"A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide is a book by Samantha Power (Perennial, 2003). It won dozens of prizes upon its release and, more importantly, is a book that really focuses the mind of the reader on an important ethical problem. If this book were required reading for the voting public then the world would quickly become a better place.
Power's thesis is fairly simple, yet rigorously and mercilessly enunciated over five hundred pages. The twentieth century, she declares, was the age of genocide. Seven genocides took place during this period - the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide, Saddam Hussein's Anfal campaign, Rwandan genocide, and the genocides against Bosniaks and Albanians carried out by Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia.1 Her book is littered with witness testimony and descriptions of the genocide, lest the term become too much of an abstraction for the reader.
For this, Power says, is what the term usually was for the American government. Since World War II America has been a superpower, and since the end of the Cold War it has been a hyperpower. This gave her immense leverage around the world to pressure other governments into various courses of action, and as the leader of the Western alliance it also had a moral authority to deploy. Power says that America utterly squandered these advantages when it came to tackling genocide, and abdicated the responsibility that great power brings.
It's not just that America failed to send troops, says Power. It was always hard, especially after Vietnam, to justify to Congress and the American public why troops should be sent abroad to defend what were fairly patent national interests, never mind to stop a genocide that had nothing to do with the U.S. national interest narrowly defined. The failure was more the fact that America didn't even expend political capital or make it a priority to stop these events when they began. Sometimes it even supported genocidal regimes, such as the Khmer Rouge.2 Power argues that allowing national interest to trump the moral imperative of stopping genocide, the worst crime imaginable, was a grave ethical failure and in her final passage she praises those who dissented -
[H]ow many of us looking back at the genocides of the twentieth century, including the Holocaust, do not believe that [the dissenters] were right? How many of us do not believe that the presidents, senators, bureaucrats, journalists and ordinary citizens who did nothing, choosing to look away rather than to face hard choices and wrenching moral dilemmas, were wrong?
Power also repeatedly notes throughout her book that the only time action against a genocide was taken, it was because people perceived a practical interest to be at stake. The NATO air campaign against Kosovo was carried out because the victims were Albanians, whose fate could not help but concern many others in the Balkans and risk a regional (or even, some thought, "world", by which they meant European) war. The fate of Rwandans was not of such immediate concern, or so Americans thought.
I think Power could have carried this argument to a more extreme conclusion. Any realists in the audience may initially cringe at what I say now, but I beg you consider it.
Since the end of the Cold War, America's precise role in the world has not been clear. It had a lot of power and until 9/11 it wasn't sure what to do with it. This allowed many around the world to think it was a paper tiger, and it allowed dictators like Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic and the leaders of the Interahamwe to think they could quite literally get away with "race murder". The U.S. imagined it could let this happen without any negative repercussions, and hence it never acted. Now, it is quite clearly not possible for America to wipe out all dictatorship and repression in the world.3 However, 9/11 has made us acutely aware of the danger that emanates from areas in which such conditions exist.
In a globalized world, what happens in Darfur, Bosnia and Afghanistan really does matter to us. The genocide in Bosnia is a fine example. Many Muslims looked at the West's inaction in Bosnia and were disgusted. Even worse, they looked at the Islamists helping out in Bosnia and were delighted. The result was that Bosnia became one of the most effective rallying cries the Islamists have had in decades, and that Bosnia itself became a staging ground for Islamist activity in the rest of Europe.
This is just one concrete example. Yet the case goes far beyond this. Genocide creates chaos, and chaos is precisely the problem that the Western world faces. Out of chaos comes crime, drugs, weapons of mass destruction, diseases and terrorism. We cannot let hundreds of thousands of people be murdered with impunity by mini-Hitlers and imagine the wave of pain and resentment will never eventually reach our shores. The West cannot solve all problems, but it can solve some. It can use its material and moral authority to promote peace around the world.4 Imagine if every genocidal dictator faced NATO airstrikes within weeks of beginning his evil deeds. Imagine how many fewer genocides this would result in.
The West needs to reduce the amount of chaos in the world, and it needs to reduce the net amount of dictatorship and repression. Our fate is intimately bound up with the rest of the world; if we take one lesson from 9/11 that will last one hundred years, this must be it. To allow genocide, the ultimate crime, to continue is a crime not just against the victims, but against our own enlightened self-interest.
1. She curiously omits to mention Saddam Hussein's campaign against the Marsh Arabs, which would seem to have a very clear-cut case for being classed as a "genocide". See http://www.hrw.org/backgrounder/mena/marsharabs1.htm, which states clearly "The population and culture of the Marsh Arabs, who have resided continuously in the marshlands for more than 5,000 years, are being eradicated." This clearly makes the action a genocide under the Genocide Convention, especially given the attempt by the Ba'athist regime to destroy their environment. Since Saddam Hussein's ouster the marshes have been partially restored, although some long-term damage will never be undone: http://www.azzaman.com/english/index.asp?fname=news%5C2005-07-05%5C10432.htm.
2. Support of the Khmer Rouge was based on the mistaken belief that the Vietnamese Communists were Soviet pawns. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 it looked like Soviet expansionism, which meant Washington's automatic response was to support the opponent of the move.
3. Critics of the Iraq war frequently dismiss the humanitarian argument, saying that it doesn't stand up because there are dozens of other brutal regimes in the world that we aren't attacking. This is like me dismissing welfare program X because you can never make everyone rich and happy.
4. Many people are under the impression that "peace" is merely the absence of war between states. Such an understanding seems to underlie the attitude of much of the pacifist left, which would rather have anything happen than armed intervention. Yet what is a dictatorship but a war between state and society?