Samantha Power, United States Ambassador to the United Nations. Credit: Creative Commons

Three days ago, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power used a word that has been, for the most part, absent in the U.S. discourse surrounding the Syrian civil war: evil. Granted, the word “evil” is actually quite difficult to inject into a sentence structure that also includes phrases like “the two sides need to meet face to face at the negotiating table.”

Ever since George W. Bush’s infamous 2002 State of the Union speech in which he called Iraq, Iran and North Korea the “Axis of Evil,” the word “evil” seems to have left on a jet plane and hasn’t come back again. It seems that for most of the citizenry, from the influential power-brokers in Washington, to the town gossips on Main Street, to anonymous commenters on blogs, the word “evil” is best avoided if one wishes to persuade others.

Before she was even sworn in as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Power gave the faux sophisticates of the “no-such-thing-as-evil” crowd a major boost to their cause: her Senate confirmation hearing to be America’s next ambassador to the international body was simply brimming with all manner of denial of the U.S. government’s past atrocities. As mentioned in this article from last July, Power’s confirmation hearing was punctuated in particular with the repeated statement “I will not apologize for America.” Another notable standout from the hearing was her statement to senators that “America is the light of the world.” Needless to say, her confirmation vote passed the Senate with flying colors.

Yet it is precisely that kind of denial, both of history and present reality, that not only leads to foreign cynicism about the intentions of U.S. leaders, but effectively delivers a Betty Crocker cake to those inside the U.S. who would prefer to ignore the evil that Ambassador Power is so devoted to fighting.

Statements from the latter crowd like, “We are no better than they are” hold a powerful allure for souls disgusted with the practices of their own tribe, be it a family, a community or an entire country. Samantha Power’s Senate confirmation performance amounted to an invitation to such souls to remain exactly where they are: so very embittered, so very formed, by the experience of their own tribal betrayal that the opportunity to equate the sins of one’s own tribe with those of other tribes is just too irresistible.

After the gas attacks in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta last summer that lead to U.S. administration condemnation, one commenter on Tikkun Daily decried “U.S. hypocrisy” on the issue of chemical weapons, citing the spread of agent orange and other chemicals during the Vietnam War; a war that occurred before many readers of this blog were even born.

Clearly, for many an embittered tribalist, it is downright untoward to experience shock and anguish at the real-time sight – again delivered by mass communications – of crimes committed by other tribes, in this case other nations. Every single moral denunciation it seems, every single rhetorical sting, must be reserved for the sins of the home tribe, not the sins of other tribes.

Add to this mix the role of critics driven purely by ideological scrupulosity, like Senator Ted Cruz on the right or his less famous left-wing counterparts, and what you get is a de facto death of human empathy.

The bodies of children killed in the sarin gas attacks in Ghoutta, Syria last August. Credit: Creative Commons

The Syrian people who are being slaughtered by the Assad regime, begging for outside Western help to stoptheir own government’s slaughter of them and their families, have no doubt had to come to grips with just how many empathy-flatliners there are in America. I would venture to guess that her public posturing aside, Ambassador Power has had to come to grips with it too.

Based on her statements over the years, it’s clear that one of Power’s favorite policy wonk words is “toolkit.” It’s no odd mystery that a woman who spent the entirety of her public career educating the masses about the warning signs of genocide, and mass atrocity, now represents a country at the United Nations that has left her bereft of the toolkit she needs to combat that evil. After all, politicking, of the kind she perfected during her Senate confirmation, is much easier, and definitely more user-friendly, than engaging in the politics of consciousness transformation. Power’s brand of politicking would not be so frustrating but for the fact that she clearly has the raw human ability to engage in genuine consciousness formation, when she chooses to exercise it.

A clear example of this occurred earlier this week, at a U.N. speech delivered on the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. In her remarks, Power not only reminded listeners of the obligation to confront evil, but, without equating the atrocities so far of the Assad regime to Hitler and the Nazis, made clear that outside forces play a defining role in shaping the scope of evil men’s plans of destruction. From Power’s speech:

The Shoah was not set in stone by the terms of the Versailles Treaty, or by Hitler’s rise to power, or by the Anschluss with Austria, or by the Munich Pact. What Hitler wanted was clearer than what Hitler thought he could actually achieve. He was constantly assessing the degree of resistance he might encounter – both domestically and globally. He was probing. He was planning. Early in 1939, had he been confronted by a more united and determined world community; he might well have been stopped before he truly began.

The horrors of the Holocaust have no parallel but the world continues to confront crimes that shock the conscience. In October the Security Council spoke with a united voice about the need for action to address the humanitarian devastation in Syria. There are people who are imprisoned in their own neighborhoods. They are literally being starved and bombed to death. They need food desperately and yet food cannot reach them because the regime won’t allow it.

Emaciated children in the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Credit: Creative Commons

Here, in just a few short sentences, Power articulated what her boss, President Obama, has not managed to articulate in a hundred times the number of speeches, and a hundred thousand times the word count: namely, tyrants never operate in a vacuum.

That core realityof tyrannical behavior requires a complete toolkit if tyranny is to be stemmed and prevented. Domestically, it requires the toolkit of the division of governmental powers and a rigorous, meaningful system of checks and balances. On the international front, it requires free peoples willing to come to the aid of those, like the people in Syria, who are under chains of tryanny.

In addition to ending the shameful practice of whitewashing America’s past sins from which we must learn, if Power desires the toolkit she needs to build greater, more enforceable international checks on tyrannical regimes – now and down the pike – she will have to build upon the tradition of classical liberalism, of which respect for the primacy of individual moral conscience is paramount.

Some of us, certainly myself, may not like the isolationist instincts of our fellow citizens on the right or the left. Doubtless, on the right end of the political spectrum one would find an odious, racist bigotry that constitututes much of the isolationist instinct: “The world’s black and brown people kill each other, anyway. Why do we need to get involved?”

On the left end of that instinct toward isolationism, increasingly an instinct toward the secular equivalent of religious scrupulosity can be sensed.

Like a Catholic lady bound by the mental chains of religious scrupulosity, who thinks she will be damned to hell for missing even one day of her daily rosary, on the political left one is bound to find people who think they will wind up in the same intellectual camp as warmongers and war profiteers if he/she gives any countenance to a military operation, even an operation to stave off genocide. Nothing could be further from the truth. Likewise, just like the scrupulous Catholic lady whose rosary complex has nothing whatever to do with love for God, and everything to with a naked obsession with how she perceives herself and wishes others to perceive her, so too the secular leftist isolationist must perceive herself as the very embodiment of all, and everything, that is culturally considered “antiwar.”

If that means sitting back and watching Syrian kids on YouTube get shelled, tortured, gassed and starved to death, so be it: it’s a small price to pay for the personal sense of being pristine in the political world. Like a scrupulous old rosary lady at church.


Child in Yarmouk, Syria. Died of starvation, January 11th, 2014. Credit: Associated Press

And yet, classical liberalism – not partisan liberalism – demands that when we encounter states of consciousness in others with which we disapprove, and in fact sometimes genuinely pity, that we not seek to criminalize, or officially ostracize, or otherwise try to shove outside what Al Gore called the circle of human dignity. The right-wing racists, the self-absorbed isolationists, all have human rights too. First and foremost is the their fundamental right to their very personhood, including that very personhood that informs them that the vulnerable souls of far off lands are none of our business.

Samantha Power is operating from a playbook not at all of classical liberalism – and the respect for individual moral conscience and autonomy that it demands – but from a playbook of partisan liberalism: namely, to take the reins of government power, and use whatever power that position provides to shoveone’s ownvalues and vision of the world down everyone else’s throats.

Not only is that playbook failing miserably, but from a humanitarian intevention standpoint, it has the effect of throwing many a baby out with the bath water: not every American – Democrat, Republican or other – is strenuosly opposed to international efforts, which would include the U.S., to stem genocide and other foreign atrocities. Indeed, around the time of President Obama’s request for congressional approval of military strikes against the Assad regime, there was polling suggesting 20 percent support – a clear minority, but by no means chopped liver in a nation of over 300 million souls.

If she is open to argument, and her incredibly insightful and moving statment this week at the commemoration of the 69th anniversary of liberation of Auschwitz clearly demonstrated that she is by no means a belligerent soul, Samantha Power should consider incorporating a rennaissance of classical liberalism into her efforts to use her position to advance the cause of just intervention.

That would mean not throwing all the babies out with the bath water. It would mean not treating adult Americans as if they have no individual moral discernment abilities vis-a-vis the rest of humanity. It would mean respecting the primacy of individual conscience in all eras, and making sure that respect is brought to bear by the U.S. government in our own era of the information age; the age when sarin gas victims, or napalm-scorched children, can be viewed on a personal laptop hours after being gassed and scorched.

In sum, it would mean advocating for a reform of the U.S. military enlistment system: giving those Americans who have assessed their own life circumstances, who have no pecuniary motives, and who wish to help their foreign neighbors in grave danger a fair shake at doing so.

It would mean respecting the fundamental human rights of the racists and the secularly scrupulous to remain as detached and removed from the plight of foreign peoples as they please. Moreover, it would mean respecting the fundamental rights of the racists and secularly scrupulous to charge anyone who does wish to help their human brothers and sisters abroad in a coordinated fashion with having a savior complex. Classical liberalism demands that their conscience rights and free speech rights be respected too.

Samantha Power closed that address earlier this week with these words:

We also must acknowledge as well that remembrance is the beginning - not the end - of our responsibility; and while the world has never seen anything as horrific as the Holocaust, the duty we have is an urgent and active one: to confront evil, to defend truth, to unite in the face of threats to human dignity, and to strive to stop any who would abuse their neighbors. Let us go forward, then, to meet that obligation, recognizing our own fate in that of others, and demanding always the very best of ourselves.

Those are words that resonate with me, and if heard and given due airtime, would doubtless resonate with millions of other Americans.

Yet neither we, nor Ambassador Power, currently possess the toolkit to bring those words to fruition. Instead of a toolkit, we have a U.S. military system that has been thoroughly monopolized by people who use that institution principally for their own financial interests and not – quite obviously – to “confront evil and defend truth.”

It is time to change.

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