On Justifying Intervention

On Justifying Intervention


The twentieth century was arguably the bloodiest in modern history, earning from one commentator the moniker of the Age of Barbarism. From the Nazi genocide, to the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda, to the “ethnically cleansed” areas of the former Yugoslavia, the twentieth century was one of unprecedented horror for many.

Mass slaughter of civilians is, of course, much older than these horrors. The modern world brought about by European expansionism, the famed Pakistani intellectual Eqbal Ahmad once observed, is a time of extraordinary unrecorded holocausts. How many of us, for instance, are familiar with the deaths of upward of 10 million in the Belgian-controlled Congo in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Or how about Australia’s extermination of the indigenous population of Tasmania? The decimation of inferior races in settler colonies, brought about by Western imperialism and the associated legitimizing ideologies, in fact, contends Sven Lindqvist in his brilliant Exterminate All the Brutes, ostensibly laid the groundwork for Hitler’s crimes by creating particular habits of thought and political precedents.

What was unique to the twentieth century–and thus the subtitle of Samantha Power’s very impressive “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide–was the invention of the very word “genocide” and its establishment as a legal construct outlawing one of the most egregious forms of state terror. That represents a great advancement in the construction of international law and associated political and juridical mechanisms, but the fact that genocide continues to occur and to go unpunished speaks to the difficulties of giving life to a legal regime.

While the parties most responsible for this shortcoming are those that perpetrate genocide, Power focuses much of her opprobrium on the party that is in her estimation best positioned to put an end to or at least significantly curb such horror: the US government. “No US President has ever made genocide prevention a priority,” she writes, “and no US President has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.”

The myriad horror stories of this age of genocide have many ugly characters, several of whom Power profiles in her well written and extensively documented book. But there are also many heroes, namely those within and without the US government who have spoken the proverbial truth to power with the goal of making Washington appreciate or acknowledge–and thus take appropriate action–that genocide was taking place in the various case studies that Power carefully details.

Perhaps the biggest hero in Power’s book is Raphael Lemkin. A Polish Jew who as a young boy had a fascination with the history of mass slaughters, Lemkin became a lawyer and international legal scholar. He set out to ban the destruction of ethnic, national or religious groups, to end the national sovereignty-granted impunity of state actors who perpetrate such atrocities and to insure universal jurisdiction for their prosecution.

Forced to flee his homeland when the Nazi army invaded in 1939, Lemkin ended up in the United States soon thereafter. He worked indefatigably to bring attention to and to record Hitler’s extermination of Jews, while urging Americans to do everything they could to put a stop to it. At the same time, he endeavored to invent a word to characterize such slaughters, one that, in Power’s words, “would connote a practice so horrid and so irreparable that the very utterance of the word would galvanize all who heard it.” When he coined the term “genocide” in 1944, Western governments and political pundits quickly embraced it. This led Lemkin to assume that actions to codify the term and fight the practices comprehended in it would quickly follow. He soon learned that he had a long fight on his hands–one that he waged incessantly until he died, penniless, in 1959.

Before his demise, however, Lemkin saw the United Nations General Assembly pass the genocide convention on December 9, 1948, the body’s first passage of a human rights treaty. And less than two years later, the necessary twenty countries had ratified the convention, making it international law. But he did not live to see the United States ratify it, a necessary step, Lemkin thought, to insure its enforcement, given American power. Indeed, it would not be until 1988 that the Senate did so, but not before attaching a set of reservations, understandings and declarations that insured that the United States itself could never be charged with the crime, thus rendering American approval largely symbolic.

The architects of the convention understood the danger of making Hitler’s crimes the standard by which to determine future genocides. States must be able to identify as genocide acts aimed at destroying “in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”–the legal definition of the crime–well before they have the chance to reach such a scale in order to trigger appropriate actions. (The convention enjoins its signatories to take measures to prevent and punish the crime.) Despite such intentions, the link between genocide and Hitler’s so-called Final Solution “would cause endless confusion for policy-makers and ordinary people who assumed that genocide occurred only where the perpetrator of atrocity could be shown, like Hitler, to possess an intent to exterminate every last member of an ethnic, national or religious group.”

While the Hitler-standard problem did help to undermine effective responses by American officials and opinion-makers to various post-World War II genocides, there were other dilemmas as well, including the difficulty of believing reports of horrific slaughter. Even in the face of extensive and graphic media coverage, Power writes, “American policymakers, journalists and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil.” In addition, there is a tendency to assume, before the fact, that the would-be perpetrators of genocide are rational actors who will not engage in horrific terror; that traditional diplomacy can resolve the crisis; and that civilians who keep a low profile during the conflict will survive. At the same time, cold geopolitical calculations underlie official reactions, and they often spin the violence as two-sided, a result of age-old hatreds and thus inevitable, while arguing that any type of serious intervention would be futile and even counterproductive. Thus, not only does Washington abstain from sending troops but it also takes very few steps along a continuum of potential interventions to deter genocide.

This nonresponse, Power demonstrates, is not something unique to the presidencies of George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton, who emerge looking especially bad. It manifested itself to varying degrees in all the cases she examines, beginning with the Ottoman Turks’ slaughter of almost a million Armenians in 1915. The United States under Woodrow Wilson–despite being well informed of Turkey’s crimes–did not support the Allies’ condemnation of Turkey’s crimes against humanity, lest such support undermine American neutrality. Disregarding the pleas of Washington’s ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, the Wilson Administration refused even to issue a direct government-to-government appeal to cease the killings or to pressure the Turkish authorities to allow humanitarian aid deliveries to Armenians driven from their homes and on the brink of starvation. For Power, Wilson’s nonresponse “established patterns that would be repeated.”

But as Power illustrates, it was not simply that the United States did nothing. Often Washington indirectly and directly aided the genocidaires. In Cambodia, for example, the US bombing that preceded Pol Pot’s seizure of power “killed tens of thousands of civilians.” While horrific in its own right, “it also indirectly helped give rise to a monstrous regime” responsible for the deaths of upwards of an estimated 2 million Cambodians. And in the case of Iraq’s slaughter of the Kurds, the Reagan White House dismissed reports of Saddam Hussein’s gassings and other atrocities while maintaining aid to his regime, preferring to maintain its unholy alliance with Iraq in its war with Iran. The year after Saddam’s forces decimated several thousand Iraqi Kurdish villages and killed close to 100,000 Kurdish civilians (1987-88), Washington, now under Bush Sr., actually doubled the amount of agricultural credit it had been providing to Saddam’s regime, increasing it to more than $1 billion.

In other cases, the United States helped to undermine effective international responses to genocide. Perhaps the most shameful case was that involving the Clinton Administration during the 1994 slaughter in Rwanda, which involved the killing of approximately 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the span of 100 days, making it the fastest, most efficient killing spree of the twentieth century. Clinton, whom Power inexplicably refers to as “a committed multilateralist,” one with “faith in the United Nations,” did everything he could to avoid doing something constructive. Throughout, and similar to their conduct through much of the Serb-perpetrated atrocities in Bosnia, Administration officials feigned ignorance of what was going on. US intelligence reports had warned Washington of the likelihood of mass killings in Rwanda. Nevertheless, Clinton refused Belgium’s request to reinforce the small UN peacekeeping mission to the country. And once the killing started, the Administration denied almost until the end that genocide was taking place, despite full knowledge to the contrary. To do otherwise would have required that Washington take appropriate action. Instead, the Administration insisted that UN peacekeepers withdraw from Rwanda and then refused to authorize the deployment of a stronger UN force. It was not until the Rwandan Patriotic Front had driven most of the perpetrators out of the country and seized power in the capital that Clinton ordered the closing of the Rwandan Embassy in Washington and the seizure of its assets.

In her investigation, Power justifies her choice of case studies by two key criteria: that each meets the terms of the 1948 genocide convention; and that it presented the United States with the options for meaningful diplomatic, economic, legal or military intervention. But as we shall see, it is questionable whether all her cases satisfy the criteria.

In terms of the first, to suggest that what took place in Kosovo was a genocide, or would have been had NATO not intervened, is a highly contentious issue in the international legal and human rights community. As for the Khmer Rouge, while they were guilty of killing large percentages of the country’s Muslim Chams, Vietnamese and Buddhist monks, the bulk of their human targets were alleged political enemies. In this regard, these killings would not form part of a genocide, at least through the narrow criteria of the 1948 convention.

As Power explains, the architects of the genocide convention made the explicit decision to exclude political groups–a move actively supported by Lemkin. They did so in order to insure the support of many countries, largely those of the Soviet bloc and some from Latin America as well, that feared the inclusion of political groups would inhibit the ability of states to suppress armed rebellions within their boundaries. It appears that Lemkin was sympathetic to neither the underlying assumptions nor the implications of such an argument but supported it for pragmatic reasons–a position that Power seems to share. This might explain why she has no problem including the horrors inflicted by the Khmer Rouge under the general rubric of genocide. But given this more flexible notion of what constitutes genocide, it begs the question of why Power chose the cases she did in laying out her argument and ignored other possible instances.

This question also relates to the second criterion for her choices, namely that the United States had a variety of options available for meaningful intervention. Here, Power is treading on even weaker ground in some instances.

On Rwanda and Bosnia, Power makes her most convincing case that there were concrete steps the United States could have taken that would have had significant effects in lessening the bloodletting. In other instances she examines, however, such as those of the Nazi and Khmer Rouge holocausts, she is less convincing. Regarding Cambodia, for example, she contends that the Khmer Rouge were less immune to outside criticism than was claimed by American authorities. In this regard, she argues that “bilateral denunciations by the United States may well have had little effect on the Khmer Rouge’s internal practices. Unfortunately, because so few US officials spoke out publicly against the genocide, we cannot know.” In terms of the Nazis, Power appeals to conventional wisdom and suggests that Washington could have done things to prevent Hitler’s crimes, but makes no serious effort to persuade the reader or to engage the literature that has called such arguments into question. As Peter Novick argues in his much-acclaimed The Holocaust in American Life, the various ex post facto proposals for rescuing Jews from Nazi clutches ignore what were very real constraints at the time and often would have been of little practical use. Substantial rescue efforts, Novick contends, would have had a marginal effect at best. (Nevertheless, he asserts, it would have been worthwhile to carry out the proposed actions; but they would have saved 1, or perhaps 2 percent at most, of those who died.)

Power applauds US action loudly in the case of Kosovo. Indeed, she argues that hundreds of thousands of lives would have been lost had the United States and its NATO allies not engaged in the bombing campaign against the Serbs. She offers no substantiation for this claim. And, of course, how could she? Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Kosovo chapter, however, is that she does not engage any of the critiques put forth by the likes of Noam Chomsky and other commentators–many writing in this magazine–that there were alternatives to the NATO action, ones that would have been consistent with international law and might have actually lessened the killings and expulsions that increased dramatically after the start of the bombing, to say nothing about its effects on Serb civilians. At the very least, Power should have presented and grappled with such arguments. Hardly anyone contends that Milosevic & Co. were not capable and guilty of enormous brutality. Indeed, Power graphically shows how Serb forces put this capacity to horrific and massive use in Bosnia and the fatal consequences of the failure of the West to acknowledge the bloodshed and respond appropriately. In this regard, mass killings in Kosovo were arguably a distinct possibility. But the question remains, Were there courses of action other than that taken up by Washington and its NATO allies?

Power understandably feels outrage at international and, more specifically, American inaction in the face of mass killing. With an American audience in mind, she challenges the reader to do something–whatever is in her power–to suppress and/or bring to justice those responsible for the slaughter of innocents. She makes a compelling case for a collective moral, as well as an international legal, obligation for the US government to do so. But this also raises what is perhaps the biggest problem with “A Problem From Hell”: Even though she acknowledges that the United States sometimes directly and indirectly aids genocidal regimes, the overall effect of her examples and the manner in which she frames the book is to situate Washington as an outsider to such horrors. In the book’s final pages, for example, she asks, “Why does the United States stand so idly by?” In this sense, Power’s choice of cases is quite safe. Had she looked beyond the parameters of the conventional and examined instances in which the American role in mass slaughter has been less that of a bystander and more that of a partner-in-crime perpetrator, her call for greater levels of US intervention would seem at best unpersuasive and at worst hypocritical and potentially dangerous. Three cases–those of Indonesia, East Timor and Guatemala–illustrate this point.

Led by General Suharto, the Indonesian military and the civilian militia that it armed and directed engaged in one of the worst bloodlettings of the postwar era. Over the course of several months in 1965-66, they slaughtered members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) along with members of loosely affiliated organizations (women’s groups, labor unions, etc.). While Indonesia’s holocaust does not meet the strict guidelines of the genocide convention, the scale and nature of the killing spree were undoubtedly genocide-like, similar to the bulk of the Khmer Rouge’s crimes in Cambodia. Amnesty International estimated “many more than 1 million killed.” The head of the Indonesian state security system approximated the toll at half a million, with another 750,000 jailed or sent to concentration camps. The American political establishment welcomed the slaughter and the emergence of Suharto’s New Order, with Time hailing it as “the West’s best news for years in Asia.”

The United States had effectively helped to lay the groundwork for the military’s seizure of power through its interference in Indonesian affairs and support for the military over the years. Washington had also long urged the military to move against the PKI. Accordingly, it supplied weaponry and telecommunications equipment, as well as food and other forms of aid, to the Indonesian Army in the early weeks of the slaughter. The American embassy also provided the military with the names of thousands of PKI cadres who were subsequently killed.

About ten years later, the Indonesian Frankenstein that Washington had helped to create decided to invade Indonesia’s tiny neighbor of East Timor. Rather than just looking away, as Power incorrectly reports in her one reference to East Timor, Washington aided and abetted an international crime of aggression. While this has long been alleged, the recent release of formerly classified documents by the Washington-based National Security Archive now proves that then-President Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger, his foreign policy czar, gave Suharto the green light for the December 7, 1975, invasion while meeting with him the previous day. Over the following quarter-century, various US administrations provided billions of dollars in weaponry, military training and economic assistance to Jakarta during its more than two decades of occupation. And in the early years of the slaughter, a time described by an Australian government body as “indiscriminate killing on a scale unprecedented in post-World War II history,” Washington took concerted steps to insure that the UN did not take effective action to end Indonesia’s annexation. The result was the death of well over 200,000 East Timorese, about one-third of the preinvasion population.

And, finally, Guatemala. There, more than 200,000, most of them indigenous Mayans, lost their lives in the context of a brutal conflict between a US-backed military oligarchy and a guerrilla force during the 1970s and ’80s. The 1999 report of the internationally supported Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification concluded that the state was responsible for over 90 percent of the deaths and had committed “acts of genocide.” The commission also found that American training of members of Guatemala’s intelligence apparatus and officer corps in counterinsurgency “had significant bearing on human rights violations.”

Because Samantha Power excludes cases like these from her analysis, she seems to have little problem endorsing American global dominance and, on the basis of such, calling for the United States to take the lead in battling genocide. At the very end of an excellent chapter on the grisly slaughter by Bosnian Serbs at Srebrenica, for example, Power lets Senator Bob Dole explain why the United States finally became involved in helping to end the terror in Bosnia. “Because we happen to be the leader of the world,” Dole stated.

Clearly there is a problem with Washington taking the lead in fighting something it has helped to perpetrate on numerous occasions, and for which it has never atoned, apart from a halfhearted admission of wrongdoing (but not an apology, by Clinton in the case of Guatemala).

Simply because the United States has been complicit in gross atrocities in the past does not mean, of course, that it is therefore incapable of doing good, if even for the wrong reasons. But it does mean that we should remain extremely skeptical of American leadership on the global stage. As the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict painfully demonstrates, what Washington calls American leadership is, as often as not, unilateralist, bullying, obstructionist. All of these manifest themselves in Washington’s acceptance of Israel’s flouting of international law regarding its ongoing occupation and dispossession of the Palestinian people. The United States has long been a principal obstacle to an internationally acceptable solution, and it has done what it can to prevent a multilateral approach to resolving the conflict. Such antipathy toward international law and political institutions means that “genocide prevention” could turn out to be just another instrument in Washington’s empire-maintenance tool kit.

If one of the main objectives of Power’s book is to get the United States to take a more active role in ending mass slaughter, surely it would seem to be more efficacious–as well as principled–to begin by scrutinizing cases in which the United States has been directly involved. In this regard, her appeal to the American political establishment on the basis of morality and enlightened self-interest (genocide, she argues, causes regional and international instability, something bad for the United States) is ill conceived. Ending Washington’s role in the slaughter of innocents requires struggling against American militarism and unilateralism, as well as against Washington’s refusal to submit to international security and legal mechanisms that would have even a remote possibility of holding US officials accountable. The US refusal to sign on to the recently established International Criminal Court and to cooperate with efforts by a number of countries to question Henry Kissinger regarding various international crimes is merely the latest manifestation of such obstructionism.

This is not to suggest that if we could get the American house in order, the world would be fine. As Power’s book shows, there are plenty of “evildoers” to go around. Something must be done to stop them, yes, but it should be a truly international project. The best place to start is at home, but not by first and foremost asking Washington to intercede abroad. Demanding a US foreign policy consistent with international law and human rights standards, as well as international accountability for American officials who may have engaged in war crimes and crimes against humanity, is the first step. Doing so will also increase the likelihood of international cooperation in cases championed by Washington.

Finally, it is not obvious why mass killing that falls under the rubric of genocide should be paramount in terms of international prevention and adjudication. Power does not claim this explicitly, but it is a fair conclusion to draw given that she does not discuss other terrible crimes against humanity that result in massive loss of life. Why, for example, should Serbian crimes in Bosnia be more worthy of scrutiny and demands for accountability than, say, the US war against Vietnam, which caused the deaths of 2-3 million civilians? In this regard, we must be careful that the need to suppress and seek justice for genocide does not prevent us from seeing all mass killings of civilians, no matter who commits them, as unacceptable, and from acting accordingly.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy