Samantha Power on USA’s Interventionist Mission in 2002

Stephen Wertheim

Reproduced here is a sub-section from Wertheim’s review article in the 4th quarter edition[1] of the Journal of Genocide Research in 2010 (without re-deploying his footnotes). This section focuses on the Pullitzer Prize winning book by Samantha Power (2002) and argues that its programme resembles shades of the “civilizing mission” associated with European and Evangelical agencies during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Here, with and within Samantha Power, the mission of “humanitarian intervention” was vested solely in US arms and feet ……..…. thus, not in the UN or any other agencies.

A Solution from Hell

For a window into the prevailing mood on the eve of the Iraq war, the obvious    place to turn is Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell, a chronicle of US non-responses to twentieth-century genocides. Researched in the late 1990s, released in 2002, awarded a Pulitzer Prize as the Iraq war began, the book met an ebullient reception in mainstream US discourse, on both left and right. Reviews hailed it as ‘one of the decade’s most important books on US foreign policy’, ‘the standard text on genocide prevention’, and even, in the Times New York Review, a book from heaven’.109 Holbrooke passed  out  copies  to  co-workers.110  President  Bush  read  a  summary of the chapter on Rwanda and wrote four words in the margins: ‘NOT ON MY WATCH’.111

The key to the book’s popularity was that it willed the end of armed intervention without quite admitting it—and without thinking twice about means. Problem concluded, for every genocide documented, that the US did too little. Objecting to inaction as such, it shrunk from recommending how exactly the US should have acted. It presented no extended counterfactual scenarios that explained how an intervention would have unfolded and weighed potential harms against benefits. Its prescription was do more. But doing more did not actually satisfy Power.

In most moments, she wanted genocide stopped by any means necessary. Though she condemned the US for refusing military as well as ‘countless’ non-military options in Rwanda—declaring ‘genocide’, jamming hate radio, expelling Rwanda’s UN ambassador—would her outrage have been less if the US took not-even-half- measures against a genocide  that,  by  her  lights,  could  be  easily  ended?112 Indeed, in 2004 the Bush administration labelled violence in Dafur as ‘genocide’ and attempted to rally the UN to act against Khartoum, to little effect, and Power was scathing: ‘The sin of past Presidents is not that they failed to use the word but that then, as now, they failed to stop the crime’.113 In Problem the embrace of war  is shrouded, but it is omnipresent.

Problem could have tempered its endorsement of the ends of humanitarian intervention with a recognition that interventions  face constraints and can turn out counterproductive. It did the opposite. It assumed US military capabilities were practically unlimited. At the start, post-1945  America was said to enjoy ‘vast resources’ to stop genocide ‘without undermining US security’. This claim went undefended. Public opinion was no obstacle to intervention, in Power’s telling.

Equally oblivious was the neglect of intervention’s aftermath.  Once troops march in to protect civilians, how soon can they  realistically  withdraw? They would not have protected Rwandan civilians in stadiums, as Power proposed, only to leave and let genocide resume. What if counterinsurgency or policing became necessary? These questions were begged but not asked. In Power’s world, nothing could prevent US presidents from stopping genocide. ‘American leaders did not act’, she summed up, ‘because they did not want to’.114

Power’s antidote was simple: courage, the guts to fight apathy, even to appear ‘unreasonable’. If her moralism resembled that of neoconservatism, the kinship was more than rhetorical. Problem had no tolerance for multilateral and legal niceties that might block stopping genocide.115 Power cheered the unauthorized Kosovo intervention and proposed US intervention in Rwanda might have been unilateral. Whenever Clinton consulted with allies, she portrayed dithering. Small wonder that neoconservative Richard Perle, an early advocate of intervention in Bosnia, made a favourable cameo, in which he equated European-ness with weakness.116 Not least, Power directed the imperative to stop genocide to the US, not the UN or regional organizations.

If one squinted a bit, something resembling neoconservative wars of liberation could be glimpsed in Problem. Power told the story of postwar Kosovo through one survivor, a ‘fair-skinned’ (!) fourteen-year-old girl who watched Serb paramilitaries kill her family. ‘We knew it was better to die with a fight’, the girl said. ‘NATO fought and now we, at least, are free’.

Problem did not assess Kosovar sentiment further, but the meaning was clear. US might was a force for liberation. Could the neoconservative image of Iraqis ‘dancing in the streets’ after a US invasion have been far from a reader’s mind by 2002?117 In fact, it was approximated in Problem. Power described Clinton’s visit to postwar Kosovo where people ‘jammed into the stadium’ and ‘cheered wildly, chanting “Clinton! Clinton!”’ ‘No one can force you to forgive what was done to you’, Clinton said to applause. But when Clinton told Kosovars to try, he drew, Power relayed, ‘a sullen silence from the raucous crowd’.118 In a book otherwise quiet on long-term consequences of intervention, it was an unwittingly telling moment. Ethnic tensions might not evaporate upon the introduction of American arms. A period of oversight—or more—might follow, for who knew how long. In the hills of Samantha Power’s Kosovo, the civilizing mission once discharged by European empires was reborn.


ALSO NOTE  = Stephen Wertheim bio-profile

Samantha Power: Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save the World, pb 2008 ………………

Samantha Power: The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir Hardcover – Illustrated, September 10, 2019 ….


[1] Journal of Genocide Research (2010), 12(3-4), September– December 2010, 149 – 172

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