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  • Dan Connors

Refugees, genocide, and human rights. What should be done? What can be done?

Updated: May 9, 2021

at the Turkish border.  Photograph by John Stanmeyer
With their home in Ayn al Arab, Syria, under attack, ethnic Kurds push toward a barbed wire fence

The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir

Samantha Power 2019

What is America's place in the world? Does our exceptionalism give us a free pass to meddle wherever we see fit? Are we responsible for fixing human rights abuses of other countries, including extreme cases like genocide? Or are we better off as an isolated entity, pursuing our own self-interest, building walls and armies, and staying out of foreign entanglements whenever possible?

I wonder about these things from time to time, being insulated from the world's troubles in my all-American bubble. Samantha Power, who immigrated from Ireland as a child, and traveled the world chronicling human rights abuses before becoming US Ambassador to the United Nations, writes about her experiences in this book, Education of an Idealist. Power is a journalist, policy specialist, and Pulitzer Prize winner for her 2003 book- A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide. I almost passed on reading this book after seeing how thick the large-print edition was at 900+ pages, but I'm glad I didn't. The author covers a lot of ground, from her childhood to her service in the Obama administration, and the book moves faster than I first anticipated.

If I find out about a family down the street that tortures its kids, I can report them and the hopefully problem will be fixed. But what about a foreign leader who is torturing his own citizens? Can other nations intervene in those cases, and if so, how? I hadn't thought about this dilemma until reading this book, and it's clear that Barack Obama and his staff struggled with that situation for the entire time he was president.

The first third of the book describes Power's upbringing in Ireland and her experiences as an immigrant to America. The most powerful stories start when as a young woman she travels to Bosnia in 1994 to cover the war there as a freelancer. The courage it had to take for a young woman like her to leave a safe and comfortable life in the US and poke around in dangerous corners of war-torn Bosnia boggles my mind. Power was on a mission, and her experiences in that country profoundly affected her life and perspectives on international human rights.

Learning about the two most horrible human rights abuses of the 90's- Srebrenica where some 2700 Bosnian Muslims were murdered, and then Rwanda, where some 800,000 were slaughtered in a brutal genocide, Power dug deep into human rights issues, reporting from the field in war-torn Bosnia and getting to know other inspiring people. That culminated with her Pulitzer prize winning book- "A Problem From Hell". After the brutal lessons of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, how is it that atrocities and genocides keep happening? Is there any way to prevent them, and how is America involved in any of this? Tribal loyalties run deep, and the ability to dehumanize those who don't look like or think like us is a prescription for disaster.

The second third of the book is about how Power returned to the US and get involved with the Obama campaign and administration. There is some interesting insider stuff here that shows how foreign policy is made, and it compliments some of what I learned in Obama's book, A Promised Land. Foreign policy making is much more complex than it looks to us from the outside. The mental gymnastics involved with a declaration of genocide against a 100 year old Turkish atrocity shows how American politicians dance around words and feelings to make a point without making more enemies. (Obama chickened out on the genocide thing, only to leave it to Biden to finally declare it in 2021).

The final third of the book tells the story of Power's term as US Ambassador to the United Nations. I've always been curious about the UN as an institution and if anything remotely constructive ever happens there. The UN is a weak institution with little authority to step in and effect change in the world, but once in a while it does something good. Part of the problem is that the five permanent security council members- US, China, Russia, UK and France can derail almost anything of importance, but Power describes fascinating behind the scenes negotiations that made a difference.

For instance, the UN and Obama administration played a major role in 2014 in containing the Ebola epidemic, saving millions of lives by traveling to countries like Liberia and Guinea where the disease got its start and using education and science to keep the epidemic from spreading across Africa and the world. Another inspiring victory was the Free the 20 campaign initiated by Power that sought to bring attention to women political prisoners across the world. Shining a light on the stories of these women resulted in most of them being released.

If there is one tale that both Power and Obama regret, it is what happened in Syria. Obama's book cuts out before his administration got to Syria, but Power dives right in. It started with twin catalysts- a devastating drought that drove farmers into Syria's cities, and then the Arab spring uprisings in nearby Egypt, Libya and Tunisia that shook up the power structure of the middle east. Facing disaster and civil war, Syria's corrupt leader Assad turned to killing, bombing and gassing his own citizens with the backing of Russia. War with ISIS spilled over from Iraq and an unprecedented 10 million plus Syrian citizens became refugees of a growing civil war. President Obama planned to begin air strikes shortly after poison gas attacks occurred in 2013, but had to back down after congress rebuffed him. They were able to get the UN to sanction Syria and remove the chemical weapons, but the war there has continued on for another decade, causing the worst refugee crisis the world had seen in decades.

What could the West have done about Syria? What should they have done? With two wars still being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US was too fatigued make any commitments. (When they close the books on Iraq and Afghanistan and how costly those wars ended up being, Syria will be a huge missed opportunity that was caused by those wars.) Some nations, like Germany, Turkey, and Jordan stepped up and accepted many Syrian refugees both temporarily and permanently. Others, like the USA, Russia, and China took in pitifully few refugees while tiny nations like Luxembourg and Belgium welcomed thousands of Syrians.

Syria ended up being a foreign policy disaster for Obama, and the Trump administration did nothing to make things any better. If anything, Trump demonized refugees and immigrants so much that the puny amounts of refugees allowed into the country dried up even more. If there is any positive to take from this disaster it is the many countries that stepped up to provide homes for the homeless, plus the valiant White Hats, a brigade of Syrian volunteers who risked their lives to find and save victims of the war.

I found it interesting nonetheless to hear a foreign policy wonk like Samantha Power, who had the ear of the president for eight years tell how things are done from the inside. One generous gesture she made as ambassador to the UN was to make an attempt to meet with all 193 member state delegations to begin a dialogue with them. No other US ambassador had tried that, and in an age where money and bombs do our speaking for us most of the time, it's nice to hear that we have people willing to listen to the world once in a while. Only by listening, negotiating, and communicating with the world can we heal it, and prevent future disasters both political and environmental.

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