South Sudan, Samantha Power, and the Failure of Liberal Internationalism

Samantha Power at a U.N. Security Council meeting on South Sudan / AP

Last month in Juba, the capital of the relatively new nation of South Sudan, a small motorcade carrying the U.S. ambassador got entangled with a larger convoy ferrying a senior government official. Frustrated with the delay, a soldier in the South Sudanese convoy got out of his truck, fired two shots into the bulletproof glass of one of the embassy vehicles, and rejoined his own motorcade, which drove away.

So it goes in Juba. Since last December, when an coup allegedly perpetrated against the country’s Dinka president by his Nuer vice president led to Dinka troops going house-to-house in Juba, murdering men, women and children and trucking their bodies out to the bush, a civil war has been underway. The fighting calmed through much of the middle of 2014, but the dry season has arrived. Traditionally in South Sudan, negotiating is for the wet season, and fighting renews at its conclusion.

To get a sense of scale, consider that researchers at the International Crisis Group estimate that at least 50,000 men, women, and children have died in the hostilities thus far. That’s the minimum estimate. To get the flavor of the nightmarish, madcap nature of the conflict, take a look at this report from VICE News, where the correspondent accompanies government (Dinka) troops to the front lines as they mount an amateurish offensive against the Nuer rebels, who promptly rout them.

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The war has not received much coverage in the American media in part because, in 2014, who can keep track anymore of the violent spasms afflicting the world?

American policy towards South Sudan is a disaster—such that there is a policy at all. When decisions come, they come—as is the case in most conflicts where American diplomats and soldiers are involved today—from the very top, with policy micromanaged from the offices of Susan Rice and Samantha Power. In terms of meaningful action, the policy has involved the levying of travel and financial sanctions on mid-level commanders and suspected human rights abusers, who must have been devastated when word arrived at their swamp redoubts beside the upper Nile that they are no longer permitted to trade on the New York Stock Exchange.

In addition to sanctions, much hope has been invested in the ability of a regional coalition of neighboring states, organized as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development—IGAD, inauspiciously pronounced as Egad!—to broker a deal between the Dinka and the Nuer, the two tribal networks doing the fighting. IGAD includes among its members Uganda, which has troops in South Sudan backing the government-aligned Dinka, and Sudan, which is widely believed to be backing the rebel Nuers in an effort to act as a spoiler in its recently surrendered territory.

In other words, IGAD not only has no chance of stopping the war—it’s even far from clear that its members want the war to come to a negotiated end. But this doesn’t stop the United Nations, and our ambassador in Turtle Bay, Samantha Power, from speaking of IGAD as though it were some meaningful mechanism for achieving peace. Consider this statement from Power’s office released earlier this year:

We welcome the willingness of countries from the East African regional organization, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), to contribute a regional force to UNMISS as part of the new troop complement, as well as its continued leadership as mediators of the political process, including through Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s work as IGAD Chair. This troop contribution will be vital to supporting the new UNMISS mandate and to providing protection to the personnel from IGAD’s Monitoring and Verification Mission who are monitoring the Cessation of Hostilities agreement signed on January 23. …

… The desperately needed political solution to this man-made crisis must begin with the country’s political leaders. President Salva Kiir and former vice president Riek Machar have continually failed to implement the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement they signed in January, and recommitted to personally in Addis Ababa on May 9. They bear the greatest responsibility for the surge of violence and economic instability. It is up to them to look beyond their narrow political interests and embrace a fully inclusive national dialogue aimed at building a lasting peace. The people of South Sudan deserve nothing less.

Evident in this soporific bureaucratize is the Samantha Power school of U.S. foreign policy, in action. An investment in endless process, in which untrustworthy agents halfheartedly wrangle combatants towards a negotiated peace that no party actually prefers to victory, followed by impotent invocations of a moral commitment to national dialogue and lasting peace.

The killing continues, heedless of the process.

For Power, the manifest ineffectiveness of her vision would constitute a fall from grace, should anyone be paying attention. This is the woman whose book about genocide won her a Pulitzer before she was 33, and who rose to prominence in the liberal establishment on the back of passionate calls for a U.S. foreign policy characterized by a scaling-back of U.S. military involvement and a "mea culpa doctrine" wherein the U.S. was to atone for its Cold War wrongs, combined with a reinvigorated devotion to multilateralism and an unabashed focus on human rights.

This variety of liberal internationalism works better as an external theoretical critique than it does as a practical policy. The existence of South Sudan—which came about as the triumphant conclusion of a UN-backed process—and its subsequent suffering is the consequence of such a doctrine. Juba is the destination for the proverbial road paved with good intentions.

Not that failure has in any way cost Ambassador Power. Her status, to judge by a completely obnoxious puff piece in Vanity Fair (‘America’s youngest-ever U.N. Ambassador negotiates playdates and power’) that ran this August—when things were not going well, anywhere—is secure:

Samantha Power, at 43 the youngest person to be appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations—it’s her first anniversary in the job next month—arrived at her lunch spot of choice, the unpretentious Crave Fishbar, in Midtown Manhattan, boxed in at the entrance by her wary security team, like some rock star.

But she proved delightfully approachable, and perhaps her Irish roots account for her transparent warmth, a fierce articulate intelligence in support, a certain humor. "It’s good to get out of the office," she said as if released for a while from the impossible cares of saving the world.

"Guys," said our friendly waiter.

"I’m really hungry," she announced, adding incongruously, "My husband [Cass Sunstein] loves this place because he hates white tablecloths."

Don’t we all! Power’s reputation is secure within her own elite not only because she is so impressively a full member of it, but because she means well. When the Vanity Fair writer (tentatively, over the marinated Carolina amberjack) suggests that no one is listening to U.N. much these days, Power responds:

"What are we not doing that you would have us do?"

And so she concluded with her unshakable core belief, which amounts to an article of faith. "For me, it’s not an option to despair. The question is: what can we do to make someone’s life better? Take the unimaginable strides made in places like Bosnia, where I cut my teeth, and Rwanda. Their stories aren’t perfect, but I wouldn’t have dreamt they could happen in a million years. If nothing else, they help you get out of bed in the morning and say, All right—today, you know, we’re going to try again."

Meaning well—being willing to try again: that is everything.

But the violence in Bosnia only stopped after a NATO military intervention. In Rwanda, the genocide visited by the Hutu upon the Tutsi was resolved by Tutsi rebels ignoring UN calls for a ceasefire and, under the command of Paul Kagame—no saint, and still the president of Rwanda today—seizing the country. The violence stopped when somebody won.

Yet the fantasies that undergird both Power’s career, and the hopes of those who feel that a multilateral solution brokered by IGAD is possible, de-emphasize the role that military force plays in lasting stability. In the liberal internationalist view, in the absence of bad actors like Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan, a robust civil society simply springs into being in liberated Juba. This civil society is made up of individuals who conceive of themselves primarily as individuals, and who find dignity in the human rights bestowed upon them by beneficent international functionaries.

But, as South Sudan shows so clearly—and before it, as Iraq and Afghanistan showed a generation of conservative policymakers—the reality is different. In South Sudan, people find their dignity not in a western liberal conception of individual rights, but in the success of their clan or tribe. They find the promise of revenge and material gain preferable to a slim chance of peace. They are invested in messianic religion not as something spoken about on Sundays, but as a going concern (the Nuer commander, former Vice President Riek Machar, is believed by many in his tribe to be a figure foretold in recent prophecy).

A foreign policy premised on the appeal to the better angels of the world’s nature will be forever mugged by the reality that there are no angels available for the appeal.