Interviews March 2002

Never Again Again

Never Again Again

Samantha Power, the author of "A Problem From Hell," explores why America—the home of Holocaust awareness—did all but nothing to stop the genocides of the twentieth century

Did working on the book significantly change your opinions of U.S. Presidents who were in power during the various genocides? Reading it certainly changed mine of Clinton.

This sounds naïve, but I hadn't understood the extent to which politics were omnipresent in Clinton's life. That climactic scene in the book on the White House putting green, after Clinton has faced two weeks of nonstop bombardment by the press for letting Srebrenica fall and after Bob Dole has brought about a unilateral lift of the congressional arms embargo, and Clinton says, "I'm getting creamed." It was politics that gave rise to the intervention. Clinton was moved by the fate of the Bosnians, no question—there were many Presidents who wouldn't have even gone there—but to push a President over the edge into doing something that's even a little bit risky on behalf of his ideals, there's got to be a combination of his values at stake, and, most crucially, his interests. There's got to be either a perception of America's vital national interests being imperiled, or the President's own political interests. I think Clinton felt he was vulnerable.

Carter surprised me too. He was so quiet on Cambodia. If being the human-rights President meant something, I would have thought it meant you speak out when there are massive violations of human rights. I guess as someone who became politically conscious long after the Vietnam War, I was surprised by the extent to which the foreign-policy system shut down during that era. Carter and his top advisors simply weren't looking.

Would it have been any different if Cambodia had happened twenty years later, or if Carter had been in power during Rwanda or Bosnia? It seems like it is a constant that no matter how moral a President is, there still needs to be this confluence of public outcry and a feeling of vulnerability.

One of the things that a President needs in the face of genocide is resolve. And one of the problems with some Democratic Presidents is a tendency to see both sides and to agonize. I'm not sure that Carter actually would have been the right person in the 1990s even without the shadow of Vietnam directly upon him. Frankly, I think the warm and forgiving elements of his nature may not have made him the best person to see evil. But, again, when you look at a whole century of American Presidents who all find a way to look away, it doesn't seem so personality dependent.

You make clear that the U.S. government does not bear the full blame for our country's failure to respond. In most cases, U.S. citizens either paid little attention to what was going on, or put negligible pressure on their elected officials. One could finish this book feeling a profound sense of pessimism—that in a way it seems to be human nature to be able to look the other way when genocide is happening somewhere far away, and that the world's response to the next genocide may very well be similar to our response to the ones during the twentieth century. Do you think this sense of pessimism is justified?

September 11 of course changes things, but we did end the century with the arrest of Milosevic and with intervention in Kosovo. I think without the efforts of those people who tried and failed for the better part of the century to get their government to do more, you wouldn't have had those steps taken. It took incredible dissent within the State Department over Bosnia, incredible editorial interventionism by The New York Times and The Washington Post, and it took human-rights groups getting out into the field and being able to document atrocities in real-time and transmitting information back. It took guilt over Rwanda, it took Philip Gourevitch and Alison Des Forges and Romeo Dallaire to bring Rwanda into the American public psyche such that you'd have a President who was afraid of allowing another genocide both in terms of his legacy and his own internal conscience. So something was learned. One of the questions that one must always pose is, Can that learning cross continents? Can a set of individuals who learned lessons with regard to a specific place take the lessons on the road? And will they respond more robustly, more imaginatively, to Sudan, for instance, which has little in common with either Rwanda or Bosnia? Also, crucially, can individuals who weren't involved in shaping policy themselves learn or internalize the lessons that were learned on the watch of others? Specifically, can the Bush Administration come in, read this book or any book about what went on in 1990s, and basically learn to respond without going through the process of allowing a genocide, later feeling guilty about it and then resolving to do better? Can you internalize the shame? Can you internalize the eventual impatience, belated impatience with people who are committing these crimes? I'm not sure. Bush talked last week about trying to shut down the War Crimes Tribunal by 2008. That doesn't sound like a man who has internalized either the pain of the Bosnians or the lesson that noninvolvement in the region was shortsighted.

In general, what sort of response did you get from government officials whom you approached asking them to think over their responses to genocide? Did many of them who had done little while the genocides were going on seem to wish they had enacted different policies? You said some of them seemed to think that what they'd done was moral in a way.

Some of the officials I encountered were remorseful, sincerely remorseful, genuinely upset that they'd had a hand, in their own minds, in allowing these kinds of crimes. But they had also constructed pretty potent defense mechanisms. So while they were clearly wracked by some guilt (some of them, only a few; most people weren't wracked by guilt, and the defense mechanisms trumped the sense of individual responsibility), there were a whole series of alibis they were still using, which were true alibis—they weren't lying. They were saying, "You have to understand, we didn't know it would be 800,000 people killed in Rwanda" or "You have to understand how angry Congress was about Somalia and how hard it would have been to achieve anything." Rightly, they were saying you can't be anachronistic about this, you can't impose what we wish we'd done today on what we felt we could do back then. So I didn't meet many people who were broken or who said they had been permanently altered by the experience.

The exception is those individuals who left government, who couldn't stand it anymore. They had already allowed their guilt and frustration to boil up to the surface in them, and they still carried it around with them. People like the UN Commander in Rwanda, Romeo Dallaire of Canada, or the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Prudence Bushnell. She hadn't left the government but she had dissented, and she might have been one of the most honest interviewees. She really blamed herself for not pushing harder in Rwanda, and didn't look to point the finger at anyone else. She sort of said, "Look, it was my portfolio. What was wrong with me?" And when you ask that question, there are interesting and important answers that aren't about her being a bad person but are about how these events are understood as they're happening, and how it's a very human reaction to push them away.

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