Swans Commentary » swans.com February 26, 2007  



Whitewashing Western Intervention
Samantha Power's A Problem from Hell


by Dimitri Oram


Book Review



(Swans - February 26, 2007)   Samantha Power, an advocacy journalist, professor at Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights, and leading figure in the Save Darfur movement, is one of the best examples of a crusader against genocide who has been involved in denying, condoning, or trivializing US war crimes. Right out of college, Samantha Power began her career as an intern with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace under then President Morton Abramowitz, who had quit the State Department in order to lobby for military intervention in Bosnia. Having been told that the situation in Bosnia was "genocide," Power went off to the former Yugoslavia in 1993 where she worked for several years as a reporter serving up the familiar (if oversimplified and factually inaccurate) tale of "genocidal" Serbian aggression against Bosnia. As she tells it, she and her colleagues questioned "how the United States and its allies might have responded if the same crimes had been committed in a different place...against different victims...at a different time" (p. xv) This prompted her to undertake an investigation of US responses to previous cases of genocide and write her 2002 book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, a book that has been widely read and often respectfully reviewed.

The book's premise is essentially as follows: "We have all been bystanders to genocide" (xvii), the US government time and again has failed to exercise its power in order to stop genocide. Power tries to show over the course of more than 500 pages the US reaction (or failure to react) to different cases of genocide over the twentieth century. She begins with the Turkish genocide against the Armenians during World War I, then moves on to the Holocaust in World War II, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, Iraq's attacks on the northern Kurds, Serb atrocities in Bosnia, the Hutu massacres of Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994, Kosovo and NATO's "humanitarian" bombing campaign. With the exception of the Armenian genocide, all the genocides (real and alleged) to which Power devotes serious attention involve enemies of the U.S. The genocides in which the U.S. and its client states are directly implicated (including Vietnam, Iraq after Saddam Hussein became an enemy, Guatemala, Indonesia, East Timor, El Salvador) receive only passing mention when discussed at all.

Power's book has a few good points: She presents an interesting and sympathetic portrait of Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jew who coined the word genocide and played a leading role in getting the Genocide Convention passed. (To her credit, she does also reproduce the actual text of the 1948 Genocide Convention on p. 62-63) She notes that the US government was late to ratify the Genocide Convention, doing so only in the late 1980s in order to counter domestic criticism stemming from the President Reagan's 1985 visit to the Bitburg cemetery in West Germany, which included the graves of SS soldiers, and his appalling equation of SS soldiers with concentration camp victims. Even so, the ratification only passed with added resolutions that made it essentially inapplicable to the U.S. Power allows enough challenging of the official line to appear critical of the U.S. government: She criticizes US failure to help or save the various victims as well as US support for the Khmer Rouge, Saddam Hussein's government during the 1980s, and the US role in pushing for withdrawal of UN peacekeepers in Rwanda. And, of course, she is critical of the U.S. for its failure to state that "genocide" was occurring in Bosnia and intervene even sooner.

This may sound like harsh criticism but, in fact, her complaints only serve to underscore the evil of our current enemies. The true villains always lie elsewhere and the real trouble is, as she said about the alleged failure to confront Yugoslav President Milosevic, that "Western officials ... [were/are] engaged in a wishful thinking, failing to imagine evil and presuming rational actors." The U.S. and the other First World countries may have done some not so very nice things in the past but the basic moral supremacy of the West is presumed; only its refusal to do more about the crimes of others is questioned.

Our Crimes Don't Count

In order to make her case that the U.S. is derelict in its duty to stop genocide Ms. Power presents a warped and decontextualized version of events, relying largely on the say-so of of various interventionists and hawkish US officials, omitting key facts and distorting others. Events are reduced to simple tales of bad leaders who do bad things and need to be stopped or countered by the U.S. and its allies. As a result of this the reader is left with a wildly flawed but typically American view of the designated enemy as "irrational" or "evil," with war or US intervention as a positive thing or at least the lesser evil. Most disturbing is Power's refusal to deal honestly with the crimes of the United States and hold her government to an equal level of accountability as the various enemy states she decries.

On those occasions when she does mention US crimes it is usually to downplay them or use them in background to emphasize the greater crimes of the enemy. She is critical of US conduct during the war on Vietnam, which she mentions briefly -- "American lives were being lost, American honor was being soiled AND North Vietnam was winning the war." (p. 91, Power's emphasis) -- and particularly of the bombing of Cambodia, which she notes killed tens of thousands of people, destroyed Cambodia's economy and "did great damage in its own right." (Curiously she never mentions Laos.) But she never calls US atrocities in Southeast Asia genocide, or spends much time on them. Primarily, she writes about the crimes of the Khmer Rouge and US inaction.

As with the Western media in general she pays far less attention to the comparable crime of a Western client state occurring at the same time as the KR rule over Cambodia. She devotes one misleading sentence to the US-backed Indonesian invasion of East Timor: "In 1975, when its ally, the oil-producing, anti-communist Indonesia, invaded East Timor, killing between 100,000 and 200,000 civilians, the United States looked away." (pp.146-147) But the U.S. did not simply look away, it supported Indonesia with large amounts of military aid, blocked UN action and denied atrocities while the "Free Press" put East Timor in virtual media blackout. (1)

Similarly, Power manages to give the U.S. a war-crimes-free version of the 1991 Gulf War: "The U.S. bombing of Baghdad began in January 17, 1991. U.S. ground troops routed Iraqi republican guards soon thereafter." (p. 237) There are no cluster bombs or depleted uranium or highways of death in this account. The enormous suffering, death, and damage caused by UN sanctions pushed through, enforced, and maintained by the U.S. and Britain for over 12 years is not a subject of discussion anywhere in Power's book. For Power, like the neoconservatives, only the US betrayal of Iraq's Kurds and Shia is a problem worth dwelling on. Indeed, Ms. Power even does her bit to present the deeply suffering Iraq as a post-September 11 threat to the United States:

States that murder and torment their own citizens target citizens elsewhere. Their appetites become insatiable. Hitler began by persecuting his own people and then waged war on the rest of Europe and, in time, the United States. Saddam Hussein wiped out rural Kurdish life and then turned on Kuwait, sending his genocidal henchman Ali Hassan al Majid to govern the newly occupied country. The United States now has reason to fear that the poisonous potions Hussein tried out on the Kurds will be used next on Americans. (p. 513)

If there is any difference between this passage and the rhetoric of the Bush administration, one is hard pressed to find it. Indeed, Power and her favored sources mix liberal human rights appeals with the cold language of US "interests," both of which are supposedly served by intervening in other countries one way or another, a road that leads eventually to "bomb[ing] the fuckers" (Richard Holbrooke) allegedly to prevent atrocities. Naturally, the bad guys are so bad they deserve it.

Benevolent Atrocities

Certainly this is the way she portrays the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, which take up the greatest part of her book. Following the standard script, which collapses under any serious scrutiny as Diana Johnstone has shown in her book Fools' Crusade, (2) she takes all allegations against the Serbs at face value: Serbs are always the victimizers, never the victims. Power does reluctantly acknowledge the post-bombing ethnic cleansing of Kosovo by Albanian extremists (although she ignores earlier KLA crimes) but attributes it to "revenge" and ignores NATO's obligation under international law to protect Kosovo's Serb, Roma, and other minority groups. Power actually looks favorably on the largest ethnic cleansing operation of the Balkan wars, Operation Storm, in which the Croatian armed forces drove over 200,000 Serbs from the UN protected areas of Krajina on the eve of a peace agreement: "Croatia's success showed that the so-called Serb juggernaut was more of a paper tiger, a vital piece of news for those who had deferred for years to alarmist Pentagon warnings of steep US casualties." (p. 438) Ms. Power does not mention the US support for this operation including training given to Croatian forces by US private military contractor MPRI or the US role in blocking a UN resolution condemning the atrocities then being committed. She hails NATO's large-scale bombing of the Bosnian Serbs in 1995 and wholeheartedly supports NATO's 1999 bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.

Anyone who was alive at that time and had any access to mainstream Western media will recognize the clichéd, overwrought rhetoric and the gross apologetics for NATO war crimes: "From his time at the Dayton peace talks, [NATO general Wesley] Clark was well-acquainted with the spuriousness of Milosevic's charm, the prevalence of his lies and the hardness of his heart" (p. 453); "Given the choice, virtually every Albanian in Kosovo would have preferred to take his or her chances with the NATO bombing then business as usual under Milosevic" (p. 454); "NATO planners were especially sensitive about violations of international humanitarian law"(p. 457) even though there were "mistakes" and a number of the targets (i.e., Yugoslavia's civilian infrastructure), were "controversial" etc. Walter J. Rockler, a former Prosecutor at the Nuremburg War crimes trials, whom Samantha Power, despite her numerous references to the Holocaust and the Nuremburg Tribunal, never cites, demolishes the NATO PR line:

The attack on Yugoslavia constitutes the most brazen act of international aggression since the Nazis attacked Poland to prevent "Polish atrocities" against Germans. The United States has discarded pretensions to international legality and decency. And embarked on a course of raw imperialism run amok... In reality, when we the self-appointed rulers of the planet, issue an ultimatum to another country it is "surrender or die." To maintain our "credibility" we must crush any resemblance of resistance to our dictate, to that country." (3)

From the US government's recruitment of leading Nazi war criminals, to Wesley Clark's attempt to force a military showdown with Russian troops, there is a great deal Samantha Power is not telling us. (4) Given the extensive amount of information available to those who wish to look, it is not believable that Ms. Power is unaware of these realities. Her allegedly damning look at US policy provides cover for a much grimmer reality. Namely, that the U.S. is itself guilty of acts of genocide and numerous other horrendous crimes and that US intervention abroad (not US inaction) has been the cause of enormous suffering and devastation for much of the world's population. While numerous writers, researchers, and activists (including William Blum in his excellent book Killing Hope) (5) have documented the terrible consequences of US intervention, Ms. Power is not interested in a similarly full and honest look at the record. She wants to make a case for further US intervention in the affairs of other countries and limit examination of the past.

Those interested in a serious reform of US policy and a critical look at the past would spend time examining the crimes that were and are undertaken or supported by the U.S. They would not engage in egregious evasions, accepting all allegations of the enemy's evil at face value. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide is an attempt to obscure the real problem from hell: Western intervention, undertaken by the U.S. and its various imperial partners and rivals along with the current global economic system that have led to destruction, war, genocide, the continual globalization of poverty combined with ever widening disparities in wealth and an increase in nationalism, racism, and religious fundamentalism worldwide.


[I will address Power's work on Rwanda, which serves primarily to mask the crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front and its Western backers, in a separate article.]


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1.  On East Timor see among other sources Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, South End Press, 1979, pp. 129-204.  (back)

2.  Diana Johnstone, Fools' Crusade, Pluto Press, 2002. See reviews here:
and here:
http://www.swans.com/library/art9/ga156.html  (back)

3.  The Chicago Tribune, May 10, 1999
http://members.tripod.com/~sarant_2/ks21nurnberg.html  (back)

4.  Among other sources see Christopher Simpson, The Splendid Blond Beast (Grove Press, 1993) and Blowback: America's Recruitment of Nazis and Its Effects on the Cold War (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1988). On Wesley Clark's attempt to provoke a confrontation with Russian troops at Pristina airport, an action vetoed by NATO General Sir Michael Jackson who stated, "I'm not going to start World War III for your sake," see The Guardian, August 2, 1999:

Clark earned the disapproval of the Pentagon and his dismissal for this kind of hawkishness rather than Power's claim that "favoring humanitarian intervention had never been a great career move." (p. 473)  (back)

5.  William Blum, Killing Hope, Common Courage Press, 1995.  (back)


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About the Author

Dimitri Oram is a writer and researcher based in Western Massachusetts. He was born and raised in Northampton and graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 2000. He woke up to the realities of the US Global Empire back in 1999 during the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia.



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Published February 26, 2007