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'A Problem From Hell:
America and the Age of Genocide'

With Samantha Power
Author
Tuesday, May 20, 2002; 2 p.m. ET

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide" is a character-driven journalist Samantha Power investigates what she describes as the darkest moments in our national history, when America failed to prevent or stop 20th century campaigns to exterminate Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Iraqi Kurds, Bosnians and Rwandans.

Power was online Tuesday, May 20 at 2 p.m. ET, to discuss her book and America's role and reaction in the face of the worst massacres of the 20th century.

Power will be signing copies of her book Wednesday, May 21 at 7 p.m. ET at Politics & Prose book store.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Annapolis, Md: From the introduction for this session "when America failed to prevent or stop 20th century campaigns to exterminate Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Iraqi Kurds, Bosnians and Rwandans".

I noticed that "native Americans" were not in this list. Can you tell me why not?

Thanks.

Samantha Power: My book looks at 20th century genocides. It is not an exhaustive look at even that century or since America's founding. The only time that the Native American genocide comes up is in the context of American debate in the 50s and 60s about whether to ratify the genocide convention. Some senators expressed fear that ratifying this would leave American leaders vulnerable to genocide charges for the crimes committed in the 19th and 18th centuries.


Pleasant Hill, Calif.: We are leaving many people out of the discussion. Weren't there even worse massacres in Africa in the last century?

As a Vietnam vet, I wonder: Why don't you include the million poor Vietnamese we self-righteously bombed, burned, and shot in their own country?

How about the Reagan/Bush Death Squads in Central America? The "Dirty WArs" in South America by the U.S. clients?

Samantha Power: For any author, decisions of inclusion and exclusion are excruciating. I chose a select and finite number of cases and documented them as thoroughly as a historical record and as U.S. officials' accessibility and victim testimonies allowed. When it comes to war crimes committed and/or sponsored by the U.S., I felt that many worthy books had already been written. I was struck by the utter absence of consideration of American bystanding in the face of genocide. That was the question I was probing in my research and writing. Readers themselves may have chosen to write different books, but that was my question.


Washington, D.C.: Hello, I just returned from Africa, where I first really learned about what happened in Rwanda. I found it appalling that I didn't know more about it at the time from our press, and am trying to learn all I can. I just finished Philip Gourevitch's book, "We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families," and now am reading "Witness to a Genocide" now. Your book is next in my stack, so perhaps you answer this question there. However, what practical advice do you have for someone who wants to work to ensure that these types of genocides don't happen in the future? I am very motivated, and don't want to consider what I have learned to be merely an academic exercise. I would like to leave my law practice here and actually work in Africa, perhaps in Rwanda as they are rebuilding their country. I would be grateful for any ideas you have. Also, any recommendations on non-profits I could volunteer for here in D.C. as I work on this transition? Thanks!

Samantha Power: For all of the bad news out of Africa these days, there is also plenty of good news that gets virtually no attention in the Western media. Some of the good news comes in the form of organic civil society efforts, whether those in Senegal to outlaw female genital mutilation, or those in Southern Africa to lower the price of AIDS medications. Depending on your resources, you could offer your services to such local organizations as they struggle to tackle the international dimensions of their work. In addition, you have international NGOs like Doctors Without Borders, International Rescue Committee, or in your case Lawyers Without Borders, which are always looking for experienced and committed volunteers.


Alexandria, Va.: I remember some years back that President Clinton traveled to Rwanda and expressed remorse that the United States and western powers did not intervene to stop the 1994 genocide. He said that one reason is that he did not have adequate and timely information about the nature and magnitude of the killing. Is this remotely credible, do you think?

Samantha Power: No. It is not a credible claim. His daily intelligence briefs as well as morning newspapers, offered ghastly testimony to the nature and magnitude of killing underway. But, it is also true that his advisers did not energetically urge the president to devote his time and political capital to Rwandan atrocities. In one sense, it was an all systems failure -- a failure of the president to exert leadership on the basis of available information, a failure of his advisers to generate high level debate about the most appropriate response, and a failure of the rest of us to convey the importance of this distant slaughter to us.


Mt. Rainier, Md.: Without wishing to make excuses for a lack of political backbone, it seems that many of these genocides occurred in places where there were few journalists (if any) to get the word out. In Rwanda, the French were able to confuse the situation because there was no independent report. Except for Gen. Dallaire, nobody was saying what was happening on the ground. And to a large extent no one wanted to believe -- like the Jewish Holocaust.

Samantha Power: Yes, in most of the cases of genocide that I looked at (the exception was Bosnia), journalistic coverage was spotty and, initially anyway, superficial. In Rwanda western journalists visited for the first time only once the genocide was underway. They did not have independent credible sources that they could rely upon and yes, as you suggest, their imaginations were limited by their experiences. No violence that they had ever covered had prepared them for the systematic slaughter of 800,000 people.


Mt. Rainier, Md.: Do you consider the situation in Zimbabwe under Mugabe to verge on genocide? It seems the massacres in 1980 in Matebeland might well be seen as the attempt to effectively wipe out a whole people, who were also seen as an opposition movement. The death-by-starvation also centers in areas/tribes seen as hostile to Mugabe.

Samantha Power: I'm not an expert on Zimbabwe. I'm taking my first trip there later this summer to write about the famine which has been induced and enabled by Mugabe's inhumane governance. There is considerable evidence now that his regime is withholding food aid from regions sympathetic to his opposition. Certainly, one could imagine this kind of systematic denial of the resources required to live as a form of politicide -- or political genocide.


West Chester, Pa.: Ms. Power,

Congratulations on your Pulitzer Prize. It is richly deserved.

I just finished your book and was wondering if you can correlate presidential responses to genocide (or reports of it) with membership in a political party. In other words, have traditional party affiliations played a significant role in guiding the president's behavior/response?

Samantha Power: I was struck by the seeming irrelevance of party affiliation. The best predictor of a person's likelihood of engaging with genocide is his or her personal encounters with suffering. For some, as you no doubt read in the book, this came in the form of trips to conflict areas. For others, like Jesse Helms, it came at his church in Alexandria, where he met several Kurdish hunger strikers. Often it was a combination of serendipity and curiosity that made certain individuals more prone to stand up than to stand by.


Harrisburg, Pa.: I have watched you on C-SPAN and what most impressed me was that you are a realist who accepts reality that no government is without sin. I'm astonished that Harvard would employ a levelheaded person who isn't filled with virile hate towards the U.S. government. It seems to me that the leftist community (Noam Chomsky disciples) have placed such standards on the America that no government could attain. If we do nothing about genocide, Chomsky and his disciples calls us selfish. If we do something, the leftist call us imperialist. Leftists today would oppose U.S. involvement in WWII, after all, who are we to judge Hitler? Your thoughts on the insanity of the academic left?

Samantha Power: I certainly agree there is a damned if we do, damned if we don't quality to critiques of U.S. foreign policy. Often people ask me to explain the U.S. non-response to Rwanda and follow it up with angry attacks on the U.S.-led NATO response to atrocities in Kosovo. I usually respond by reminding them that if we had actually listened to UN Commander Romeo Dellaire and gone into Rwanda early, we would not today know about the 800,000 lives we had saved -- we would only know that countries with soiled hands like the U.S., Belgium, France, etc. -- had killed innocent people in an intervention that -- again because of past state behavior -- we didn't trust.

Having said all of this, and agreeing with your general premise that making clean hands a requirement for action would ensure permanent inaction, I do believe the gaps between state rhetoric and state practice, between values applied in one place and disregarded in another, etc., that these gaps need to be narrowed and that we should even aspire to close them entirely. This effort would greatly enhance the legitimacy of our interventions on the rare occasions in which they are in fact motivated by humanitarian concerns.

As far as the academy goes, I don't think Noam Chomsky is the sum total of the academic left and I think the next generation of foreign policy intellectuals will contain far more realistic idealists and idealistic realists than the last one.


Washington, D.C.: Dr. Powers,
You spoke to my class at Harvard last year. I was so happy when I heard you won the Pulitzer Prize. Congratulation -- your work on genocide is spectacular.

Samantha Power: Thank you. I have learned an awful lot in my seven years based in the Harvard community -- both from my faculty colleagues and, if I may say so, even more from my students.


Wilmington, Del.: Are there hotspots where genocide may be occurring now? What responses has the Bush administration taken?

Samantha Power: I am very concerned about the green light that Vladimir Putin has been given regarding Chechnya. I worry about the Indonesian military offensive against Aceh. And Burundi, which shares Rwanda's ethnic demographic, is always a worry. Much abuse is currently being justified by the need to "fight terrorism." This can be a smokescreen that U.S. officials and officials and citizens in other countries should be very wary of. The Bush administration seems to be quite concerned about Burundi and, owing to the threat to the Christian population there, Sudan. But neither country is getting high level attention, and it is unclear whether the U.S. still has the legitimacy internationally to rally diplomatic or eventually military coalitions to service the cause of genocide prevention.


Washington, D.C.: What books are you reading these days? Do you stick with non-fiction in your "off-hours" or do you retreat to fiction?

Samantha Power: I'm trying to teach myself to read fiction without taking notes. Or skimming for battles. But I can't say it's easy to teach and old dog new tricks.

At the risk of sounding like a parody of myself, I just read Lance Morrow's new book, "Evil." I just read Kaethe Weingarten's book, "Common Shock on Trauma," and, on a lighter note, "Operation Shylock."


Baltimore, Md.: At the time of the Rwandan genocide, the National Security Adviser was someone with considerable experience in and of Africa. What role did Anthony Lake play in the White House decision not to intervene? It seems very surprising to me that someone who knew so much and cared so much about Africa was able to sit by and do nothing at this crucial moment. Is it true that the White House also sought to prevent other nations from intervening, so as to minimize the obviousness of their own inaction?

Samantha Power: I think your two questions are in fact related. In a sense the very qualities that made Anthony Lake the person you would most want in the job at the time of a genocide in Africa made him unprepared to fight the political fight that would have been required to generate support for U.S. military intervention. In theory that Rwanda represented yet another UN mission gone bad, Lake believed that in avoiding U.S. involvement he was not only advancing the interests of the president but that he was also saving the relationship between Congress and the UN. He believed that another failed U.S.-UN partnership in Africa (on the heels of the Mogadishu firefight) would forever proclude U.S. support for UN peacekeeping missions and U.S. involvement in Africa, two things he cared a lot about.

So, yes, Lake did instruct Madeleine Albright at the UN to demand a full UN withdrawal from Rwanda, even though there were already reports of more than 100,000 murdered.


Staten Island, N.Y.: Ms. Powers,

I have not read your book, but am wondering, what are the best indicators of a potential genocide -- economic problems, refugee migrations, obviously political turmoil? Where do you believe the next crisis will happen? I guess I'm trying to figure out how to be on the watch for future problems, so that I can do what I can be before the killing starts. Perhaps a little naive, but we shouldn't have to wait for 800,000 lives to be lost before we encourage our political leadership to take a stand.

Samantha Power: You have already identified several factors usually present when genocide happens. Additionally, one might look specifically at places where ethnically motivated massacres have occurred in the past. These are often invoked to stir up fear and hate that large scale killing requires. I think as citizens, because there are so many places (Chechnya, Indonesia, Sudan, Burundi, Zimbabwe) where one could imagine genocide, it is important to focus on one or two places and try to make whatever small but significant difference we can make by concentrating our energies.


New York, N.Y.: I watched you on TV and found you to be insightful and very easy on the eyes. Now that I buttered you up, I want to say that I strongly disagree with your views. Most of the mentioned genocides are NOT our fault, yet it was the U.S. not the self-righteous Europeans who were the MAJOR aid contributors in Rwanda and Bosnia. Europe and the rest of the world did NOTHING. We have sent thousands of troops and spent BILLIONS in Bosnia. It is the poor American kids, not the spoiled Harvard kids that you teach who are currently serving in Bosnia. My brother spent a year in Bosnia while their wealthy European neighbors sat at cafes and skied the Alps. Nothing personal, but if you want the U.S. to do more then I suggest you leave your climate controlled office, join the Army, and volunteer for Bosnia.

Samantha Power: There's certainly enough blame to go around, when it comes to bystanding in the face of human suffering. European countries stood by while Bosnia caught fire. France was aligned with a genocidal regime in Rwanda. Belgium pulled its troops from Rwanda at the first sign of slaughter. But as an American, I feel my first responsibility is to investigate and document American sins of omission and comission. And even if you believe that it is not the job of U.S. forces to be alleviating human suffering around the world, surely you would agree it is not the job of U.S. citizens to subsidize regimes like that of Saddam Hussein while they are murdering hundreds of thousands of people.

My book documents not merely bystanding, but instances in which we have aided and abetted regimes committing genocide in the name of national interest.

Having experienced the war in Bosnia personally, as a reporter there from 1993 to 1996, I would certainly resort to military force and risk American lives only in the most exceptional of circumstances. In the war in Bosnia more journalists lost their lives than U.S. soldiers. I think that it is essential for those prescribing policies to have experienced some of the implications of those policies. I make every effort to convey the horror of war to those who have not experienced it -- whether in the classroom at Harvard or in the boardrooms of Washington.


College Park, Md.: RE: Intervention

Is it necessary to draw the conclusion that intervention against potential genocide requires the destruction of a regime and infrastructure? The intervention to prevent genocide in Kosovo, for example, occurred mostly in Serbia and targeted civilian infrastructure such as bridges and power plants. Can't intervention take different forms such as providing safe haven for refugees, etc?

Samantha Power: Yes, I think it's very important when discussing intervention to remember the variety of forms that it can take. The experience with the creation of safe havens has not been a very positive one -- witness the systematic massacre of 8,000 muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995. But if policymakers, whether in the U.S. or Europe, in fact commit themselves to prioritizing human rights and human life more than they do today, I think you would see the creation of safe areas that are actually given the means to in fact be "safe." Unfortunately in the past a variety of forms of humanitarian intervention have in fact been half-measures, tailored more to domestic public opinion, and getting a foreign crisis out of the news, than to actually saving lives.


New Haven, Conn.: Of the presidents you detail in your book, which one would you most like to interview regarding his actions regarding genocide -- knowing that he had to tell the truth?

Samantha Power: FDR. I would like to ask FDR if he thinks he could have brought domestic and congressional opinion around to favoring war against Hitler if Hitler had not himself declared war on the United States.


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