Samantha Power and the Obama Campaign February 26, 2008Posted by smiffy in Books, Democrats, International Politics, Iraq, United States, US Politics.
Via Normblog, a rather disappointing Sunday Times interview with the very intriguing Samantha Power.Power’s an interesting character. She’s a strong human rights advocate who doesn’t fall into any easy ideological categories. Her opposition to the invasion of Iraq distinguishes her from both the hawkish elements within the current US administration who use the language of human rights to cloak a rather more base military adventurism and the Nick Cohen-ite ‘muscular liberals’ so comprehensively ridiculed in the always brilliant Encyclopedia of Decency. However, she’s by no means a pacifist and her support for military intervention in certain cases puts her at odds with much of what might loosely be described as the broad-left anti-war movement.
Power’s 2002 book A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide is a compelling and illuminating piece of work which analyses the evolution of the international community’s understanding of genocide as a distinct crime, and the responses of various US administrations to it throughout the 20th century. The material on the Kurds is particularly good, specifically in detailing the internal politics driving the State Department’s response to the Anfal campaign.
Her new book, Chasing the Flame, is a biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the senior UN diplomat most notable for overseeing the transition of the then East Timor to independence and for his death at the hands of jihadists in a car bomb attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003. Even prior to his death Vieira de Mello was a fascinating figure and was profiled in Paul Berman’s Power and the Idealists as one of a number of soixante-huitards (the others including Joshka Fischer and Bernard Kouchner) who came to a difficult accomodation with the defence of human rights and the need for humanitarian interventionism in the 40 years since the riots of the summer of ’68. Berman’s review of Power’s book can be found here: ironically, his main criticism of the work
But the biggest difficulty, or so my reading of Chasing the Flame leads me to suppose, is a problem of the imagination. A philosophical issue. It’s the same problem that keeps popping up in Power’s earlier book as well: an inability to imagine why some people might set out to destroy whole populations. Vieira de Mello participated in U.N. missions that followed any of several logics—the logic of peacekeeping, or of establishing safe havens for the persecuted, or of providing humanitarian aid. But each of those logics presumes that if horrific conflicts have broken out, it is because otherwise reasonable people have fallen into misunderstandings and a neutral broker like the U.N. might usefully intercede. Yet conflicts sometimes break out because one or another popular political movement has arrived at a sincere belief in the virtue of exterminating its enemies, and horrific ideologies lie at the origin. Neutral mediations in a case like that are bound only to obscure the reality—which has happened several times over, as Power usefully demonstrates.
is precisely the aspect of Berman’s own writing which is the weakest. Particularly in Terror and Liberalism, but also elsewhere, he has a tendency to move from relatively well-considered fact-based arguments to vague theorising about ideology – in particular about the ‘irrationality’ of certain ‘death-cults’ – which isn’t really supported by convincing evidence and which one suspects is only thrown in to allow Berman to make spurious analogies between Fascism, Stalinism and (for want of a more accurate term) Jihadism.
While Chasing the Flame isn’t published (this side of the Atlantic) until next week, I hope it will examine in some detail how possible the post-invasion reconstruction of Iraq was at the time of Vieria de Mello’s death. Recent books like Imperial Life in the Emerald City and The Occupation suggest that the reconstruction efforts were always doomed to failure, due to the, at best, incompetence and, at worst, criminal and deliberate negligence of the Coalition Provisional Authority. However, what the argument that the current morass in Iraq was the inevitable and unavoidable outcome of the invasion doesn’t consider is what might have happened had the initial reconstruction effort been headed up by the United Nations rather than Paul Bremer and co. It’s something of a pointless debate, of course: we have no real way of knowing what might have happened had things been otherwise, and it certainly doesn’t assist in considering a possible solution to the present situation. However, it’s an argument worth having, to inform future questions of military intervention (however unlikely these may be in the short term).
What’s so disappointing about the Sunday Times piece, though, is that there’s so little in it. Power’s close involvement with the Obama campaign certainly cause me to pay closer attention to his campaign (although her somewhat star-struck descriptions of him in the interview do tend to grate). However, nowhere in the article is the question of what US foreign policy under an Obama administration might look like, particularly in the area of human rights and humanitarian intervention. That said, her presence is still something to keep an eye on in the course of the campaign and certainly if Obama manages to win the Democratic nomination and becomes an actual Presidential candidate.