March 08, 2008
Following up on Richard’s critique of Samantha Power, I had a few thoughts on Power’s proposal that the United States ought to have intervened to halt the Armenian genocide. Besides the logistical difficulties this would have entailed (consider how long it took us to deploy our soldiers to France when we were actually at war), it seems that Power gave no thought to the political impossibility of Wilson sending Americans to the Near East in 1915, a year before he won re-election because “he kept us out of war.” She might as well say that Cleveland should have repelled the British invasion of the Orange Free State, and while we’re indulging in ridiculous fantasies we can say that Lincoln, otherwise unoccupied, should have supported the Polish rebellion of 1863.
As someone who has had a good deal to say about the Armenian genocide and the importance of recognizing it for what it was, I find Power’s proposal typical of the sort of posturing one expects from “humanitarian” interventionists: even when there is no realistic chance of intervening in time to do any good, intervention is still imperative just because it is. Indeed, the only era in which her sort of immediate, reflexive meddling in other nations’ conflicts is even practicable is our own, when there is arguably the least justification legally and morally for such interventions. Why would this particular proposal be so misguided? Well, consider the reasons why the United States did not declare war on the Ottoman Empire: Americans had considerable property in the empire and there were a large number of American missionaries who would have been endangered by such a declaration. Remarkably, even Wilson could see that there was no immediate American interest in going to war with the Ottomans. In Power’s world, evidently none of that matters. Ironically, many of the witnesses of the genocide were those same missionaries who would have been imprisoned or expelled had America set out to intervene, making it that much easier for the CUP to obscure the reality of their crimes from the world. If Power’s wish could have come true, tens of thousands of Americans would have perished making some equally ill-fated Dardanelles-esque landing in an ultimately vain bid to stop a mass slaughter, most of which had been accomplished within a few months from its beginning in April 1915, and the American witnesses of the crime who relayed their reports to the rest of the world would have been in no position to verify the genocide of the Armenians. If intervention is plagued with so many difficulties in one of the most open-and-shut cases of genocide on record, how much less tenable is the idea of “humanitarian” intervention when the cases are much less clear?