Review: A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power

Samantha Power’s 2002 book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, must have been quite an undertaking. The book recaps not just the US response to the genocides of the twentieth century (the Turkish massacres of Armenians; the Holocaust; the Cambodian killing fields; the gassing of the Kurdish minority in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; the Serb-sponsored ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in 1993; the Rwandan genocide; and Serbia’s mass murder of Kosovars in 1999), but also charts the laborious process of US ratification of the UN Genocide Convention and the political coincidences that enabled movement on international humanitarian law (Ronald Reagan’s ill-fated trip to Bitburg Cemetery, for example). Power is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, serves on President Obama’s National Security Council (incidentally, she was the one who resigned from Obama’s 2008 campaign staff after referring to Hillary Clinton as a “monster”), and served as a war correspondent in Bosnia when the UN-protected “safe area” of Srebrenica fell to Bosnian-Serb General Radko Mladic and his forces. In other words, her credentials are airtight, and her book is fascinating, heartbreaking and highly informative. It’s clearly intended as a call to arms, a no-holds-barred defense of humanitarian intervention and US recognition of and compliance with international law. And while I was essentially on her side already, she certainly lays out a compelling case here.  

Many of Power’s critics, after the publication of A Problem from Hell, caviled that she “left a lot out,” to which I say, well, nobody would read a 2,000 page book. Sure, she simplifies in parts and doesn’t include reasoned rebuttals to every potential critique of her policy proposals, but forsaking analysis of, say, US military action that resulted in high civilian casualties doesn’t mean she endorses shock-and-awe; rather, she makes the dialectical case for the US military’s ultimately serving the greater global good. That said, I do hope she’ll publish an “updated edition” to share her views on the excesses of so-called “cowboy diplomacy,” the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the more recent air war in Libya and potential intervention in Syria. I think (based on her political allegiances) we can all safely assume she didn’t support Bush 43’s Iraq war, but I imagine she would have been in favor of deposing Qaddafi in Libya. With the caveat that my support of the Libya invasion was and is not categorical, I do think that the mission was a “success” in that civilian casualties were limited, international support was widespread and, perhaps most importantly, the intervention achieved its stated goal: to get rid of a dictator that threatened to raze cities and murder his people en masse. And to those who sniff that America only undertakes missions we’re sure we can win, I’m not sure why that strategy is particularly misguided. If the goal is to alleviate human suffering, getting bogged down in a quagmire (Vietnam, Iraq, and likely in Syria, should we go there) certainly isn’t the way to do it. In fact, protracted occupations just increase misery in the long run and, as Power points out, make it more likely that the US will embrace isolationism the next time a horrific action commands the world’s attention.

Aside from its obvious political agenda, A Problem from Hell is an exceedingly valuable piece of research—particularly the book’s analyses of genocides that have received less attention in history textbooks and the US news media (Armenia, Cambodia, Iraq) and its elucidations of the special interests driving US non-intervention. (For example, when the Khmer Rouge stormed into Pnomh Penh in 1975, the last US troops has just left Saigon and America was mired deep in “Southeast Asia fatigue”; when Saddam Hussein was solving the “Kurdish problem” with chemical gas in Northern Iraq in 1988, not only did the US rely on Saddam as a bulwark against the ayatollahs in Iran, but sanctions were also politically impossible thanks to the thriving trade relationship between the US and the Iraqi regime.) When Power juxtaposes US agricultural interests with writhing Kurdish children, one can’t help but listen, and it occurred to me about halfway through the book that while Power certainly means to make the case for humanitarian intervention in general, her primary purpose may be to expose the hypocrisy and moral impurity of US foreign policy. This may seem a no-brainer to certain subsets of readers—particularly to “realists” who believe that national self-interest has always driven international politics—but it’s a controversial proposition to others. One of the more annoying aspects of all the nostalgia and fear of US decline that seem to be sweeping the old-white-men contingent of the country these days is this idea that America once “stood up for what was right” and “fought for moral reasons,” as the fictional Will McAvoy on HBO’s “The Newsroom” puts it. A Problem from Hell makes it all the more unclear just which country he’s talking about.

Power’s narrative also serves as a classic heroes-and-villains tale, giving us intimate portraits of men like lawyer Raphael Lemkin, Senator William Proxmire and State Department official Peter Galbraith, individuals who did “stand up for what was right,” often alone and against immense obstacles. Galbraith’s letter to his thirteen-year-old son, written before he embarked on a potentially lethal fact-finding mission in Kurdistan, actually moved me to tears: “The Kurds are in rebellion against an evil regime and their people need help, including above all food and medicine. By going there I thought I could help convince the Congress to provide the help. . . . I am most sorry I won’t see you grow up. Your Mom and I divorced when you were a baby and so you and I never really were a family. But I love you very much and know you will be a fine, loving man. Live a good, kind, caring life.” In a creative stroke, Power uses these examples of human fortitude to invert Stalin’s “one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic” dictum: One man fighting for justice is a hero, a million men doing so is sound foreign policy. In this sense, Power makes us long for a future in which heroes do not exist.

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