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.