Sunday, July 29, 2007

"A Problem From Hell" by Samantha Powers [1]

Note: Back from vacation, and I've ordered another copy of "Death of a Nation" through my Interlibrary Loan service. Still waiting for it to arrive; hopefully one will show up in the next two or three days. In the meantime, and in the interests of getting back to work, I'd like to consider a few aspects of a book I've been reading: "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide" by Samantha Powers.


Samantha Powers was a correspondent who covered the war in Bosnia and the violent dismemberment of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, prior to becoming executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Her experiences in Bosnia, and the things she learned, inspired her to examine the underlying factors that prevented the United States from assuming a leadership position in confronting an obvious affront to Western values as well as the peace and stability in post-Cost War Europe which a neutral observer would assume would be in America's interest. That inquiry led to this book.

Powers' book is a lengthy and well-researched examination of (as she explains in the Preface):

"America's responses to previous cases of mass slaughter."

Her research was intensive and thorough, but this was mostly necessary in order to flesh out the story and strengthen her case, because:

"It did not take long to discover that the American response to the Bosnian genocide was in fact the most robust of the century. The United States had never in its history intervened to stop genocide and had in fact rarely even made a point of condemning it as it occurred."

The resulting book is an examination of specific American responses to the genocides in Armenia, Nazi-occupied Europe, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. She argues that there are underlying similarities between the official US responses to these atrocities, which were varied across time and place, as well as on the ethnic, relgious, and cultural identity of the victims. In the Preface, she summarizes the main points. The first sentence of each point is quoted below:

"Despite graphic media coverage, American policymakers, journalists, and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil."

"It is in the realm of domestic politics that the battle to stop genocide is lost."

"The U.S. government not only abstains from sending its troops, but it takes very few steps along a continuum of intervention to deter genocide."

"U.S. officials spin themselves (as well as the American public) about the nature of the violence in question and the likely impact of an American intervention."

I will summarize the book in coming posts (even while continuing with the Parenti review/rebuttal) but for now--and to illustrate how directly this book connects with the themes of this blog--I will only quote the final paragraph of the Preface:

"Before I began exploring America's relationship with genocide, I used to refer to U.S. policy towards Bosnia as a "failure." I have changed my mind. It is daunting to acknowledge, but this country's consistent policy of nonintervention in the face of genocide offers sad testimony not to a broken American political system but to one that is ruthlessly effective. The system, as it stands now, is working. No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on."

Sobering words. The 500-plus pages of text which follow more than justify the harsh verdict she has rendered.


Katja R. said...

1. Hvala najlipsa for getting rid of the black background, it was very hard on my eyes!
2. Yes it is correct that Bosnia was the only American intervention in a situation of genocide. It is entirely correct that no U.S. president suffered politically for not intervening in genocide situations.
Basically I think at least some non-interventions were racially motivated. No one talks about the genocides of people in Central American either. In fact U.S. policy was really unhelpful there.
There seems to be an attitude of 'let them all kill each other, saves us doing it later.' a real cold bloodedness about the suffering of human beings. It was difficult to get the American people behind any intervention in BiH, very difficult and the right wing talk shows are STILL slagging Clinton for intervening in both BiH and Kosovo and calling the whole thing 'Wag the Dog'.

Anonymous said...

Kirk, I'm delighted for your sake and for our sake that you've got something worthwhile to get your teeth into. Doing Parenti after Johnstone was way beyond the call of duty. Powers has something of real interest to tell us.