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Policy Wars:

A Review of John Shattuck's Freedom on Fire


Thursday, May. 06, 2004
John Shattuck , Freedom on Fire : Human Rights Wars and America's Response (Harvard University Press, 2003)

John Shattuck is a lawyer and human rights advocate who, during his tenure as a high-level official in the Clinton Administration, helped formulate the U.S. response to a series of humanitarian crises. From the Bosnian war to the Rwandan genocide, Shattuck was an active participant in U.S. foreign policy decisions.

His book is a chronicle of ugly conflicts: of pitched battles, sneak attacks, devastating losses and cynical betrayals. And all that was, of course, in Washington, during endless bureaucratic clashes. "I actually enjoyed the challenge of bureaucratic infighting," Shattuck acknowledges, in explaining why he stuck with his job after a particularly unhappy setback. "I wanted to keep fighting from within."

As a primer on how government policy is actually made -- by seeking political allies, forcing one's way into key meetings, and accepting painful compromises -- Shattuck's book is instructive. Before joining the Clinton Administration as its chief human rights official, a position he held from 1993 to 1998, Shattuck had worked as a lawyer at the ACLU and as a law professor at Harvard. His learning curve, upon entering a world of bureaucratic fiefdoms and interagency processes, was steep.

Although President Clinton came into office with a promise to promote human rights, his attention was quickly distracted. Shattuck, the new head of the State Department's human rights bureau, had to master an array of bureaucratic tactics and tricks just to get a cabinet-level hearing. And even then, very often, his recommendations were ignored.

Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia and China

Structured as several extended analyses of country situations sandwiched between an introduction and a conclusion, Shattuck's book opens with a stunning defeat: the failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda. After describing the Haiti intervention, which Shattuck considers an important victory, it goes on to narrate the Bosnian war and the Dayton negotiations that ended that war. The debate over the administration's China policy, the last human rights dilemma detailed in the book, was for Shattuck yet another defeat.

There were both internal and external reasons for Shattuck's difficulties. "My constituency," Shattuck explains toward the end of the book, "was made up of those whose human rights were being violated." But Clinton, a political animal, had different constituencies in mind: those that vote.

The American public might be momentarily shocked and upset by human rights atrocities occurring abroad, but rarely was there domestic pressure to stop them. In the aftermath of the Somalia intervention, especially, the public had little enthusiasm for foreign involvements.

Shattuck relates a telling anecdote to convey Clinton's priorities. Returning from a trip to Rwanda a few months after the genocide, Shattuck had breakfast in Paris with the U.S. ambassador to discuss pending human rights crises. The ambassador, a close Clinton ally, told Shattuck of the president's concern that his foreign policy efforts were hurting his polling numbers. "Every time I go abroad my ratings go down," Clinton had reportedly complained.

But although he vents a few frustrations and mentions intermittent thoughts of resigning, Shattuck seems remarkably sanguine in his defeats. At the end of the book's chapter on U.S. trade relations with China -- a debacle for Shattuck -- he quotes Vaclav Havel as a source of guidance. Havel, who was describing himself, said that he was not an optimist, nor a pessimist, but "a realist who carries hope."

And Iraq?

It is the 1994 U.S. intervention in Haiti that Shattuck portrays as his clearest human rights victory. In Haiti, Shattuck explains, the Clinton administration "finally broke free from its post-Somalia straitjacket and laid the foundation for a new doctrine of humanitarian intervention."

Shattuck, a self-described "human rights hawk," welcomes this new willingness to use military force on humanitarian grounds. The Bosnia and Kosovo bombing campaigns that followed the Haiti intervention were, in his view, necessary and right. By stopping violent human rights catastrophes, he argues, they enhanced international security.

Shattuck notes pointedly that the latest U.S.-British war on Iraq did not meet the test he endorses for launching such a humanitarian war. But the skepticism of many in the human rights field has not stopped the current administration from proclaiming human rights justifications for the war, particularly now that its other justifications have been discredited.

No one in the Bush administration makes a convincing human rights hawk. But still, one wonders if Shattuck hears the prevailing rhetoric about helping the Iraqi people and has a few second thoughts. In retrospect, a cautious U.S. public seems like less of a threat to world peace and security than an aggressive Donald Rumsfeld. And in American history, unfortunately, there have been many variations on the theme of Rumsfeld.

Joanne Mariner is a FindLaw columnist and human rights attorney who has worked in Kosovo and Haiti.

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