Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Review - A Problem from Hell

Having been somewhat critical of Samantha Power's comments about Hillary Clinton a few weeks ago, in which Power, a now-former adviser to Barack Obama, likened "our girl" to a monster, I figured I had better be certain of what I was talking about. So I went to the library and borrowed "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide (2002).

Power was a journalist, with stints in the Balkans where she saw the "ethnic cleansing" firsthand, and I cannot even begin to understand what it was like to be on the ground in those places and experience the horrors she did. But do not think for one second that this book is a work of journalism - it is a severe criticism of American policy as it has been applied to what Power identifies as the major genocides of the 20th century: the Turkish massacre of the Armenians, the Holocaust, the post-Vietnam War terror in Cambodia, Saddam Hussein's purging of the Kurds in Iraq, the tribal atrocities in Rwanda, and the serial killings and dislocations instigated by the Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo.

In each of these cases, until Kosovo in 1999, Power argues, using well-researched evidence, that the United States deliberately did nothing to help the millions who were killed. She gives us a bit of a pass on the 1915-6 Armenia genocide, as we were not quite powerful enough to assist. But she tears down the idea that we didn't know, even about the pre-Internet, pre-TV, pre-radio deaths in Turkey.

Let me say right upfront that I think this is an important book, worthy of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize it won. There are heroes here, but they were insufficient to stem the tide of timid politicians who hid behind claims of "national interest" to excuse their reluctance to spend political capital and do something. The book is not lurid; there are examples of atrocities, but Power does not wallow in them - the stories she does tell are all the more effective for being spare. There is a degree of numbing repetition, making this a very difficult book to read through. This is not Power's fault, though, it's simply that, in each case, the pattern was very much the same: a series of events that touched off genocide, the genocide itself, the dawning recognition in the rest of the world, and a series of minimal or non-responses by the United States. It is impossible not to be moved, even outraged, as you read about the deaths of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis in 100 days.

I will not attempt to summarize this book any further than I have, and I will likely not say anything as positive as what I have already said. It is an important book, you should read it, but it is akin to a conversation with a very smart person with whom you have points of disagreement. It is a book with a point of view and, while not dripping with pathos, it is a polemic - and that leaves it open to being questioned; here are mine.

A large part of the book is dedicated to telling the story of Raphael Lemkin, a man who coined the word "genocide" and pushed through the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. His story is interesting in the way that all obsessive quests are, but it culminates, ultimately, in the enactment of a non-binding resolution that has, in Power's own telling, done nothing to prevent or deter genocide, and only just now led to the trial and punishment of those who have committed it.

It is a good thing that Power has documented this quest, but it can be fascinating only to people who are extremely interested in legal matters (as Power, a Harvard Law School graduate, presumably is). She admits that the definition of genocide has proven to be problematic; defined in the wake of the Holocaust, it has tended to be seen through that prism, leaving a lot of wiggle room for those who have a stake in defining subsequent mass killings as something short of "genocide." To a reader such as myself, whether something rises to the level of a UN-approved genocide is far less important that the fact that many people are being killed.

And this inexorably leads a reader to consider those actions that may or may not rise to that level, and that's when ambiguity starts to creep in. Do the ruinous policies of the Soviet Union or China constitute genocide? You might say no, because there was no concerted attempt to eliminate a particular "national, ethnical, racial, or religious group." But you might argue that allowing poor people to die when you yourself live well is as offensive to human sensibilities.

That the definition is not restricted to killing, but to anything that constitutes harm to a group's way of life is also difficult. Does the forced insertion of Israel represent a sufficient threat to the former Palestinian way of life? Do the mass deaths caused by Indonesia in East Timor qualify as genocide?

The most sticky situations of all, at least for Americans, are slavery and Native Americans. Slavery ended just 52 years before the Armenian genocide; Wounded Knee a single generation before. Power touches all too briefly on Native Americans, claiming that Americans used that as an excuse not to get involved in Armenia, but the discussion is short and her cutoff seems fairly arbitrary.

Speaking of the definition of genocide, it poses the same kind of problem that the concept of hate crimes does. The idea that intent somehow intensifies the seriousness of any kind of crime seems wrong to many. We draw an artificial box around certain situations, term them genocide, then write books about them and elevate their seriousness over "lesser" situations. Morally, is one death a millionth as offensive as a million deaths? A thousandth?

Power finds a number of heroes in the course of her narrative. Generally, these are Americans who pushed either the issue of genocide or specific genocides forward, trying to bring them to the attention of our government or our people. One such hero is Senator William Proxmire, who made it a mission to get the U.S. to ratify the UN Convention. While this is stirring, events subsequent to its ratification make it clear that we did not consider ourselves bound by the convention, so the passage was essentially meaningless.

Journalists come in for some criticism here. Power dislikes the use of qualifiers such as "claims" or "according to" when some faction claims that they have been victimized. It's difficult to see what the alternative would be; it may be true that evidence of deaths is hard come by when that evidence lies in a grave in an inaccessible battleground, but it would be rankly irresponsible to assume that every atrocity is genocidal. Reporters are hardly complicit when they fail to take the first story they hear and spin it into stories of mass killings.

Another peculiarity of this book is Power's insistence that the United States is almost solely responsible for handling these matters. After reading this, one would believe that the UN and NATO are essentially front organizations for the U.S. Whatever one might think of the truth of that statement, it ought to be justified in such a comprehensive book. I understand the argument that the U.S., being the world's superpower, has large responsibility in assisting with something as monstrous as genocide, but the level of our involvement, how deeply we must extend ourselves in every matter which is or might become genocidal, begs to be discussed.

(I think I'll leave the large question of sovereignty to a later post. I need to work out the extent to which claims of sovereignty affect my feelings here; suffice it to say now that that issue complicates the kind of intervention that Power feels the U.S. needs to demonstrate.)

The ultimate question is, how can the United States know that these things are happening and refuse to act? Power notes, but does not allow as excuses, political considerations, national interest, the election cycle.

And these aren't excuses, not sufficient ones, but I would have liked to see the book explore these in some depth. If you are going to spend 500 pages indicting the U.S., then you need to work a bit harder at understanding the crime. For example, our system is biased toward inaction. Congress is designed to take the intermediate view (the Supreme Court the long), so it is not, perhaps, the most appropriate body to deal with killings that are taking place right now. The executive branch, therefore, must be charged with most of the failure here. And the considerations that go into that decision-making (or lack thereof) would fill a book of their own.

An issue which complicates these matters even further is the war in Iraq. Power's book was completed a short time after 9/11, so she can only express concern that the war on terror will somehow detract from the war on genocide. But, reading this today, having lived through five years of what a policy of interventionism can do, it is harder to jump on Power's bandwagon as enthusiastically as she might like. If this country could foul up a straightforward removal of a dictator, what might we do in a more strategically ambiguous situation?

Power seems to believe, and she certainly wasn't alone back in the early part of this decade, that surgical intervention to save thousands of people is possible without creating havoc. It's easy to see where she comes up with this; by all accounts, the NATO intervention in Kosovo was remarkably clean.

But Iraq has proven that we don't just walk into a country, make everything all better, and leave it a better place, just for having come. The question of what we leave behind is paramount, and we can't ignore that. Unfortunately, Power does, and given that she would have us injecting ourselves into every situation that promises to be a genocide, no matter how many fronts that presents at once, that lack of consideration defines the biggest flaw in this significant chronicle.

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