Rights as Victim of Politics
Books of the Times: 'Freedom on Fire'
December 30, 2003
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
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
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
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