The Problem from Hell


Some 14 years ago, Samantha Power, the then Professor of Human Rights Practice at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, wrote a weighty and important tome, titled “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide”. In her book, Power criticised America’s lack of a consistent and strong response to genocide in the 20th century, from the Turkish Armenia in 1915 to Rwanda and Bosnia in 1994. Instead of exercising its moral and military power to prevent or stop genocide while it is still happening, the United States ends up doing too little too late, if anything at all. “A Problem from Hell” won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Fast forward five years, and Samantha Power served from 2009 to 2013 on Barack Obama’s National Security Council as a Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights. Then, from 2013 to 2016, she was the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, replacing Susan Rice.

During that time, Syria has been torn apart, hundreds of thousands of people died, several million managed to escape to neighbouring countries while several more million have been displaced internally. During that time, gross human rights violations have been perpetrated by all the sides to the conflict, but mainly by the Assad government, including the use of chemical weapons against civilians, which act crossed President Obama’s red line in 2013 – crossed it and kept going. During that time, too, a more secular armed opposition to the Assad regime, which was borne out of the Arab Spring, has been overshadowed and supplanted by Al Qaeda-linked radicals and by ISIS. Last, but not least, Vladimir Putin has intervened military to boost his autocratic friend Assad, who so far looks like the great survivor of the conflict – unlike so many of his people.

A few days ago, from her post-UN retirement, Power twitted this:


Which just goes to show that Obamaites have no shame. “A Problem from Hell” needs an updated edition, with a new chapter on the Obama Administration and Syria.

Syria truly is a problem from hell in as much as, for all the moral posturing and “all the assistance short of support” (to quote “Yes Minister”) not just from Obama but many other quarters, no one really gives a shit about Syria, at least not enough to try to stop the unfolding calamity. It’s far easier and morally cheaper to cry and virtue signal over the floods of Syrian refugees than to create circumstances where they can all come back safely home. Actually, my penultimate sentence is not entirely correct; two countries, as Power notes, Iran and Russia, have actually been very active in Syria, trying to end the conflict through ensuring an Assad victory.

The problem with Syria is Iraq. Whatever the rights and the wrongs of the original invasion, of the conduct of the operation, and of the subsequent withdrawal, the Iraq experience has soured the taste in Washington for military interventions abroad that involve more than a few bomber sorties or, better still, drone strikes. Certainly no boots on the ground, lest they get sucked into another quagmire. This is hardly historically unprecedented; WW1 made the WW2 involvement longer in coming; Vietnam was only exorcised in the first Gulf War, and Somalia made the Rwandan intervention impossible and the Bosnian one late and so much more difficult. You can’t blame those who have just been burned for being overly cautious, particularly in a democratic society where public opinion and public support matter a lot.

But if you are a Samantha Power of this world, or on the progressive/left side of politics more broadly, you can’t in good conscience cry crocodile tears over Syria and more privately bemoan how your hands are tied in the sceptical domestic political climate after you opposed the invasion of Iraq and spent years criticising and undermining the operation, sometimes sincerely but all too often for a base partisan gain. This is not to say that those in charge of the Iraq involvement did nothing to criticise them for, but it does mean that the American political left is largely responsible for the strong anti-war, anti-intervention, isolationist sentiment today that makes a military intervention in Syria virtually unthinkable.

If you really, genuinely care about the Syrian people, want to stop the war and the genocide and the human rights abuses and the use of chemical weapons, not to mention solve the refugee problem plaguing the Middle East and Europe, you will not achieve it through candlelit vigils, sorrowful hashtags or more stern words from the United Nations. You need several hundred thousand soldiers sent indefinitely into the middle of a civil war, which is at a stage where you would have to fight both sides – the Assad government and most of the real armed opposition which is now dominated by ISIS and other equally unsavoury Islamists. The best solution to the conflict would be to extract the millions of civilians, let Assad and ISIS fight it out and then nuke the winner; sadly, that’s unrealistic.

Syria is a tragedy. But it’s time for the “international community” to put up or shut up.