That Samantha Power, USAID director and supposed human rights champion, and Tony Blinken, US secretary of state and supposed human rights champion, are unmitigated phonies and sanctimonious hypocrites is not a new revelation. Indeed, I’ve dedicated many articles and podcast episodes to this very topic. But Power and Blinken attending a black-tie event this week celebrating Henry Kissinger, one of the 20th century’s most notorious war criminals, is a new and noteworthy low for the Human Rights Concern Troll Industrial Complex. As Vox’s Jonathan Guyer documented from the red carpet outside the New York Public Library, both US officials showed up at the event to celebrate the life of the former Nixon advisor and Secretary of State:
What is the Human Rights Concern Troll Industrial Complex? The HRCTIC is central to the US civic myth-making machine. It’s the thin moral architecture that justifies maintaining and expanding 800+ overseas military bases, meddling in countless countries’ internal affairs, exerting massively disproportionate control over the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund, and sanctioning over 12,000 entities in dozens of countries resulting in the starvation and economic ruin of of millions. The entire hegemonic system by which the US has imposed, and continues to impose, its will upon the rest of the world only works if those operating that system, and the domestic populations and Congress funding it, believe they are doing so for a high-minded purpose. This high-minded purpose, as a matter of course, is said to be the promotion of feel-good buzzwords like “human rights,” “democracy,” and the ill-defined, ever-present “liberal, rules-based order.”
This system can’t operate, however, without imbuing itself with a vague sense of credibility in the eyes of half-paying-attention liberals, a superficial credibility people like Power have spent two decades cultivating and polishing. A then-war correspondent, Power published her best seller, A Problem from Hell, in 2002. It was a love letter to US interventionism under the banner of “protecting” defenseless victims of genocides (helpless people living in Baddie Countries, mainly). The biggest problem, as Power saw it, was that the US needs a “human rights”-driven foreign policy that uses its considerable military might to stand up for the Little Guy. An ostensibly noble goal, but one that any reasonable observer might view as simply rebranded pretext for continuing the great American tradition of selective imperial meddling. One could see this warped worldview taking hold early in Power’s career when she gave equivocal, tortured—sometimes affirming—responses when asked about the then-pending US invasion of Iraq. Power joined the Obama campaign as an adviser in 2007, then the National Security Council, and later became the US ambassador to the United Nations, where she promoted the NATO bombing of Libya and backed Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen that, at the time, had killed over 250,000, all of which she whitewashed in her self-serving memoir published in 2019.
Blinken’s career is not as high-minded, nor is he as beloved by The New Yorker set, but he trafficks in similar human rights grandstanding. Blinken has repeatedly insisted on the stump that the US will champion and defend “human rights,” making it a centerpiece of Biden’s foreign policy since he took office in 2021, telling reporters, “the Biden-Harris administration will stand against human rights abuses wherever they occur, regardless of whether the perpetrators are adversaries or partners.”
All of this highlights the brazen cynicism of Power and Blinken, who apparently had no scruples when it came to attending a celebration of Henry Kissinger, an unequivocal, well-documented US war criminal. This isn’t the first time the two have buddied up with Kissinger—indeed, Power received the 2016 “Henry A. Kissinger Prize” from the man himself. But as Kissinger’s myriad crimes come under increased scrutiny on the occasion of his 100th birthday, the blatant hypocrisy of Kissinger allies like Power and Blinken is impossible to bear; after all, this is the same Samantha Power and Tony Blinken who have made frequent media appearances over the past year trumpeting the importance of holding Russian leadership to account for their war crimes in Ukraine.
Blinken has insisted the “international community” must hold Russia accountable for its crimes in Ukraine, telling the UN in March 2022, “We must condemn firmly and unequivocally Russia’s attempt to topple a democratically elected government and its gross human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, and we must take steps to hold the perpetrators accountable.”
Power has echoed similar demands for accountability, telling MSNBC’s Alex Wagner last September that holding Russian war criminals to account was not only a legal responsibility but a moral one (timestamp 1:59-4:20):
Note, specifically, the section around 3:33. After describing a number of war crimes—all crimes that Henry Kissinger himself, without question, has authorized, planned, condoned, and/or knowingly unleashed on the world in the name of advancing “US interests”—Power laments “the [war criminals] just strutted around with that sense of impunity.”
What was the black-tie event this week if not an occasion for Kissinger to continue “strutting around with impunity”? And it’s not as if Power can say she is just doing her best to ignore his crimes, or to overlook them, or to remove herself from his presence but not saying anything. By attending his birthday celebration, she is actively celebrating a brutal war criminal. She is an accessory after the fact, a willing and knowing participant in covering up Kissinger’s numerous crimes in Vietnam, Cambodia, Argentina, Bangladesh, and East Timor.
If the whole point of accountability is to dissuade future war crimes by holding the people who commit said crimes responsible for their actions, something Power mawkishly pretends to care about, then what message is being sent to future US war criminals by renting out the New York Public Library and celebrating the most notorious living war criminal in the US short of, perhaps, George W. Bush? The message is clear: War crimes committed by those in good standing or functioning within the US security state are A-OK, and war crimes committed by those who stand in its way are met with feigned outrage and indignation (often followed by sanctions, and bombs, and coups). It’s a farce, a ritual, a transparently cynical double game that basically no one outside of Beltway media and social circles takes seriously, but it’s a ritual whose meaning nonetheless occupies a disproportionate and prominent place in our national sense of self.
Those invited to these black-tie affairs, rubbing elbows with the designers of the destruction of Iraq and Vietnam, have incentive to maintain this shallow moral pretense. But for the rest of us, there’s little reason to play along with the phony, selective moralism from our national security elites. This manipulation of “human rights” discourse exists to advance material US interests at the expense of not only the many victims of Henry Kissinger, but the actual cause of advancing human rights itself—the kind without scare quotes and cynical geopolitical utility that liberals are supposed to actually care about.