July 28, 2006
I finally finished A Problem from Hell by Samantha Power, which is about America’s failure to respond to genocide in the 20th century. The book goes into great detail about the most sickening genocides since the Holocaust: Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda and various wars in Yugoslavia. In every case, America and other Western powers failed to act because it wasn’t in their national interest to risk their soldiers’ lives in a foreign war. Power doesn’t convince me that it is in our interest to stop genocide. In fact, she briefly mocks realist foreign policy principles as morally depraved before diving into how horrible these murderous regimes have been. Of course genocide is terrible. Of course we all wish the insane violence would end. However, wailing and crying about a few people dying shouldn’t matter much in foreign policy. America’s only objective is to work in the interest of this country, not to police the planet with our very expensive big stick.
However, Power provides examples of things America can do short of military action to stop or slow genocides in progress. I certainly agree that America should try to stand against genocide. If it works, terrific. I can’t imagine murderers would stop because the US & UN deliver a strongly worded statement, but it can’t hurt to try. Regardless, it would be better for the US to say, “we generally stand for peace and democracy, but we aren’t committing to actually doing anything about it.” That way the world is clear on what to expect from the US.
Assuming America has a role (it doesn’t!) in making the world a better place, what would be the most effective way to do it? Every untimely death is equivalent: a child dying of starvation is equivalent to a child bludgeoned to death. Money, political capital and soldiers are in short supply. The most effective policy would be to concentrate on lifting people out of poverty and providing basic health care to 3rd world countries. That alone would save 100 times more lives than those lost in Rwanda. But military action saves relatively few lives per dollar spent. It’s an unwise use of our resources. Power should spend her time agitating for charity, not military force.