Home/Daniel Larison/The ‘Do-Somethingism’ of ‘Humanitarian’ Interventionists

The ‘Do-Somethingism’ of ‘Humanitarian’ Interventionists

David Rieff has written a scathing review of Samantha Power’s memoir that is worth reading in full. Here he is chiding her for her naive confidence that U.S. hegemony and American ideals go hand-in-hand:

Power simply does not seem to be able to imagine, even if only to refute it, that American hegemony might be a betrayal of American ideals, not a fulfilling of them.

One of the curiosities of A Problem from Hell was that there was virtually no discussion of whether the United States should intervene to prevent or halt genocide where and as it can. Power simply takes it as read that it should. Completely absent from her account, even if only to refute it, is any recognition of the American anti-interventionist tradition that dates back to John Quincy Adams—and that is unpersuaded that the United States has the capacity to do good abroad, whether by military or by other means.

Power’s failure to discuss anti-interventionist arguments is not surprising when you consider that for a committed interventionist like her those arguments are just so much “isolationism” to be sneered at and dismissed. For most of the last 30 years, humanitarian interventionists have derided opposition to their wars as immoral, and they have grown accustomed to caricaturing anti-interventionist positions and claiming the mantle of “values” and human rights for themselves. It has been a commonplace of interventionist rhetoric to assert that military intervention in some foreign conflict is an expression of “who we are,” and failing to “act” would be a rejection of “who we are” as a nation. Obama said this explicitly when he was selling the illegal Libyan war to the American public:

To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and -– more profoundly -– our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.

Obama was never as much of a doctrinaire humanitarian interventionist as Power, but in that speech he sounded like one. According to that speech, the only alternatives were war or “turning a blind eye,” as if the only expression of humanitarian concern and assistance is killing and anything less than a violent response is an indifferent one. The Libyan intervention was one of Obama’s worst mistakes, and he made that mistake because he listened to the bad advice of ideologues. One reason that those ideologues keep getting things wrong is that they assume that their do-somethingism is the same thing as doing good. They take for granted that the U.S. has the power to “do something” about a crisis or conflict, and then they jump to the conclusion that if the U.S. just does it, just acts, then good things will follow. “Failure” to take that action is then automatically viewed as an unwillingness to do good, and what sort of monster doesn’t want to do good? It never occurs to them that their willingness to inflict death and destruction on nations that have done nothing to us is wrong.

Rieff continues:

But there is another name for this and it is imperialism, which is just what Adams meant when he spoke of America as dictatress. To be sure, Power’s vision is more mundane. She speaks of the necessity of American leadership and, doubtless reflecting her love of sports and tropism towards sports metaphors, of the United States as the captain of the global “team.” But delve beneath Power’s folksy rhetoric and you find that Power’s justifications for U.S. hegemony are almost identical to those John Stuart Mill used in his defense of the British empire. For like Mill’s justification of imperial legitimacy, Power’s justification of America’s global hegemony, or “leadership” as she tends to call it, is the project of global improvement. It is at these moments where The Education of an Imperialist would have been a more appropriate title than the one Power elected to use.

Humanitarian interventionists assume that the U.S. not only has the right but also the obligation to interfere in the affairs of other nations, and they convinced themselves a long time ago that this interference is for the other nations’ own good. They have no legal justification for this presumptuous and meddlesome role in the world. The U.S. has no authority to do the things they want to do. It is simply taken for granted that the U.S. should do these things because it can, and the rights of other nations and the boundaries of international law are merely impediments to be cast aside. “Ideals” serve as the excuse for wreaking havoc and they serve as a shield against accountability when one of their interventions goes bad.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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