Selling War as ‘Smart Power’

The latest selling point for American warfare is “smart power” humanitarianism, dispatching the U.S. military to eliminate foreign leaders designated by pundits as evildoers taking lives and resisting freedom. Ex-FBI agent Coleen Rowley warns against this latest con.

By Coleen Rowley

In recent years, it has become evident that use of deadly force by a U.S.-dominated NATO is not only outside the parameters of international and constitutional law, but also in some cases outside basic legal principles that have stood the test of time for decades and even centuries. One explanation for why American civil society has not pushed back is the “better rhetoric” now being used to sell war.

What is this better rhetoric for the same U.S.-NATO war agenda, what was once blurted out by a U.S. officer in Vietnam as “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it”? Today’s proponents of “Smart Power” make their compelling case for more (endless) war by successfully urging us to “recast the fight against terror and nuclear proliferation from a dark, draining struggle into a hopeful, progressive causeaimed at securing an international system of liberal societies and defeating challenges to it.”

Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International-USA

This message comes from seemingly reasonable men and women as they rotate through the revolving doors of official appointments, jobs at foreign-policy think tanks, and directorships of “human rights” organizations.

David Swanson, author of War Is a Lie, speaking at the 10th annual Peacestock gathering, sponsored by Veterans for Peace in Hager City, Wisconsin, this summer, commented on this new “progressive-led” war propaganda: “That wars must be marketed as humanitarian is a sign of progress. That we fall for it is a sign of embarrassing weakness. The war propagandist is the world’s second oldest profession, and the humanitarian lie is not entirely new. But it works in concert with other common war lies.”

Lies about war, in humanitarian disguise, were clearly evident in Chicago last March. Peace activist Ann Wright (a former Foreign Service State Department official and retired U.S. Army colonel); Ann Galloway, a member of Women Against Military Madness, and myself were among the thousands of antiwar activists who were in Chicago for the protest of NATO wars. There we noticed, in billboards and announcements, the new campaign of Amnesty International-USA: “Human Rights for Women and Girls in AfghanistanNATO: Keep the Progress Going.”

Unwilling to let this go unchallenged, we packed into a taxi along with a few other antiwar activists, to head to the Chicago hotel where AI-USA’s “Shadow Summit” was being held, a conference billed as a feminist cause regarding the supposed improved status of women and children under US-NATO occupation. The summit featured former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and other U.S. State Department officials and Council on Foreign Relations figures.

We weren’t allowed to carry in our “NATO bombs are not humanitarian,” “NATO Kills Girls,” and anti-drone bombing posters that we had with us for the protest march later that day, but we did witness enough of the event to prompt Ann Wright and me to issue a warning about the exploitation of women’s rights as a cover for war: “Amnesty’s Shilling for US Wars.”

The United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) later issued a Statement on NATO Claim of “Progress” for Women and Girls in Afghanistan, as well as a Statement Condemning Amnesty International USA’s Campaigns in Support of U.S./NATO Wars. UNAC condemned Amnesty’s pro-war stance and propaganda efforts supporting continued occupation in Afghanistan and intervention in Syria, and asked for Amnesty to reaffirm its commitment to human rights, not war, and remove those responsible for their current pro-war policies and campaigns.

A “Tool” of U.S. “Smart Power

Suzanne Nossel, the current executive director of Amnesty-USA, previously worked at different times as a State Department official for Richard Holbrooke and Hillary Clinton and is personally credited with having coined the term “Smart Power,” which Clinton announced as the defining feature of current U.S. foreign policy. “Smart” indeed, certainly better-sounding, to project a contrast with the formerly unabashed Bush-Cheney reliance on “Hard Power.”

“Smart power” employs “Soft Power:” diplomatic, economic, and cultural pressures, which can be combined with military force, to “work our will” upon foreign nations, as described by Nossel:

“To advance from a nuanced dissent to a compelling vision, progressive policymakers should turn to the great mainstay of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy: liberal internationalism, which posits that a global system of stable liberal democracies would be less prone to war

“Washington, the theory goes, should thus offer assertive leadership, diplomatic, economic, and not least, military [writer’s emphasis], to advance a broad array of goals: self-determination, human rights, free trade, the rule of law, economic development, and the quarantine and elimination of dictators and weapons of mass destruction (WMD).”

Even more relevant to the issue of human rights and peace and justice organizations being co-opted, however, Nossel also described Smart Power, in Foreign Affairs magazine, March/April 2004, as “knowing that the United States’ own hand is not always its best tool: U.S. interests are furthered by enlisting others on behalf of U.S. goals.”

The question that emerges is, how could otherwise highly effective human rights organizations, respected for their good work largely because of their independence from powerful, self-interested governments, so easily fall into being used as tools of what Nossel once referred to as U.S. “Superpowerdom”? When Amnesty-USA invited Madeleine Albright and other State Department officials to speak at its NATO women’s forum, it was not the first time it had reached out to the architect of harsh economic sanctions, such as the Clinton administration’s sanctions against Iraq that were blamed for killing a half million Iraqi children.

Shortly after becoming executive director of AI-USA in January 2012, Suzanne Nossel moderated a panel at Wellesley College, during which she goaded fellow panelist Madeleine Albright to favor even more U.S. intervention:

“Now as the head of Amnesty International-USA, one point of great frustration and consternation for human rights organizations and civil society organizations over the last eight or nine months has been the failure of the UN Security Council to address, in any way, the deaths of now five thousand civilians in Syria at the hands of President Assad and his military.

“Last spring the Security Council managed to forge a majority for forceful action in Libya and it was initially very controversial, [causing] many misgivings among key Security Council members. But Gaddafi fell, there’s been a transition there and I think one would have thought those misgivings would have died down. And yet we’ve seen just a continued impasse over Syria and a real, almost return to cold war days and paralysis in the Security Council.

“How do you explain that and what do you think is the missing ingredient to break that logjam and get the Security Council to live up to its responsibilities on Syria?”

Even the savvy Madeleine Albright seemed genuinely taken aback by the Amnesty director’s push for a US-NATO Libya-like intervention in Syria. Albright and the other speaker responded skeptically as to what could be achieved through bombing or military force. What shouldn’t have been surprising, however, was Nossel’s minimalizing the thousands of NATO bombing sorties on Libya by calling them a “forceful action,” and her urging a potential UN Security Council authorization to do the same to Syria, referring to this as “living up to its responsibilities.”

She was already on record, in her prior think tank capacity, lamenting that failure in Iraq might mean Americans would lose their “willingness to use military force [writer’s emphasis], Iraq as a failed state is likely to herald an era of deep reservations among the U.S. public regarding the use of force, a kind of post-Vietnam, post-Mogadishu hangover.”

Little Skepticism

Sadly, Amnesty is far from being the only human rights or peace and justice organization being misled in varying degrees by the U.S. State Department’s newly minted “Responsibility to Protect (R2P)” doctrine, otherwise known as “humanitarian intervention”, and its newly created “Atrocity Prevention Board,” chaired by Samantha Power, one of the main architects of U.S.-NATO’s bombing of Libya.

Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights, the Peace Alliance, Citizens for Global Solutions, Think Progress, and AVAAZ are just some of the groups that seem to have swallowed that particular Kool-Aid.

This is not entirely new, as neo-con war hawks years ago co-opted the various big “liberal” think tanks: Brookings; the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Carnegie Endowment for Peace; etc. NATO war hawks also hijacked the Nobel Peace Prize decades ago.8

Jean Bricmont noted in his book, Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War: “Since the end of the Cold War, the idea of human rights has been made into a justification for intervention by the world’s leading economic and military powers, above all, the United States, in countries that are vulnerable to their attacks. The criteria for such intervention have become more arbitrary and self-serving, and their form more destructive, from Yugoslavia to Afghanistan to Iraq.

“Until the U.S. invasion of Iraq, [a] large part of the left was often complicit in this ideology of intervention,discovering new ‘Hitlers’ as the need arose, and denouncing antiwar arguments as appeasement on the model of Munich in 1938.” 9

In connection with his “groundbreaking critique of the troubling symbiosis between Washington and the human rights movement”: Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights author James Peck stated: “The war in Libya today, and calls for intervening in Syria tomorrow, epitomize a tragic development in the human rights and humanitarian ethos: War and various other kinds of overt and covert intervention are being re-legitimized through Washington’s human rights rhetoric.

“Libya tells us everything we should not be seeking to do in Syria and why humanitarian war is a monstrous illusion. The widespread support in the human rights community for all kinds of interference from ‘democratization,’ to ‘nation-building’ to promoting the ‘rule of law’ now risks blending into rationales for war itself.

“This is suggestive of nothing so much as a profound failure of the human rights community to expose how and why the U.S. government has fashioned human rights for over four decades into a potent ideological weapon for purposes having little to do with the rights of others, and everything to do with furthering Washington’s strategic objectives and global reach.”

Veering (or Steering) to War

Jus ad bellum (the right to go to war) is concerned with Just War theory, the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Treaty (outlawing war), the Nuremberg Principles (crimes against peace), and even, to some extent, the “Powell Doctrine” (evaluating reasons to go to war), but its main proposition has been forgotten or ignored, especially since 9/11.

Many Americans appear to have forgotten that, at a bare minimum, wars of aggression are the supreme crime because they give rise to blatant violations of the Geneva Convention and other international jus in bello crimes (committed while conducting war) such as spawning further wars, ethnic genocide, torture, human rights abuses, killing of prisoners, and targeting civilian populations.

U.S. violations of both types of international law of war, as well as violations of its own Constitution have, paradoxically, served to further erode whatever legitimate, pre-existing “Soft Power” it once possessed. America’s “moral authority,” its legitimate ability to educate, its leadership by example in pushing other countries to adhere to international law was quickly sacrificed by the deceitful means it used to launch the bombing of Iraq and Libya, as well as its institutionalizing an endless, ever-expansive “global war on terrorism.”

If war is a lie generally, if institutional wars have historically been instigated, ratcheted up, waged, and later falsely ennobled through pretext and propaganda, if “Smart Power,” “Responsibility to Protect” and “humanitarian intervention” serve as little but better rhetoric and therefore an effective guise to sell military force to American citizens as a “last resort,” after having checked off diplomatic efforts (set up to fail) and harsh economic sanctions that starve civilians and kill children, doesn’t it make sense for human rights and peace and justice groups to renounce instead of embrace attempts of powerful governments to use them as “tools” of such policies?

What would truly be smart and could reduce atrocities in the world would be for “nongovernmental” groups and organizations professing human rights and peace as their cause to regain their independence by disentangling themselves from U.S.-NATO governments’ national interest agendas and reliance on military force. Once that’s accomplished, it might be easier for civil society to reverse direction away from the use of war and might-makes-right to what is actually smarter: the power of ethical and legal norms.

Coleen Rowley is a retired FBI agent and former chief division counsel in Minneapolis. She’s now a dedicated peace and justice activist and board member of the Women Against Military Madness. An earlier version of this article appeared in the August/September WAMM’s newsletter.)


For more about Suzanne Nossel: Her other significant concerns were U.S. military morale; and that America’s image as a “superpower” would be tarnished: “The combined impact of Iraq’s emergence as a failed state on America’s image, military, credibility influence in the Middle East, and on our battles against terrorism and WMD will be profound. In both bilateral and multilateral relations, most countries’ dealings with the U.S. are predicated on the idea that we are capable of accomplishing whatever we set out to do. That notion is so well understood that we rarely have to prove it.

The prevalence of this belief has made it immeasurably easier to rally others behind our causes, thwart opposition and work our will. While failure in Iraq won’t change that overnight, it will open a question about what superpowerdom means in an era of terrorism and insurgency.” “Top 10 List: Consequences of Iraq Becoming a Failed State” by Suzanne Nossel

Joe Emersberger in “Debating Amnesty About Syria and Double Standards” notes in his recent correspondence with Amnesty-USA: “Before being hired by Amnesty, Nossel supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq and even three years after the illegal invasion of Iraq led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, advised the U.S. government that the ‘military option cannot be off the table’ in dealing with another ‘menacing state’namely Iran.”

Philip Weiss writes: “Former State Department official Suzanne Nossel triangulates Hillary, Madeleine, Samantha, Susan Rice, and the Atrocity Prevention Board. See her 2007 blog on negotiations with Iran as a tactical necessity (the Dennis Ross view)i.e., we must go through the motions because we have to prove them futile before we do what needs to be done. It is strange and unfortunate that such a person now leads Amnesty International USA.”



11 comments for “Selling War as ‘Smart Power’

  1. August 31, 2012 at 13:39

    Thanks so much, Colleen. Re Nossel: Earlier today, I made a comment in another context that fits to a tee — “Thanks for such useful reminders of recent history. It’s hard not to think of “innocent and useful idiots” as the major problem.”

  2. August 31, 2012 at 09:31

    Here are two more articles, one by Diana Johnstone and the other by Paul Craig Roberts which describe further aspects of Amnesty International’s entwining itself to serve as a tool of US foreign policy: and

  3. August 31, 2012 at 05:37

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  4. Danny Li
    August 30, 2012 at 05:39

    So-called ‘smart power’ is just another euphemism for “humanitarian Militarism”! Of course that’s part of USA empire’s delusional drive to achieve “Full Spectrum Dominance” over the Planet. Real Peace activists need to organize & educate the 99% that “smart power” is the Iron Fist of the 1% wrapped in a Velvet Glove.

  5. August 30, 2012 at 02:42

    I wrote (emailed) Amnesty International USA and Amnesty International World after the first article on Nossel and have gotten no reply. However, members of the Canadian Amnesty, who I met personally were concerned and perplexed.
    What I would like to know is the process by which Amnesty became so compromised to have hired her.
    Every come on from them will be sent back with the comment, “Fire Nossel”

  6. Ernest Spoon
    August 28, 2012 at 16:27

    Hahahahahaw!!! The irony of bleeding heart “human rights” groups urging the US to take military action in the name of “human rights” is too delicious. I am sure they feel their motives are pure. After all who wants to see photographs of innocent women beheaded at the whim of religious fanatics for not wearing the proper kinds of headscarf?

    But that leads to the deaths of children, these days from missiles delivered by remotely controlled drones. Oh, the horror! “Humanitarian intervention” leads in turn to an round of denunciations by another set of bleeding hearts, e.g. the author of this op-ed! which in turn leads to a new more “humanitarian” method of dealing death deus ex machina.

    Excuse me if the I laugh at the wonderful stupidity of it all.

  7. bud north
    August 28, 2012 at 16:10

    As usual, I find that F.G. Sanford eloquently states my thoughts better than I could. As an aside, I’ll just mention that some years ago I was a regular donator to Amnesty International, right up until the day they asked me for a contribution to help prevent the extradition of Charles Ng from Canada to the USA to stand trial for the heinous crimes he committed in California.

  8. F. G. Sanford
    August 28, 2012 at 10:34

    Once upon a time, we could believe we were the good guys. Our current demise conjures in my mind a reminiscence of one of those film noir scenes, where the hero, sarcastically wisecracking in the face of unimaginable personal suffering, is tied to a chair in a bamboo shack with a tin roof. He’s been captured and is held on some monsoon swept jungle island redoubt. Rain dripping past the open windows combines with the crackling of a Gothic military shortwave radio; the glowing dial scale and a kerosene lantern provide the only illumination. Our hero’s nemesis is a gaunt, forbidding Asian in a military uniform. He has a rudimentary pencil thin mustache, dark, penetrating eyes, and he slowly smokes a cigarette which he holds backwards between his thumb and first finger. Both men have beads of sweat glistening on their foreheads. He is patiently interrogating our hero, to whom he explains, “You Amelican Impelialists have miscalculated this time”…

    When I was a kid watching those movies, I remember wondering how anyone could imagine we were the “Imperialists”. Today, we are. We are the ones doing the interrogating. We are the ones providing an opportunity for our own home-grown sociopaths to subvert our values and our national heritage. Let’s cut to the chase, and explain what every successful General Officer knows to be the unspoken truth about warfare: Wars are mainly won by killing civilians. This is the unwritten secret knowledge that informs the thinking of the Viet Nam scenario where, “We had to destroy the village to save it”. The truth came out in a linguistic parody which seems to be self-contradictory. It isn’t. It’s just a delusional way to say, “We had to kill the civilians to win the battle”. Read excerpts from Patton’s memoirs about “softening” targets with artillery fire and fighter-bomber attacks prior to the Infantry incursions. Who do you think was dying during the “softening”?

    Civilian casualties cannot be separated from successful military operations. This is exactly why Justice Robert H. Jackson said, “War of aggression is the supreme international crime.” It requires a conscious decision to kill civilians in the execution of a successful operation. The decision contains within it… “all the evils of the whole”…, and we tried and executed dozens of people for making those decisions after World War Two. Today, we use linguistic tricks to disguise those evils. “Collateral damage” is double-speak for “dead civilians”. The most disturbing thing about this psychotic transition is that women have become deeply involved in ushering these events toward their tragic conclusions. As a nation, we have lost our moral compass…perhaps better said in a cultural sense, our maternal instinct. We have become the evil we once despised in those old black-and-white movies.

    • August 29, 2012 at 19:22

      If you compare Amnesty Director Suzanne Nossel’s rhetoric about spreading “liberal internationalism” (as well as Madeleine Albright and the other female warhawks), you see it’s exactly the same as Neo-con Max Boot’s rhetoric in his “Savage Wars of Peace” (written in 2002 to urge war on Iraq) and it’s identical with Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” written to urge the US to take up Britain’s imperialism to seize the Philippines in 1899.

      The last paragraphs of this extremely prescient 2003 analysis are telling (at

      “This will likely speed up the long-run decline of the American Empire, rather than the reverse. And in this situation a call for a closing of the ranks between those of European extraction (Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” argument or some substitute) is likely to become more appealing among U.S. and British elites. It should be remembered that Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” was a call for the joint exploitation of the globe by what Du Bois was later to call “the white masters of the world” in the face of the ebbing of British fortunes.

      At no time, then, should we underestimate the three-fold threat of militarism, imperialism, and racism or forget that capitalist societies have historically been identified with all three.”

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