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  • Roger Smith article on Genocide

    Chronicle of Higher Education
    July 30, 2004 1.htm

    American Self-Interest and the Response to Genocide

    For 20 years, I taught a course on genocide: What is "genocide," why
    does it happen, who is responsible for it, and how could this ultimate
    crime be prevented? I told students that genocide -- intentional acts to

    eliminate in whole, or in substantial part, a specific human population
    -- had claimed the lives of some 60 million people in the 20th century,
    16 million of them since 1945, when the watchword was "Never again."
    Genocide has, in fact, been so frequent, the number of victims so
    extensive, and serious attempts to prevent it so few, that many scholars

    have described the 20th century as "the age of genocide." Some have
    wondered if genocide is not itself a product of modernity, the dark
    energy of civilization.

    But what my students wanted to know was: Why had the nations of the
    world, and particularly the United States, which they thought of as both

    powerful and just, not prevented the killing of millions of innocent
    people? Where was American power and moral commitment when a million
    Armenians were being slaughtered in Turkey in 1915, six million
    Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin in 1932-33, two million Bengalis
    murdered by Pakistan in 1971? What was America doing when still more
    millions were killed in Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda, not because of
    what they had done, but because of who they were? And, of course, there
    was the much-discussed question of whether more could have been done to
    prevent the Holocaust.

    My students also wanted to know why it had taken the United States 40
    years to ratify the Genocide Convention, which the United Nations
    endorsed unanimously in 1948, with strong U.S. support. The convention
    defined genocide and declared it a crime against international law. Why,

    as soon as the United States finally did ratify the convention, in 1988,

    did it support Saddam Hussein's regime despite evidence that the
    dictator had committed genocide against the Kurds in Iraq in 1987-88?

    Today we continue to hear about genocide. As before, however, few
    Americans pay much attention. What is happening in Sudan? In Congo? With

    indigenous peoples in many other regions? Can you tell me? My students'
    questions -- and my own -- are increasingly important to all of us, both

    morally and politically.

    Unfortunately they are not easy to answer. Sometimes the response hinges

    on factual information, but more often on judgment, an assessment of
    competing responsibilities, and context. At the outset we can reject
    claims that relieve all bystanders, whether states, organizations, or
    individuals, of responsibility for attempting to prevent or mitigate
    genocide. One argument, coming from perpetrators, is that victims of
    genocide (although the term is avoided) bear responsibility for their
    own destruction, having brought it upon themselves through provocation.
    Genocide is strictly an internal matter, this argument goes. Outside
    powers should mind their own business. Two immediate objections arise:
    First, provocations, when they exist at all, stem from a minority of the

    group of victims. Most of those who will be killed are innocent. Second,

    genocide is seldom without international consequences, ranging from a
    vast outpouring of refugees, with the need for large amounts of
    humanitarian aid, to regional instability and war.

    A recent article in the Journal of Genocide Research provides a chilling

    variation on the argument about the responsibility of victims. In
    "Provoking Genocide: A Revised History of the Rwandan Patriotic Front,"
    Alan J. Kuperman states: "In most cases of mass killing since World War
    II -- unlike the Holocaust -- the victim group has triggered its own
    demise by violently challenging the authority of the state." Kuperman
    adds that he does not use provocation to excuse genocide. Nor does he
    deny that there is an international responsibility to prevent genocide.
    But the obligation takes a bizarre turn: Intervention by third parties
    should not be directed against those we perceive as perpetrators; they,
    after all, are only defending themselves. Rather, intervention should be

    aimed at changing the behavior of the victims. In other words, in the
    Rwandan genocide of 1994, the international community should have
    ignored the Hutu preparations for genocide and focused, instead, on the
    intended Tutsi victims. The upshot of that Alice in Wonderland argument
    is that the victims become the perpetrators.

    Claims are also made that genocides are inevitable, the result of
    ancient hatreds, conflict over scarce resources, or the advance of
    progress. A version of the inevitability thesis that found favor with
    some international planners in the 1960s was that genocide is simply a
    byproduct of development, and benefits to the surviving group outweigh
    the costs to the group that is decimated, or perhaps eliminated. Over
    the years that argument has been applied not only to the elimination of
    indigenous peoples (the Yanomami in Brazil, the Chittagong Hills
    tribesmen in Bangladesh), but also to the destruction of the Armenians
    in Turkey, which, we are told by some historians, paved the way for a
    more unified and stronger nation, one allied with the United States
    during the cold war.

    Genocide, however, is never inevitable: It is always the result of
    choice. And surely lives are not interchangeable.

    Another argument is that genocides should be allowed to run their
    course: It is best to let the violence complete itself, reducing the
    chance for further violence and, hence, any need for intervention. That
    proposition, devoid of even animal pity, was advanced to me by a student

    in international relations after I mentioned that Rwanda had had
    recurrent genocides. Had the killers not been restrained, he asserted,
    unity and peace would have been established. When I asked him if he
    would maintain his position if he were a member of the group slated for
    victimization, he replied that he lived in the United States, and that
    therefore the question wasn't relevant. That was shortly before
    September 11.

    The field of genocide studies itself is relatively new, dating to the
    late 1970s. Several factors were involved: a growing emphasis on the
    protection of human rights, the frequency of genocide in the 1960s
    (Rwanda, Indonesia) and 1970s (Bangladesh, Burundi, Cambodia), a
    rediscovery of the Armenian genocide and a new awareness of how it had
    been denied. Not last: a disenchantment with the emphasis in the social
    sciences on methodology at the expense of substance.

    One of the best works is still Leo Kuper's 1982 Genocide: Its Political
    Use in the Twentieth Century, which discusses the nature and history of
    genocide, its treatment under international law, the conditions that
    promote it, and the inability of the United Nations to suppress it. But
    since the book's publication, new genocides have been committed,
    extensive research on genocide has been conducted, and explanations of
    why genocides occur have taken on new sophistication. Three recent books

    provide essential, updated information about genocide in the 20th

    The first, The New Killing Fields: Massacre and the Politics of
    Intervention, edited by Nicolaus Mills and Kira Brunner, is perhaps the
    narrowest, yet the most contemporary, focusing on four cases of
    genocide: Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and East Timor. Most of the essays
    are by journalists, some of whom were present as genocide was taking
    place around them. Their accounts, mostly descriptive and personal,
    provide a wealth of information. The New Killing Fields also includes
    two essays, by Michael Walzer and Samantha Power, that suggest how we
    can begin to evaluate international responses to genocide. When, where,
    how, and at what cost should outside states intervene? More on that

    Eric D. Weitz's A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation also
    concentrates on four cases of genocide in the 20th century: the Soviet
    Union, Nazi Germany, Cambodia, and Bosnia/Kosovo. Systematic in his
    comparisons, Weitz concludes that those genocides were the result of
    "ideologies of race and nation, revolutionary regimes with vast utopian
    ambitions, moments of crisis generated by war and domestic upheaval."
    What is distinctive about his thesis is that he maintains that genocide
    has a dual character: It is organized by states but is possible on a
    vast scale, as in the 20th century, only with widespread participation
    by the population. The book is also strong in its emphasis on the
    rituals of degradation and cruelty that occur in genocide. Its weakness
    is that it omits the Rwandan genocide altogether, and its concentration
    on the Soviet Union gets bogged down in party purges and political
    repression, which Weitz admits are not examples of genocide. (Many of
    those sent to the gulag were released, and Soviet officials often
    thought they were pursuing "reform" rather than annihilation, he notes.)

    On the other hand, the Stalin-induced famine in the Ukraine in 1932-33,
    intended to destroy the kulaks as a class, end Ukrainian nationalism,
    and force peasants into collective farms, receives virtually no
    attention, though most scholars regard it as genocide.

    If the other books are selective in the cases of genocide they focus
    upon, The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective,
    edited by Robert Gellately and Ben Kiernan, strives to be comprehensive.

    It discusses the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and genocides against

    indigenous peoples in Africa, North America, and Australia, and is
    particularly strong on its coverage of genocides in the post-1945
    period: Indonesia, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Bosnia, Rwanda, East Timor, and
    Guatemala. The cumulative impact of the book is to demonstrate just how
    prevalent state-sponsored mass murder has been in the 20th century.
    Rather than an aberration, genocide has been commonplace, occurring in
    most parts of the world. Oddly, however, at least two major examples are

    omitted: the mass killing in East Pakistan, and Saddam Hussein's gassing

    of the Kurds. Those are important in their own right, but also, as we
    shall see, in terms of the U.S. response to them.

    Almost from the beginning, the field of genocide studies has been
    concerned with two questions: Not just, Why does genocide take place?,
    but also, How can it be prevented? One early idea seemed to offer great
    promise: a "genocide early-warning system." Comparative analysis would
    provide indicators to predict where imminent threats of genocide
    existed; intervention could follow immediately. Naïvely, scholars
    assumed that individual states or international organizations would act
    on evidence of when and where genocide was likely to occur. It didn't
    take long to realize that the problem wasn't about knowing, but about
    doing. It was a matter of political will.

    Inaction and political will became the major topics of discussion in
    genocide studies as of the mid-'80s. But as often happens in academic
    life, we were talking mainly to each other. There was little attempt to
    engage either policy makers or the public in a dialogue. Nor was there
    an effort to provide a comprehensive account of American policy toward
    genocide over the course of the 20th century. Some of us thought about
    doing such a study, but the idea seemed so huge that it was shelved.
    Then in 2002, the book did appear and, significantly, addressed not so
    much the academy as the public and the political establishment.

    Samantha Power's "A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide
    won a Pulitzer Prize for its thorough documentation of the dark history
    of the American inaction to stop genocide in the 20th century and its
    explanation of why the United States had failed to act. Only rarely did
    the U.S. government even condemn the killing as it was taking place. For

    Power, "What is most shocking is that U.S. policy makers did almost
    nothing to deter the crime." Of course, there were individuals, both in
    government and in society, who sought to change policy, but, Power
    notes, their efforts failed. The United States, on the other hand, has
    been both generous and effective in providing humanitarian aid after a
    people has been decimated.

    It is not just a question of inaction. Power tells us that on several
    occasions, the United States "directly or indirectly aided those
    committing genocide." We provided $500-million in agricultural and
    manufacturing credits to Iraq as that country was destroying thousands
    of Kurdish villages and gassing Kurds. After Vietnam had ousted
    Cambodia's Pol Pot regime, the United States, in an effort to deny
    Vietnam influence in that country, took the lead in the United Nations
    in recognizing the genocidal Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of

    Cambodia. The United States also led the arms embargo against the
    Bosnian Muslims, even though it was clear that doing so would prevent
    them from defending themselves. And it did everything in its power to
    remove U.N. peacekeepers from Rwanda and prevent their return. Some
    800,000 persons died as a result; the violence also spilled over into
    neighboring countries, setting off local and regional wars. Other
    examples pile up.

    How can we explain the U.S. response to genocide? Those who made the
    decisions not to act typically argued that they didn't know what was
    going on, that the facts were unclear, that any effort to stop the
    killing would have been futile, that the United States lacked the means
    to do so, that intervention would have made the situation even worse.
    Power rejects such claims: "Simply put, American leaders did not act
    because they did not want to. They believed that genocide was wrong, but

    they were not prepared to invest the military, financial, diplomatic, or

    domestic political capital needed to stop it." On the other hand, when
    it seemed to be in the national interest, those same policy makers could

    collaborate in genocide either by giving permission (East Timor) or by
    active support (Indonesia, Guatemala).

    For the most part, genocide in the 20th century seemed to be something
    that happened to other people, in other parts of the world, with little
    effect on American interests, narrowly defined. It was seldom a subject
    of public debate. There has been, Power says, a mutual failure in the
    democratic process: An uninformed public makes no demands for the
    suppression of genocide, and politicians, having done what they can to
    silence the public, cite the lack of public demand as a basis for
    inaction as genocide claims its victims.

    There has always been, however, a problem about how public opinion is
    related to public policy. I would argue that relatively small,
    well-organized lobbying groups are more likely to be effective in moving

    policy makers to act against genocide than broad, but somewhat
    amorphous, public opinion. Public opinion may be reported, but it
    doesn't get direct access to policy makers the way human-rights
    lobbyists sometimes can. Moreover, human-rights groups have the
    expertise to be persuasive and the commitment to stay with the issue as
    public opinion -- easily manipulated by those with power and an
    ideological agenda -- waxes and wanes.

    But the reverse is also true: Farm and manufacturing interests were able

    to defeat the legislation that would have prohibited credits to Iraq
    after the gassing of the Kurds. Nearly 25 percent of American rice
    production annually went to Iraq, along with a million tons of wheat,
    insecticides, fertilizers, tractors, and so on. Agricultural lobbyists
    argued that Iraq was not an enemy, but an opportunity. Suspending
    credits would not punish Iraq -- other countries would supply Saddam
    Hussein. American businesses would be the real victims. The Reagan
    administration, also claiming that "engagement" with Iraq would allow a
    gentler dictator to emerge, seconded those arguments.

    We can see the impact of public opinion, and its limitations, in Peter
    Balakian's important book, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and

    America's Response. There are several interrelated themes and narratives

    in The Burning Tigris. First, there are the detailed, heart-wrenching
    accounts of the Turkish massacres of some 200,000 Armenians in the
    1890s, and of the genocide, beginning in 1915, that claimed the lives of

    at least a million Armenians. At the same time, the author describes the

    dedication and courage of American diplomats, who tried, with little
    support from the State Department, to end the carnage. But there is also

    the story of a broadly based American humanitarian movement that sought
    to provide relief to the Armenians in their desperate condition, and
    that demanded that the U.S. government protect them from further
    violence. Balakian, however, shows that by the beginning of the 1920s
    there was a growing conflict between public opinion, which strongly
    supported an independent Armenia, and a Congress and White House that
    had other interests. In his final chapter, he documents Turkey's
    continuing denial of the Armenian genocide and its efforts, largely
    successful, to enlist the White House and State Department in defeating
    Congressional resolutions that would publicly recognize the genocide.

    But the point to emphasize here is that while public support was crucial

    for the relief efforts and helped save many lives, it was not able to
    carry the day politically. The United States did not declare war on
    Turkey in World War I, even though Turkey and Germany were allies. An
    influential group of missionaries and their supporters argued that their

    colleges and schools would be seized by Turkey, and that relief supplies

    would not be allowed in the country. After World War I, although the
    public strongly supported an American mandate to protect the fragile
    Armenian state, a growing isolationism in Congress put an end to the
    project. From 1920 on, where Armenia was concerned, it was through the
    voice not of the people, but of big oil. As one Senate critic summarized

    the Harding administration's attitude: "Show this administration an oil
    well, and it will show you a foreign policy." Shades of the past
    continue. Did Iraqi oil help blunt criticism of what was happening to
    the Kurds?

    Whether the issue is about taxes or human rights, elites and their
    interest groups tend to prevail. In part that is because most
    human-rights organizations in the United States have small budgets. And
    in part because the major humanitarian organizations have differing
    agendas: Amnesty International focuses on individuals, Human Rights
    Watch on policy and institutions. Other groups focus on humanitarian aid

    once the slaughter has commenced. As a result resources and efforts are
    scattered. What recent scholarship helps us see is that those who want
    the United States to take a more active stance against genocide have no
    choice but to create organizations that can lobby more effectively than
    they have in the past.

    In addition, it is crucial that policy makers redefine "national
    interest" to include the prevention of genocide abroad. How such a
    conceptual revolution can come about is problematic, but without it, we
    can expect only more of the same: the deaths of hundreds of thousands of

    people while Uncle Sam takes a hike. The case for an expanded
    understanding of the national interest is not new. It has had a
    prominent place in scholarly discussions for at least the past 20 years,

    but it has either been ignored or viewed with skepticism by most in

    The argument rests on two elements. The first is moral: Genocide is a
    crime committed upon a particular people, but by its very nature, it is
    also a crime against humankind, permanently diminishing the biological
    and cultural possibilities of human existence. It is an outrage to our
    sense of justice. Since when can we support, allow, defend the mass
    killing of the innocent? The second reason: Genocide leads to war,
    regional and international instability, disruption of trade, an enormous

    outflow of refugees, and if not stopped, sends a message to would-be
    perpetrators that they can go ahead with impunity. Further still, as
    Power reminds us, survivors of genocide may become a threat in the
    future, harboring a thirst for vengeance and having learned that
    violence is an acceptable way to "solve" social and political problems.
    In that sense, the case for the prevention of genocide is rooted in
    enlightened self-interest.

    A major barrier to an expanded notion of national interest or, more
    generally, a willingness to prevent or mitigate genocide, is that
    "intervention" is widely thought to mean solely military intervention.
    That is, in fact, how the political theorist Michael Walzer understands
    the term in his essay in The New Killing Fields. He would limit military

    intervention to cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing; other violations

    of human rights, however egregious, would be left to the local
    population. Whether he would approve of Britain's recent military
    intervention in Sierra Leone is uncertain.

    Moreover, Walzer insists that the task of intervention is limited: "Once

    the massacres and ethnic cleansing are really over and the people in
    command are committed to avoiding their return, the intervention is
    finished." He notes that "when intervention is understood in this
    minimalist fashion, it may be a little easier to see it through." But in

    his new book, Arguing About War, Walzer supports intervening countries'
    staying for the long term: "Humanitarian intervention radically shifts
    the argument about endings, because now the war is from the beginning an

    effort to change the regime that is responsible for inhumanity." That
    position may be logical, but it also suggests the difficulties that make

    countries and international organizations unwilling to commit

    There are other ways of thinking about intervention. Actual military
    intervention may sometimes be necessary to stop a continuing genocide,
    as it was in East Pakistan in 1971 and East Timor in 1999. In some cases

    intervention may prevent genocide: Gen. Roméo Dallaire, the U.N.
    commander in Rwanda, thought that 5,000 troops would have been adequate
    to thwart the impending genocide. But nations can also respond to
    genocide, or the likelihood of genocide, short of military intervention,

    with all of its human and political risks. The options are not confined
    to either doing nothing or waging full battle with the genocidal regime.

    Part of the problem is to identify in advance the countries most likely
    to commit genocide and take steps to mediate conflicts; to transform, as

    much as possible, the conditions that give rise to genocide; and to use
    a variety of incentives and threats to affect decisions in the
    potentially genocidal regime. Once genocide begins, there are also steps

    that intervening nations or groups can take. Samantha Power provides a
    compelling list of such actions. She urges countries to "respond to
    genocide with a sense of urgency, publicly identifying and threatening
    the perpetrators with prosecution, demanding the expulsion of
    representatives of genocidal regimes from international institutions
    such as the United Nations, closing the perpetrators' embassies in the
    United States, and calling upon countries aligned with the perpetrators
    to ask them to use their influence." Other actions might include
    economic sanctions, freezing financial assets, and, to prevent
    incitement of genocide, jamming radio and televisions channels that spew

    out messages of hate. Ultimately, military intervention may nevertheless

    be necessary, although that would not have to be undertaken by just one

    Multilateral intervention provides greater legitimacy, reducing the
    perception that action has more to do with self-interest than with
    humanitarianism, and thus helps to securely establish the right to
    intervene to stop mass killing. It also distributes the burden of
    intervention. But intervention by a single state may be justified, as
    when India used force in adjacent East Pakistan in 1971.

    Yet, if the U.S. government has a dismal record on responding to
    genocide, there have been signs in the past 10 years of possible change.

    After a very late start a U.S.-led NATO force intervened in Bosnia,
    first with air power, then with the orchestration of the Dayton Accords;

    that was followed by military intervention in Kosovo. Then in 1999, the
    United States supported U.N. intervention in East Timor to protect the
    right to self-determination and what was left of a people still under
    assault by militias and the Indonesian army. For several years a joint
    CIA-State Department genocide early-warning system has been in place.

    At present the State Department is discussing whether the mass killing,
    razing of villages, and burning of crops in the Darfur region of Sudan,
    by government-supported Arab militias against non-Arabs who live in the
    region, constitutes genocide. (However, possible sanctions mentioned
    publicly, like freezing the killers' assets in the United States, are
    more symbolic than likely to have a real impact.)

    But there have also been countersigns: the steadfast refusal to
    recognize the International Criminal Court that could try, as a last
    resort, persons accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and
    genocide. Moreover, the war against terrorism is taking center stage,
    once more helping to push genocide to the back of our consciousness.

    Even if the political will to prevent genocide suddenly appears, another

    problem exists. Most genocide scholars and human-rights advocates
    believe that, unless the United States takes the lead, other countries
    will stay on the sidelines, as they have in the past. But American power

    is not enough. To enlist others in the effort to prevent genocide, moral

    authority is required. Therein lies the issue: What is left of America's

    moral credibility after Iraq?

    Roger W. Smith is a professor emeritus of government at the College of
    William & Mary and a former president of the Association of Genocide


    Arguing About War, by Michael Walzer (Yale University Press, 2004).

    The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response, by
    Peter Balakian (HarperCollins, 2003).

    A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Raceand Nation, by Eric D. Weitz
    (Princeton University Press, 2003).

    Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century, by Leo Kuper (Yale

    University Press, 1982).

    The New Killing Fields: Massacre and the Politics of Intervention,
    edited by Nicolaus Mills and Kira Brunner (Basic Books, 2002).

    "A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha
    Power (Basic Books, 2002).

    "Provoking Genocide: A Revised History of the Rwandan Patriotic Front,"
    by Alan J. Kuperman, in the Journal of Genocide Research, Vol. 6, No. 1,

    March 2004:61-84.

    The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective, edited
    by Robert Gellately and Ben Kiernan (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
    Section: The Chronicle Review
    Volume 50, Issue 47, Page B6