Review: A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide

a problem from hell

A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power

Samantha Power gives a compelling account of the twentieth century history of genocide and American responses (largely non-responses) to this horrendous evil. She covers a sobering reality with a journalists skill of both careful documentation and rendering a riveting narrative.


Samantha Power

She begins with the life of Rafael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent who became fascinated at the crimes against humanity wrought by the Turks against Armenians in World War 1. Fleeing Poland when he recognizes the same patterns in the Third Reich, he suffered the loss of most of his family and became a lifelong advocate against these crimes, to which he gave the term “genocide”. His crowning achievement was to participate in the drafting of the UN conventions against genocide.

And so we come to the US response. Lemkin died in 1959 without seeing the US ratify these conventions, which would have done so much to strengthen the world’s response to genocide. We see the bloody regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the war-weary non-response of the US. Ultimately, our former enemies, the Vietnamese brought down this bloody regime and exposed their crimes. Only in 1985, after Reagan’s disastrous visit to Bitburg did he push for the passage of the genocide conventions, although in a qualified form to protect the US against genocide charges.

Sadly, even the Holocaust, even Cambodia are insufficient to arouse the conscience of the US. Power documents a studied avoidance by our political leaders, that discounts evidence of genocide, that equivocates on calling these crimes “genocide”, that fails to use even US diplomatic and economic influence against genocide, and is unwilling to risk American lives to save the lives of the thousands who died in the successive genocides she chronicles in Kurdish Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. By and large, Power chalks this up to a determination that American interests were not directly involved, resulting in the moral equivocations to justify inaction.

The latter part of the book chronicles what can happen when the US does act, as it finally did in Kosovo. Goaded by political opposition, the Clinton administration authorized US involvement with NATO bombings and subsequent peace-keeping efforts that brought an end to the Milosevic regime’s efforts to exterminate or “cleanse” the land of Albanians in Kosovo. And subsequently it supported the seizure of Milosevic and many other war criminals to be tried for genocide at the Hague. Very belatedly Rafael Lemkin’s dream is realized.

The book ends in 2002, just after 9/11. Since then we have witnessed genocide in the South Sudan, and a current ominous situation in the Central African Republic. Samantha Power is now US ambassador to the United Nations and a senior official in the Obama administration. It will be interesting to see whether Power can change from the inside the culture of inaction she decried from the outside.

When Will They Ever Learn?

Twenty years ago, the Rwandan genocide began when a plane was shot down near Kigali in which Hutu President Habyarimana was flying with the the President of Burundi. Over the next 100 days Hutus massacred approximately 800,000 Tutsis (estimates vary) while the world watched. People sheltering in churches were butchered. Christians of one tribe killed Christians of another.


Today it is the Central African Republic that teeters on the verge of genocide. Anti-balaka Christian militias have killed over 2,000 Muslims according to some reports and displaced over 400,000. Regional peacekeepers from Chad have offered some protection for the Muslim minority. UN forces may arrive by September to take over for African Union troops. Ban Ki-moon, UN General secretary, says the international community must, “do more and act more quickly” or the country is in danger of repeating the Rwandan genocides.

Former President Bill Clinton, in a CNBC interview, believes that had the U.S. acted sooner at least 300,000 lives might have been saved. He cites Rwanda as the reason he created his foundation, to promote understanding and respect among diverse peoples in the world and peaceful conflict resolution.

Today, the NY Times Magazine printed “Portraits of Reconciliation” which is a collection of photographs and narratives about reconciliation and healing between perpetrators and victims in the Rwandan Tragedy. It is a powerful, painful, yet hope-filled narrative of how those who once hated have learn to confess transgressions, extend forgiveness and slowly restore the fabric of a deeply torn country.

Will we learn as a world community from these things? The tragedy today is that, unlike in the Clinton era which did intervene in Kosovo to present a massacre, the US has squandered its resources in two protracted conflicts and cannot afford to respond. Other nations in the world somehow must cobble together a response. Will the world community act soon enough? Will September be soon enough? Will the 12,000 troops they hope to send be enough? Can we hope for reconciliation across religious lines when there are still sadly bitter Christian-Muslim conflicts in many parts of the world? How many more Rwandas must there be? Will we remember?