This is a masterful work, written with authority, command, and insight by Power, a native of Ireland who moved to the United States in 1979 at the age of nine, and graduated from Yale University and Harvard Law School.
She is now the executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Prior to that, though, she covered the wars in the former Yugoslavia as a reporter for U.S. News and World Report and The Economist. Her harrowing, life-changing stint there led to her working for the International Crisis Group (ICG) as a political analyst, and helping launch the organization in Bosnia, as well as writing this book.
The tome came out of Powers growing frustration with how little she believed the United States was doing to combat the genocide she witnessed. It didnt take much research for her to find a pattern of behavior from her adopted homeland, namely that “The United States had never in its history intervened to stop genocide and had in fact rarely even made a point of condemning it as it occurred.“
Power states her case, simply yet forcefully, on the books jacket, and in her own words:
“In 1993, as a 23-year-old correspondent covering the wars in the Balkans, I was initially comforted by the roar of NATO planes flying overhead. President Clinton and other western leaders had sent the planes to monitor the Bosnian war, which had killed almost 200,000 civilians. But it soon became clear that NATO was unwilling to target those engaged in brutal “ethnic cleansing.“ American statesmen described Bosnia as “a problem from hell,“ and for three and a half years refused to invest the diplomatic and military capital needed to stop the murder of innocents.
In Rwanda, around the same time, some 800,000 Tutsi and opposition Hutu were exterminated in the swiftest killing spree of the twentieth century. Again, the United States failed to intervene. This time U.S. policy-makers avoided labeling events “genocide“ and spearheaded the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers stationed in Rwanda who might have stopped the massacres underway.
Whatever America‘s commitment to Holocaust remembrance (embodied in the presence of the Holocaust Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C.), the United States has never intervened to stop genocide. This book is an effort to understand why. While the history of America‘s response to genocide is not an uplifting one, “A Problem from Hell“ tells the stories of countless Americans who took seriously the slogan of “never again“ and tried to secure American intervention. Only by understanding the reasons for their small successes and colossal failures can we understand what we as a country, and we as citizens, could have done to stop the most savage crimes of the last century.“
Powers book covers five decades, and is character-driven, putting a very human face on five decades of some of the “darkest moments in our national history,“ as the American government has failed to prevent or stop 20th-century campaigns to exterminate a staggering number of ethnic groups, among them Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Iraqi Kurds, Bosnians, and Rwandans Her research on the subject must have been exhaustive, and she drew upon declassified cables, private papers, more than 300 exclusive interviews with Washington‘s top policy-makers, and her own personal experiences. The Holocaust is a particularly pivotal point for Power, because since that horrific, incomprehendable event, America has basically done nothing to stop genocide. Power further builds her case by identifying the similarities in the U.S.s response to recent genocides to those of learning about Hitlers master plan, even as Holocaust awareness in this country rose dramatically in the same period of time, over the past 30 years.
How much longer will we repeat history by failing to learn from it, she queries, and her outrage has credibility. Her arguments are founded solidly in history and morality, and as a world leader and power, we clearly have both the means and the responsibility to intervene when the future of races or nations are at stake. She does not suggest that this should be our doing alone, but shows how even a bit of intervention from us would probably have had significant impact.
“No U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on,“ she writes. Her charges are hard to ignore, and perhaps with the assistance of the high-profile Pulitzer, this book may find a wide audience. One also hopes, as does the author, that it will lead to challenging coming generations of leaders to not repeat the considerable mistakes of the past regarding genocide, mass terror, and the killing fields that threaten not only innocent civilians, but every notion of world peace and respect for human life we like to think we hold so dear.