WASHINGTON -- As the saying goes, some things are easier said than done. That is especially true here in the nation's capital, a company town upon which is constructed a spare-no-expense infrastructure predominantly organized to provide posh venues for articulating values, shifting paradigms, and ideating meditatively. The language of the D.C. conference circuit isn't just silly or annoying -- it often obscures and minimizes rather obvious iniquities and abuses of power.
But every now and again, a simple, important idea emerges from the Beltway's vague swamp of technocratic happy talk. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, uttered one of those minor breakthroughs in mid-November. And you will totally believe what happened next: Washington made a mockery of it.
Power appeared at the Center for American Progress' annual "Making Progress" policy conference at the Mayflower Hotel -- a venue that’s known among Mayflower Hotel marketers as "Washington’s Second Best Address" (after the White House itself) and among locals as the chic setting for the star players in various political sex scandals. CAP is D.C.’s pre-eminent Democratic Party think tank, its output representing the most up-to-the-minute convolution of salable liberal thought. As such, the conference featured a dozen or so marketable Democratic Party players, organized to create the illusion of harmony in an event featuring one of Wall Street’s best friends -- Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) -- on the same stage as one of Wall Street’s worst enemies -- Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Power closed out the first third of CAP’s festivities with a conversation about “America Around the World” with former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), now fully ensconced in the third act of his life as a celebrity lobbyist-but-not-really-wink-wink and sagacious Beltway-lifer from another era. Daschle led Power in a broad discussion about "what America's role in the world should be in this day and age" and the extent to which America can and should lead the rest of the world in the establishment of diplomatic norms and a baseline definition of human rights. But it didn’t take long for the talk to wend its way around to one of those "easier said than done" moments:
Senator Daschle: This conference, as you know, is about making progress, and that applies both domestically as well as in our international efforts in our agenda. We talk a lot at conferences like this about core progressive values. How would you say core progressive values align with American interests internationally today?
Ambassador Power: Well, I think probably people would define core progressive values in different ways. For me, it would start with regard for human dignity, the dignity of work, the dignity of a fair wage, the dignity to be treated with respect by your neighbors or respect for your own preferences in the way you live your life. And I think President Obama has really urged us to inject concern for human dignity in our policymaking, whether that’s being hugely generous in the face of ethnic violence in South Sudan or in the face of the horrible displacement out of Syria or wanting to close Guantanamo, recognizing again that that is -- remains even -- a recruitment tool and something that terrorist movements use as a way of mobilizing their base and so forth.
But I think dignity is one piece of it. And then I think not only looking to make sure that you have domestic legal authority, but also being very conscientious and very dedicated to international norms and international law, while of course always pursuing U.S. interests. So I think that those: dignity and recognizing that we live in a broad, we live on a planet where our interests also depend on having other people play by the rules, so we are stronger when we lead ourselves by playing by the rules of the road.
Power isn't just spouting buzzwords here. She’s presenting an actual set of principles to guide both war and humanitarian relief. And it's essentially Not Being A Neocon For Dummies. Plenty of international relations theories can work within Powers' framework, but the basic idea is simple: Peace doesn't come from the willingness of a superpower to police the entire world by exercising overwhelming force against its enemies. The use of American force requires some kind of international moral legitimacy, a cause furthered by international norms and institutions.
This is a politically useful principle, because it doesn't restrain the United States from engaging in very many activities (including advancing American interests) so long as they involve international cooperation. It's also a not-so-subtle reminder of the failures of the Bush-Cheney approach to foreign policy.
It’s unfortunate then that at the time of Power’s discussion there was an even more overt reminder of those failures looming -- the upcoming release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture. While that report won’t be getting down into the prosecutorial weeds of actually holding individuals responsible for the torture regime that troubled the world during the Bush administration -- we’re well past the point where anyone’s willing to do anything other than “look forward” -- the report is supposed to serve a purpose: to press the reset button on America’s “regard for human dignity.”
Funny thing, though! The CAP conference was held on Wednesday last week. That same day, the White House was working to block efforts by Senate Democrats to release that report on the "enhanced interrogation" programs initiated during the Bush years. By Thursday, negotiations over the report had broken down into chaos. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) openly accused Obama officials of negotiating in bad faith:
“It’s being slow-walked to death. They’re doing everything they can not to release it," Rockefeller told HuffPost last week.
"It makes a lot of people who did really bad things look really bad, which is the only way not to repeat those mistakes in the future," he said. "The public has to know about it. They don’t want the public to know about it."
The torture report that Senate Democrats are trying to release isn't even the full report. It's a redacted 500-page executive summary of a study totaling over 6,000 pages. And the executive summary will not on its own hold anyone accountable for the actions that took place. It won't even name any names. The Obama administration, in fact, is objecting even to using pseudonyms to refer to lower-level individuals involved in the torture programs. Nobody is going to The Hague over this stuff. They aren't even having their name read out loud.
"Human dignity," "international norms" and "international law" can mean a lot of things. But one thing they surely cannot mean is exactly what the Obama administration appears to be doing: covering up for torturers.
The United Nations seems to agree. Earlier in November, members of the U.N. Committee Against Torture excoriated the Obama administration for failing to punish anyone over the torture programs, with at least one member accusing the U.S. Department of Justice of whitewashing abuses.
Amid all of that, it's hard to see Power's veneration of human dignity and the importance of international norms -- whatever her own personal intentions may be -- as anything but another coat of idea-babble prettying up a war machine that can't find its moral compass.