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The ‘Well-Meaning’ Warmongers

Samuel Moyn reviews Samantha Power’s memoir to devastating effect. He begins his essay with a withering observation and never lets up:

At her first dinner with future president Barack Obama, a forty-five-minute meet and greet that turned into a four-hour mind­meld, the then senator from Illinois told Samantha Power he admired her first book, “A Problem from Hell”, an already classic study of genocide prevention. But, he added, it “seemed like malpractice to judge one’s prospects by one’s intentions, rather than making a stren­uous effort to anticipate and weigh potential consequences.”

Power went on to serve as a National Security Council staffer for multilateral affairs and human rights during Obama’s first term. During his second, she became America’s ambassador to the United Nations. But her recently released memoir, The Education of an Idealist, reveals that she never learned her boss’s first lesson.

Interventionists rarely anticipate and weigh potential consequences, because if they did that it would be much harder for them to get the interventions they want. Advocates for military action routinely minimize the risks and costs of war in order to reduce opposition to it, but “humanitarian” interventionists have another incentive to downplay negative consequences and preferably to ignore consequences in their entirety. If a “humanitarian” intervention creates worse conditions than existed prior to the intervention, it has to be declared a failure on its own terms. That is why “humanitarian” interventionists go to such lengths to turn a blind eye to the destructive effects of their interference. After all, they see themselves as defending the legitimacy of “humanitarian” intervention and preserving the possibility of future interventions. To admit that one of their interventions failed and made things worse, especially when it was one that they sold so aggressively as “good” and successful, would be to bring discredit on the entire project.

As Moyn puts it, the “overall thrust of Power’s argument is to deny the need for any accounting of how good intentions can drive perverse results in the use of state power abroad.” The only consequences that “humanitarian” interventionists usually worry about are those elusive “consequences of inaction.” It doesn’t seem to trouble them that inaction can’t actually have consequences. Where there is no action, there is no effect, and no one can be held responsible for what one does not do. At the heart of do-somethingism is a belief that not waging a war of choice is less moral than attacking people that have not threatened or attacked you. It is the conviction that illegal and aggressive warfare can be admirable instead of vicious because the intentions of the aggressors are well-meaning. It treats international peace as less important than “taking sides” in another country’s quarrels. It sees international law as an obstacle to be overcome. It valorizes killing as long as the “right” people are being killed.

Moyn calls attention to how Power’s own arguments were taken up by supporters of the Iraq war even though she came out against the invasion:

Power records in her memoir, accurately, that she opposed that war, but she does not reflect at all on why so few in her position could do so convincingly at the time—or why so many of her allies and fans became Bush’s “useful idiots,” as historian Tony Judt memo­rably called the liberal hawks of the day. “I was uncomfortable seeing my writing used in a way that might help justify a war,” she confesses of this period in her memoir. “A Problem from Hell”, which won the Pulitzer prize a few weeks after the Iraq intervention began, was “liable to misinterpretation,” she concedes. But that is not much different from saying that you didn’t mean for the loaded gun you left on the table to be used by someone else in the room. Lionizing unilateralism and illegality in a good cause turns out to be part of the problem when others prove to be devious or hoodwinked, even if you were not [bold mine-DL]. After all, the whole reason for constraints on force—which include demands for multilateralism and legalism—is the risk of pretextual abuse and simple mistake.

When you toss the law aside “in a good cause,” as many liberal hawks believed they did in Kosovo, you not only try to justify something unjust, but you also invite others to justify even worse behavior in the same way. The same actions that these interventionists would denounce as crimes if committed by another government are transmuted into unfortunate but unavoidable “mistakes” whose lessons we should not “overlearn” by refraining from making them again in the future. The worst mistake in the worldview of “humanitarian” interventionists is to conclude that previous failed wars prove that the U.S. should mind its own business, and so they keep defending them long after it has become obvious to the rest of us that they aren’t worth defending.

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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