Samantha Power: Liberal War Hawk and Second Rate Scholar

tags: genocide



Jeremy Kuzmarov is J.P. Walker assistant professor of history at the University of Tulsa and author of The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (UMass, 2009) and Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (UMass, 2009).


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Barack Obama's new ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, has been a key proponent of military intervention in Syria, having also championed the wars in Libya and Obama's surge in Af-Pak. Power has long been a proponent of "humanitarian intervention" dating from her experience as a journalist in Bosnia during the 1990s. After appointment to the Harvard Kennedy school, Power won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2003 book, 'A Problem From Hell': America in the Age of Genocide, which purports to show that America did nothing to prevent genocide from occurring in the past. In her view, U.S. policymakers should learn from this negative history and intervene more forcefully to prevent human rights crimes, a rationale underlying her championing the wars in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. Power's book, however, ignores the structural variables underlying most military interventions, including the quest for overseas military bases, access to mineral resources, and the imperatives of the U.S.-military industrial complex. For Power, the U.S. is an innocent country which can only do good. That successive presidential administrations have been complicit in major human rights violations through arms sales, police and military training programs and warfare escapes her notice.

Despite its being advertised as providing a comprehensive analysis of American response to genocide in the twentieth century, Powers' book does not discuss several major genocides of the post-World War II era, including the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66 that followed a CIA backed military coup. After taking power, General Suharto ordered army officers (including Obama's stepfather Lolo Soetoro) and Muslim gangs to attack members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) who were identified through lists provided by US military intelligence. Between 250,000 to a million people were slaughtered, including thousands of ethnic Chinese. Ten years later, Suharto's government invaded East Timor with the support of the Ford administration, killing another 100,000 or so civilians. The U.S. actively collaborated with the killers because Suharto opened the country up to multi-national corporations and the World Bank and IMF following a period of socialist rule.

From 1981-1983, the Reagan administration provided nearly a billion dollars in economic assistance to Guatemalan General Efrain Rios Montt while he carried out scorched earth campaigns targeted against Mayan Indians who supported left-wing guerrillas. Montt's word for the peasants was allegedly simple: "if you're with us, we'll feed you, if not we'll kill you." In 2012, the Christian fundamentalist was convicted by a Guatemalan court of genocide and crimes against humanity, though the case was overturned under suspicious circumstances.

'A Problem From Hell' also omits discussion of U.S. military pacification campaigns in Vietnam, which were tantamount to genocide, as Nick Turse shows in his book, Kill Anything That Moves. During Operation Speedy Express from December 1968 through May 1969, the Ninth Infantry Division under the command of Julian Ewell and Ira Hunt claimed an enemy body count of 10,899 at a cost of 267 American lives, with only 748 weapons seized. General David Hackworth acknowledged that "a lot of innocent Vietnamese civilians got slaughtered because of the Ewell-Hunt drive to have the highest count in the land." In May 1970, a "grunt" who participated in Speedy Express wrote a confidential letter to William Westmoreland, then Army Chief of Staff, saying that the Ninth Division's atrocities amounted to "a My Lay" each month for over a year."

In her chapter on Cambodia, Power excludes from discussion the Nixon administration's secret 1970 bombing campaign following a CIA backed coup that overthrew the neutralist Prince Norodom Sihanouk. The bombing killed anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000 people and destabilized the country, precipitating the conditions in which the Khmer Rouge came to power and became radicalized. Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan write that "civilian casualties drove an enraged population into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the...rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide."

Power's chapter on the Kosovo war ignores the criminal nature of the U.S.-backed Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), including its links to the heroin traffic and Al Qaeda, and fact that the U.S.-NATO bombing campaign actually intensified the degree of Serb atrocities directed against Kosovar Albanians while also killing between 500 and 2,000 civilians. Her discussion of Rwanda is similarly flawed; it paints the conflict there as one of good versus evil, the Tutsi and Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) being the good guys, and the Hutu the bad. However, the mass killings of 1994 ensued during a civil war in which the RPF also committed myriad atrocities against the civilian population. A French commission found Rwanda's current president Paul Kagame culpable in the shooting of former Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana's aircraft following his return from peace talks in Arusha. Kagame trained in Fort Leavanworth, Kansas and received large-scale American assistance after consolidating his power. American aid continued even after his armies invaded Congo and plundered its diamond wealth.

Ignoring these facts, Power's book, 'A Problem from Hell' is more fiction than history. Power has advanced to the highest reaches of power not on the strength of her scholarship but rather on the ideological serviceability of her message to what C. Wright Mills termed the "power elite." The U.S. political economy is dominated by defense industries who command billions of dollars for the manufacture of arms and weapons. Their profitability depends on a permanent war footing. When Cold War pretexts for intervention lost their viability, government officials began to claim that U.S. intervention was necessary on humanitarian grounds, appropriating some of the language used by the 1960s protestors. Power's book came just at the right time to help advance the message that America had not done enough to prevent genocide and needed to intervene militarily to prevent them. She was an inspiration behind the Save Darfur movement which channeled student activist energy away from the illegal war in Iraq.

In November 1965, speaking at the second national antiwar demonstration against the Vietnam War, Students for Democratic Society (SDS) president Carl Oglesby said that "the industrial war apparatus was the creation of a government that since 1932 had considered itself to be fundamentally liberal. Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy - they were all liberals. And leading policy makers in the Johnson administration - McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, Henry Cabot Lodge, Arthur Goldberg and Johnson himself "were not moral monsters. They are all honorable men. They are all liberals." Sadly, Oglesby's comments are applicable in the present where the most brazen champions of war are men and women like Power who consider themselves liberal. And they too deserve our condemnation and protest.


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