Sunday, March 09, 2008

Never Again, - and Again and Again

With the furor about Samantha Power's comments on Hillary Clinton I tried to look up my review of her book from the June 24 2002 In These Times, to discover it was lost in cyberspace. I thought it worth looking over again.

Never Again, -- and Again and Again

Samantha Power’s book is about the American government’s responses to genocide, from the Turkish massacres of the Armenians through to modern times, with the Kurds, Cambodia, `Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo. Unaccountably she omits East Timor, or even earlier, the pogroms in Indonesia, where the problem was not Washington’s insouciance in the face of genocide, but an active complicity in the fomentation of it.

Since her book it is about official attitudes, it mostly excludes the American left, which had little power or part in shaping the debate. Sadly, one can only suspect that if the left /had/ had any influence, it would have been wielded on the side of the isolationists and America-firsters whose influence ensured that the usual response from Washington was evasion and dissimulation.

Right, Left and Center have all too often conspired in various forms of denial. Beginning with attempts to downplay the number of the victims, followed by attempts to reduce them and perpetrators to the spurious equivalence of “opposing sides” warped by inextinguishable hatreds, they both seize at any excuse to deny that foreign mass murder is any of our business.

People in the centers of powers also tend to assume that the perpetrators are people of integrity. For several secretaries of State, Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein were people with meaningful negotiations could take place, while, despite that, for many sectarians, both later became poster-boys of anti-US-hegemony.

In fact, what Samantha Power reveals is that far from the concept of “genocide” being a convenient cover for a rapaciously expansive US global hegemony, it has in fact been largely ineffectual in getting any action by successive US administrations.

Power’s book takes its title from Warren Christopher’s famous description of Bosnia as “A problem from Hell,” which he said was the result of “hatred” that was “centuries old.” With suitable encouragement the media began to trace the problem back to the split between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires – several hundred years before the first Slav hit the Balkans. Maybe it’s something in the water there.

In fact, what he really meant was that it was a problem from Hell for the Clinton administration, with its public commitments to stop the killings, a “feel their pain” sympathy with the victims warring against its determination to avoid any American casualties.

Power details the efforts by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to launch the Genocide Convention and indeed both to invent the name and to define the meaning of genocide to remedy what Churchill had said about the reports coming from Occupied Europe of a “crime without a name.” “Sovereignty cannot be construed as the right to kill millions of innocent people,” Lemkin had concluded in what to most of us seems to be a self-evident truism, but which, in fact flies in the face of received legal doctrine - across the political spectrum.

Lemkin’s campaign had been largely inspired by the Turkish massacres of Armenians. Reinforced by the Holocaust, of which he had early evidence, he fought tenaciously for the Convention at the United Nations, where the world gave the concept a far more inclusive definition than suspected by those who pooh-poohed events in the Balkans because “only” thousands were killed.

Ironically, Power points out, despite the election-tide shouts of “Never Again” from all over the US, the Senate did not ratify the convention for almost forty years – and when it did it was a desperate attempt by the Reagan administration to cover up the President’s gaffe in laying wreaths for dead SS troopers in the Bitburg Cemetery. Even then, the US anticipated its attitude to the International Criminal Court by adding reservations that even Reagan’s British allies complained nullified the ratification.

Power points out the awesome responsibility of the media in rousing public opinion for international action, but is candid about the awful way so much of the media carried out the task. The lesson to all future perpetrators has become clear – mount your main massacres off camera, except for a few showy killings of peacekeepers, preferably American, to ensure non-intervention.

The US networks averaged 30 seconds a month of coverage of Cambodia while the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed their way through any Khmers suspected of having an IQ above subnormal. The response of the US government was to fight to keep the genocidal regime in the UN seat for some years after the Vietnamese had driven them out of power. Interestingly George McGovern, an archetypal anti-Vietnam War figure showed that he could differentiate between interventions: he called for diplomatic and international action against Pol Pot and his regime.

Similarly, after Saddam Hussein’s gassing of Kurdish insurgents in the late 80’s, the same Republican Right who recently returned to the bully pulpits of Washington determined to punish Hussein for his moral failings, were then killing efforts to deprive him of credits and food supplies for his genocidal activities. They denied the evidence, and materially and diplomatically encouraged him to continue his war against Iran, gas notwithstanding. The US delegation– whose brief recent absence from the UN Human Rights Commission was considered such a blow to the organization’s credibility, refused to support European allies who called for a Human Rights rapporteur against Iraq in 1989.

When not denying the evidence, another common trope from government is to emphasize the enormity of resources needed for intervention. As Power demonstrates, history has tended to disprove most of such fearful hyperbole. In most – indeed maybe all, recent cases, any sign of firmness, diplomatic and economic, let alone military, would have saved thousands of lives at little cost. Perhaps one of the most shameful manifestations of invertebracy was the Clinton administrations stalling of reinforcements and resupply for the tiny beleaguered UN force in Rwanda which still managed to save thousands, even as Madeleine Albright as US representative at the UN tried to strangle its supply lines rather than go to Congress for a few million peacekeeping appropriation..

It is of course true that even when governments do good, they often manage to make a mess of it. Power mentions the final NATO air assault that accompanied the joint Bosnian Croat offensive against the Serbs. It showed that intervention could have been relatively painless and speedy two hundred thousands corpses before. But what she does not mention is that as soon as Bosnian forces looked like taking more territory than earlier negotiations with Milosevic had envisaged, the air support was withdrawn. The Bosnian Serbs, Srebrenica and Sarajevo notwithstanding, were still to keep their ethnically cleansed half of Bosnia. It was a comeuppance but no Nemesis.

In Kosovo, Power demonstrates that there was indeed every justification for intervention and reminds those who wondered about the body count that many of those missing bodies turned up under police yards in Serbia. However, even so, there was enough dubiety about both motives and methods to sully the first direct interference to stop genocide that the US and NATO had ever undertaken. The high flying planes sacrificed accuracy not to protect the pilots so much as to protect the politicians whose polls would suffer if they were downed. Clinton obtusely discounted the only option that Milosevic feared, by announcing in advance that he would not put in ground forces. If he had announced differently at the beginning, the air war may not have needed – but on the other hand, Milosevic may still have been in Belgrade.

Power does not waste much time on the Left as a force in these developments. She is correct. While far too many of the Left were denouncing imaginary hegemonistic and opportunistic interventions on the part of Washington, she knows that the administrations were doing all they could stay out. She concludes that “The US record is not one of failure – it is one of success. US officials worked the system and the system worked.” Intervention was avoided and what is a river of corpses abroad in comparison with poll ratings at home?

It is not a happy conclusion, since she also deduces that “The last century shows that the walls that the US tries to build around genocidal societies almost inevitably shatter.” In other words, ignoring genocide is not only immoral – it is impractical. We all have to pay the price in the end. The torch in this field has been held, in general, not by the left, but by human rights groups and activists across the world, who have had the courage and tenacity to belabor all regimes that have abused their citizens.

It is largely their work that has led to the small harbingers of global accountability we see now: the arrest of Pinochet, the trial of Milosevic –and the establishment of an International Criminal Court. A world where Henry Kissinger and Ariel Sharon have to check with their lawyers at the same time as their travel agents is one that is surely improving. Power’s book is an eloquent and detailed testimony of why we should not let our government stand on the sidelines, let alone collude with crimes against humanity.


Samantha Power, Ä Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.” Basic Books, NY 2002, $30.

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