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Human Rights as Victim of Politics

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
December 30, 2003
The New York Times

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Human Rights Wars and America's Response
By John Shattuck.
Harvard University Press.
390 pages; $29.95.

Most memoirs of government service are written by senior cabinet members or White House aides, and their theme, implicit or explicit, is: Look how powerful I was. The Clinton administration has produced a slew of books along those lines, by the likes of George Stephanopoulos, Sidney Blumenthal, Madeleine Albright and Robert Rubin. John Shattuck, who served from 1993 to 1998 as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, has produced a different sort of memoir. Its theme is: Look how powerless I was.

Mr. Shattuck, a former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, vice chairman of Amnesty International and vice president of Harvard, joined the State Department determined to elevate human rights to the top of the foreign policy agenda. He had every reason to expect that he would be successful, for as a candidate in 1992, Bill Clinton criticized the first Bush administration's policies from Bosnia to China as amoral. But Mr. Shattuck was disillusioned when he realized that there was no consensus within the new administration over the priority to be given to combating repression.

Only strong direction from the top could have broken through bureaucratic logjams, but President Clinton was seldom willing to provide that push. The president was more focused on economic concerns, and after the Somalia debacle in 1993 he was leery of putting soldiers into harm's way. Mr. Shattuck traces the results of that caution in four crises he participated in - Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia and China - all of which he labels, confusingly, as "human-rights wars," a term he never defines and never distinguishes from plain old ordinary wars.

Mr. Shattuck tried to interest Washington in stopping the killing of some 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994. But he had trouble getting the administration even to admit that "genocide" was occurring. He and other human-rights activists had more luck getting the United States involved in Haiti because it was closer to home and there was a domestic political constituency (mainly the Congressional Black Caucus) for reinstating Haiti's ousted president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But although United States troops occupied Haiti in 1995, Mr. Clinton was so eager for an "exit strategy" that, in Mr. Shattuck's words, the country quickly "slid back toward its long tradition of political corruption and government repression."

The United States undertook a longer involvement in Bosnia, and Mr. Shattuck deserves some credit for helping to bring it about. At real risk to himself, he journeyed to Bosnia in 1995 to interview Muslim victims of Serbian "ethnic cleansing." He was one of the first to report on the massacre at Srebrenica, which finally galvanized an apathetic United States government into imposing a peace settlement after four years of fighting that left more than 200,000 dead. But after the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, Mr. Shattuck and his allies found themselves frustrated by the United States military's reluctance to arrest suspected war criminals in Bosnia. Naturally President Clinton refused to order the Pentagon to take action.

Still, Bosnia was a real triumph for Mr. Shattuck compared with the administration's treatment of China. Mr. Clinton came into office determined to hold the Communist government accountable for its actions at Tiananmen Square. In 1993 he conditioned renewal of most favored nation trade status on human-rights improvements in China. But even though Beijing made no appreciable progress, Mr. Clinton, under heavy pressure from the business community, renewed the status anyway in 1994.

Does all this sound a bit familiar? It should. In recent years the story of the Clinton administration's foreign policy struggles has been chronicled in books like David Halberstam's "War in a Time of Peace" and Samantha Power's "A Problem From Hell." Mr. Shattuck's memoir does not add much if anything to these more compelling and more objective accounts.

His main contribution is to describe his personal anguish in losing one policy battle after another. "I thought seriously about resigning," he writes. But he "chose to stay" because "I felt I could do more to advance the cause of human rights by continuing the battle to shape policies inside an administration."

Despite a suspicion that less high-minded motives might have played a role in his decision (he subsequently became ambassador to Prague), a reader is nevertheless left admiring Mr. Shattuck's willingness to fight for his ideals. Unfortunately a single sentence near the end of "Freedom on Fire" raises serious questions about his intellectual consistency.

Mr. Shattuck writes that four criteria should be used to assess the outlook for United States intervention in a human-rights crisis: whether crimes against humanity are being committed; whether the conflict is causing regional instability; whether intervention is likely to set off a broader conflict; and whether the intervention will use the minimum means necessary to achieve its objectives. By those standards, toppling Saddam Hussein, who murdered more people than Slobodan Milosevic, would seem to be a moral imperative.

Yet Mr. Shattuck writes, "The U.S.-British military operation to change the regime in Iraq in the spring of 2003 did not meet these criteria." Why not? Mainly because it was "unilateral" and lacked the United Nations' blessing. But the occupation of Iraq actually has more legal basis than Mr. Clinton's Kosovo intervention (which also lacked United Nations support), and it has more non-American troop participation than the occupation of Haiti.

It is hard to see how anyone who claims to be a "human rights hawk" could oppose bringing Mr. Hussein to justice. One is left to wonder whether the author, now chief executive of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston, applies a different set of standards to judge military operations initiated by Republican presidents.


Max Boot is Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."