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April 06, 2008

Here's My Idea

The title of Samantha Power's book "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide comes from something Secretary of State Warren Christopher said on Face the Nation on March 28, 1993:

CHRISTOPHER: Let me put that situation in Bosnia in just a little broader framework. It's really a tragic problem. The hatred between all three groups -- the Bosnians and the Serbs and the Croatians -- is almost unbelievable. It's almost terrifying, and it's centuries old. That really is a problem from hell. And I think that the United States is doing all we can to try to deal with that problem.

The trouble with the book, of course, is that Power focuses exclusively on genocides where the United States failed to act to prevent them. Oddly missing are the genocides which America actively assisted or committed ourselves. Apparently genocides for which America is responsible are not part of "America and the Age of Genocide."

In other words, Power completely obscures the reality that genocide has not always been a "problem" for the US government. There have been times when it's been A SOLUTION.

So here's my idea: Power's next book should be about this and be called "A Solution From Hell."

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess this wouldn't win a Pulitzer Prize or the fulsome praise of Richard Holbrooke.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at April 6, 2008 12:28 PM

Very well put. I started re-reading the book a few weeks ago to see if it was better than I remembered, and then put it aside, but the reason for her mainstream popularity appears on page XVII, where she begins her summary of her findings with this--

" Despite graphic media coverage, American policymakers, journalists, and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil. Ahead of the killings, they assume rational actors will not inflict seemingly gratuitous violence. They trust in good faith negotiations and traditional diplomacy. Once the killings start, they assume that civilians who keep their heads down will be left alone. They urge ceasefires and donate humanitarian aid."

It would take a Jeremiah Wright jeremiad to do justice to that paragraph. All I can think of are obscenities.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at April 6, 2008 01:39 PM

Thank you, thank you for pointing out Power's atrocious omission - U.S. genocides. I'm also suspicious of people who consider only genocides in the 20th century, because the word didn't come into being until then, based on the Armenian genocide. This conveniently leaves out two of the U.S.'s most egregious examples - slavery and the extermination of the indigenous peoples of North America.

Posted by: catherine at April 6, 2008 02:00 PM

I read without posting too many comments, but I just have to say "Bravo" for this one!

(I would also argue that her book misses the reality that our interventions have often worsened situations even when we "supposedly" are trying to do good.)

Posted by: Brian at April 6, 2008 03:03 PM

Perhaps her next pro-genocide book could be Obama-cized: "A Solution from Our (Hellish) Fathers". That's audaciously hopeful.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at April 6, 2008 03:04 PM

I think that would be dandy. Maybe you n' Mike Gerber could do a faux C-SPAN "Booknotes" interview video with you claiming to be Samantha Power and Mike Gerber interviewing you, maybe pretending to be Anthony Cordesman. Or he could just be Mike Gerber, and you pretend to be Samantha Power, not with a funny voice and makeup or anything like that, just normally, matter-of-factly insisting you were Samantha Power. It would be effing awesome. And dandy.

What thinkest thou?

Posted by: the well-behavedJonathan Versen at April 6, 2008 04:51 PM

"The problem with the book, of course, is that Power focuses exclusively on genocides where the United States failed to act to prevent them. Oddly missing are the genocides which America actively assisted or committed ourselves."

Well, duh. Where she to do otherwise she would no longer be part of the clique of "serious" foreign policy commentators. And if you're not part of this clique, you may as well have a blog read only by DFH losers.

Posted by: jm, at April 6, 2008 05:55 PM

I'd be much harsher on that paragraph than Donald Johnson.

1. From what evidence does she assume that Americans (diplomats, journalists and citizens)are merely "just slow" in imagining the reality of genocide?
2. Give our collective reaction to genocide and mass murder around the globe, inflicted by us or others, couldn't one assume deeper causes for the "I don't give a shit" or "what can I do about it?" attitudes? Namely, the very responses among "ordinary Germans" historians have documented as prevalent during the Third Reich.
3. But Power cannot or will not go there. We can't be like that. This goes, in part, to the root of our problem--like the Germans of old, we believe in two sets of human nature, committing philosophical and moral suicide. Neither religion nor philosophy guide us, but bastardized psychology (situational ethics etc.) and guru bullshit.
So, we get Power on "problems from hell" where we once had Nietzsche or Camus on those very matters. We couldn't stomach their honesty about humanity today.
Wadda ya expect?

Posted by: donescobar at April 6, 2008 06:35 PM

"Give(sic) our collective reaction to genocide and mass murder around the globe, inflicted by us or others, couldn't one assume deeper causes for the "I don't give a shit" or "what can I do about it?" attitudes?"
You sure can. Join the army. Go to war. Kill or be killed. But keep your trap shut about having others do it for you.

Posted by: Felis at April 6, 2008 10:31 PM

How about "An Opportunity from Hell"?

Or "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Other People's Genocide.

You know, it's easy to take shots at people like Samantha Power...but without them, how would we know which crimes to be upset about?

Posted by: John Caruso at April 6, 2008 11:36 PM

Genocide is just something to talk about not something YOU actively DO something about.(unless, of course, YOU are doing the killing or being hunted for the kill) Coffee table conversation at best, to be forgiven and forgotten when its over, until the next time.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at April 7, 2008 12:17 AM

Sorry about the missing "n."

But I was thinking about the need to cling to the myth of American "exceptionalism" when it comes to our behavior. Without it, we might have to confront all of our history and the horrors we share with the perpetrators, supporters and onlookers everywhere. We have been unable and unwilling to do it.
I can think of no society as self-congratulatory and back-slapping as ours. Collectively, ours is truly an unexamined life.

Posted by: donescobar at April 7, 2008 12:19 AM
Collectively, ours is truly an unexamined life.

Ha! Last night on the Simpsons, Zinn's A People's History of The American People was featured. Marge was infatuated with a pretentious academic and it was a phase of her rebellious self discovery. The ATR commentariat would have been at home in that classroom at Springfield University.

During the hiatus, Homer was the grunge model for Kurt Cobain.

I think that qualifies as self-examination. In America.

Personally I prefer Futurama, but featuring Zinn's work on the Simpsons ain't half bad as far as things go. Now if only we could get Family Guy and American Dad to do it with less subtlety, we'd capture the other 90% of the audience.

Posted by: angryman@24:10 at April 7, 2008 08:10 AM

The problem with trumpeting Bosnia as the end-all of genocide is that it was essentially just another scene in a play that's been going on in that neck of the woods for centuries. I'm not going to go into the Ustashi and the Hanjar Division here.

But what is of interest is that the current slicing up of the former Yugoslavia looks quite similar to how Nazi Germany divided it up. I'd suggest that economic reasons and benefits that accrue to western interests have more to do with genocidal eruptions than how many angels dance on the head of a pin.

How's the oil drilling going in Albania?

Posted by: Bob In Pacifica at April 7, 2008 09:51 AM

I've made the same fundamental criticism of Power's book in the past, but not as effectively. But I'm going to recommend it anyway.

Catherine's criticism misses the mark completely, as Power's book never set out to be a history of American involvement in genocide. The framework of the book is the history of the term 'genocide', its entry into international law, and its application to several twentieth-century slaughters (agreed, carefully not touching on ones in which the U.S. played a crucial facilitating role).

This is important history that is still very poorly understood in the U.S. Power's book is an essential part of any serious reading list on the subject, despite its massive selective bias. I hope more commenters here will follow Jon's example and read the book.

Posted by: Nell at April 7, 2008 09:55 AM

The first time I saw the title of Power's book I said "Who does she think she is? Richard Lewis?"

Posted by: Jason Morris at April 7, 2008 10:03 AM

Nell, I think the selectivity of the book is precisely the problem. There's simply no justifiable reason why someone would write a book on the history of genocide and US foreign policy and include Bosnia while leaving out East Timor and Guatemala, and there's no excuse for the paragraph I cited. There is a reason--she wants to remain in the good graces of the foreign policy elite. The book is worth reading, but its faults are overlooked by nearly everyone except on the far left (which arguably goes too far the other way). I don't have the link handy, but Joseph Nevins did the best analysis of the book I've seen in a review published in the Nation several years ago. He gave her credit where it was due in the first part of his essay, and then took her apart in the final portion. Nevins wrote a book on East Timor recently, so he's in a good position to know what sort of book Power could have written--among other things, if she'd included a chapter on East Timor her friendship with Richard Holbrooke couldn't have lasted.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at April 7, 2008 03:33 PM

I sorta agree with Bob in Pacifica. Western powers, behind the scenes, encouraged the breakup of Yugoslavia. Without going too Counterpoint, wasn't the killing on both sides?

Posted by: Brian at April 8, 2008 02:00 PM