A deeply flawed analysis of US policies towards cases of genocide

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Laila Juma

Shawwal 11, 1423 2002-12-16

Book Review

by Laila Juma (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 20, Shawwal, 1423)

"A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power. Pub: Basic Books, New York, 2002. Pp: 640. Hbk: $30.00.

Samantha Power writes this book as director of Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights, but its roots lie in her earlier career as a freelance journalist, when she spent three years (1992-95) in the Balkans. There she witnessed both the appalling carnage inflicted on the Bosnian Muslims by the Serbs (and, to a lesser extent, the Croats), and the utter indifference of Western governments toward it. This substantial but readable volume is the result of years of work she began at that time, with one simple object: to understand why the US had a virtually unblemished record of doing nothing to prevent genocide whenever and wherever it occurred.

She begins the volume with three chapters on the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was approved by the UN General Assembly in 1948, and came into effect in 1951, but which the US did not ratify until 1988, only a few years before the events of the 1990s which are Power’s main concern.

The Convention owes its existence, Powers tell us, to one Raphael Lemkin, a Pole whom she hails as an epitome of liberal internationalism, committed to the creation of a framework of international political and legal institutions through which peace and justice could be assured for all. She then goes on to discuss key elements of the convention’s definition of genocide, in particular its focus on the targeting of ethnic groups. Power tells us that this was because a number of countries, led by the Soviet Union, had insisted on excluding mass murder for political reasons from the official definition of genocide, a point that few people now realise.

Power then goes on to discuss specific incidents of genocide in the twentieth century, to demonstrate her thesis of "America’s toleration of unspeakable atrocities, often committed in clear view". Examples she discusses in detail include Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia and the killing of Kurds in Iraq by Saddam Hussein during the 1980s. This section of the book is a mine of useful information and references, for example on the generosity of the first Bush administration toward Iraq during its war with Islamic Iran.

In the context of this history, Power argues, the two cases of so-called "humanitarian intervention" which supporters of the US routinely quote to defend its record — in Bosnia and Kosova — can best be understood as exceptions that prove the rule, both undertaken for ulterior motives: neither would have taken place had it not been for a number of pragmatic and self-interested considerations coming together. In particular, according to Power, the fact that these crimes were taking place in Europe, rather than some dark and remote corner of the globe, and in the full glare of the international media’s attention, put immense pressure on Washington: "[for] the first time in the 20th century... allowing genocide came to feel politically costly for an American president."

Up to this stage, Power’s position appears typical of Western liberals, concerned with the rule of law and the establishment of justice through the international political and legal order. These are the people now attacking George W. Bush for by-passing the UN and acting unilaterally in his "war against terror." In the third section of this book, however, which looks at what US policy should be in such cases, Power takes what appears to be an extremely illiberal approach, praising the thinking of hawks on the right of US politics, such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, who have consistently urged that the US act unilaterally, without reference to the UN or the framework of its Charter or international law.

This apparently paradoxical position dates the book: it was written before September 11, when it was still easy — before America ran amok — for liberals to regard the US as a force for good in the world, capable of being a benevolent hegemonic power, using its dominant position to cut across the paralysis and inaction threatened by idealistic multilateralism — in other words, as the strong man of action who steps boldly out to do the necessary for the common good while others wring their hands and agonise over what needs to be done.

The temptation to suck up to those who wield political power, in the hope of harnessing that power for the pursuit of higher ideals, is common to idealists everywhere; see, for example, the numerous cases of Islamic movements that have allowed themselves to be co-opted to illegitimate dictatorial regimes in the Muslim world, when they should in fact have been leading the opposition to them. But this book also demonstrates the dangers of this approach, in particular the need to distort realities in order to make this self-delusion possible.

Thus, while Power is deeply critical of the US for failing to act to prevent genocide from occurring, the need to maintain the idea of the US as a potentially benevolent imperial power blinds her to the numerous occasions on which the US has been closely involved with the perpetrators of mass killings, or indeed has been directly responsible for them. Power acknowledges America’s cynical support for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, but says nothing about the impact of American policies on Iraq during the 1980s, when millions of Iraqis were killed by the US’s military and economic warfare against Saddam. She mentions the Mai Lai massacre in a footnote, but says nothing about the appalling impact of the US’s military actions on Cambodia.

She criticises the US for standing aside while Indonesia invaded East Timor, killing up to 200,000 people, but says nothing about the fact that Suharto, a close ally of the US, was armed by Washington, given the green light for the invasion, and continued to be supported through the many years of Indonesia’s brutal occupation of the territory. Nor, of course, is there anything about the US’s brutal warfare against popular socialist governments in Latin America, where it is continuing its familiar shenanigans against Venezuela.

Perhaps these examples do not count as genocides, being political killings rather than ethnic ones, but that is a legal technicality; they certainly preclude America’s claiming any moral standing or the right to claim moral justification for its actions. The fact that many liberals, even today, despite the evidence of events since September 11, cannot see this fundamental reality, makes them a part of the Western problem that the rest of the world must face up to and deal with, rather than potential allies in the non-western world’s quest for justice and freedom from Western imperial domination and exploitation.

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