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When To Use America’s Military To End Genocide: A Conversation with Nicholas Kristof

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Yesterday I interviewed the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof. The bulk of our conversation centered on when and how the United States ought to use force to end genocide, with specific discussions centering on Darfur, southern Sudan, Zimbabwe and Rwanda. We also discuss Haiti, international development generally and specifically, as well as self-selecting news flows to agree with our predispositions. The transcript is here. The podcast is here.

The conversation was interesting but also frustrating because even after decades spent traveling the world and reporting on a variety of horrors up to and including genocide, Kristof doesn’t have a set of guidelines for the use of American force when slaughter is raging. He agrees that Bill Clinton made a mistake in not intervening in Rwanda –“Absolutely”– but does not favor an intervention in Sudan over Darfur beyond a “no-fly zone” because “I do think that there is a risk that if we were to send American ground troops into Sudan, that that would rally the population behind the government that then President Bashir would say oh, those Americans, they are invading to steal our oil, and that there would be a nationalist backlash that would perhaps help the government.”

Kristof also supports sending anti-aircraft weapons to the people in southern Sudan now to deter a resumption of the bombing, and in response to my question about American advisors to help the rebels operate the systems, Kristof replied ” Absolutely,” and continued: “More training and more intelligence sharing with the south, and…but I think the single thing that would make the biggest difference would be this anti-aircraft capacity, and a strong warning to Sudan that if it does try to resume that war, then this is one that it is not going to win.”

But no large scale intervention with ground troops to topple the regime because “[i]t might lead the government to become more popular.”

Similarly, when I turned the conversation to the murderous Mugabe, Kristof was very reluctant to urge decisive action by the U.S. Rather, the Pulitzer Prize winner replied with a weary realism that reflects the American foreign policy elite’s refusal to believe in the capacity for America to effect rapid decisive regime change:

Again, it’s something that I just don’t think is ever going to happen, so I’m not sure that it’s worth…I mean, I think I’d rather we use our political capital debating things that we might actually do. But I mean, if you push me about whether we should, apart from the question of is it feasible, I guess I’m not quite at that level. But you know, you’re right, it is certainly horrific, and I think South Africa in particular has been disgraceful in the degree to which it has been unwilling to put pressure on Zimbabwe. But I just get a little nervous that when we talk about military interventions, then it just ends up, we end up being paralyzed and not doing anything at all.

The U.S. under Bush used two interventions to topple two regimes in rapid indeed amazing fashion. It proved far less competent in establishing successor governments, though in the past year in Iraq we have seen new tactics bring about extraordinary progress, and we are hoping for the same sort of turning in Afghanistan. Though the cost in American lives and treasure has been extraordinarily high, so too has the future of the people of both countries been immeasurably improved if freedom counts for anything, and of course it counts for a great deal.

As I pointed out to Kristof, President Obama has a unique opportunity to establish rules under which the U.S. will move decisively to end slaughter in countries where the U.S. does not need to worry about significant military opposition, such as Sudan and Zimbabwe. Because of the new president’s standing in the Third World and because of his party’s complete control of the Congress, he has it in his power to lay down the law for Bashir and Mugabe and bring their murderous regimes to an end, and by doing so to send a message to the rest of the continent that dictatorship has its limits, and widespread slaughter as in Zimbabwe and outright genocide as in Sudan will not be tolerated.

But President Obama will not move in that direction unless his core supporters in elite media support such a direction, encourage it and go so fa as to fashion the arguments for such steps. Thus Nicholas Kristof especially, but also key center-left opinion influencers such as E.J. Dione and Jonathan Alter have a lot of responsibility these days. If they want the killing to stop , they have to push the president who listens to them to stop it. Even as the “Neocons” who urged President Bush towards a vigorous application of the Bush Doctrine share in the responsibility for how it turns out, so will the left’s intellectuals share the responsibility for the new president’s actions –or inactions– around the globe.

“We simply do not have to put up with this,” writes Tod Lindberg in the current issue of Commentary Magazine. By “this” he means genocide. He continues:

By “we,” let me be clear. I do not mean “humanity,” although I would welcome the collective conclusion of mankind that genocide is unacceptable. I do not mean the “international community,” although a decision on the part of all national governments to refrain from engaging in mass atrocities at home or abroad would be most welcome, as would a collective intention to stop and punish leaders or would-be leaders seeking to deviate from the norm. What I really mean by “we” is “we who are strong enough to stop the murderous bastards before they can get away with it.”

This “we” is an inclusive group; everyone with a will and a way is welcome. But its purpose must go far beyond declaratory well-wishing. It is not a bad thing but a grossly insufficient thing to join in choruses of “never again,” the familiar refrain after something really bad has happened-say, 6 million dead Jews, 2 million dead Cambodians, or 800,000 dead Tutsis. No, we must act to stop the malefactors.

And by “we,” in the last analysis, I mean the United States.

For the next three-and-a-half-years, the United States means President Obama and the people who influence his decisions. The new president has already approved of the use of deadly force in the mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and at sea off the course of Somalia. His advisors and those who influence them and him should begin working out a larger framework for deploying the awesome might of the American military where tens of thousands of lives are at stake, none of them American.


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