Commentary Magazine


On International Outrage

A troubling quote from Barack Obama comes to light in Michael Sherer’s new piece in Time:

At a press conference on Friday, the President was asked how he resolves the theoretical conflict between respecting state sovereignty and intervening in defense of the universal rights of oppressed people. “The threshold at which international intervention is appropriate I think has to be very high,” Obama said. “There has to be strong international outrage at what’s taking place. It’s not always going to be a neat decision.”

With that threshold it’s always going to be no decision. The people of Darfur have been waiting on strong international outrage to show up for over six years — that is, the people who are left. Bill Clinton waited on international outrage to guide him in Rwanda. That was almost a million lives ago. Had he waited for it in the Balkans, it would have meant millions more. Most state-sponsored acts of oppression and brutality pass John Kerry’s exalted “global test” with flying colors; it’s American-led liberation that sparks fury.

Ceding moral authority to the global community ensures moral laxity. This is how abominations make their way into history, again and again. When you substitute consensus for principle, you end up forfeiting your own sovereignty and facilitating the immorality of others at the same time. During periods of perceived American safety, people call this pragmatism and multilateralism. After it leads to the loss of American lives, people call it cowardly and decadent. We are currently thought to be safe. If Obama thinks decisions about intervention are less than neat now, he should try to imagine what it’s like when threats to the U.S. materialize.