April 8, 2013
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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.