Defending the Indefensible

Dexter Filkins devotes his New Yorker column to Samantha Powers’s support for humanitarian military intervention:

Power’s new book, “The Education of an Idealist,” takes in much of this tumultuous time. In the opening pages, she warns that the title might suggest that she had “lofty dreams about how one person could make a difference, only to be ‘educated’ by the brutish forces” she encountered. She adds, “This is not the story that follows.” But the book does hint at the death of a dream. Power, who provided Obama with foreign-policy advice when he was a senator and a Presidential candidate, joined the White House in 2009 as a champion of humanitarian intervention in an Administration dedicated to ending the conflicts it had inherited and refraining from entering into others. One of the questions facing the new Presidency was whether someone like Power, an insistent voice for the primacy of morality over politics, could be effective—or whether the idea of humanitarian intervention, on which she had built a career, had essentially exhausted itself.

The premise is fatuous. We are responsible for our actions not for our inactions. We are also not all-knowing or all-powerful. We do not have the ability to ensure that our blundering about destroy and killing will produce a benign outcome and good intentions are far from enough. As I’ve said before, if you can subject military intervention to cost-benefit analysis, you should not intervene militarily.

In attacking Qaddafi’s government in Libya we broke the law. Not only did that wreck Libya, it had adverse effects on our relationships with Russia and China. The murders and destruction and people literally being sold on the block as slaves that cannot be justified by good intentions. Supplying our enemies in Syria because Assad is a bad man cannot be justified. Not only was it immoral it was stupid.

5 comments… add one
  • Roy Lofquist Link

    We have our very own Mrs. Jellyby.

    “Mrs. Jellyby, satiric character in the novel Bleak House (1852–53) by Charles Dickens, one of his memorable caricatures. Matronly Mrs. Jellyby is a philanthropist who devotes her time and energy to setting up a mission in Africa while ignoring the needy in her own family and neighbourhood.”

  • You bring up an interesting point. Is American power more properly used to right great wrongs in other countries or admittedly smaller wrongs here? One response is that we can do both but that is not true. Not only can a dollar spent bombing Libya not be spent helping a poor kid on an Indian reservation and there is a limit to how much we can spend but our leaders don’t have the bandwidth to manage addressing every worthy project everywhere.

    My view takes a very different tack. We should not bomb Libya because it is a violation of the rules. The damage we do by being scofflaws is far graver than would have been the damage done by leaving Qaddafi in power. When you join a club you commit to its bylaws. If you don’t like the bylaws, don’t join the club.

    We are not trusted internationally and that lack of trust predates Trump. It predates my lifetime. We are not trusted for among other reasons because we are inconsistent and that inconsistency is seen as hypocrisy. We demand that other countries follow rules we refuse to follow ourselves. The United States is inherently inconsistent because our foreign policy is an emergent phenomenon, the product of internal political forces that wax and wane over time.

    The problem with being Batman is that you actually need to be virtuous yourself. Since absolute virtue is beyond human capacity you will inevitably be hypocritical. My solution to that is don’t be Batman. I would add that it is tremendously more difficult to restrain yourself when strong than it is to demand action when weak. I do not think that Samantha Power is able to transcend being Irish.

  • Andy Link

    ” Is American power more properly used to right great wrongs in other countries or admittedly smaller wrongs here?”

    Makes me wonder what do-gooders would come up with absent the legal and constitutional restrictions on using the military domestically.

  • TarsTarkas Link

    I believe the original impetus to oust Qadaffi was he was about to slaughter thousands of rebelling subjects. A big question not asked is why did they rebel, why did they rebel when they did, and who funded their rebellion? The last is a question that the previous administration may very much not want to be answered. Ditto Syria, although my understanding is Assad’s goons started the rebellion by wildly and murderously reacting to slights to their dear leader. The time for intervention, if any, should have been right afterwards, before ISIS and Al-Qaeda hijacked the rebellion.

    Powers & Co want to only own the good intentions behind their interventions and in addition also demand that everyone else live up to those good intentions or be considered irredeemably evil. Any untoward consequences of those interventions is always blamed or excused away.

  • Roy Lofquist Link

    Rule #1 about that area of the world: You do not understand it, even a little bit.

    Rule #2: See rule #1.

    I have set foot in Libya, Turkey, Lebanon, Sudan, Kenya, Madagascar, Bahrain, Iran and Pakistan. I worked with operatives of the CIA, the NSA and the intelligence arms of the Army, Navy and Air Force. Plus some other guys whose connections were unknown to me. It’s like Feynman said about quantum mechanics – nobody understands it.

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