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What might an actual humanitarian foreign policy look like?

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Saturday’s NYT op-eds make a interesting pairing. First, we have the always insightful and never insufferable David Brooks. His whinefest today is about how Kerry seems to be embracing what is traditionally understood as a realist approach to foreign policy, which is bad, because if the president is a realist, he won’t do things that make David Brooks feel all warm and fuzzy inside, like invade Iraq. Now, we all know that the humanitarian/human rights justification for the war is, well, problematic, but let’s play along and take it seriously.

Now we turn to Nick Kristof. From the frontlines, naturally, we learn some gruesome details of life in Darfur–the ongoing Sudanese genocide. I should say that while Kristof has a nasty habit of writing about human tragedy in a self-aggrandizing way, I’m still glad to see someone keeping on this story and not sugar-coating it. The Bush administration is honoring the 10th anniversery of the Rwanda genocide byrefusing, as Clinton did 10 years ago, to call this a genocide.

So, side by side, we’ve got an attack on realism, for its cold and calculating approach to the world, and we’ve got the worst humanitarian crisis in years going on under the nose of the great humanitarian president, who can’t be bothered with it, because he used up all his humanitarian energy in Iraq.

Perhaps, realism isn’t as ugly as Brooks makes it out to be. Or more accurately, perhaps what we need to do is tinge our humanitarianism (again, bear with me, I’ve stipulated this as a reason for the Iraq war) with a bit more realism. Genocides like Rwanda in 1994 and the Sudan today cause an immense amount of harm and suffering in a very short period of time, and they are relatively easy to prevent. A part of the calculation that necessarily goes into state-sponsored genocide (as Rwanda clearly was, and Sudan certainly appears to be) is that no one is looking, no one is paying attention, and no one will try to stop them. People whose mission is to murder and drive away civilians often back down quickly when confronted with military opposition; they weren’t looking for a real fight, and often aren’t prepared for one. If we want to acheive humanitarian and human rights ends as one of the goals of our foreign policy, and I think we can and should and indeed must do this, we have to be smart about it. If we accept that advancing human rights is a real policy goal in the interests of the United States, then perhaps a version of realism, not necessarily in the most narrow and traditional sense, can help us sort out what to do about it. Prioritizing preventing actual genocides currently happening might be a good place to start.

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