Posted in Book Summaries

A Problem from Hell

In 500 pages, Ambassador Samantha Power reviews the haunting narrative of genocide and the US’s lacking response, a story that has repeated itself innumerous times in the 20th century. She further analyzes the ongoing fight to ratify and effectively implement the Genocide Convention in language charged with an immense sense of frustration. Though she offers recommendations for how the US should prepare for and respond to future scenarios, the author makes clear that what is required is a fundamental shift in the US’s approach to its global responsibilities.

1) Cambodia
When the Communist Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and imposed martial rule in 1975, widespread Southeast Asia fatigue (from the Vietnam War) and mistrust of the government (Watergate scandal) meant that there was little political incentive to address the crisis. Even as reports of intellectuals, fromer government officials, and disloyal civilians being executed arose, the US was too interested in maintaining its relations with Thailand and China–close Khmer Rouge allies–to discourage the violence. Similar motivations influenced the US’s opposition to a Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and its support for recognizing the UN credentials of the rogue regime.

2) Iraq
US political and economic interests dominated in its tepid response to the Iraq government’s systematic violence against its own citizens. When Saddam Hussein’s cousin, al-Majid, began ordering the killing of the Kurdish minority in response to Kurdish Liberation Army activities, President Bush continued to deliver aid to Iraq, purportedly to balance the two sides in the Iran-Iraq War. Despite having tremendous economic influence over Iraq, the administration rejected sanctions and other punitive measures as futile or likely to have a perverse effect. The agricultural lobby played an important role in continuing bilateral economic relations and aid. For much of the war, official condemnation only addressed the use of chemical weapons against Iraqi civilians, not the intent of genocide. Only after Iraq invaded Kuwait, thereby threatening the US’s oil supply, did Congress begin to deny Iraq import-export credit.

3) Bosnia
During the 1992 presidential election, president-elect Clinton strongly voiced his determination to intervene militarily in the Bosnian crisis, where Serbian president Milosevic had begun violently deporting and killing non-Serbians in line with his nationalistic rhetoric. Despite active media coverage and outrage from human rights organizations, the US administration–urged on by non-interventionists such as Secretary Powell–maintained a hypocritical position; while opposing genocide in the abstract, it opposed US intervention upfront. Offering excuses that the Yugoslavian war stakes were humanitarian and did not meet the criteria for intervention (Bush) and that the estimated number of troops was impossible to meet (Clinton), the US did not take serious action until the massacre at Srebrenica. The Bosnian genocide did lead to the first genocide conviction in Europe through a UN war crimes tribunal.

4) Rwanda
From 1994-1995, Hutu militias and government soldiers targeted political enemies (proponents of a Hutu-Tutsi peace process) and Tutsi civilians in a devastating and rapid genocide. Yet the US and much of the international community refrained from any form of meaningful intervention, dismissing much of the violence as endemic tribal strife and refusing to disrupt the clearly dissolved peace process. In reality, the political costs of the recent intervention in Somalia turned politicians away from involvement; they instead called for full withdrawal of the meager UN presence, ironically, in order to defend the future viability of UN peacekeeping.

Ambassador Power argues that the US’s enlightened self-interest calls for intervention in genocide. In the above-mentioned cases, state genocide undermined regional/international stability and created militarized refugees that were susceptible to radicalization. A weak response from the international community further signaled to dictators that hate and murder were permissible tools of statecraft. Thus, she calls for the US to respond to any case of genocide with a sense of urgency. Officials must publicly identify and threaten perpetrators with prosecution while demanding the expulsion of representatives from international institutions. Punitively, the US should establish economic sanctions, freeze foreign assets, and use technical resources to disable means of hate propagation. The US should collaborate with allies to set up safe houses for refugees and protect them with armed or robustly-mandated peacekeepers. Finally, the will for military intervention must always underlie the US’s response in order to deter escalation of conflict.

The ambassador offers a poignant and well-argued case for a foreign policy that prioritizes genocide intervention as a matter of national strategic concern. Advocates of humanitarian involvement should be respected and their arguments carefully considered, instead of being dismissed as “emotional” and “sentimental.” Yet in its focused advocacy of a US that actively halts genocide, the book places less emphasis on the fact that political considerations, many of which overruled US intervention in past conflicts, are rooted in the structure of American democracy. In addition to increased media coverage of potential genocides, as the ambassador suggests, nonprofits and other humanitarian organizations should focus on genocide history education for journalists. When those responsible for shaping national dialogue are conscious of the history of genocide and the horrific effects of non-intervention, politicians will be pressured to act promptly and decisively in the face of humanitarian disaster. Bringing about a unified attitude toward genocide intervention among diverse news sources may pose a significant challenge. And this, ultimately, is the true problem from hell.



Taekwondo. Foreign language enthusiast. Editor.

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