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

In terms of whether the lessons are the same for countries like England, I think some of them are, in that I think democracies have a hard time mobilizing for worst-case scenarios before the worst-case scenario transpires. Democracies are expense-averse and they think in terms of short-term, political interests rather than a long-term interest in stability. Given that the thesis of the book is that American leaders, democratic leaders, don't pay a political price at home for allowing genocide and do risk a political price or an emotional price for intervening in some fashion, then that kind of cost-benefit calculus would be similar in other democratic countries.

Were you surprised by what you found when you started looking into America's response to genocide?

What surprised me was the extent to which officials involved in shaping policy could define their responses as moral—that they could feel they were doing something that was humanitarian, that was moral, that was in the long-term interests not just of American security and American wealth but of their own values. The sophistication of those denial mechanisms was striking to me. But then the other thing that surprised me was how many people had stood up. The book is told through the travails of these individuals who really did try to move the system, and I was very pleasantly surprised to know that in most cases there were these individuals who did take the promise of "Never Again" seriously and who did believe that American power carried with it some kind of responsibility. %%callout%%From the archives:

"Bystanders to Genocide: Why the United States Let the Rwandan Tragedy Happen" (September 2001)
The author's exclusive interviews with scores of the participants in the decision-making, together with her analysis of newly declassified documents, yield a chilling narrative of self-serving caution and flaccid will—and countless missed opportunities to mitigate a colossal crime. By Samantha Power

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.

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