Sunday, July 16, 2006

Book Review: A Problem From Hell

A Problem From Hell: America and the age of Genocide
Samantha Power

To paraphrase the familiar quote, the only thing for genocide to occur is the silence of good people.

In her superb book, journalist Samantha Power investigates how and why the good people inside and outside the US government could remain silent in the face of the modern day genocides in Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. Power has access to an unprecedented amount of files/documents and interviews that she uses to show how and why the US government chose to do nothing in the face of genocide.

Power begins her book by looking at the US government's reaction to the genocide of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in the first part of the 20th century. Despite the fact that communicaions and media technology were far from ideal, the New York Times was able to give accurate accounts of the atrocities. Yet, in a pattern that would repeat itself throughout the 20th century, the US government's response was woefully weak.


The next part of the book, Power looks at Raphael Lemkin a Polish Jew who lost most of his family in the Holocaust. It was Lemkin who first coined the term "Genocide" and who was instrumental in the creation of the "Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide." Which for the first time, made genocide a crime under international law. However, the US government, fearful that our own less than stellar record on race relations could potentially make it a target under the Genocide Convention-did not ratify the convention until 1986. The reason we finally did ratify it was more a face saving measurement in light of President Reagan's visit to a cemetery where some 40 Nazi SS officers are permanent residents; than to any adherence to the idea of genocide prevention and punishment.
Indeed, several key US senators attached so many reservations and exceptions to the US signature; that the Convention does not not bind the US, or hold the US accountable for much of anything.

The word genocide and it's connection to the Holocaust take special meaning throughout the book. Power explains how many people have a (wrong) narrow definition of the word "genocide." For these people, genocide must mean the perminant physical destruction (or attempted destruction) of an entire race/ethnicity/religious group, as was the situation during the Nazi Holocaust.
However, as Power shows, the meaning of the word "genocide" and of the term "destruction" is much more elastic than the literalists would believe. For example, mass rape, forced deporations can also be acts of genocide-if the goal of these atrocities is to destroy in whole or in part, a national/religious/ethnic/racial community.
Beyond a narrow definition, many people are hessitant to intervene, because in their opinion, only killing the level of the Holocaust is genocide, and only killing that number warrents intervention.
This is one of the great paradoxes in the reaction to the modern day genocides. We stood by day in and day out, as people were being slaughtered, and we chose to do nothing, all because the killings did not reach a certain theshold.
Despite these limitations, the "G" word is still enormously powerful. So, powerful in fact that the US government refused to acknolwedge the holocaust in Rwanda as a genocide-for fear that it would be forced to act.

Throughout the cold war and post cold war administrations, with both Republican and Democratic presidents-the pattern is eerily the same. Namely, self interest and a very narrow definition of what is in the "National interest" (economic/military defense) makes intervention almost impossible. For example, the US did nothing in the face of Hussein's gassing of the Kurds, because back in the 1980s Iraq was our ally, and we were engaged in a economic alliance with Iraq.
Futhermore, those politicians and officials who did argue that the United States had a moral duty to intervene in cases such as Bosnia, were ignored by the decision makers.

While the entire book is disturbing, perhaps the most disturbing chapter is that on Rwanda. For no other place did the US government do so little in the face of so much evil. In fact to say that the US government did little would be wrong. The US did nothing in the face of this genocide. Besides not acknowledging the genocide until it was too late, the US government did not even entertain small acts of non-military intervention; such as blocking the Hutu militia's "hate radio" which was used to broadcast killing instructions and the names of potential victims througout the land. The fact that Rwanda was not seen to be part of America's national interest and a fear of getting involved in Africa after the Somalia disaster; made everyone reluctant to get get involved. Even Senator Bob Dole, who had pushed for US intervention in the wake of the genocide in Bosnia, had a double standard when it came to Rwanda.

When we do get involved in intervention, i.e. Bosnia & Kosovo it is more a concern for our own self-interest, than any real concern for the local population. For example, Power shows that our intervention in Bosnia after the Srebrenica massacre was borne less out of outrage for Mladic's acts, and more out of concern over public opinion. Of course, I'm sure the people who are victims of genocide could probably care less about why the US chose to act-but only that it did. As mismanaged as our Bosnia policy was (Secretary of State Warren Christopher actually had the audacity to say that the Bosniaks were also committing genocide against the Serbs, despite the fact that it was ultra nationalist Serb forces-who wanting to create an ethnically pure state, attacked Bosnia)it was actually the highpoint of US reaction to genocide. For at least in Bosnia, unlike Cambodia, Iraq and Rwanda-we did actually get involved.

While this book is depressing, it is not without some glimmers of hope. Indeed, each chapter of the book puts a significant spotlight on people both inside and outside the US government who at times put their careers on the line in order to argue for what they think is right. Besides the outspokeness, the advocates all have something else in common-they all have a connection in some way or another to the victims of the genocide. By having visited these countries, or having met and made friends with refugees, they are able to see the people in these countres not as statistics, but as friends and neighbors, whose lives are at risked. While the actions of the Senators, state department officals and human rights officials are very impressive to read about-for too long they remain voices in the wilderness of a government that once promised "Never Again" to let never again happen over and over again.

Originally posted on I am over my head-by me.
comments from I am over my head
At 4:01 PM, Srebrenica Massacre said...
Hi Shaina,

thanks for the comments.

You might be interested in reading my latest piece and critique of Chomsky and Dutch government, here is the link and don't forge to comment:

At 1:11 AM, Owen said...
Thanks for that, Shaina, and in particular for raising the issue of what constitutes genocide. It never ceases to amaze me how people who ought to know better argue over what constitutes genocide in a way that shows that they've never bothered to look at the wording of the Convention.


Kirk Johnson said...

I've also seen this book and want to read it soon. You get to the heart of the matter--that the 'absolutists' use the vast scale of the Holocaust to cynically downplay genocides on a smaller scale.

Diana Johnstone has actually claimed that Srebrenica is not a genocide because the Serbs "allowed" women and children to leave! This is the height of cynical depravity.

I'm glad you found my blog, and I'm going to continue following yours. I've already updated my link to your new URL and name.

PS Do you know how to use html tags to create a hyperlink? I could email you an example if you'd like.

Shaina said...

Hi Kirk, I enjoy reading your blog-I'm glad to have found another American who cares about Bosnia.

Yes, I do know about how to create html tags to create hyperlinks. I copied the comments directly from my old blog-which is why the hyperlinks are not there.

I would encourage you to read "A Problem From Hell" whenever you get the chance. Her writing style is lucid and almost narrative in style, but is also very detailed, extremely well researched and heavily documented. I googled Samantha Power's name (she had quite a lot of interviews online, and she appeared in a video panel discussing the 10th year anniversary on the genocide in Srebrenica-which still should be online), she comes across as a very intelligent and non dogmatic person.

Perhaps Ms. Johsnstone would like a copy of Prosecutor v. Kristic, where the trial chamber went into detail giving the legal reasons as to why the Srebrenica massacres were an act of genocide?
And where they specifically mention how the forced deportation of the women or children was a key element in the finding of genocide by the trial chamber?

Thanks for your comments