"A Problem from Hell" America and the Age of Genocide By
Samantha Power. Basic Books, 610 pages, $30.00
Early in 1942 Jan Karski, a young Polish diplomat,
smuggled himself into the Warsaw ghetto, where he witnessed Nazi atrocities in
progress. He saw mass graves, starving children, and the killing of Jews in broad
daylight. He then made his way to Belzec, a death camp near Poland's border with
Ukraine. When he escaped later that year, he carried miniature microfilm
documents describing the horrors he had seen. Karski, a Roman Catholic, joined
international efforts to spread news of what was taking place -- to get the rest
of the world to "believe the unbelievable," as one urgent telegram put it.
Traveling to the United States, Karski managed to get a meeting with Supreme
Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who responded to his eyewitness accounts by
saying, "I don't believe you." He then clarified: "I do not mean that you are
lying. I simply said I cannot believe you."
This became the position of the U.S. State Department, which noted
that it had information about concentration camps but "no ability to confirm the
reports." As the war dragged on and the evidence became harder to ignore, the
United States still did too little, refusing to bomb railway tracks leading to
the death camps lest this move "provoke even more vindictive action by the
Germans." It was not until the end of the war that skeptics were forced to
believe the unbelievable. The United States and its allies resolutely declared
that the Nazis' crime -- for which a new name, "genocide," emerged -- would never
The searing conclusion of "A Problem from Hell" is that the simplicity
of "never again" is matched only by the consistency with which this promise has
been abandoned by the United States. Samantha Power argues that the disbelief,
obfuscation, and inaction that characterized the American response to the
Holocaust is part of a pattern that existed before World War II and that has
repeated itself with alarming regularity since.
Power's compelling account of the genocides of the twentieth century begins
with the slaughter of the Armenians in Turkey during World War I. Despite
warnings about what was happening, this time from the American ambassador in
Turkey, the U.S. government looked the other way, in a manner prefiguring the
response to nearly every subsequent instance of mass killing. The book then
focuses on the sometimes quixotic Raphael Lemkin, a Polish refugee and
international lawyer who coined the term genocide to describe the attempted
destruction of a people and their culture. Beginning in the 1930s, Lemkin labored
for years, alone and uncompensated, to secure the passage of an international law
outlawing genocide, which the United Nations finally adopted in 1948. But the
United States was not one of the countries that signed the resolution, and Power
chronicles the efforts of Senator William Proxmire over nearly 20 years to
persuade the United States to ratify the treaty. The rest of her work examines
the major postwar genocides -- in Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia, and Rwanda, as well as
the sole instance of an early intervention against genocide, in Kosovo.
The case studies of genocide are the core of the book. It is in these
retellings that Power's argument comes through most forcefully. While the
narratives tell us little that is new about what happened on the ground --
indeed, her accounts draw primarily on an exhaustive trawling of published media
reports -- she puts the reporting skills she honed as a correspondent in Bosnia
to excellent use in unveiling what American officials did while the killings
raged. Her studies are extended answers to the questions, "What did the U.S.
government know, and when did it know it?" And the results are not pretty.
Power does give some credence to the claim that policy makers often did not
understand that genocide was occurring. A depressing but nevertheless fascinating
theme in "A Problem from Hell" is the failure of imagination that
outsiders and even victims display in reckoning with evil. One might understand
how Frankfurter could tell Karski that he could not conceive of Nazi atrocities,
but how to explain such reluctance in the decades after the Holocaust? U.S.
officials have time and again taken at their word despots who deny genocide is
happening. Slobodan Milosevic's polish and apparent reasonableness as he claimed
not to know of massacres by Serbs charmed numerous Western emissaries. And when
survivors managed to get out and tell stories of their suffering, the reports
were discounted as uncorroborated or exaggerated. For most people, genocide is
simply an abstraction, merely a word that is thrown about, and so they are
unprepared to believe it when they hear of it. Only such an utter lack of
comprehension could allow a U.S. State Department official to say that "these
people do this from time to time" at the start of the Rwandan genocide.
Most often, though, U.S. officials at some level have known about mass
killings. During the Serb advance in Bosnia, State Department desk officers and
CIA analysts not only documented in overwhelming detail the aims and methods of
Serb paramilitaries, but even predicted massacres before they happened. Yet
senior officials strove to stay uninvolved, initially only issuing appeals for
"both sides" to reduce the violence. Power recounts internal debates about why
the United States would not invoke what came to be known as the "g-word."
Elaborate exchanges took place on Capitol Hill in which State Department
officials spoke of "acts tantamount to genocide" in response to persistent
questioning by members of Congress.
The dissembling was motivated in part by a fear that admitting the occurrence
of genocide would force the United States to actually do something. This fear of
getting involved manifested itself in Rwanda, where the U.S. government refused
to jam radio signals broadcasting the names and addresses of Tutsi citizens to
the murdering Hutu mobs. Moreover, the United States insisted on reducing the
peacekeeping force already there and prevented other countries from sending
troops -- all out of a concern that any problems with another nation's
intervention could drag the United States into the conflict. In short, Power
castigates the American government for its unwillingness to take even the most
elementary steps -- far short of military action -- to try to stop genocide.
At the end of Power's narrative, the reader is left wondering, what can we do?
The author has produced a towering history of the inadequacy of American
responses to genocide, one with which all further studies of the subject will
have to contend. It is a troubling story not just for its description of repeated
failure, but also because it offers precious little guidance as to how America
can break this dismal cycle. This, of course, is the hardest question of all, and
answering it could easily fill another book. But Power's slim concluding section
reveals how difficult it is even to begin. She acknowledges that American
politicians do not demand a halt to genocide because there is no domestic
political cost for allowing it to occur. This should come as no surprise. Indeed,
a foreignpolicy "realist" may be tempted to say that the question is not why
America hasn't stopped genocide, but why it ever would. Such realism is perhaps
too clever by half, because, as Power argues, the United States affords a unique
importance to values in its foreign policy and "because we happen to be the
leader of the world," in the words of Bob Dole, no starry-eyed liberal. America's
ideological self-conception and its immense power create an expectation both
among its own citizens and around the world that it will act to stop the gravest
assaults on humanity.
But even on Power's own terms the direction for action is
unclear. Her goal is to raise the domestic political price for U.S. leaders who
fail to stand against genocide. She notes that America finally moved in Bosnia
when President Clinton -- hounded by Dole and others for his inaction -- grew
uneasy over dropping approval ratings. Yet can public pressure be counted on? In
contemporary American politics there are no natural constituencies that will
stand up for distant strangers. Power points to the role that nongovernmental
organizations and the press can play in raising public consciousness, but no
obvious strategy emerges for translating outrage into action. The challenge is to
make genocide real for the American public. Power's own work is an important
contribution to that effort, and deserves a wide reading for that reason alone.
But ultimately it is hard to see how things can change when the political costs
are in fact so low for ignoring genocide, and potentially so high for
Power does not concede that intervention necessarily means the loss of
American lives. She is entirely correct to excoriate the U.S. government for
dancing around the term genocide and for refusing to issue simple condemnations
of mass slaughter. And she is right to say that there are nonmilitary actions
that America could take to try to give pause to murderers -- the United States
could have frozen Serbian foreign assets or jammed Hutu hate radio, for example.
But when full-scale efforts are under way to eliminate an ethnic group, it is
difficult to imagine any successful intervention short of military action.
Power suggests that genocide can often be stopped militarily at relatively
little cost. That argument, however, hinges on the definitions of "relatively,"
"little," and "cost." A hotly and legitimately contested question is how many
soldiers the United States can -- and should -- be expected to sacrifice to save
potentially thousands of Rwandans or Bosnians or Kurds. Power, for instance,
feels that the U.S. campaign in Kosovo was less effective than it could have been
because of its insistence on zero casualties, but there is no indication of how
this priority could shift; indeed, Osama bin Laden may have escaped from
Afghanistan precisely because of worries about losing ground troops. Chroniclers
of recent military interventions, such as William Shawcross in Deliver Us from
Evil, have shown them to be a messy, bloody business. We must therefore take
seriously Shawcross's warning that the first step to effective action is for
Western political leaders to tell their publics honestly that intervention cannot
It may not be long before they are again called on to do so. One of the most
chilling observations in "A Problem from Hell" was made by Lemkin, who
pointed out that mass killing takes place with "biological regularity." Genocide
will happen again. What, if anything, the United States will do remains unclear.
Samantha Power's book, however, at least makes it harder for us to fool ourselves
when the killing begins.
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