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

Isolationism is not just ideological in this country, it is the way people live their lives. They live lives isolated from people abroad. How can we get cases of genocide taught in diplomatic history classes? How can we get the Foreign Service Institute to talk to its diplomats about the perils of negotiating too long? How can we develop a toolkit of unconventional means to deal with this unconventional crime? How can we get people to be looking out for this stuff so we can steepen the grade of that learning curve and shorten the distance that people have to move between "not knowing" to "knowing" and then to "really knowing"—that different, transcendent kind of knowledge that takes people forever to acquire?

The NATO bombing of Kosovo was the first time that an outside power has intervened to head off genocide. It seems like the political aftermath of the bombing has been mixed, but do you think it will lead to similar operations?

I don't think it will lead inexorably to anything, really, at this stage, both because of the shift in the Administration and because of the bittersweet legacy, the bittersweet taste in peoples' mouths that it left. And also, of course, because of September 11, which has distracted resources. People who urge humanitarian intervention want perfect intervention. They're right to want that and should continue to hold the U.S. government accountable if the intervention strays from its humanitarian course. But I think one of the reasons that there isn't much of a constituency left for interventions like Kosovo is that people on the right, people who are committed first and foremost to strengthening American power, think that Kosovo was a dilution of American power, a waste of American resources, and a potential infringement on American credibility. People on the left are upset at the manner in which it was conducted—bombing from 15,000 feet with these terribly dire humanitarian consequences. But I think that what we all need is a bit of a reality check. The war advanced U.S. strategic interests. If we think that the Albanian situation is a problem today in terms of terrorism and smuggling, which it is, that problem was going to be a hell of a lot bigger if that conflict and that crisis had been allowed to fester. At least now we have a chance to build up a justice system in Kosovo proper that will rein in some of these criminal elements. The Serbian government was never going to have that power because with its repression it was going to generate so much opposition in the society. So curbing ethnic cleansing in Kosovo was actually very conducive to some of the concerns of people who now criticize the intervention. Similarly, I think people on the left have to be much more prepared to understand that no use of force will ever be perfect. Some of the incidents that occurred were incredibly tragic, but a really good faith effort was made to avoid civilian casualties and 1.7 million Albanians are now free to control their own destinies. If the Kosovars screw up, and they may, it won't be because NATO didn't give them the chance to run their own country. So I think in a way that the legacy of Kosovo is a lot more positive than people acknowledge. The trick will be creating a community of people who share that view.

You've talked a little bit about this, but what sort of effects do you think September 11 and the war in Afghanistan are going to have on our position in the world and specifically our willingness to intervene if genocide appears to be starting up again?

I don't think the United States will intervene militarily to stop genocide anytime soon. A look at the last hundred years indicates that it's very hard, even under the best of circumstances, to secure that kind of robust response. My fear is that after September 11, the U.S. not only will not intervene militarily, but it won't do all of the other things that it could to actually halt these kinds of killings. From denouncing genocide and using the word, threatening prosecution, using our technical assets to jam hate radio if that's what's required, freezing foreign assets, lifting arms embargoes, imposing arms embargoes, rallying troops in the United Nations from other countries—all of these things the U.S. could do without sacrificing its military readiness to combat terrorism. And my fear, again, is that it will treat genocide prevention as an all or nothing venture. Either we send in the Marines or it's somebody else's problem. The one lesson from the last half century is that if it's not the U.S.'s problem, it's nobody's problem. The U.S. can do a lot to help strengthen regional institutions and capacities in other countries so that genocide can cease to be the U.S.'s problem and become a global problem. But we're not there yet, and to hide behind the rest of the world is the same thing as saying we don't want to help—it's the same for the victims. The U.S. will not send its troops, but if it also doesn't take a leading political role, the likelihood of someone else stepping forward remains very, very slim.

Do you have a sense of what the transition has been like in Bosnia and Rwanda and other places that have experienced genocide once the violence has subsided? How are these countries dealing with questions of individual versus collective guilt?

It's still collective, and I think until the tribunals really do their work and start to communicate their proceedings back to the countries in question, it will continue to be collective guilt. I mean, Hutu in Rwanda carry the burden of the genocide and will for a long time. What it will take is shared initiatives. It's like in this country after Jim Crow, it took bringing African-Americans into the workplace, sharing classrooms, sharing sports fields, whatever it was, to begin to ease mutual suspicions. For African-Americans in this country, it's understandable that it would take a long time to trust, and that's true also for the victims of genocide. It's going to take generations. We have to be patient. We're so impatient as an international community. We have to understand the scale of what has happened. Look how long it took Nazi Germany to reckon with its sins. It's really still doing so to this day.

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