The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Sarah Sewall and COIN

October 14, 2007

This past week, I’ve read Sarah Sewall’s name three times in different magazines and blogs.

Perhaps you are asking, who is Sarah Sewall?

Well, Sewall is director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. I first heard her name more than 20 years ago when I worked briefly at Center for the Defense Information in DC — a left of center think tank that studies the military. Sewall also interned at Institute of Policy Studies. She must have worked at IPS when Michael Klare ran the Program on Militarism and Disarmament.

So, what’s up with Sarah Sewall these days? Why would she suddenly appear on the blog radar?

First, on October 4, Dan Drezner blogged about the foreign policy wonks who are advising various presidential candidates. Click on his link to a William Arkin piece in The Washington Post and you’ll find Sewall listed as an Obama advisor. She and better-known colleague Samantha Power are helping the campaign in various ways. Sewall seems to approve of Obama’s plan for “military disengagement” from Iraq.

OK, that seems pretty normal for someone working on human right at the JFK School.

Then, in a book ad in The Atlantic Monthly, I noticed something a bit different. Sewall wrote the introduction to the University of Chicago Press 2007 edition of The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. This is au courant — General David Petraeus coauthored the foreward. This link seems to be a free sample.

Writing an introduction for the manual is perhaps not surprising, given that Sewall was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Assistance from 1993-1996.

However, the third mention is definitely much more unusual.

Sewall was excoriated by Tom Hayden in The Nation last month for her defense of “the new counterinsurgency.”

the Petraeus plan draws intellectual legitimacy from Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, whose director, Sarah Sewall, proudly embraces an “unprecedented collaboration [as] a human rights center partnered with the armed forces.” Sewall, a former Pentagon official, co-sponsored a “doctrine revision workshop” at Fort Leavenworth that prepared the Army and Marines’ new counterinsurgency warfighting Field Manual.

Hayden, the famous foe of the Vietnam war and former spouse of Jane Fonda, continues:

Yet Sewall of Harvard’s Carr Center suggests that intellectuals have a moral duty to collaborate with the military in devising counterinsurgency doctrines. “Humanitarians often avoid wading into the conduct of war for fear of becoming complicit in its purpose,” she writes in an introduction to the Field Manual. In a direct response to critics who argue that the manual’s passages endorsing human rights standards are just window dressing, she adds, “The Field Manual requires engagement precisely from those who fear that its words lack meaning.”

One would think that past experiences with death squads indirectly supported by the United States, as in El Salvador in the 1980s, or the recent exposure of abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan’s Bagram facility and Guantánamo, would justify such worries about complicity. But Sewall defends Harvard’s collaboration through a pro-military revisionist argument. She says, “Military annals today tally that effort [the war in El Salvador] as a success, but others cannot get past the shame of America’s indirect role in fostering death squads.” Can she mean that the Pentagon’s self-serving narrative of the Central American wars is correct, and that critics of a conflict in which 75,000 Salvadorans died–the equivalent of more than 4 million Americans–most of them at the hands of US-trained and -equipped security forces, including death squads, simply need to “get past” being squeamish about the methods? Instead of churning out self-deluding platitudes about civilizing the military, Harvard would do well to worry more about how collaboration with the Pentagon impairs the critical independent role of intellectuals.

In his last paragraph, Hayden accuses Sewall of being someone who urges us to “get past the shame of death squads.”


In response, Sewall had some comments for the Harvard campus paper:

“The Carr Center’s mission is to make human rights principles central to the formulation of public policy,” Sewall said. “Civilian protection in war is premised on core human rights and has become a cornerstone of international humanitarian law. Helping to ensure that international humanitarian law is fully embraced in military doctrine will contribute to human rights protection.”

…“How can you hope to change the conduct of war without engaging those who practice it?” Sewall said. “We should all hope to live in a world without war, but there are many steps we can take to minimize war’s horror along the way.”

Actually, Sewall’s response seems pretty reasonable to me, given civilian casualties — though I do worry about COIN strategy.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.