America in the World   /   Spring 2003   /    Reviews

The Realities of Confronting Genocide

A Review of Samantha Power’s “A Problem from Hell”

Gerard Alexander

Samantha Power speaking at an event at the United Nations Office at Geneva (2010). Via Wikimedia Commons.

It is easy to get swept away by a book like this. Samantha Power is a former Balkan war correspondent and former head of a center for human rights policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Her book sits at the intersection of three important topics: genocides, the tendency of the outside world to let them proceed, and the foreign policy of the U.S. Power skillfully tells stories which break one’s heart—as we watch victim groups slide from possibly saved to certainly drowned—and which stir one’s outrage—as we see policymakers watch the victims, too, for a moment, before quietly turning away. Power pleads for more concern for the victims of mass murder and for less hypocrisy and more risk-tolerance among U.S. policymakers—pleas which are, on their face, difficult to imagine rejecting. Not surprisingly, the book has been widely reviewed and very positively received; it recently won a Pulitzer prize. And yet, in the end, Power’s argument does not work.

The book’s structure is straightforward and potent. Power opens by introducing us to Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who escaped the Nazi net, which caught most of his family. He started lobbying in the late 1930s for greater international action against the Nazi project. In response to Winston Churchill’s war-time comment in the face of unprecedented Nazi murders—that “We are in the presence of a crime without a name”—Lemkin coined the term “genocide.” His efforts were distilled into his campaign for an international treaty making genocide criminal and punishable. His hours of triumph came when “[j]ust four years after Lemkin had introduced ‘genocide’ to the world, the [U.N.] General Assembly had unanimously passed a law banning it” in 1948, followed by the Genocide Convention (59). Lemkin poured his life-energies into the effort and died alone and penniless after a life of idealistic exertion.

Power then tracks U.S. policymakers’ reluctance to ratify the Convention’s words and even greater reluctance to live up to its spirit. She devotes discussions to Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo (as well as earlier Armenia). In nearly every case, she finds early warning signs of larger-scale murder to come; suspiciously emphatic incredulity on the part of U.S. journalists and officials; and dogged reluctance to act—even rhetorically, at times—when mass murder becomes undeniable. Power focuses on the U.S. because, if anything, its raised consciousness about the European Holocaust seems to make it the most likely candidate to be the world’s first responder to genocides, and because of its disproportionate capacity to make a difference. With regret and evident bitterness, she details how, whenever genocides begin, U.S. officials suddenly develop courtroom-like standards for proof. She chronicles non-intervention, even when a little might have gone a very long way (in Rwanda, a few hundred crack troops could conceivably have saved hundreds of thousands). And she describes the domestic U.S. political processes that seem to cause this recurrent pattern. She absolves any partisan category and any particular policymaker: “when you look at a whole century of American Presidents who all find a way to look away, it doesn’t seem so personality dependent.”

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