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The Humanitarian Imperialist: Obama and Genocide

The Humanitarian Imperialist: Obama and Genocide

By Binoy Kampmark

Along with the optimism that has accompanied the Obama election emerges a potentially new picture on humanitarian interventions. What will an Obama administration do with Darfur, or instances where genocide will occur?

A report by the Genocide Prevention Task Force convened by the U.S. Institute of Peace, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Academy of Diplomacy released this week by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Defense Secretary William Cohen, makes a few suggestions. ‘Preventing genocide is an achievable goal.’ There are discernable ‘signs and symptoms, and viable options to prevent it at every turn if we are committed and prepared.’ Given that both co-chairs were key players in the Clinton administration, their influence is hard to ignore.

Commenting on America’s National Public Radio, Albright suggested the creation of a ‘trigger system’ in averting humanitarian disasters. An inter-agency mechanism needs to be put in place, argued Cohen. The report makes various recommendations. The creation of a high level agency to identify the problems of genocide with seismic urgency is suggested. Increased resources are also advocated. There is a recommendation for the new secretary of state to launch an international initiative enlisting an entire cadre of networks and nations to prevent mass atrocity and genocide. Then there is that option of last resort, military intervention.

The task force’s report pairs well with the interventionist rhetoric Obama has, at times, articulated. Those within the transitional team – foreign policy advisers Susan E. Rice and Tony Lake – are old hands from those dark times of the Rwanda genocide, where semantic gymnastics trumped humanitarian consideration. A gutsy, far-sighted General Dallaire was less respected than State Department memos questioning whether genocide was even taking place in 1994.

Then come those interminable problems with the mechanics of intervention. Given the intractable presence of the UN Security Council, the obstacles with allowing intervention will remain serious ones. Cohen thinks that the US will front with that customary, messianic tone of leadership – take the first measures to avert catastrophe, and others will follow. But ironically, that message seems oddly (or perhaps not?) close to that of the Bush administration – invade a country first and the skeptics will follow. The rhetorical frameworks may differ, but the practical results may be much the same.

Readers of this report won’t forget that the authors were themselves part of an administration that orchestrated the ostensibly humanitarian intervention outside customary UN guidelines in 1999. Then, it was Kosovo and the issue of preventing ethnic cleansing. To this day, if there is an identifiable doctrine from the Clinton years, it is one that targets genocide and humanitarian catastrophe which is of itself in the national interest to prevent. Lawyers subsequently put forth papers suggesting that a new norm of international law had arisen.

The UN, it would seem, will continue remaining the bête noire of American foreign policy, whether one is a Bush unilateralist or Obama internationalist. The former loathes it for being the progenitor of fictitious international laws and obligations; the latter dislikes it for being lethargic and indifferent to international laws.

Given the battering the UN and international law received during the Bush years, the panaceas of the task force are encumbered by problems. With the US mired in conflicts it has struggled to control in the last seven years, driven by a unilateralist rationale that commentators now find hard to justify, the priorities given to genocide prevention may yet again be minimized. While Obama will need to take this report seriously, he must be fully aware that the US risks being tarnished with the charge of imperialism (albeit of a different sort) yet again.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of College and lecturer in history at the University of Queensland.

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