U.S. Ambassador (and Stanford alumna) Susan E. Rice gave an amazing commencement address at my graduation. The speech was given on June 13th, 2010 at Stanford University’s 119th Commencement for the graduating class of 2010. Her idealistic message and encouragement for Stanford graduates to be agents of change really resonated with me. Hence why I am posting it on my blog.
The text of her speech is posted on the U.S. State Department’s website. Click here to view it. Despite her eloquent speech, I have some misgivings about her political record on key issues. I outline my views below.
There are three areas of Susan Rice’s political record that I’d like to comment on. The first is her belief in “humanitarian intervention”, the use of military force to curb human rights abuses, crimes against humanity and genocide. Second, is Rice’s opposition to the war in Iraq. And third is her stance on the Goldstone report, which condemned both Hamas and the Israeli military for war crimes committed during Israel’s 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza.
Susan Rice has openly stated her support for humanitarian intervention in Sudan. In a 2007 paper she wrote for the Brookings Institution, a highly-influential establishment think-tank, Susan Rice argues that “Congress should authorize the use of force in order to end the genocide” in Darfur. International law strictly constrains the use of force in international affairs. The United Nations Charter explicitly states, in Article 2(4), that “all Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” Under international law, states are only allowed to use force in cases of self-defense (Article 51 of UN Charter) or when authorized by the United Nations Security Council (Chapters V, VI, VII, and VIII of the UN Charter). Responding to critics who argue that “without the consent of the UN or a relevant regional body, any military action would violate international law”, Susan Rice states that
“the Security Council in 2006 codified a new international norm prescribing ‘the responsibility to protect.’ It commits UN members to decisive action, including enforcement, when peaceful measures fail to halt genocide or crimes against humanity.”
Here, she is referring to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1674, which, in paragraph 4, says:
“Reaffirms the provisions of paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document regarding the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”
The paragraphs the resolution refers to say:
“138. Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means. We accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it. The international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability.
139. The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. We stress the need for the General Assembly to continue consideration of the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and its implications, bearing in mind the principles of the Charter and international law. We also intend to commit ourselves, as necessary and appropriate, to helping States build capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to assisting those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out.”
Susan Rice is right to point out that the UN resolution affirms the norm of responsibility to protect. However, the fundamental principles of international law still apply. States can only use force in cases of self-defense or by a UN Security Council authorization. While further steps have been taken to implement the responsibility to protect, such as a debate in the UN General Assembly and a resolution taking note of the debate, there has been no fundamental change in international law. Rice leaves out this key point. She essentially assumes that the United States can legally utilize force whenever it deems necessary under the auspice of “responsibility to protect”. However, this is not the case as the basic tenets of international law still apply.
What is troubling about the notion of humanitarian intervention is that throughout history, belligerent nations have used humanitarian rhetoric to justify their aggression. Great Britain did this several times throughout history. So did France, Russia, and the United States. States will highlight their own moral character and denigrate the character of the state they wish to invade. For example, to justify invading Iraq, the United States portrayed itself as a noble nation that wants peace in the world and fights for freedom and democracy. This fits in line with idea of “American exceptionalism”, which holds that the United States is a special and noble country. Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, was cast as evil, supporting of terrorism, a threat to democracy and a threat to American and international security. Therefore, invading Iraq was seen as necessary not only to maintain security but it was also seen as humane, noble and for freedom. This is very similar to the “white man’s burden”, a poem by Rudyard Kipling that characterized imperialism as a noble venture. States do not like to mention their own crimes or shortcomings since doing so would undermine the ideological buttress of their geopolitical aims. If a shortcoming is mentioned, it’s discursively presented as a “mistake” made with good intentions, never as a crime (even if, in fact, was). An example of this would be the American war in Vietnam.
I should state that I do believe genocide must be prevented. Genocide is a barbaric practice that inflicts far too much human suffering to be ignored by the international community. However, I do believe there are other ways to halt genocide that do not necessitate the use of force, such as peacekeeping, diplomacy, mediation and instituting measures to prevent genocide from occurring in the first place. The use of force in situations of genocide carries the risk of perpetuating more violence. While I do not have all the answers to address the problem of genocide, any solution should respect the fundamental principles of peace, justice and international law. The problem I have with Rice and others who advocate “humanitarian intervention” is that this doctrine is a “humanitarian” justification for imperialism and violations of international law.
Fortunately, Susan Rice opposed the war in Iraq from the very beginning. However, her reasoning was limited. After then-Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered his awful presentation at the United Nations Security Council making the case that Saddam possessed WMDs, Susan Rice said in an NPR interview:
“Well, I think he [Powell] has proved that Iraq has these weapons and is hiding them, and I don’t think many informed people doubted that. But whether he’s made the case for war, I think, is more complicated. He certainly made the case that if the United Nations fails to act, then they will have essentially set aside their own resolutions and begun to make themselves irrelevant. But I think the problem is that many American people are not convinced that going to war against Iraq will actually make us in the United States safer. I think they fear reprisals and attacks. I think they think that our homeland is not yet secure and that with developments in the Middle East and al-Qaeda still very much on the loose, there are many, I think, who fear that going to war against Iraq may, in fact, in the short term, make us less secure, rather than more secure.”
There are two problems here. First, in the first sentence, Rice touts the lie that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. That argument was false then and is now false now. She claims that “many informed people” doubted this. Yes, many people did believe that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction — but not everyone. Scott Ritter, a former United Nations weapons inspector, opposed the war from the very beginning and pointed out that the Bush administration’s justifications (Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and connections to al-Qaeda) were not true. He spells out his views in a 2002 interview with Scott Ritter, which was published in the book War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn’t Want You To Know. There were also journalists who did not take the Bush administration’s claims at face values. Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay of Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau and Charles J. Hanley of the Associated Press published reports that questioned the Bush administration’s official justifications for invading Iraq. However, their reports, and Scott Ritter’s views, were largely ignored by the mainstream media. In addition, on February 15, 2003, one month before the invasion, millions of people in over 60 countries around the world protested the imminent war in Iraq (read the Wikipedia entry for more information). I, too, opposed the war in Iraq, from the very beginning, and was always skeptical of the Bush administration’s claims. Therefore, not everyone believed the White House’s arguments for invading Iraq (arguments that we now know are unfounded). The only “informed people” Rice was talking about were those obedient enough to believe the government’s claims without question.
The second problem here is that Rice does not address the fundamental illegality and immorality of the U.S. invasion. Her reasoning for opposing the war is that it will make the U.S. less secure. Protecting national security is obviously a very important issue. However, a country can engage in an action that violates international law and results in massive human suffering (even war crimes and crimes against humanity) but claim that it was doing so protect its national security. The Israeli government does this repeatedly (which I will soon address). The real reason why the war in Iraq was wrong is because it was an illegal use of force. Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction and had no substantial connection to al-Qaeda and posed no threat to American national security. This undermines the United States’ claim to self-defense. In addition, the United Nations Security Council did not authorize the United States to invade Iraq. These claims were part of a well-organized propaganda campaign that manipulated public opinion into supporting a war that the Bush administration planned, prepared and initiated. Therefore, the American invasion of Iraq was an illegal use of force, in other words, a war of aggression. After the deaths of over 4,000 American men and women, over a million Iraqi deaths and the exodus of around four million people from Iraq, the people of Iraq and American families continue to suffer as a result of this war. Opposing the war in Iraq on legal and moral grounds is a much more principled stance than narrow national security calculations.
Susan Rice also took a very disturbing stance on the Goldstone report. Before discussing her views, it is important to understand the complexity of the situation. Between December 27, 2008 and January 18, 2009, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, which was an aggressive attack on Gaza that resulted in the deaths of over 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis (some of whom died by friendly fire). This attack was nothing more than a massacre. Supporters of Israel’s invasion of Gaza, such as the pro-torture, pro-Israel commissar Alan Dershowitz, claim that the invasion was necessary for Israel to protect itself from Hamas’ rocket attacks against its civilians.This claim is not entirely illegitimate. Hamas’ paramilitary wing has historically launched rocket attacks against Israeli civilians. While the crude Qassam rockets do little damage, these attack instill fear in the Israeli populace. However, in June of 2008, Egypt brokered a six-month ceasefire with militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Despite the ceasefire, Israel maintained its crippling blockade on Gaza, which Hamas claimed was a violation of the ceasefire. Documenting the humanitarian crisis in Gaza as a result of Israel’s blockade, Human Rights Watch pointed out:
“Gaza’s civilians are facing dire shortages of food, water, cooking gas, fuel and medical care due to insecurity, the enforced closure of all of Gaza’s borders, and alleged serious violations of international humanitarian law. Electricity is sharply down, and in some places open sewage is spilling into the streets. Children, who make up 56 percent of Gaza’s residents, are especially vulnerable.
Humanitarian law provides that Israel as an occupying power must ensure the safety and well-being of the civilian population. The blockade is a form of collective punishment in violation of international law. Prior to the current military operation, about 80 percent of the Gaza Strip’s population – 1.2 million people – relied on food aid, a significant proportion was malnourished, and more than half was food-insecure, or living on less than 2.6 US dollars per day. But security concerns caused by the current fighting have severely hampered UN agencies’ food distribution operations.”
However, the Israeli government “repeatedly denied that a humanitarian crisis exists.” Before I move on, it is important to point out that the blockade against Gaza is not a security measure. Rather, it is a form of “economic warfare” against the people of Gaza for voting Hamas into power in 2006. As an Israeli government document, obtained by McClatchy Newspaper, points out, “A country has the right to decide that it chooses not to engage in economic relations or to give economic assistance to the other party to the conflict, or that it wishes to operate using ‘economic warfare'”. This means Israel believes it has the right to impose harsh economic sanctions against the people of Gaza in retaliation for voting in a political party (Hamas) that Israel does not like — even though the majority of Gazans are not engaged in rocket attacks against Israeli civilians. Even American politicians, such as U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, hold this disgusting view. This fits the definition of “collective punishment”, a war crime under international law (see Art. 33 of Geneva Convention VI).
Even though Hamas agreed to a ceasefire and Israel’s harsh and illegal blockage against Gaza continued, this did not deter Israel’s aggressive behavior. On November 4, 2008 (the same day Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election), Israel secretly raided Gaza and killed six Hamas fighters. This was an egregious violation of the ceasefire by Israel. As a result, Hamas resumed rocket attacks Israel. In late-December of 2008, Israel invaded Gaza (for a good historical background on the Gaza conflict, I recommend reading Avi Shlaim’s article in the Guardian).
In September of 2009, United Nations fact-finding mission, led by Justice Richard Goldstone, was launched to investigate violations of international law that took place during the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict. The final report, referred to as the Goldstone Report (.pdf file available here), accused both the Israeli government and Hamas of serious violations of international humanitarian law and demanded that violators be brought to justice. The Goldstone Report is far from a radical statement against the Israeli government — it is a meticulous, 574-page-long report based on principles of international law. Hamas violated international law by firing rockets at Israeli civilians. The Israeli military engaged in indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks against Palestinian civilians. These are facts that the Goldstone report points out. The best way to ensure to uphold justice is to hold violators of international law accountable for their crimes.
After listening to Ambassador Susan Rice’s idealistic and eloquent speech, one would think that she would endorse the basic tenets of the Goldstone report. This is far from reality. When asked to comment on the Goldstone report in a United Nations Security Council session, Susan Rice said:
“I’ll speak in national capacity [as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations]. The United States is reviewing very carefully what is a very lengthy document. We have long expressed our very serious concern with the mandate that was given by the Human Rights Council prior to our joining the Council, which we viewed as unbalanced, one sided and basically unacceptable. We have very serious concerns about many of the recommendations in the report. We will expect and believe that the appropriate venue for this report to be considered is the Human Rights Council and that is our strong view. And most importantly our view is that we need to be focused on the future. This is a time to work to cement progress towards the resumptions of negotiations and their early and successful conclusion and our efforts, and we hope the efforts of others, will be directed to that end.”
A month later, according to Haaretz, Susan Rice promised Israel that “the United States will continue to stand by Israel as a loyal friend in the fight against the Goldstone report.” She also called for an end to the “anti-Israel vitriol” at the United Nations. At a conference in Jerusalem, Rice said, “Member states must once and for all replace anti-Israeli vitriol with recognition of Israel’s legitimacy and right to exist in peace and security”. While Rice did not directly mention the Goldstone report, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu thanked Rice for the Obama administration’s “vigorous opposition” to the report and its ongoing support for Israel — despite Israel’s egregious crimes. Rather than upholding basic principles of international law, Susan Rice tows the official U.S. line on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
To be fair, however, as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, it is essentially Susan Rice’s job to convey the United States’ official position on international issues rather than her own. So it is quite possible that Susan Rice, the individual, may hold different views than Susan Rice, the American Ambassador to the United Nations. However, I highly doubt that anyone who takes international law and human rights seriously, recognizes the illegality and immorality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, opposes Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people and believes that justice for both Israelis and Palestinian should be upheld would refuse to be the ambassador for the United States, a country that annually provides Israel $3 billion in aid, most of which is military. So I think it is fair to say that Susan Rice supports the fundamental tenets of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Despite my misgivings about Susan Rice’s political record, I appreciated the idealistic message in her commencement address. Like her, I believe that “if you want change, you have to make it.” She is also right to point out that:
“Technology and trade helped transform a bipolar world into the deeply interconnected global community of the 21st century. Yet the planet is still divided by fundamental inequalities. Some of us live in peace, freedom, and comfort while billions are condemned to conflict, poverty, and repression. These massive disparities erode our common security and corrode our common humanity.”
To address the challenges our world forces, such as war, poverty, and environmental degradation, it is important that today’s generation become, as Rice says, “agents of change”. We must “be driven by a passion to lift up the most vulnerable and to serve those with the least, both at home and around the world.” But there is something that Susan Rice does not mention. In order to tackle the world’s injustices, it is also important that today’s generation challenge power structures that continue to perpetuate them.