SMO ZA VAS
PROBLEM FROM HELL"
America and the Age of Genocide
An Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers
"A Crime Without a Name"
The Crime With a Name
"A Most Lethal Pair of Foes"
Cambodia: "Helpless Giant" 87 Speaking Loudly and
Looking for a Stick
Iraq: "Human Rights and Chemical Weapons Use Aside"
Bosnia: "No More than Witnesses at a Funeral"
Rwanda: "Mostly in a Listening Mode"
Srebrenica: "Getting Creamed"
Kosovo: A Dog and a Fight
Lemkin's Courtroom Legacy
About the Author
Samantha Power teaches human rights
and U.S. foreign policy at Harvard's John F Kennedy School of
Government, where she was the founding executive director of
the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy From 1993 to 1996 Power
reported on the wars in the former Yugoslavia for the Boston
Globe, The Economist, and The New Republic. She is the editor,
with Graham Allison, of Realizing Human Rights: Moving. from
Inspiration to Impact. Born in 1970, Power immigrated to the
United States from Ireland at the age of nine. She is a graduate
of Yale University and Harvard Law School, and she lives in
My introduction to Sidbela Zimic, a nine-year-old Sarajevan,
came unexpectedly one Sunday in June 1995. Several hours after
hearing the familiar whistle and crash of a nearby shell, I
traveled a few blocks to one of the neighborhood's once-formidable
apartment houses. Its battered facade bore the signature pockmarks
left from three years of shrapnel spray and gunfire. The building
lacked windows, electricity, gas, and water. It was uninhabitable
to all but Sarajevo's proud residents, who had no place else
Sidbela's teenage sister was standing not far from the entrance
to the apartment, dazed. A shallow pool of crimson lay beside
her on the playground, where one blue slipper, two red slippers,
and a jump rope with ice-cream-cone handles had been cast down.
Bosnian police had covered the reddened spot of pavement with
plastic wrapping that bore the cheery baby blue and white emblem
of the United Nations.
Sidbela had been known in the neighborhood for her bookishness
and her many "Miss" pageants.
She and her playmates made the best of a childhood that constrained
movement, crowning "Miss Apartment Building," "Miss
Street Corner," and "Miss Neighborhood:' On that still
morning, Sidbela had begged her mother for five minutes of fresh
Mrs. Zimic was torn. A year and a half before, in February 1994,just
two blocks from the family's home, a shell had landed in the
main downtown market, tearing sixty-eight shoppers and vendors
to bits. The graphic images from this massacre generated widespread
American sympathy and galvanized President Bill Clinton and
his NATO allies. They issued an unprecedented ultimatum, in
which they threatened massive air strikes against the Bosnian
Serbs if they resumed their bombardment of Sarajevo or continued
what Clinton described as the "murder of innocents."
"No one should doubt NATO's resolve," Clinton warned.
"Anyone," he said, repeating the word for effect,
"anyone shelling Sarajevo must . . . be prepared to deal
with the consequences."' In response to America's perceived
commitment, Sarajevo's 280,000 residents gradually adjusted
to life under NATO's imperfect but protective umbrella. After
a few cautious months, they began trickling outside, strolling
along the Miljacka River and rebuilding cafes with outdoor terraces.
Young boys and girls bounded out of dank cellars and out of
their parents' lines of vision to rediscover outdoor sports.
Tasting childhood, they became greedy for sunlight and play.
Their parents thanked the United States and heaped praise upon
Americans who visited the Bosnian capital.
But American resolve soon wilted. Saving Bosnian lives was not
deemed worth risking U.S. soldiers or challenging America's
European allies who wanted to remain neutral. Clinton and his
team shifted from the language of genocide to that of "
tragedy" and "civil war," downplaying public
expectations that there was anything the United States could
do. Secretary of State Warren Christopher had never been enthusiastic
about U.S. involvement in the Balkans. He had long appealed
to context to ease the moral discomfort that arose from America's
nonintervention. "It's really a tragic problem," Christopher
said. "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 (2) Within months of the market massacre,
Clinton had adopted this mindset, treating Bosnia as his problem
from hell-a problem he hoped would burn itself out, disappear
from the front pages, and leave his presidency alone.
Serb nationalists took their cue. They understood that they
were free to resume shelling Sarajevo and other Bosnian towns
crammed with civilians. Parents were left battling their children
and groping for inducements that might keep them indoors. Sidbela's
father remembered, "I converted the washroom into a playroom.
I bought the children Barbie dolls, Barbie cars, everything,
just to keep them inside. But his precocious daughter had her
way, pressing, "Daddy, please let me live my life. I can't
stay at home all the time.
America's promises, which Serb gunners took seriously at first,
bought Sarajevans a brief reprieve. But they also raised expectations
among Bosnians that they were safe to live again. As it turned
out, the brutality of Serb political, military, and paramilitary
leaders would be met with condemnation but not with the promised
On June 25, 1995, minutes after Sidbela
kissed her mother on the cheek and flashed a triumphant smile,
a Serb shell crashed into the playground where she, eleven-year-old
Amina Pajevic, twelve-year-old Liljana Janjic, and five-year-old
Maja Skoric were jumping rope. All were killed, raising the
total number of children slaughtered in Bosnian territory during
the war from 16,767 to 16,771.
* * *
If any event could have prepared a person to imagine evil, it
should have been this one. I had been reporting from Bosnia
for nearly two years at the time of the playground massacre.
I had long since given up hope that the NATO jets that roared
overhead every day would bomb the Serbs into ceasing their artillery
assault on the besieged capital. And I had come to expect only
the worst for Muslim civilians scattered throughout the country.
Yet when Bosnian Serb forces began attacking the so-called "safe
area" of Srebrenica on July 6, 1995, ten days after I visited
the grieving Zimic family I was not especially alarmed. I thought
that even the Bosnian Serbs would not dare to seize a patch
of land under UN guard. On the evening of July 10, I casually
dropped by the Associated Press house, which had become my adopted
home for the summer because of its spirited reporters and its
When I arrived that night, I received a jolt. There was complete
chaos around the phones. The Serb attack on Srebrenica that
had been "deteriorating" for several days had suddenly
"gone to hell:' The Serbs were poised to take the town,
and they had issued an ultimatum, demanding that the UN peacekeepers
there surrender their weapons and equipment or face a barrage
of shelling. Some 40,000 Muslim men, women, and children were
in grave danger.
Although I had been slow to grasp the magnitude of the offensive,
it was not too late to meet my American deadlines. A morning
story in the Washington Post might shame U.S. policymakers into
responding. So frantic were the other correspondents that it
took me fifteen minutes to secure a free phone line. When I
did, I reached Ed Cody, the Post's deputy foreign editor. I
knew American readers had tired of bad news from the Balkans,
but the stakes of this particular attack seemed colossal.
Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic was not dabbling or using
a petty landgrab to send a political signal; he was taking a
huge chunk of internationally "protected" territory
and challenging the world to stop him. I began spewing the facts
to Cody as I understood them: "The Serbs are closing in
on the Srebrenica safe area. The UN says tens of thousands of
Muslim refugees have already poured into their base north of
the town center. It's only a matter of hours before the Serbs
take the whole pocket. This is a catastrophe in the making.
A United Nations safe area is going to fall.
A new contributor to the Post, I had been advised that Cody,
a veteran of carnage in the Middle East, would not be one to
get easily rattled. In this instance he heard me out and then
posed a few incisive questions-questions that led me to believe
he had understood the severity of the crisis,unfolding. Then
he stunned me: "Well, from what you are telling me, even
if things proceed, the Serbs are not going to take the town
tonight." I grimaced in anticipation of his next sentence,
which duly followed. "It sounds like when Srebrenica falls,
we'll have a story"
I protested, but not strenuously. I was half sure the Serbs
would back down and was reluctant to cry wolf By the following
afternoon, however, Srebrenica had fallen, and the petrified
inhabitants of the enclave were in the hands of General Mladic,
a suspected war criminal known to have orchestrated the savage
siege of Sarajevo.
I had worked in Sarajevo, where Serb snipers took target practice
on bundled old ladies hauling canisters of filthy water across
town and where picturesque parks had been transformed into cemeteries
to accommodate the deluge of young arrivals. I had interviewed
emaciated men who had dropped forty and fifty pounds and who
bore permanent scars from their time in Serb concentration camps.
And I had only recently covered the massacre of four schoolgirls.
Yet despite my experiences, or perhaps because of them, I could
only imagine what I had already witnessed. It never dawned on
me that General Mladic would or could systematically execute
every last Muslim man and boy in his custody.
A few days after Srebrenica fell, a colleague of mine telephoned
from New York and said the Bosnian ambassador to the UN was
claiming that the Bosnian Serbs had murdered more than 1,000
Muslim men from Srebrenica in a football stadium. It was not
possible. "No," I said simply My friend repeated the
charge. "No," I said again, determined.
I was right. Mladic did not execute 1,000 men. He killed more
* * *
When I returned to the United States, Sidbela and Srebrenica
stayed with me. I was chilled by the promise of protection that
had drawn a child out of a basement and onto an exposed Sarajevan
playground. I was haunted by the murder of Srebrenica's Muslim
men and boys, my own failure to sound a proper early warning,
and the outside world's refusal to intervene even, once the
men's peril had become obvious. I found myself flashing back
to the many debates I had had with my colleagues about intervention.
We had wondered aloud-at press briefings, on road trips, and
in interviews with senior Bosnian and American officials-how
the United States and its allies might have responded if the
same crimes had been committed in a different place (the Balkans
evoke age-old animosities and combustible tinderboxes), against
different victims (most of the atrocities were committed against
individuals of Muslim faith), or at a different time (the Soviet
Union had just collapsed, no new world vision had yet replaced
the old world order, and the United Nations had not oiled its
rusty parts or rid itself of its anachronistic practices and
assumptions). In 1996, with some distance from the field, I
began exploring America's responses to previous cases of mass
It did not take long to discover that the American response
to the Bosnia genocide was in fact the most robust of the century.
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. -
As I surveyed the major genocides of the twentieth century,
a few stood ' out. In addition to the Bosnian Serbs' eradication
of non-Serbs, I examined the Ottoman slaughter of the Armenians,
the Nazi Holocaust, Pol Pot's terror in Cambodia, Saddam Hussein's
destruction of Kurds in northern Iraq, and the Rwandan Hutus'
systematic extermination of the Tutsi minority, J Although the
cases varied in scope and not all involved the intent to exterminate
every last member of a group, each met the terms of the 1948
genocide convention and presented the United States with options
for meaningful diplomatic, economic, legal, or military intervention.
The crimes occurred in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
The victims covered a spectrum of races and religions-they were
Asian, African, Caucasian, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and
Muslim. The perpetrators operated at different stages of American
might: The Armenian genocide-. (1915-1916) was committed during
World War I, before the United States had become a world leader.The
Holocaust (1939-1945) took place just as the United States was
moving into that role. The Cambodian (1975-1979) and Iraqi (1987-1988)
genocides were perpetrated after the Holocaust but during the
Cold War and after Vietnam. Bosnia (1992-1995) and Rwanda (1994)
happened after the Cold War and while American supremacy and
awareness of the "lessons" of the Holocaust were at
their height. U.S. decision makers also brought a wide variety
of backgrounds and foreign policy ideologies to the table.
Every American president in office in the last three decades
of the twentieth century-Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush,
and Clinton-made decisions related to the prevention and suppression
of genocide. Yet notwithstanding all the variety among cases
and within U.S. administrations, the U.S. policy responses to
genocide were astonishingly similar across time, geography ideology,
and geopolitical balance.
In order to understand U.S. responses to genocide, I interviewed
more than 300 Americans who had a hand in shaping or influencing
U.S. policy.* Most were officials of varying ranks at the White
House, State Department, Pentagon, and Central Intelligence
Agency (CIA). Some were lawmakers and staff members on Capitol
Hill. Others were journalists who covered the carnage or nongovernmental
advocates who attempted to ameliorate it. A grant from the Open
Society Institute enabled me to travel to Bosnia, Cambodia,
Kosovo, and Rwanda, where I spoke with victims, perpetrators,
and bystanders. I also visited the international war crimes
tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague in the Netherlands,
as well the UN court for Rwanda, located in Arusha, Tanzania.
Thanks to the National Security Archive, a nonprofit organization
that uses the Freedom of Information Act to secure the release
of classified U.S. documents, I was able to draw on hundreds
of pages of newly available government records. This Inaterial
provides a clearer picture than was previously discernible of
the interplay among people, motives, and genocidal events.
People have explained U.S. failures to respond to specific genocides
by claiming that the United States didn't know what was happening,
that it knew but didn't care, or that regardless of what it
knew there was nothing useful to be done. I have found that
in fact U.S. policymakers knew a great deal about the crimes
being perpetrated. Some Americans cared and fought for action,
making considerable personal and professional sacrifices. And
the United States did have countless opportunities to mitigate
and prevent slaughter. But time and again, decent men and women
chose to look away. We have all been bystanders to genocide.
The crucial question is why.
*Quotes that are not sourced in the notes are taken from these
exclusive interviews, conducted between July 1993 and November
2001. I have introduced these quotations using the present tense
(e.g., "Senator McGovern recalls . . . ").
The answers seemed to lie in the critical decisions-and decisions
not to decide-made before, during, and after the various genocides.
In exploring a century of U.S. reactions to genocide, I asked:
Were there early warnings that mass killing was set to commence?
How seriously were the warnings taken? By whom? Was there any
reason to believe the violence expected would be qualitatively
or quantitatively different from the "run-of-the-mill"
killings that were sadly typical of local warfare? Once the
violence began, what classified or open intelligence was available?
What constraints operated to impede diagnosis? How and when
did U.S. officials recognize that genocide was under way? Who
inside or outside the U.S. government wanted to do what? What
were the risks or costs? Who opposed them? Who prevailed? How
did public opinion and elite opinion diverge? And finally, how
were the U.S. responses, the genocides, and the Americans who
urged intervention remembered later? In reconstructing a narrative
of events, I have divided most of the cases into warning, recognition,
response, and aftermath sections.
Contrary to any assumption I may have harbored while I traveled
around the former Yugoslavia, the Bush and Clinton administrations'
responses to atrocities in Bosnia were consistent with prior
American responses to genocide. Early warnings of massive bloodshed
proliferated. The spewing of inflammatory propaganda escalated,
The massacres and deportations started. U.S. policymakers struggled
to wrap their minds around the horrors. Refugee stories and
press reports of atrocities became too numerous to deny. Few
Americans at home pressed for intervention. A hopeful but passive
and ultimately deadly American waiting game commenced. And genocide
proceeded unimpeded by U.S. action and often emboldened by U.S.
The book's major findings can be summarized as follows:
ˇ 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.
ˇ It is in the realm of domestic politics that the battle to
stop genocide is lost. American political leaders interpret
society wide silence as an indicator of public indifference.
They reason that they will incur no costs if the United States
remains uninvolved but will face steep risks if they engage.
Potential sources of influence-lawmakers on Capitol Hill, editorial
boards, nongovernmental groups, and ordinary constituents-do
not generate political pressure sufficient to change the calculus
of America's leaders.
ˇ The U.S. government not only abstains from sending its troops,
but it takes very few steps along a continuum of intervention
to deter genocide.
ˇ U.S. officials spin themselves (as well as the American public)
about the nature of the violence in question and the likely
impact of an American intervention. They render the bloodshed
two-sided and inevitable, not genocidal. They insist that any
proposed U.S. response will be futile. Indeed, it may even do
more harm than good, bringing perverse consequences to the victims
and jeopardizing other precious American moral or /strategic
interests.*( *Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity,
Fuiliry, Jeopardy (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1991).
Hirschman shows how those who oppose action tend to take issue
not with the goals of the proposed measure but with its likely
They brand as "emotional" those U.S. officials who
urge intervention and who make moral arguments in a system that
speaks principally in the cold language of interests. / They
avoid use of the word "genocide." Thus, they can in
good conscience favor stopping genocide in the abstract, while
simultaneously opposing American involvement in the moment.
The sharpest challenge to the world of bystanders is posed by
those who have refused to remain silent in the age of genocide.
In each case a few Americans stood out by standing up. They
did not lose sight of right and wrong, even as they were repeatedly
steered to a "context" that others said precluded
action. They refused to accept either that they could not influence
U.S. policy or that the United States could not influence the
killers. These individuals were not alone in their struggles,
but they were not in crowded company either. By seeing what
they tried to get done, we see what America *I borrow the categories
of justification-futility, perversity, and jeopardy-from Albert
Hirschman's could have done. We also see what we might ourselves
have attempted. By seeing how and why they failed, we see what
we as a nation let happen.
In 1915 Henry Morgenthau Sr., the U.S. ambassador in Constantinople,
responded to Turkey's deportation and slaughter of its Armenian
minority by urging Washington to condemn Turkey and pressure
its wartime ally Germany. Morgenthau also defied diplomatic
convention by personally protesting the atrocities, denouncing
the regime, and raising money for humanitarian relief. He was
joined by former president Theodore Roosevelt, who went a step
further, calling on the administration of Woodrow Wilson to
enter World War I and forcibly stop the slaughter. But the United
States clung to its neutrality and insisted that Turkey's internal
affairs were not its business. An estimated 1 million Armenians
were murdered or died of disease and starvation during the genocide.
Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew and international lawyer, warned
about Hitler's designs in the 1930s but was scoffed at. After
finding refuge in the United States in 1941, he failed to win
support for any measure to protect imperiled Jews. The Allies
resisted denouncing Hitler's atrocities, granting refuge to
Europe's Jewry, and bombing the railroad tracks to the Nazi
concentration camps. Undaunted, Lemkin invented the word "genocide"
and secured the passage of the first-ever United Nations human
rights treaty, which was devoted to banning the new crime. Sadly,
he lived to see the genocide convention rebuffed by the U.S.
Senate. William Proxmire, the quixotic U.S. senator from Wisconsin,
picked up where Lemkin left off and delivered 3,211 speeches
on the Senate floor urging ratification of the UN treaty. After
nineteen years of daily soliloquies, Proxmire did manage to
get the Senate to accept the genocide convention, but the U.S.
ratification was so laden with caveats that it carried next
to no force.
A handful of U.S. diplomats and journalists in Cambodia warned
of the depravity of a sinister band of Communist rebels known
as the Khmer Rouge. They were derided by the American left for
falling for anti Communist propaganda, and they failed to influence
a U.S. policy that could not contemplate engagement of any kind
in Southeast Asia after Vietnam. Pol Pot's four-year reign left
some 2 million Cambodians dead, but the massacres elicited barely
a whimper from Washington, which maintained diplomatic recognition
of the genocidal regime even after it had been overthrown.
Peter Galbraith, a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, drafted punishing legislation for his boss, Senator
Claiborne Pell, that would have cut off U.S. agricultural and
manufacturing credits to Saddam Hussein in retaliation for his
1987-1988 attempt to wipe out Iraq's rural Kurds. The sanctions
package was defeated by a determined White House, State Department,
and U.S. farm lobby, which were eager to maintain friendly ties
and sell rice and wheat to Iraq. And so Hussein's regime received
generous American financial support while it gassed and executed
some 100,000 Kurds.
Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian major general who commanded UN peacekeeping
forces in Rwanda in 1994, appealed for permission to disarm
militias and to prevent the extermination of Rwanda's Tutsi
three months before the genocide began. Denied this by his political
masters at the United Nations, he watched corpses pile up around
him as Washington led a successful effort to remove most of
the peacekeepers under his command and then aggressively worked
to block authorization of UN reinforcements. The United States
refused to use its technology to jam radio broadcasts that were
a crucial instrument in the coordination and perpetuation of
the genocide. And even as, on average, 8,000 Rwandans were being
butchered each day the issue never became a priority for senior
U.S. officials. Some 800,000 Rwandans were killed in 100 days.
- A few diplomats at the State Department and several lawmakers
on Capitol Hill relentlessly tried to convince an intransigent
bureaucracy to bomb Serb ethnic cleansers in Bosnia. These men
watched the sanitization of cables, the repackaging of the conflict
as "intractable" and "ancient," and the
maintenance of an arms embargo against Bosnia's outgunned Muslims.
Several foreign service officers who quit the department in
disgust then watched, from a no less frustrating perch outside
the U.S. government, the fall of the Srebrenica safe area and
the largest massacre in Europe in fifty years. Between 1992
and 1995, while the nightly news broadcast the Serb onslaught,
some 200,000 Bosnians were killed. Only when U.S. military intervention
came to feel unavoidable and Bob Dole, the Kansas Republican
and Senate majority leader, had persuaded Congress to lift the
arms embargo did U.S. policy change. By bringing the war in
Bosnia home, Dole helped spur President Clinton to begin NATO
bombing. By then, however, Bosnia's genocide had been largely
completed, and a multiethnic state had been destroyed.
This book deliberately spotlights the response of American policymakers
and citizens for several reasons. First, the United States'
decisions to act or not to act have had a greater impact on
the victims' fortunes than those of any other major power. Second,
since World War II, the United States has had a tremendous capacity
to curb genocide.
It could have used its vast resources to do so without undermining
U.S. security Third, the United States has made an unusually
pronounced commitment to Holocaust commemoration and education.
The Holocaust Memorial Museum, which stands baldly on the Mall
alongside the Lincoln Monument and the Jefferson Memorial and
just yards from the Vietnam Wall Memorial, draws 5,500 visitors
a day, or 2 million per year, almost double the number of visitors
tallied annually by the White House.
Fourth, in recent years American leaders, steeped in a new culture
of Holocaust awareness, have repeatedly committed themselves
to preventing the recurrence of genocide. In 1979 President
Jimmy Carter declared that out of the memory of the Holocaust,
"we must forge an unshakable oath with all civilized people
that never again will the world stand silent, never again will
the world fail to act in time to prevent this terrible crime
of genocide:'' Five years later, President Ronald Reagan, too,
declared. "Like you, I say in a forthright voice, `Never
again! "'° , President George Bush Sr. joined the chorus
in 1991. Speaking "as a World War II veteran, as an American,
and now as President of the United States," Bush said his
visit to Auschwitz had left him with "the determination,
not just to remember, but also to act."5 Before becoming
president, candidate Clinton chided Bush over Bosnia.
"If the horrors of the Holocaust taught us anything,"
Clinton said, "it is the high cost of remaining silent
and paralyzed in the face of genocide."" Once in office,
at the opening of the Holocaust Museum, Clinton faulted America's
inaction during World War II. "Even as our fragmentary
awareness of crimes grew into indisputable facts, far too little
was done," he said. "We must not permit that to happen
again: '' But the . forward-looking, consoling refrain of "never
again," a testament to America's can-do spirit, never grappled
with the fact that the country had done nothing, practically
or politically, to prepare itself to respond to genocide. The
commitment proved hollow in the face of actual slaughter.
Before I began exploring America's relationship with genocide,
I used to refer to U.S. policy toward Bosnia as a "failure:'
I have changed my mind. It is daunting to acknowledge, but this
country's consistent policy of nonintervention in the face of
genocide offers sad testimony not to a broken American political
system but to one that is ruthlessly effective. The system,
as it stands now is working. No U.S. president has ever made
genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever
suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence.
It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.