It’s hard to imagine a greater foreign policy failure than the American response to the conflict in Syria, which has mushroomed into one of the worst humanitarian crises since the Second World War.
What started as a series of peaceful demonstrations for democratic and civil society reform in 2011 has since degenerated into a brutal multi-front conflict involving the Assad regime in Damascus, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a smorgasbord of mostly Islamist rebel groups including al-Qaeda, secular left-wing Kurdish militias, and, of course, ISIS—the most psychopathic army of killers on the planet.
Rather than live up to his earlier and undeserved reputation as a “reformer,” President Bashar al-Assad has proven himself the most violent dictator in the Middle East since Saddam Hussein.
ISIS, meanwhile, rather than living up to U.S. President Barack Obama’s description as al-Qaeda’s “JV team,” has evolved from a ragtag terrorist organization to a full-blown genocidal army massacring its way through Syria, Iraq and beyond.
The American response so far is only a tad more robust than the sound of chirping crickets.
Perhaps no one is as chagrined at all this as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. She began her career as a war correspondent in Bosnia during the near-apocalyptic civil war there, and she was so shocked and appalled at what she saw—first the mass-murder and ethnic cleansing waged by Serb genocidaires in the heart of Europe, and second the near-total paralysis of the Clinton administration—that she dedicated years of her life to researching and writing her first book, A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, which won her the Pulitzer Prize in 2003.
Her conclusion: despite the cries of “never again” after the Holocaust, the international community, including the United States, nearly always stands aside when mass-murderers go to work.
After Power finishes her current stint as a diplomat, she’ll need to update her book with a new chapter on Syria. Only this time she’ll have to blast the very administration she works for.
For the better part of a century, American leaders have repeatedly failed to stop the world’s monsters from turning swaths of the globe into killing fields. It’s not a uniquely American problem, nor should policing the world be a uniquely American burden, but nevertheless the United States has, as Samantha Power notes, inverted Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy doctrine, “speak softly and carry a big stick,” to “speak loudly and look for a stick.”
The change, she argues, was deliberate and bipartisan. “Contrary to any assumption I may have harbored while I traveled around the former Yugoslavia,” she writes, “the Bush and Clinton administrations’ responses to atrocities in Bosnia were consistent with prior American responses to genocide. Early warnings of massive bloodshed proliferated. The spewing of inflammatory propaganda escalated. The massacres and deportations started. U.S. policymakers struggled to wrap their minds around the horrors. Refugee stories and press reports of atrocities became too numerous to deny. Few Americans at home pressed for intervention. A hopeful but passive and ultimately deadly American waiting game commenced. And genocide proceeded unimpeded by U.S. action and often emboldened by U.S. inaction.”
Before building her case, she tells the story of Raphael Lemkin, the architect of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Lemkin was a Jewish lawyer from Poland who came to the United States in 1941, two years after Nazi Germany invaded his native country. It was Lemkin who coined the word “genocide” in the early 1940s to describe what he called the “race murder” of Jews, but of course the Nazis hardly invented the crime. Josef Stalin’s peacetime genocide in Ukraine—the Holodomor, or hunger-famine—took place during the previous decade, and the Turkish genocide against Armenians during World War I only two decades before that.
Lemkin campaigned tirelessly in the United Nations to get the international community to agree on the definition of genocide, to recognize it as a crime, and to spell out the measures for its prevention and punishment. It finally did so through UN General Assembly Resolution 260, which went in force in 1951.
In Article 2 of the resolution, genocide is defined as any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:
• Killing members of the group;
• Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
• Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
• Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
• Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
After providing the historical background, Power follows with a series of case studies that expose how the United States largely failed to prevent or punish one genocide after another, from Bosnia and Cambodia to Rwanda and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Her case studies of the American reception to these atrocities follow the same pattern: Warning, Recognition, Response and Aftermath.
Admirers of Power’s work were thrilled when President Barack Obama appointed her ambassador to the United Nations in 2013. Finally, they thought, we might be in for a course correction. She’s only one person in a large administration and she can’t set foreign policy all by herself, but one could presume that the president must at least partly agree with her. Otherwise, why appoint her in the first place?
But the Syrian civil war and America’s epic-sized non-response have proven the optimists wrong. The Assad regime is perilously close to crossing the genocidal line—if it hasn’t already—and ISIS has clearly already crossed it with its brutal assaults on minorities like Christians and Yezidis. Meanwhile, the United States, in keeping with the precedents patiently described by Power, dithers impotently on the sidelines.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are ideological opposites. ISIS is brutally Islamist and theocratic, while the Assad regime is avowedly secular and at least nominally “Leftist.” Nevertheless, and despite ISIS harking back to a previous millennium, they’re both totalitarian political movements in the classic 20th-century mold.
All such movements, despite their variety, share the same basic set of ideas which Paul Berman spelled out in his landmark book, Terror and Liberalism. And the potential to commit genocide is baked into every single one of them.
“There exists a people of good who in a just world ought to enjoy a sound and healthy society,” he writes. “But society’s health has been undermined by a hideous infestation from within, something diabolical, which is aided by external agents from elsewhere in the world. The diabolical infestation must be rooted out. Rooting it out will require bloody internal struggles, capped by gigantic massacres. It will require an all-out war against the foreign allies of the inner infestation—an apocalyptic war, perhaps even Apocalyptic with a capital A. (The Book of the Apocalypse, as André Glucksmann has pointed out, does seem to have played a remote inspirational role in generating these twentieth-century doctrines.) But when the inner infestation has at last been rooted out and the external foe has been defeated, the people of good shall enjoy a new society purged of alien elements—a healthy society no longer subject to the vibrations of change and evolution, a society with a single, blocklike structure, solid and eternal.”