Deterrence, Mass Atrocity, and Samantha Power’s “The Education of an Idealist”

by Anjali Dayal, Medium, November 19, 2019

For nearly two decades, Samantha Power and her work have served as a crucible for larger debates about the United States’ use of force around the world. For critics across the ideological spectrum, Samantha Power, the idea, serves as synecdoche for liberal interventionism. The disagreements her work sets in relief are fundamental to different conceptions of the US’s role in the world: what is the overwhelming preponderance of contemporary American force for? When can it be appropriately deployed, if ever? Can it stop ongoing violence without producing its own disasters? Should policymakers try to use force this way? And in whose service should the American military wield force? In Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Problem from Hell, American force is one of many foreign policy tools that can and should be bent toward civilian protection and atrocity prevention globally; for many of her critics from the left, American force is to be dismantled; for many of her critics from the right, American force should serve core national security interests and nothing more.

Turning to public service during the Obama administration, Power became, in a way, her own chief investigator, putting her own arguments into practice on the National Security Council and as UN Ambassador while enabling us to examine how they withstand eight years of sustained application — midway through her life’s journey, a trial, in the true classical tradition. Her memoir The Education of An Idealist unfolds as an insider’s account of the same kinds of problems that policy makers in A Problem from Hell encountered, with an added twist. In A Problem from Hell, Power argues that US policymakers did not act to stop genocide because they did not want to; in her memoir, she relates how a room full of civil servants whose thinking had been shaped by her first book found themselves in a years-long limbo over complex human disasters in Syria and Libya. Together, these cases constitute a real-time test of the “toolbox” of interventions Power first proposed at the end of A Problem from Hell; together, they reveal both the problem at the heart of her theory of foreign policy, and the still all-too-slender slate of effective policy alternatives to force across the political spectrum.

Assessing atrocity prevention’s efficacy is a uniquely challenging field of inquiry: it depends on horrific counterfactual analyses in which best-case scenarios are still catastrophes. Policy makers may be engaged in grotesque calculations about how many deaths, and whose deaths, are acceptable; conclusions are often uncertain. These conditions perhaps explain why questions of intervention are so riven along deep ideological fault lines — some active crises are essentially recast as abstract debates about the US’s role in the world while other ongoing disasters are entirely given over to the realm of multilateral problem solving, with surprisingly little dialogue between these categories of cases.

Libya and Syria serve as parallel cases through which questions about the US’s role in the world are refracted. The standard narrative is as follows: the US intervened in Libya under the guise of preventing mass atrocities, this intervention ended first in regime change and then in a failed state, and Libyans now live in enduring danger; the US did not intervene to protect civilians during the Syrian Civil War, war snarled the full region into conflict, and today Syrian civilians continue to die in unspeakable ways and uncounted numbers. At each stage, the narrative is in fact more complicated, particularly if we begin by asking whether the US did in fact prevent mass atrocity in Libya and end by noting the US did in fact intervene in Syria in multiple ways, but the broad lines are still instructive for understanding public debate. Would Libyans have been better off in the absence of an American-led intervention, or would they have been worse off? Would Syrians have been better off for US intervention, or would they have been worse off for it?

These questions are incredibly difficult to answer. Power, like other members of the Obama administration, will likely spend the rest of her life being asked to address them — particularly since both cases have been recast in foreign policy discussions as embodying both the follies of hawkish liberal interventionism and the costs of inaction. Power does not imagine herself as a doctrinal hawk — she’s at pains to point this out throughout her memoir, and at pains to note she understands the costs and challenges of using force. “I had favored the use of American air power when I lived in Bosnia,” she writes, “and opposed the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. As an NSC official, I participated in hundreds of policy debates about countless countries and global problems, and I almost never recommended using US military force.” She advocates a multi-pronged approach to situations where civilians are under threat of violence, and she concludes her memoir with a warning about the troubling militarization of US foreign policy.

But the use of force is nearly inextricable from her policy prescriptions. In A Problem from Hell, she writes, “The United States should not frame its policy options in terms of doing nothing or unilaterally sending in the marines. America’s leadership will be indispensable in encouraging US allies and regional and international institutions to step up their commitments and capacities… at the same time, the United States should do certain things in every case.” The tools she identifies include sanctions, prosecutions in the ICC, freezing perpetrators’ assets, and diplomatically isolating perpetrators; the US with its allies, she notes, “should set up safe areas to house refugees and civilians, and protect them with well-armed and robustly mandated peacekeepers, airpower, or both. Given the affront that genocide represents to America’s most cherished values and to its interests, the United States must also be prepared to risk the lives of its soldiers in the service of stopping this monstrous crime.”

This toolbox rests on deterrence to prevent or stop atrocities, and as such, the implicit promise of force underlies each alternative set of policies Power proposes. Actors who are willing to abandon mass atrocity campaigns voluntarily may be easily deterred — but actors committed to a mass atrocity campaign could find themselves diplomatically isolated, operating under economic sanction, or threatened by prosecution, and still continue to wage campaigns of death. “Stop this or else” undergirds threats when a powerful actor makes them. The toolbox’s logic is ultimately escalatory as a result: force is a tool of last resort, but no other tool works without the latent presence of American military force.

Power does not make this point explicitly in any of her work — but as she relates them, both the Libyan and Syrian tragedies lay this dynamic bare. Take, for example, the issue of timing: many of the tools she proposes work over a long period of time, but confronting ongoing or imminent atrocities can require quickly shifting perpetrators’ incentives. In the immediate aftermath of the Libyan protests, for instance, Power argues rapid, joint Security Council and American action “was probably the best example in history of governments hastily using a vast array of “tools in the toolbox” to try to deter atrocities.” But this proved insufficient: “The pressures that the United States and other countries were imposing on Qaddafi’s regime would take months to reach their full effect, and we had run out of further nonmilitary steps to take to try to affect the Libyan leader’s near-term calculus.”

Successful international cooperation around other measures, then, failed to force a defiant human rights violator to change course in time to forestall an imminent threat — and only force, the last tool in Power’s proposed arsenal, could actively compel action. “Had the United States taken no further action beyond the sanctions, arms embargo, and other nonmilitary measures initially approved by the Security Council, no one can say with confidence what would have happened,” Power writes.

Power brings part of this counterfactual to life by narrating internal deliberations about US policy in Syria. Again, the administration faces a leader committed to a murderous strategy; again, early steps from Power’s toolbox fail to discipline the leader away from atrocity. This time, however, the US famously failed to follow its ultimatum with force. Power’s argument is that the US should have taken greater risk in its Syria policy then to forestall greater harm down the road, and she is deeply troubled by failure to do so: “While administration officials could say they had imposed consequences on Assad’s regime for crossing the red line, they could not specify the nature of these consequences in any detail,” she writes. “Since even Assad didn’t know the particulars of the cost he would be bearing, he seemed unlikely to be deterred from carrying out further attacks.”

Taken together, these cases demonstrate how credible force backs even meaningful diplomacy in Power’s model of atrocity prevention — American military force underwrites other dimensions of statecraft, and mobilizes when other deterrent measures have failed. But the problem, then, is not simply, as her critics allege, that Samantha Power is a hawk, or that she doesn’t understand which conflicts constitute core American interests — the problem is that all deterrent models of atrocity prevention rest on the threat of force.

Libya and Syria are meaningful tests of Power’s toolbox because US interests in the region make the threat of US force credible (until, in Syria, she notes it is not) — but the same problems underlie UN peace operations, where a credible threat often has to be imported if violent actors prove unwilling to voluntarily abandon their destructive policies. UN peacekeepers are the largest deployed force in conflict zones today; UN peacekeeping constitutes an enormous part of the Security Council’s agenda; the UN peacekeeping budget is separate from and larger than the UN’s operational budget; and a heated debate on the use of force by UN peacekeepers has now been running over twenty years. Peacekeeping is an effective tool that works best when it is all carrots and few sticks — but peacekeepers today are usually charged with protecting civilians under threat of imminent violence, as well. They rarely use force, and while they seem to protect civilians from rebels well, they struggle more to protect civilians from government forces.

Warring parties who welcome peacekeepers may be easily deterred from continued violence by their presence, but unwilling actors require coercion — and not just coercion, but effective coercion over a time period that is likely to actually benefit their victims. Historically, when deterrence fails, the UN Security Council has outsourced this work — instead of sending in the Marines, for example, the UN instead turns to the French, as they did in the Central African Republic, or British special forces, as they did in Sierra Leone, or — yes — NATO, as they did in the former Yugoslavia and then Libya. The broad lines of debate today are about whether UN peace operations themselves can and should more clearly resemble military operations, better equipped to secure tenuous peace in active crises and confront violent actors, or whether peacekeepers should focus on their work as neutral, lightly-armed diplomatic actors, deployed primarily to cases where they can foster an already-likely peace.

Critically, however, discussions about US restraint are nearly entirely divorced from these extremely active debates about the use of force in UN peacekeeping — and considering the two together is instructive. Although peacekeeping constitutes the bulk of the UN Security Council work Power would have considered as ambassador, peacekeeping rarely appears in recent assessments of Power’s work. In the New Yorker’s review of her memoir, for example, Dexter Filkins writes about it not at all; Daniel Bessner’s review in The New Republic mentions UN peacekeeping only once in passing.

Bessner closes his review by citing Samuel Moyn — “that we must be careful not to elevate ‘the narrow and rare problem of when to send the military to help strangers into the decisive one around which the future of American foreign policy revolves.’” But in fact, the problem is neither narrow nor rare: a military with stunningly excess capability demands we continually interrogate its purpose; people who live under imminent threat of violence are not marginal to US foreign policy interests unless we define them that way; and the US outsources most conflict management to the UN system, which then relies on the military might of its member states to wield force in the places most dangerous for civilians.

Power suggests a range of non-violent responses to mass atrocity prevention in A Problem from Hell, but her memoir reveals the limits of these tools. This should trouble analysts who value non-violence and the protection of civilians; analysts who value restraint in foreign policy; and analysts who fear even the implicit threat of force may preclude states from accepting meaningful aid and relief that might help civilians. If unwilling actors cannot be swayed save by the use of force, and we are reluctant to use force for practical or ethical reasons, then we are left with two options: we can address the root causes of conflict, and we can help those refugees and internally displaced people who manage to escape violence. The first set of options requires reimagining the fundamental structures of foreign policy; the second set of options is currently so politically unpopular that it is remaking domestic politics across refugee-receiving countries. Neither set of options addresses the question of whether force has any role to play when people face near-certain death from determined monsters, or whether other American foreign policy instruments can be divorced from the latent threat of force always present in its massive, world-spanning military apparatus — whether “do this, or else” is ever absent when the US advances ideals, or makes requests, or demands a change.

The Education of An Idealist lays bare but does not ultimately engage with these problems. In his essay assessing Power’s memoir alongside Susan Rice and Ben Rhodes’s books, Peter Beinart notes the tension over humanitarian intervention in each Obama advisors’ writing: “one can glimpse the embryo of a debate about state sovereignty, US interests, and human rights…This shadow debate is important. Among the lessons young liberals such as Rice, Power, and Rhodes took from Bosnia and Rwanda is that defending human rights can require infringing on state sovereignty. Among the lessons of Libya and Syria is that state collapse can be as brutal as state repression.” These three former officials never fully engage this debate themselves, and what role American force can and should play in any of these cases remains open.

Battered idealism is something of a theme in the rest of Power’s writing. A Problem from Hell charts the outrage and disillusionment of American civil servants trying to compel their supervisors into action on ongoing genocide. Chasing the Flame narrates Sergio Vieira de Mello’s journey from firebrand anti-imperialist 1968 student protestor through a humanitarian career negotiating with war criminals, mapping his mixed efforts to secure dignity, rescue, or respite for the war-stricken onto the mixed success of the UN’s late 20th century work.These works unspool personal moral crises into meticulously-researched accounts of institutional apathy, failures of political will, and frustrated individuals trying to abate human suffering every way they know how.

But The Education of an Idealist is not the story of an activist disenchanted by the world. “Some may interpret this book’s title,” Power says, “as suggesting that I began with lofty dreams about how one person could make a difference, only to be “educated” by the brutish forces that I encountered. That is not the story that follows.” She is consistently wary of this frame, which she knows others will apply to her life — in Evan Osnos’s December 2014 New Yorker profile, for instance, Power “rejects the facile narrative that presents itself — the education, the chastening. ‘The way that kind of story is told is ‘She wrote the book, she was critical because she didn’t really understand how hard it was,’’ she said. “And then the assumption is Eliza Doolittle learned how hard it is, and then that makes her less critical, or more accepting of crummy outcomes…Does one get a better sense about context and about impediments and about trade-offs in government? Absolutely. But those are not alibis — those are problems to be solved.”

Power is crushingly honest about her life, and she offers us few alibis — but she also leaves much unanswered, as do her critics. What, ultimately, are we to do when aspiring genocidaires cannot be easily dissuaded from their plans? In classic heroic tales, we expect trials to transform, and to push our protagonists to a reckoning. As Power describes it, her time in the government is simultaneously a dark challenge to her commitments, a drawn-out agony of half-taken measures in the face of horrors, and a fulfilment of her highest hopes as an activist. But the policy problems her memoir reveals are ultimately ours to solve.

Anjali Dayal

international relations @FordhamNYC. Interested in the UN, Security Council, peacekeeping, peace processes

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