Can one writer single-handedly compel the world’s strongest nation to inject greater concern for human rights into its foreign policy? Thirty-three-year-old Samantha Power set out to do exactly that in her Pulitzer prize-winning book, A Problem From Hell, which chronicles the indifference of the world’s more powerful nations, particularly the United States, to genocide in the twentieth century.  

Power was a war correspondent in Bosnia in the mid-1990s and was frustrated at how little impact the horrific stories that she and her colleagues wrote about Serb atrocities had on U.S. policy-making. Her book both seeks to explain the reasons for this inaction and to indict the responsible policy-makers for their indifference. Through cases studies of many of these slaughters–the Turks’ 1915 decimation of the Armenians, the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge’s wipeout of 30 percent of the Cambodian people, Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds, the Hutu murder of 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda, and Serbian ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo–Power demonstrates how the United States has consistently failed to respond to these massive human tragedies.  

By carefully documenting what policy-makers knew and when–even with the primitive technology available in 1915, The New York Times ran 145 stories about the killings of the Armenians–she removes the central rationalization for inaction. That the oft-heard post-Holocaust promise of never again” can co-exist alongside this record of non-intervention Power views as rank hypocrisy. Indeed, as she quotes writer David Rieff, “never again” might best be defined as, “Never again would Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940s.”

Less a work of original scholarship than a carefully researched and arrestingly written call to arms, Power’s book is clearly intended to jolt the world, and particularly U.S. policy-makers, into greater action in the future. And for a book that was dropped as too macabre by its original publisher, Random House, and one that was for a time refused by all the publishers in New York, it has made a remarkable splash. Former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke bought forty-five copies and distributed it widely, including one to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. After she published an article in The Atlantic in 2001 about governmental inaction in Rwanda, a memo summarizing the argument was given to President Bush, who wrote on it, “NOT ON MY WATCH.” If Power’s goal was to get prevention of genocide on the radar screen of the nation and the world’s most powerful people, the book is a rousing success.

Rhetoric and reality

How or whether these words translate to action, of course, is another matter. Judging from Power’s own description of the past, vague commitments to do the right thing are a dime a dozen, whereas a willingness to expend political capital, disrupt alliances, or risk soldiers is less likely than a Red Sox World Series championship. These past episodes of genocide did not suffer from a lack of idealistic academics, muckrakers in the press, or committed congressional staffers trying to raise the issue. These people are the tragic heroes of Power’s book, and their stories bear retelling.  

First among them was Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish legal academic, who invented the term genocide in 1945 to ensure that there was a single term that would distinctively capture the horrors perpetrated by Hitler against the Jews (including Lemkin’s family) and by the Turks against the Armenians. Lemkin spent much of his remaining years pushing the U.N. Genocide convention, first at the United Nations, where it passed in 1948, and then trying to get the domestic legislatures of the various countries to sign off. Lemkin worked himself to the bone–living off donations, haunting halls around the world where genocide was being debated–and died penniless in 1959.  

Others since have worked with equal fervor and disregard to their personal health, specifically Senate staffer Peter Galbraith’s unauthorized (and unprotected) trip to Iraq in 1991 that documented the Iraqis’ murderous repression of the Kurdish uprising. But despite the sympathy that Power evokes for Lemkin, Galbraith, and the various others who tried to bring genocide to the fore, the dominant message of her story is how these valiant efforts have been overwhelmed by the forces arrayed against them. There is a deep irony in Power carrying on their mission in large part by cataloging their failures.  

Specifically, two familiar and unchanging factors of the American political system consistently doomed their efforts: 1) a foreign policy that prioritizes national self-interest (generally defined as winning the Cold War for most of the period Power covers), and 2) a pluralist political system that is most responsive to organized and/or well-financed interests. Politicians, in turn, recognize that they do not have the domestic backing for interventions even if they are so inclined, and thus develop a variety of ways to downplay the horrors: by avoiding the use of the word “genocide” (Rwanda), by portraying the conflicts as ancient multi-sided ethnic struggles instead of as genocide (Bosnia), and by justifying state killings as a legitimate means of political repression against an insurgent group (Cambodia, Iraq).  

It is not that the American political system doesn’t work, Power ruefully concludes–it is that it works too well in representing American interests that are narrowly defined. As one reviewer pointed out, a foreign policy realist might wonder not why the United States does not generally intervene to prevent genocide, but rather why it ever would.  

Facing this climate, perhaps all that Power’s work could hope to do is stir the moral outrage that might bring about the political pressure to act against genocide. Indeed, Power recounts that National Security Adviser Anthony Lake told Human Rights Watch two weeks into the Rwandan genocide to “Make more noise!” Power’s book makes a lot of noise. But the noise comes at the price of some needed clarity, particularly in a newly constituted world where the wiping out of (selected) previously genocidal regimes is now claimed to be part of a more broadly defined set of national interests. The questions that Power avoids are ones that have become the paramount ones in this new world. What kind of human-rights violations are significant enough to override state sovereignty? Does it matter whether the intervention is unilateral or multilateral? Does it matter whether the genocide is in the past or on going? Power provides a devastating critique of the consequences of inaction, but does not specify the criteria for when it is appropriate to act.  

Indeed, some have even claimed that left-leaning critics’ cry about genocide in the 1990s–and the American-driven NATO bombings of Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999–paved the road for Bush to declare preemptive war against Iraq in the new century. Writing in the London Review of Books, Stephen Holmes argued that “the 1990s advocates of humanitarian intervention have…helped rescue from the ashes of Vietnam the ideal of America as a global policeman, undaunted by other countries’ borders, defending civilisation against the forces of ‘evil’. By denouncing the U.S. primarily for standing idly by when atrocity abroad occurs, they have helped repopularise the idea of America as a potentially benign imperial power.” Holmes notes that key Bush administration unilateralist hawks Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle were among those who supported the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo outside of the U.N. framework. In Holmes’ view, Power has “bequeathed a risky legacy” to the current administration through her endorsement of American-led, unilateral if necessary, intervention to protect human rights.  

We can’t place responsibility for the Iraq war on Power’s shoulders. No one has yet claimed that she is part of Bush’s Straussian “cabal,” and there is nothing in A Problem From Hell that suggests she would not have supported it. In large part, this is because at the time the book was written, after a century of American shirking of responsibility, the danger of too much intervention was not even a possibility.  

But there is another reason as well. Because Power’s primary goal was to motivate complacent policy-makers and a dormant public to greater concern for the victims of genocide, the book does not spend any time exploring the underlying issue of when it is or is not appropriate to intervene. Rather than try to reason us into some kind of consensus about when intervention is morally required, she begins by presenting us the death of nine-year-old girl in Sarajevo at the hands of a Serbian shell and then dares the reader to rationalize permitting genocide.  

This is by no means an uncontestable point. Even the leading just-war theorist on the left, Michael Walzer, sees genocide occurring within a state as a sufficient justification for war, but not one that imposes a duty on other powers to intervene. But to enter into this philosophical dialogue would detract from the book’s moral clarity that is its greatest strength. In other words, by choosing to take the crucial question of whether it is appropriate to intervene and positing it as a given, Power simultaneously gives her work a kind of punch it would not otherwise have had and leaves herself unable to deal with the changed problems posed in the new century.

The dithering and the messianic

In a more recent piece in The New Republic, Power takes a more analytical approach, and begins to diagram her view of what a foreign policy committed to human rights might look like. She tries to steer a middle course between the dithering, power-averse, “We can all get along” Clinton foreign policy of the 1990s, and the messianic, power-loving, “You’re with us or against us” Bush foreign policy of the past two years. Clinton’s strategy she derides as impotent and naïve about the ways of the world; Bush is overly cocksure and he unnecessarily alienates countries that should be allies. She favors the stated Clinton policy of acting “multilaterally when we can and unilaterally when we must” over the Bush administration’s implied policy of acting unilaterally when we can and multilaterally when we must.  

But more than the United States’ unilateralism, what bothers Powers is what she neatly labels its “a la cartism”–the mishmash of foreign policies that indicates to the rest of the world that the United States is only interested in human rights when it is otherwise convenient. To bomb Kosovo but to ignore Chechnya, and to gripe about the lack of democracy in Palestine but not in Pakistan, invites cynicism from the rest of the world when America claims to be acting on the basis of human rights in Iraq. (Not to mention the fact that, as Power points out, U.S. aid to Iraq doubled the year after Hussein gassed the Kurds.)  

Power would prefer the United States to come clean and acknowledge all of the black marks on its past record. Going forward, she argues that preventing genocide is only one part of a larger set of goals concerning human rights. For that reason, she suggests that human rights should be a stated consideration in all foreign policy decisions, including those that on the surface have little to do with human rights. Each treaty, photo-op and oil contract should be considered in light of its human rights implications.  

Knowing that it is naïve to argue for troop deployments too often, Power wants the United States use its entire toolbox of options (sanctions, moral censure, diplomatic pressure) to avert human rights abuses. Power argues that such a policy would be morally consistent, and would make the United States more attractive to the allies it needs in its war on terrorism. The battle to convince our allies over Iraq, Power avers, was less a battle over the nature of the Iraqi regime than it was one over the character of the U.S. regime. A foreign policy that consistently makes human rights central would not only be right, it would protect national interests by projecting an image of America that would be harder for terrorists to demonize and easier for allies to embrace.  

Power’s vision is difficult to evaluate responsibly, in large part because it rests upon a set of propositions about how others would react to a hypothetical foreign policy. But at least it is a vision–a way of drawing lines is at least somewhat realistically grounded in the ways of the world, but still idealistic in its aims. More context-specific than abstract concepts like just war theory, but more consistent and principled than a case-by-case approach, Power has articulated the kind of middle-range paradigm that is sorely needed to help us think about foreign policy in the post-September 11 world.  

As liberal intellectual George Packer has pointed out, the terms of the public debate over Iraq pushed liberals into an uncomfortable ambivalence: While they saw preemption as a dangerous precedent, thought war should still be a last resort, and distrusted the Bush administration’s motives, they were left defending a status quo that resulted in severe repression and was opposed by the majority of the Iraqi people. Power’s paradigm recasts the debate in a way that allows liberals to recapture their defining idealism by committing to a broader vision of protecting human rights, without being drawn into the dangers of preemptive war.

In the long run, creating this kind of middle-range paradigm may prove an even more powerful way of meeting Power’s ultimate objective of injecting concern for human rights into American foreign policy. The role played by Wolfowitz, William Kristol, and others, who have been outlining the case for war with Iraq since at least the mid-1990s, is only the most recent example of how idea-people can radically remake the world. As the Democratic presidential candidates mumble vaguely about the importance of strength, brag about past service, or join the reflexive anti-war left, it is striking how comparatively unprepared they are to articulate a vision for how to responsibly deploy American power in a world filled with terrorists and human rights abusers.  

To be sure, there can never be too few voices making noise about genocide. Even now, as the wars in Liberia and the Congo hang precipitously on the edge of the radar of the Western world, Power’s voice rings daily in my ears, reminding me that civil war is not an excuse for inaction if genocide is going on, and that history will judge us badly if we turn away. But it is also true that noise is not the only way to make change, and that the attacks of September 11 have made this a critical branching moment for the future of U.S. foreign policy, one that is just waiting for an intelligent paradigm to counter Bush’s simplistic preemption doctrine. We can only hope that Power, or someone with similar knowledge and commitment to human rights, will step in to fill the void.”

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