Murder Most Foul

To stop genocide, the U.S. must learn to intervene more carefully.

A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power, New York: Basic Books, 284 pages, $30

No one would argue that the Pol Pot regime's killing of some 2 million Cambodians was anything but the brutal, savage slaughter of innocents. The same is true for Saddam Hussein's destruction of over 4,000 Kurdish villages in Iraq and the deaths of an estimated 55,000 to 75,000 Bosnians (according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the International Committee of the Red Cross), an unknown number of which were mass killings of Muslims attributed to Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian forces. But do these acts constitute "genocide"? And, more pressing, should the United States have intervened in any or all of these acts? The difficult answer to these questions is no. To understand why, consider Samantha Power's A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which argues otherwise.

In June 1995 Power was a reporter covering Bosnia when she learned of a 9-year-old girl named Sidbela Zimic who was killed by a Serbian shell that hit a playground in Sarajevo where Sidbela and three other children were jumping rope. As Power saw it, Sidbela's death resulted from Bosnian Serb genocide of Muslims and the lack of American intervention. The event became the impetus for A Problem from Hell, her survey of genocide in the 20th century and of American responses to it. She takes her title from former Secretary of State Warren Christopher's description of the intense hatred between the Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats.

Power leads her readers on a long and often gut-wrenching journey that starts with a 24-year-old Armenian, Soghomon Tehlirian, murdering former Turkish Interior Minister Talaat Pasha on March 14, 1921, to avenge the death of his family. (Pasha had presided over Turkey's "solution" to its Armenian "problem," resulting in the deaths of nearly 1 million Armenians in 1915.) At the time, the concept of genocide did not even exist; the Turkish government's persecution and killing of Armenians was called "race murder" by the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau Sr. Power uses the pre-Holocaust Armenian experience to outline a pattern of genocide she sees repeated in Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda, and Bosnia.

For her, that pattern consists of the following progression:

� Initial warning signs that a regime intends to take action against a specific ethnic group. (In January 1915, The New York Times reported Talaat's statement that there was no room for Christians in Turkey, and that their supporters should advise them to leave.)

� The first steps. (In late March, Armenian men serving in the Ottoman army were disarmed.)

� Justification. (The Turkish leadership used the pretext of an Armenian revolutionary uprising and the cover of war to facilitate the eradication of Armenians.)

� Recognition met with disbelief or denial. (British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey cautioned that Britain lacked direct knowledge of massacres and that the massacres were not all on one side.)

� Ineffective response. (The Allied governments declared that they would hold members of the Turkish government personally responsible for the massacres, but there was no intervention.)

The first several chapters of A Problem from Hell are devoted to the tireless travails -- spanning more than two decades -- of Polish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin to invent and legitimize the concept of genocide and to make it a crime under international law. Lemkin's achievement was the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which defined genocide as "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such: Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group the condition of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

It is important to recognize that this legal definition of genocide is very different from the more common dictionary definition, which probably is how most people think of it. The American Heritage Dictionary defines genocide as "the systematic and planned extermination of an entire national, racial, political, or ethnic group."

Power also chronicles a similar journey by U.S. Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wisc.) to persuade the United States to ratify the genocide convention. On January 11, 1967, Proxmire delivered his first genocide speech on the floor of the Senate. During the following 19 years, he would make over 3,000 speeches on the subject, until the Senate adopted a ratification resolution in February 1986. Full ratification did not occur until October 1988.

The remainder of Power's book can best be described as a series of post-Holocaust case studies: Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. In each instance, Power walks her reader through events and actions that constitute, for her, the pattern of genocide. She does not spare the reader the grim and horrific details: children delivering death blows to the back of the head with a hoe in Cambodia; four small Kurdish girls lying like discarded rag dolls in a stream, victims of Iraqi chemical weapons; Bosnian Muslims forced to watch family members have their throats slit by Serbian paramilitaries; Rwandan men, women, and children hacked to death with machetes in churches where they sought refuge.

Regardless of what one believes about what the United States could have and should have done to stop the killings, Power's book raises vital questions. It deserves the most serious possible response.

When does "genocide" begin? This is a particularly difficult legal issue, because there must be some explicit criteria on which to base a decision to take action, especially U.S. military intervention. But there is no consensus, and probably never can be, on how many people have to be murdered (or, given the broader definition, expelled from their homes) for such acts to be considered genocide. Establishing such a number (or a percentage of the population) would invite perpetrators to kill up to the limit. We are left with determining genocide amorphously: You know it when you see it.

How many people have to be killed to warrant intervention? Is it 100, 1,000, 10,000, or 100,000? Prevention would dictate the earliest possible intervention. But the fewer people killed, the less the evidence of genocide. Does genocide have to have occurred before one can recognize it as such and take action against it?

If genocide can't be adequately defined by the number of people killed, how else are we to know when action should be taken to stop it? Power points out that genocide is just as much about intent as it is about action. But how do you establish the intent to exterminate a group, especially in the absence of action? In the extreme, intervention should be pre-emptive. But does that mean committing military forces and possibly changing a regime based on declarations that may or may not signal intent? When it comes to intervention, genocide presents us with a vast gray area.

Genocide is by definition ethnic. It is about a ruling ethnic group that is unwilling to share the same territory with another (usually minority) ethnic group. One solution would be to separate the different ethnic groups so they don't come into direct contact or conflict. Yet this is in direct opposition to the traditional U.S. approach to such problems, which has focused on "nation building." The goal of such efforts is always to try to get different groups to share power within a prescribed geographic boundary. The latest instance of this is the U.S.-led effort to build a representative, multi-ethnic government in Afghanistan.

Trying to force different peoples to live and govern together, however, may not be a solution. Attempts to build a multi-ethnic Bosnian nation in the wake of Serbian atrocities have simply resulted in a Bosnia-Herzegovina that is divided into Serb, Muslim, and Croat enclaves. The only thing keeping the sides from killing each other is the indefinite presence of several thousand peacekeepers. On the other hand, ethnically "pure" states (or statelets) serve only to draw the distinctions even sharper; if such states become the objective, ethnic groups might engage in genocidal action as a way to hasten their creation.

Herein lies an essential problem in the contemporary discussion of genocide: Genocide is a moral issue, but U.S. intervention using military force should be reserved for protecting vital American national security interests. The temptation to intervene in humanitarian crises on moral grounds is understandable, especially when outrageous crimes are being committed against innocent persons to further political or ideological aims. But giving into that temptation when there are no vital U.S. national security interests at stake is likely to result in exacerbating the very criminality that intervention is intended to resolve.

Genocide is the one instance -- a rare exception -- where U.S. action is warranted, even if U.S. vital interests are not directly threatened.

The problem is that advocates of humanitarian intervention often equate any killings of innocents with genocide and sometimes overinflate the numbers to make their case. Power, for instance, claims 200,000 Bosnians were killed, but this number is provided by Bosnia's Muslim government and includes all Bosnians killed by Serbs, Croats, and Muslims as part of ethnic civil war.

According to more reliable sources, such as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the Red Cross, the number of Bosnians killed is estimated to be 55,000 to 75,000 -- and even these numbers cannot separate out casualties of war vs. mass killings of innocent civilians. As tragic and abhorrent as tens of thousands of deaths are, the hard truth is that such killings neither constitute genocide nor warrant U.S. intervention.

Power acknowledges that U.S. intervention has often helped create the conditions that led to her claims of genocide, but she does not seem to grasp the full implications of that deadly fact. For example, the U.S. supported the Lon Nol regime in Cambodia because it was anti-communist. But it was also corrupt, repressive, and incompetent, fueling support for the Khmer Rouge. Later, concerned about Vietnamese incursion into Cambodia, the U.S. orchestrated a vote in the U.N. Credentials Committee to favor the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. In the case of Iraq, the U.S. sided with and supplied agricultural and manufacturing credits to Saddam Hussein to support his war against the fundamentalist, anti-American regime in Tehran.

Rather than asking the United States to intervene to fix the problems it exacerbated by intervening in the first place, it would be better to break this vicious circle and adopt a less interventionist American foreign policy. While this does not guarantee that ethnic groups will not engage in genocidal actions, neither will constant U.S. intervention. Indeed, the appalling evidence suggests that an interventionist United States is likely to create more problems than it will solve.

Power is critical of "vital American interests, narrowly defined" as an excuse for American inaction against genocide. But the primary concern of U.S. policy must be U.S. interests; the United States cannot and should not be the world's policeman. The Constitution was established for the common defense, not to establish a new world order or to rid the world of evil. American policy makers must make decisions about what is vital to U.S. national security and what isn't. If the United States is constantly involved around the world for reasons that are not vital, it could be difficult to muster the necessary political will to act when national interests demand action.

If one knows genocide when one sees it, then Rwanda is a perfect example. Power admits that "no genocide since the Holocaust has been completely black and white," but of all the cases in A Problem from Hell, Rwanda is the one unambiguous case of genocide, and presents the strongest argument that the United States should have intervened. Although no U.S. national interest was at stake there, Rwanda presented an unambiguous moral imperative.

The killings in Rwanda began almost immediately following the downing of Rwandan President Juvénal Habrayimana's jet on April 6, 1994. Hard-line Hutu tribesmen used the incident as a pretext to attack rival Tutsis. The Hutu-controlled army, the gendarmerie, and the militias worked together to round up and kill Tutsi men, women, and children.

This was not a case of ethnic cleansing (expelling an ethnic group to create an ethnically pure enclave) that might involve mass killing, which was more what happened in Iraq and Bosnia. Nor was this the same as Pol Pot's killing of fellow Cambodians to eliminate political opponents in the way that communist regimes in the Soviet Union and China had done.

In Rwanda, those Tutsi who tried to flee their homes (ostensibly to seek safety across the border) were snared and butchered at checkpoints. Children of Hutu and Tutsi who had intermarried were categorized as Tutsi and killed. In one instance, a 3-year-old pleaded for his life after seeing his brothers and sisters killed: "Please don't kill me. I'll never be Tutsi again." Power writes that "the killers, unblinking, struck him down." Clearly, the Hutu were engaged in genocide, trying to exterminate the Tutsi systematically. Indeed, lists of victims had been prepared ahead of time. All this took place while a United Nations peacekeeping force was stationed in Rwanda's capital, Kigali.

Although it took time to recognize that genocide was occurring and to distinguish the mass killings of Tutsi from the inevitable casualties of Rwandan civil war or even ethnic cleansing, it is hard to imagine a more clear-cut case of genocide and the ensuing moral imperative for the United States to act. Recognizing genocide rests on a confluence of evidence. Mass killing based on ethnicity is clearly a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. That Tutsi were not allowed to flee to safety made it clear that extermination rather than ethnic cleansing was the goal.

That the killings were widespread throughout the country, not just in the area surrounding Kigali, is another piece of evidence. But it is no one single thing, and it's evidence accumulated over a period of time (in this case, probably several weeks).

One of the reasons that the U.S. failed to act in Rwanda was the disastrous American military operation in Somalia, not long before, that had resulted in the deaths of 18 Army Rangers. Scarred by a firefight gone bad on a humanitarian intervention mission that was neither vital nor important to U.S. national security interests, U.S. policy makers were paralyzed when it came to taking necessary action in Rwanda. Moreover, American politicians, pundits, and the public expressed little or no interest in Rwanda. Not only was the Pentagon opposed to military action, but there was no constituency expressing outrage. The sad and shameful truth is that American politics and policy would allow the U.S. to become engaged in Bosnia-Herzegovina because it was in Europe, but not in Rwanda because it was in Africa.

In the end, some 500,000 Rwandans were killed in 100 days. The United States should have acted. But the limits of what U.S. intervention can realistically accomplish also need recognition. Writing in the January/February 2000 issue of Foreign Affairs, Alan J. Kuperman argues that "although some lives could have been saved by intervention of any size at any point during the genocide, the hard truth is that even a large force deployed immediately upon reports of attempted genocide would not have been able to save even half the ultimate victims."

The rapidity of the Rwanda murders was staggering. The largest number of killings took place within three weeks of President Habrayimana's plane crash (nearly 300,000 Tutsi -- almost half the Rwandan Tutsi population -- were killed). Even if 5,000 U.S. troops could have prevented the killings (a claim originally made by the U.N. commanding general in Rwanda, Canadian Maj. Gen. Romeo Dallaire), whether they could have been deployed in time is questionable. Moving troops and equipment likely would have taken several weeks (made more difficult by the necessity of an airlift, the slowest way to transport large numbers of troops and equipment).

At best -- if the order to deploy had been issued immediately after President Habrayimana's plane crash -- those troops would have arrived only after several hundred thousand Tutsi had already been killed. Realistically, such an order would have come a week or two later, after there was irrefutable evidence that genocide was occurring. This is not an excuse for inaction, but simply to highlight the fact that, at least in the case of Rwanda, intervention would not have averted genocide, though it could have saved a great many lives. It also points to the tragic fact that it may not be possible to prevent genocide (because there must be strong evidence that genocide is occurring to warrant intervention) but only that further genocide might be stopped once it has started.

What is the lesson of Rwanda? That the more the U.S. involves itself in every crisis, the more every crisis begins to look the same. Without being able to make clear distinctions between crises -- without maintaining political will -- it is easier to marginalize and ignore the important ones.

Moreover, U.S. military resources are finite. If stretched too thin by attempting to address the myriad humanitarian crises that continue to erupt, there may not be enough critical military mass to take action when true genocide is occurring.

Indeed, the more narrowly the United States defines its national security interests, and the less engaged and entangled U.S. foreign policy is with nonvital interests around the world, the more likely that genocide will be quickly recognized and forcefully targeted.

That is exactly the point of Power's compelling narrative: The horror and tragedy of genocide is a moral issue that transcends national interest. But to prevent another Rwanda, the United States must also have the wisdom to avoid another Somalia.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties