America's Insane Policy of Committing War Crimes in the Name of Preventing Other War Crimes
"And we read from pleasant Bibles that are bound with blood and skin/That the wilderness is gathering all its children back again." —Leonard Cohen
Post-Cold War U.S. war policy can be roughly divided into two periods. From 1990 until 1998, in a rational response to the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military budget was gradually cut by 30% over 9 years. In January 1993, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney signed off on a defense strategy that would cut military spending to pre-WWII levels as a percentage of GNP. After 1991, only 55 U.S. troops died in overseas deployments: 19 in the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia; 19 in Somalia; 14 on 2 helicopters mistakenly shot down by a US warplane over Iraq; 2 in Kenya; and 1 in Haiti.
But then something changed. By 1997, the Pentagon, State Department and think-tanks funded by military-industrial interests were regrouping and crafting new frameworks for the use of military force to exploit the post-Cold War U.S. "power dividend." Clinton's New Democrats played the humanitarian interventionist good cop to the bad cop of neoconservative Republican-led groups like Project for the New American Century.
General Colin Powell wrote that he "almost had an aneurism" in 1993 when the incoming UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright asked him at a meeting, "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?" Albright was promoted to Secretary of State in Clinton's second term, and the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review laid out an ideological framework for the unilateral and illegal use of force to "defend vital U.S. interests," explicitly including "preventing the emergence of a hostile regional coalition… [and] ensuring uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources."
This is precisely what we have seen in the years since: the military budget has almost doubled, to fund a global U.S. military expansion and war to control markets, energy supplies and resources, while the State Department and CIA have undermined peace and independent economic relations between major countries across Eurasia.
At about the same time, Samantha Power, who had spent three years as a reporter in Bosnia, was appointed executive director of the Carr Center, a new human rights institute at Harvard. She began writing A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which was published in 2002 and won a Pulitzer Prize. Power is a skillful writer, and her book eloquently made the case for humanitarian intervention to prevent massacres and genocide.
Power's book examined genocides in Cambodia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Yugoslavia and Rwanda, painting the U.S. as a habitually passive bystander as others committed terrible atrocities. She didn't juxtapose her cases against others in which the U.S. was an active participant or state sponsor of massacres and genocide, as in Palestine, Vietnam, Indonesia, Guatemala, Operation Condor, Turkish Kurdistan and Iraq under sanctions.
But failing to frame her studies in the larger context of U.S. war policy was only one of the shortcomings of Power's book. Her case studies were detailed and heart-wrenching, but often superficial and based on single sources, relying heavily on Peter Galbraith on Iraqi Kurdistan and a guilt-wracked General Romeo Dallaire on Rwanda. She mentioned the U.S. bombing of Cambodia, but didn't explore how it led directly to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the destruction of Cambodian society. Her focus was not on the causes of genocide, which would surely be key to preventing it, but on stopping it once it is already happening.
It is Rwanda that has been carved most deeply into the Western psyche as the unforgivable case of "doing nothing." Because we did not intervene to stop the genocide in Rwanda, we are all now vulnerable to the argument that we must intervene everywhere else. But even as Samantha Power moved from journalism and academia to even more influential positions on the National Security Council and as U.N. Ambassador, serious students of genocide were challenging the humanitarian intervention argument that she helped to move to the heart of U.S. policy and propaganda.
In an article titled "A Solution From Hell: the United States and the Rise of Humanitarian Interventionism, 1991-2003" in the Journal of Genocide Research, Stephen Wertheim of Columbia University examined the now dominant narrative of the Rwanda genocide and its role in transforming U.S. war policy. He pointed out that the neocons did not launch the invasion of Iraq by themselves. They secured bipartisan approval in Congress by exploiting a broad view that America's new-found position as the world's only superpower gave us the military power and therefore the responsibility to transform other societies by the use of force. For most Americans, the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is that we simply don't have that ability. As Norwegian General Robert Mood, who led a team of UN peacekeepers into Syria in 2012, told the BBC:
"It is fairly easy to use the military tool because, when you launch the military tool in classical interventions, something will happen and there will be results. The problem is that the results are almost all the time different than the political results you were aiming for when you decided to launch it. So the other position, arguing that it is not the role of the international community... to change governments inside a country, is also a position that should be respected."
Since Wertheim wrote his paper in 2010, President Obama has launched new wars in Libya, Syria and Iraq. The propaganda campaigns to support these wars draw more heavily on Albright and Power's appeal to "do something" than on Bush's appeal to fear and jingoism, although U.S. officials opportunistically use each to reinforce the other.
Examining the lack of a U.S. response to genocide in Rwanda, Wertheim found that senior U.S. officials were not aware of the scale of the violence until it was too late to prevent most of it. There had been a civil war in Rwanda since 1990, with well-documented massacres of civilians. When President Habyarimana's plane was shot down, government forces attacked the 600-1,000 RPF rebels who were in Kigali for peace talks with the government. The RPF responded with a new offensive across the country, which ended with an RPF victory and a new government under Paul Kagame. The genocide of Tutsis took place at the same time as and in the context of this renewed warfare. Foreign diplomats understandably saw the attacks on civilians as a horrific aspect of the war, rather than as something new and distinct from it.
Four days after the massacres began, Canadian Major General Dallaire, the head of the small UN peacekeeping force in Kigali, requested 5,000 UN troops to try to secure the city. Over time, Dallaire's request became central to the humanitarian interventionist narrative, suggesting that the 5,000 troops he requested could have prevented the genocide if only Western leaders had listened. Stephen Wertheim examined whether such a force could have halted the genocide, and he found the scenario "infeasible at best and dangerously deficient at worst."
A Carnegie Commission of military leaders in 1998 claimed that there was a two-week "window of opportunity" for Dallaire's plan to work, before the genocide spread beyond Kigali, and after which intervention would have required "massive amounts of force." But this window of opportunity never existed. Rwanda specialist Alison Des Forges' definitive account of the genocide published by Human Rights Watch makes it clear that some of the worst massacres took place out in the countryside during the first week. By the time Human Rights Watch issued its first report, using the word genocide for the first time, the killing had gone on for almost two weeks, and HRW estimated that 100,000 people had already been killed.
Many more than 5,000 troops would have been needed to have any impact across the country. Wertheim compared Rwanda to other emergency military operations and concluded that an effective force couldn't have been deployed in less than another two weeks. He estimated that even a highly successful operation could not have saved more than 125,000 Tutsis, and that the death squads might have only killed more furiously in the face of foreign intervention.
This scenario also fails to take the international political context into account. France had armed the Hutu-led government in the civil war and sent hundreds of troops to support it. The RPF rebels therefore strongly opposed foreign intervention, even to save their fellow Tutsis. An RPF leader warned General Dallaire that it would take action against any foreign forces who intervened. So foreign forces could have very quickly found themselves fighting both sides in a civil war, no closer to achieving their original mission to stop the killing of civilians.
And then what? Even if they could stop the killing in the short term, how long would they need to stay, and what would happen when they left? We know what has happened in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, where U.S. and allied forces have intervened in different ways with different levels of force and different strategies, leaving death, destruction and chaos in their wake in every case. But Rwanda remains "the dog that didn't bark." We cannot know what didn't happen, but there's enough evidence to challenge the way our leaders have used Rwanda to justify endless intervention, violence and chaos everywhere else.
Wertheim found Samantha Power's thesis in Problem From Hell to be fundamentally flawed. She concluded that the U.S. did too little in each case, but her book "shrunk from recommending how exactly the U.S. should have acted." While she claimed there were both military and non-military options for intervention in Rwanda, he found that her "embrace of war is shrouded, but it is omnipresent." And Power saw no need for more complex analysis because she wrongly "assumed U.S. military capabilities were practically unlimited."
All this led to the simplistic conclusion that the use of U.S. military force could be the solution to genocide, and by implication, to serious human rights violations anywhere. As a result of Power and her colleagues' dangerous overreaching, as Wertheim noted, "Over the past decade, the norm of humanitarian intervention, briefly girded by dreams of U.S. military invulnerability, advanced beyond the ability to undertake the actions it prescribed. This was a recipe for dangerous deployments and dashed hopes: the former when leaders take the norm seriously, the latter when they finally realize there is no good way to deliver."
Now that Samantha Power and President Obama have had the chance to test her ideas in the real world, we only have to look at Libya, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan today to see the results. If the end of the Cold War and the "dog that didn't bark" in Rwanda left Power and PNAC with dystopian visions of American power by the late '90s, what have the years since taught the rest of us as we've watched the waves of violence and chaos they unleashed sweep across country after country?
More of us now remember what the people of the world knew too well in 1945, that war is the worst thing human beings can do to each other and the essential context and precursor to genocide. The dystopian visions of the neocons and humanitarian interventionists are a shabby and dangerous substitute for the UN Charter, international courts with universal jurisdiction, and a genuine commitment to peace, human rights and the rule of law.
The 1999 NATO bombing and invasion of Yugoslavia was an act of aggression in violation of the UN Charter. So were the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. So are air strikes in Syria and drone strikes in Pakistan. When the governments of Iraq, Yemen and Somalia give permission for the U.S. to use military force on their territory, it further undermines their legitimacy in the eyes of their own people. Behind a cynical shield of secrecy, propaganda and impunity, the U.S. armed forces flagrantly and systematically violate the Geneva Conventions and other human rights laws.
Most relevant to Samantha Power's concerns, the decade-long campaign of ethnic cleansing that has killed at least 10% of the Sunni Arab population of Iraq and displaced millions, is a genocide on a scale equal to Rwanda, and one for which U.S. officials bear full criminal responsibility. From 2004 to 2008, U.S. forces and Iraqi Interior Ministry forces under U.S. command detained, tortured and killed with impunity. At the peak of the campaign in 2006, the central morgue in Baghdad was receiving more than 1,600 corpses every month, and an Iraqi human rights group identified 92% as the bodies of people detained by Interior Ministry forces
The violence subsided as U.S. forces withdrew, but new peaceful protests for civil and political rights began with the Arab Spring in 2011. They were met by ever-increasing repression, until desperate Sunnis again took up arms and allied with ISIS to protect themselves from renewed genocide by Interior Ministry death squads. The U.S. has responded by intervening on the side of the death squads.
American officials claim that U.S. crimes are of a different order to those of our enemies, even as they reduce that to a purely political claim by rejecting the jurisdiction of international courts. Samantha Power trotted out one of the standard claims of U.S. military lawyers in a book review in the New York Times in 2007, writing that, "there is a moral difference between setting out to destroy as many civilians as possible and killing civilians unintentionally and reluctantly in pursuit of a military objective."
Historian Howard Zinn responded in a letter to the Times:
"These words are misleading because they assume that an action is either 'deliberate' or 'unintentional.' There is something in between, for which the word is 'inevitable.' If you engage in an action, like aerial bombing, in which you cannot possibly distinguish between combatants and civilians (as a former Air Force bombardier, I will attest to that), the deaths of civilians are inevitable, even if not 'intentional.' Does that difference exonerate you morally? The terrorism of the suicide bomber and the terrorism of aerial bombardment are indeed morally equivalent. To say otherwise (as either side might) is to give one moral superiority over the other, and thus serve to perpetuate the horrors of our time."