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Syria: Hail the Power of this humanitarian doctrine

US ambassador to UN has long argued America must intervene to save lives

When does a moral obscenity become so morally obscene that it not only justifies but demands an armed response? How do you compare atrocities and decide that one shocks the conscience of the world but another does not, or not enough? When the bombs start falling on Damascus, will you be for, or against going in?

Suddenly, even for those who have consistently opposed calls for military intervention, doing nothing seems immoral. A tyrant crosses a line in the sand, and with a drumbeat of Cyprus bases, air defences and cruise missiles ringing in our ears, we want to say which camp we are in; pro or anti the coming war on Assad.

We expect our leaders to instantly know their minds too. Which is why it has been easy for neo-conservatives in America to draw shame down on the head, not of the Syrian president, but of Samantha Power, President Obama’s new appointee as US ambassador to the UN. Ms Power, supposedly at the forefront of US decision-making on Syria, vanished, it was claimed, after tweeting an outraged reaction to the chemical weapons attack on civilians in the outskirts of Damascus.

Although barely three weeks into the job, Ms Power failed to show up in person at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council last Wednesday and has made no public statements on the matter since. After days of State Department stonewalling, it turned out that she was in Ireland on holiday. Her no-show was deemed such an omission that one ex-UN diplomat claimed it would “scar her career”.  

It was certainly not the most ideal timing for a jaunt to the Ring of Kerry, but Samantha Power (now safely back in Washington) can hardly be accused of failing to put her views on the line passionately and consistently for many years.

A former journalist turned human rights activist, who was in Bosnia in 1995 at the time of the Srebrenica massacre before she went on to document the horrors of Darfur, she has done more than anyone in a position of influence in Washington to demand that America stop standing idly by in cases of genocide or large-scale atrocity. When the US has “the power to stop the killing at reasonable risk” it has a duty to act, she has argued, and not just when its national interests are at stake. She was, she explained at the time, haunted by three things: “The murder of Srebrenica’s Muslim men and boys, my own failure to sound a proper early warning, and the outside world’s refusal to intervene.”

One theory is that Ms Power was leant on to keep quiet on Syria as a divided Obama administration figured out what to do next after the events of last week. But her Pulitzer Prize-winning writings suggest she has probably been warning Obama for months that he can’t go on letting Assad act with impunity. She has also long argued that US leaders have a duty to make the case domestically and overcome their own public’s apathy to genocide in faraway places. I hope her fingerprints are the ones that are all over John Kerry’s statement on Monday.

Ms Power, may now, of course, be learning the hard truth that preaching from the comfort of opposition, academia or the media is not the same as sitting in the hot seat and coping with geopolitical reality. But it is also possible – if bitterly ironic given her past campaigning – that in the case of Syria, she believes the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (or R2P as the policy formalised as a UN norm in 2005 is called) cannot be applied without the risk of making things 10 times worse for Syrian civilians. Her tweet last week was not  “Bomb, bomb, bomb Assad” or anything like it. It was: “Hundreds dead in streets, including kids killed by chem weapons. UN must get there fast and if true, perps must face justice”.

The noble, if controversial, doctrine of R2P rests on the notion that national sovereignty ceases to matter when a nation has so overstepped the bounds of acceptable behaviour towards its own civilian population that outside intervention is justified.

The principle, essentially the same as that used to halt ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and bring Milosevic to justice, has been tarnished by Iraq, Afghanistan and most recently Libya, an intervention that Ms Power advocated. That makes UN agreement on any coherent response to such an enormous and complex crisis as Syria even more difficult than it already is.

The charge to war in Iraq in 2003 was led by those intent on safeguarding Western interests via regime change masquerading as moral anguish about protecting civilians from a dictator who might attack them.

But before we jump into one camp or the other on bombing a Syrian dictator who we believe has gassed his own people, we should be asking if we can stop the killing and save Syrian lives or whether our motivation is that we want to be able to look back and say, well, we did something.

The doctrine of responsibility to protect needs urgently to be rehabilitated. It is already too late for tens of thousands in Syria, but hope for other victims of blood-soaked atrocity endures as long as there are idealists whose consciences were shocked by the mass graves of Rwanda, Srebrenica and Darfur.

Twitter: @ButlerKatherine