Derek Chollet on “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power
“A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide.
Basic Books. 610 pages. $30.00
In april 1994, the month that Rwanda’s government-backed Hutu militias began slaughtering hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tutsis in what Samantha Power describes as the “fastest, most efficient killing spree of the twentieth century” — reaching a death toll of at least 800,000 in 100 days — President Bill Clinton’s National Security Adviser, Anthony Lake, issued a statement calling on Rwanda’s Hutu military leaders to “do everything in their power to end the violence immediately.” Given what was happening, that a senior U.S. official would make such a standard demand is not surprising. But Lake’s statement proved to be the only official public attempt to prod the Rwandan government to stop the bloodshed. Neither he nor President Clinton ever even bothered to call a meeting to discuss what was happening, or seriously considered whether there was anything more the U.S. could do. Looking back six years later, Lake candidly admits that this episode, topped by his lackluster and lonely effort at influencing events, was, in his words, “truly pathetic.”
Reading Samantha Power’s stunning narrative of American inaction during the Rwanda crisis, many will certainly come to share Lake’s conclusion. This was genocide, plain and simple. Innocents were systematically and ruthlessly targeted for harm not because of anything they did, but for who they were. And despite all the earnest post-Holocaust rhetoric of “never again” or the fact that the U.S. was obliged to act according to the Genocide Convention the Senate ratified in 1986, Washington did nothing.
This sorry fact, added to the July 1995 Bosnian Serb massacre of Muslims in Srebrenica (where at least 7,000 men and boys were killed while the U.S. and the United Nations stood aside) and the 1999 Kosovo crisis (where nato pilots were forced to bomb at 10,000 feet while Slobodan Milosevic’s army rampaged through ethnic Albanian areas), will cause some to conclude that this reflects little more than the Clinton administration’s inept handling of important foreign policy challenges. A team more sure of itself and confident with American power would have acted differently. Perhaps true. To be sure, this book will not be happy reading for any former member of the Clinton administration.
Yet to lay the blame in this way is not only too simple; it is unfair. For if Power’s book shows anything, it is that the U.S. has never placed a very high priority on preventing or acting against those committing genocide. This is a trend with remarkable historical and bipartisan consistency — from Washington’s reluctance to pressure Turkey to halt the massacre of over a million Armenians during World War i and the infamous refusal to bomb the German railroad lines leading to Auschwitz in World War ii, to its failure to act against the Khmer Rouge killing fields in Cambodia during the 1970s and its decision to continue an engagement policy with Saddam Hussein despite clear evidence that he used chemical weapons against his own people in the late 1980s. By telling each of these stories in considerable detail and with impressive passion, Power shows that inaction in the face of genocide is a kind of American tradition.
But is it an American problem? Horrible as these events were, is what happened during the twentieth century in Turkey, Cambodia, Iraq, or the Balkans really America’s responsibility? Obviously, at the time, most policymakers concluded no. And they did so with the conviction that what they were doing was right, that they were acting as U.S. interests dictated. As this book shows, America’s willingness to defend freedom, protect innocents, and champion human rights often goes only so far.
Therein lies the puzzle: How can it be that a country where the memory of the Holocaust has such strong resonance — with a culture that produces and embraces such powerful movies as Schindler’s List and a government that puts such world-class museums as the Holocaust memorial on Washington’s national mall — often finds itself unwilling to deter similar atrocities or prevent them from recurring?
Government officials scramble to answer this question with several explanations — the most common being that they did not act because they knew neither the scope nor scale of what was happening. It is true that in the thick of a crisis, particularly one in places that are relatively closed off from the rest of the world like Rwanda and Cambodia, imperfect information is a real problem. Since these are also cases of armed conflict, genocidal acts are often explained away as acts of war. Moreover, systematic mass annihilation seems so unreal, so terrible, so “irrational” that frequently outsiders simply don’t believe the stories they hear — we can suffer from a failure of imagination. Refugee survivors are often dismissed as unreliable witnesses, and those intelligence analysts or journalists who sound the alarm are often disregarded as too “emotional.”
Yet once indisputable evidence of genocide emerges — and this book shows that it almost always does — officials still are reluctant to act. Borrowing from the political economist Albert O. Hirschman, Power explains that their reasons for their inaction typically take the form of three categories of justification: futility, perversity, and jeopardy. Intervention (whether military or diplomatic) is usually believed to be futile; it is often too late to help. But even when some kind of intervention is possible, policymakers tend to think that doing so would actually be counterproductive, causing perverse outcomes like accelerating the bloodshed even further. Or they are reluctant to act because doing so would bring political and material costs that might jeopardize more important interests or priorities.
It is this last point that presents the biggest problem for those, like Power, who believe that the U.S. utterly failed by not acting to stop genocide. In case after case, Washington’s policymakers did what they did — acting not enough, or not at all — not because they were cynical or callous or craven, but because they did not believe that sufficient U.S. interests were at stake. They didn’t do more because they didn’t want to. The trade-offs were considered too risky, the downsides too great, the potential costs too steep. To be sure, looking back, policymakers down the line express regret at not doing more to stop the slaughter of innocents. But in the moment they saw no better way out. What in retrospect seems to be an easy call did not appear so at the time.
Therefore, these cases are not just examples of Hirschman’s jeopardy. They illustrate the fact that by definition, all hard choices are dilemmas; that even the right decision can have catastrophic consequences; and that the challenge of policymaking is to navigate what Isaiah Berlin once called the “unavoidability of conflicting ends.” The U.S. has overwhelming military and economic resources, yes, but it also has vast global responsibilities and interests. Tragically, even the lone superpower cannot escape triage.
Is it possible that stopping genocide can move its way up the ladder of American interests? Power argues that the “battle [has been] repeatedly lost in the realm of domestic politics,” and in a perverse way, the system worked — no U.S. president has ever paid a real political price for not responding to genocide. Therefore, Power’s book becomes a (somewhat self-serving) call to arms: Activists like herself must do more to raise the political costs of inaction. She emphasizes the important role of journalists in exposing acts of genocide and heralds the work of those “screamers” — usually young, mid-level bureaucrats — who try, but usually fail, to work from the inside to press action, often at the expense of their careers.
Domestic politics are certainly important, but Power overstates the case. Actually, her research shows the opposite: that domestic political pressure has a very poor track record in compelling the government to act against genocide. Even in recent examples of genocide where the U.S. did intervene the most forcefully — Bosnia and Kosovo — it did so mainly for reasons other than domestic politics. Power argues otherwise, asserting that in Bosnia during the summer of 1995 — the one case where the U.S. finally resorted to military force after three years of refusing to get involved – policymakers were responding to political pressures from such influential leaders as the then-Republican Senate Majority Leader, Robert Dole. This misinterprets what happened. Dole’s efforts to force the Clinton administration to lift the arms embargo and assist the Bosnian Muslims were certainly noticed, but they did not become the driving force behind American decision-making. Washington acted because its policymakers finally became convinced that vital interests were at stake — namely, American leadership in nato if not the future survival of the alliance itself. Everyone involved in the actual decision, from President Clinton to Richard Holbrooke and Tony Lake to Warren Christopher, as well as outside scholars of the period, cite this as the more important reason.
So raising domestic political costs is not the silver bullet Power makes it out to be. But this does not necessarily leave us with the depressing conclusion that unless genocide threatens more important interests, the United States is forever locked into making only token efforts to stop it. The case can be made (and Power begins to make it) that preventing genocide is a vital American interest, not just for the obvious moral reasons, but for security interests too. Genocide leaves a dangerous aftermath: It undermines regional stability, destroys societies, and creates mass refugees in need of assistance or bent on revenge. And tolerating genocide signals to dictators that mass murder is legitimate. Even when the U.S. chooses not to act, it almost always has to deal with the consequences.
As Power puts it:
[T]he walls the United States tries to build around genocidal societies almost inevitably shatter. States that murder or torment their own citizens target citizens elsewhere. Their appetites become insatiable. Hitler began by persecuting his own people and then waged war on the rest of Europe and, in time, the United States. Saddam Hussein wiped out rural Kurdish life and then turned on Kuwait. . . . [T]he U.S. now has reason to fear that the [poisonous] potions Hussein tried out on the Kurds will be used next on Americans.
Particularly in a post-September 11 environment, this rings all too true. In fact, this is an indispensable part of the case that George W. Bush and his team are now making about the threat from Saddam. Those that commit genocide are, as the president might say, evil-doers in the extreme — and there can be no doubt that they are bent on destruction and oppression and, with the right tools, would threaten the United States directly. So acting to prevent or stop genocide, although often lumped under the rubric “humanitarian intervention,” is justified by much more than a sense of morality or humanitarian goodwill. It is necessary to protect U.S. security interests.
Only time will tell, but there is every indication that President Bush believes this and is prepared to act on it. His administration’s recent effort to develop a doctrine of preemption, which has caused so much hand-wringing in liberal circles, might actually turn out to be the crucial shift. Although its main focus correctly rests on combating the noxious cocktail of extremism and weapons of mass destruction, it inherently contemplates running risks and accepting costs to do what is right. This is an activist, interventionist doctrine, one that will not allow murderers to hide behind sovereignty. It has a moral core, but more important, it asserts that leaders who commit atrocities like genocide are not just dangers to their own people or their neighbors — if left unchecked, they will metastasize into threats to America.
Samantha Power has written one of those rare books that will not only endure as an authoritative history, but is a timely and important contribution to a critical policy debate. Washington officials would be wise to heed its lessons — and, in fact, there is evidence that some already have. Last fall, after the Atlantic Monthly excerpted Power’s chapter on Rwanda, a National Security Council aide sent a memo to President Bush summarizing her argument and detailing the Clinton administration’s reluctance to act. President Bush’s four-word response to this failure to stop genocide, which he jotted in the memo’s margins, could not have been clearer: “not on my watch.”