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For some time Samantha Power has been, as a war correspondent and as a human-rights lawyer, professionally thinking about murder on a mass scale. The past century has been a rich one for this particular field of inquiry: Hitler's Final Solution, Stalin's purges and forced famines, Pol Pot's re-education of Cambodia. A few years ago Power focused her thinking on one question that arises out of genocide—not why do such great evils happen but why are they allowed to happen? Why do decent people and decent governments, again and again, stand by and let the killers kill? Why does "Never again" so often turn into "Well, just this one last time"?

In writing a book to answer this question, Power has analyzed U.S. responses to the major genocides of the twentieth century—including the murder, in 1994, of some 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu by soldiers and volunteer civilian butchers controlled by the Hutu government in the African nation of Rwanda. The Rwandan massacre especially lent itself to journalistic analysis. It had occurred recently, so memories were relatively fresh and sources were numerous. The critical role in blocking an effective response to the genocide had been played by the United States; the decision-makers and many of the documents recording their decision-making turned out to be accessible (albeit only after dogged effort). Moreover, the circumstances of the Rwandan genocide particularly fit Power's question, because standing idly by had clearly not been the only option there.

Nevertheless, U.S. policymakers chose not to act. One of their rationalizations was that they were powerless. But the massacre that spread across three months in the spring and summer of 1994 was the work of government militia and barely trained amateurs. A serious intervention by Western troops—numerous, heavily armed, and prepared to kill—certainly could have stopped the slaughter.

Another rationalization—an old standby among bystanders—was that the goal attainable through intervention simply wasn't worth the price. In many cases this is legitimate. Cuba has been a dictatorship for forty-two years, and the violations of human rights there are many and varied. But nothing short of invasion (and we tried that, sort of) seems likely to affect matters. The suffering of the people of Cuba, and the violation of values of which the United States is the (frequently announced) defender, do not rise to a level of horror sufficient to justify the costs of war with Cuba. Again, though, this rationalization is unpersuasive in the case of Rwanda, where the price of intervention was low and the humanitarian goal of intervention was of the highest order: to stop ongoing genocide. If that was not worthy enough, then no human-rights goal can be worthy enough; and intervention in the affairs of other nations becomes worthwhile only when absolutely necessary to protect American interests.

The third rationalization for Rwanda—and this, too, is a historical favorite—was that we just didn't know. President Clinton suggested this in his disingenuous "apology" to the Tutsi of Rwanda four years after his Administration had blocked efforts to rescue them. Revisionist apologists for the United States make this argument still. But as Power shows, it is not true. U.S. policymakers may not have known everything (in part because they assiduously worked to deny or to minimize what they did know), but they certainly knew enough, soon enough, to save hundreds of thousands of lives.

Finally, Rwanda makes for an especially interesting study of Power's question because the genocide there occurred in an era when conditions were optimal for humanitarian intervention. The end of the Cold War meant that neither the UN nor the United States needed to worry about the old geopolitical risks. The executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government were controlled by a party publicly committed to human-rights concerns. The Administration's foreign-policy thinkers believed they had developed a human-rights philosophy flexible enough to work: Intervene when necessary but also (and only) when practical and likely to be effective. And yet, when the killing occurred in Rwanda, nothing happened—or, rather, the usual thing happened. The killers killed, the victims begged, the bystanders stood by.

Power spent three years interviewing scores of the participants in the U.S. response to Rwanda, and she reviewed hundreds of pages of declassified documents pertaining to the response. The lessons she has unearthed apply not only to Rwanda and the Clinton Administration but to the larger question of genocide and bureaucratic response in general, and they are disturbing lessons. "What is most frightening about this story," Power writes of the U.S. failure in Rwanda, "is that it testifies to a system that in effect worked."