are not “violent” and “expansionist,” but “greed,” “domination,” and “deceit.”  However, Power is right that Chomsky is relatively uninterested in indicting individuals, since the structure of power guarantees that greed, domination, and deceit will be the primary values of those individuals who have any chance of holding power.  This stance is perfectly reasonable, but it leaves no role for people like Power to engage in the ideological hair-splitting that allows her to land a comfortable job assisting war crimes for a Democratic administration, while the Rumsfelds and Cheneys of the world peddle a rival brand of murderous nonsense for the GOP. (Incidentally, what are the chances that Obama’s much ballyhooed “cabinet of rivals” would ever have entertained offering an appointment to a genuine human rights advocate like Chomsky?  Zero.  Jobs are reserved for the ideologically subservient, and Samantha Power excels at placing herself among them.)

Anyway, surely most pathetic is Power’s attempt to justify Washington’s 78 days of air strikes against Serbia in 1999, undertaken to destroy an entire country, at the same time as she condemns the retaliatory violence of 911, which Osama bin Laden considered justified on the basis of 80 years of the West’s subjugation of Arab and Muslim peoples, with a death toll far beyond that of New York, Pennsylvania and Washington on 911.  Of course, Power juxtaposes the “precision” bombing of Serbia with the indiscriminate killing of the 911 attacks in order to justify the former, but mass killing is mass killing, and destroying a country in order to achieve foreign control of it is considerably worse than mass killing out of revenge.  Did Serbia subjugate the United States for 80 years?  Gross hypocrisy would be too polite a phrase with which to characterize Power’s “principled” rationalizations.

Power made her reputation analyzing genocide, carefully skirting the cases where an honest depiction would have made it impossible for her to maintain her career as a human rights professor at Harvard.  In her book she makes scant or no mention of the U.S. assisted genocide against the Mayan Indians of Guatemala, the wiping out of hundreds of thousands of “communists” by the Indonesian army and its subsequent occupation and eradication of one-third of the population of East Timor (both with U.S. backing), the U.S. sanctions and wars against Iraq from 1991 to the present that killed over a million people and exiled millions more. Vietnam and Palestine also fail to qualify as genocide in her eyes, though U.S. war planners recognized that they were essentially fighting the Vietnamese birth rate, and Israeli leaders wiped Palestine off the map in 1948, and continue to criminalize manifestations of Palestinian nationalism to this day, a hallmark of genocidal policy.  In short, like all members of what economist Edward Herman calls “the cruise missile left,” Power has remarkably selective vision.  (To be fair, Power did compare Israeli policy to the Rwanda genocide in a 2002 talk, but she stopped short of calling it genocide, and has since denounced her own comments on that occasion, calling them “weird.”)

For Power, the sharpest criticism she can muster of U.S. policy is that it fails to stop the massacres carried out by others, not that it constantly fosters massacres of its own, both directly and indirectly, and on a scale no other nation or “terrorist” group can even come close to rivaling.   Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman helpfully analyzed the real U.S. attitude toward mass killing in their two-volume Political Economy of Human Rights, published over three decades ago, and concluded that bloodbaths fell into three broad categories for U.S. elite planners: (1) constructive – i.e., the bloodbaths were beneficial because they furthered the achievement of U.S. imperial goals (2) nefarious – the bloodbaths were worthy of rhetorical condemnation because they were carried out by official U.S. enemies (principally the former USSR and its allies at the time Herman and Chomsky were writing their analysis) (3) mythical – ideological inventions that offered retrospective justification for U.S. imperial interventions, as with the imaginary Communist bloodbath that allegedly followed U.S. withdrawal from Indochina.  A more recent case is that of the imaginary genocide of which Slobodan Milosevic was allegedly guilty.  Power is firmly in the camp of those fostering this kind of delusion.

Power advocates for what she calls “tough, principled, and engaged diplomacy.”  A more accurate set of adjectives would be “belligerent, hypocritical, and domineering.”  The thrust of her work is to make perpetual war possible by designating genocide – real or merely ideologically constructed – the supreme international crime, instead of war itself.  (Under current international law war itself is the “supreme international crime.”)  That way the U.S. can perpetually make war for the noblest of purposes without regard for anachronisms like national sovereignty.  Is it any wonder Democrats love her?

Power’s establishment critics never take account of any of this, preferring to divert attention to ideological sins.  For example, Power called for the U.S. to enhance its international credibility by apologizing for its past “failures.”  But failures are not the point.  The U.S. is guilty not of failures but of crimes, and the only point of transmuting them into mistakes and diverting attention to the past is so that Washington can go on committing atrocities in the present.  This is all Power’s human rights crusade amounts to.

Power sees foreign policy as a “tool box” that includes “international” sanctions (for her “international” = U.S. + Israel), travel bans, and asset freezes, as well as military destruction.  So should the international community impose such penalties on U.S. leaders for their constant crimes against humanity?  It’s no surprise that Power doesn’t even raise the question.

Every time an Iranian plane crashes, killing everyone on board, let’s think of the lack of spare parts in Iran as a result of the U.S. sanctions against that country.  Or of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declaring on national TV that the killing of half a million Iraqi children with U.S. sanctions was “worth it” to Washington, because of the political goals achieved.

“Tool box”?  Maybe Power’s should include an instrument to remove the bone between her ears that renders her incapable of understanding the phrase, “U.S. hands off other countries.”

For someone endlessly pursuing “the good war,” these words are simply impenetrable.

Michael Smith is the author of "Portraits of Empire." He co-blogs with Frank Scott at www.legalienate.blogspot.com He co-blogs with Frank Scott at www.legalienate.blogspot.com. Read other articles by Michael.