Samantha Power: former Obama advisor, victim of Senator Clinton’s puffed-up umbrage-mongering, Pulitzer winner, and Genocide Apologist?
Badger’s earlier post raised my eyebrows. His question, “[Power]‘s essentially an apologist for American involvement in genocides?”, was in my mouth almost immediately, and I resolved to look more deeply into the issue. I’m no huge Power partisan…part of my interest involves her book, skimmed and unmarked, and matters related to money- and time-waste. But fair is fair…
SO I read Herman’s essays, then printed them and read them again. They read like hit-pieces, plain and simple, and I was fully expecting to craft a scornful and flippant response, but on my third and fourth readthroughs, I’ve moderated that assessment. They are misleading, sloppily/insufficiently footnoted, question-begging, and cheaply rhetorical, but, no, Herman’s essays are not hit-pieces. They are the works of a (no doubt well-intentioned) True Believer.
The pieces in question were written in 2004 and 2007. The latter is longer, and deals with Richard Holbrooke, Sarah Sewell, and Samantha Power. It repeats, often word-for-word, the bulk of the 2004 piece, and the thrust of the argument as it relates to Power is the same. Herman’s position is that the United States, as violent imperialist power par excellance, has “carried out or supported” more genocides than any other state “over the past half century”, and that the establishment–the government, media, intellectuals, and “allies” of those groups–is engaged in a systematic, propagandic process of diversion and misdirection. The charge, to simplify slightly, is one of hypocrisy.
Herman uses the terms “worthy” and “unworthy” to distinguish between…well, worthy and unworthy genocides:
“Worthy genocides are those mass killings carried out by bad people, notably U.S. enemies and targets, and they receive great attention and elicit much passion; the unworthy ones are carried out by the United States or one of its client states, and they receive little attention or indignation and are not labelled genocides, even when the scale of killings greatly exceeds those so designated, obviously based on political utility.”
Herman has rigged the game here, subtly ignoring the distinction in law between mass killings, war, and genocide to make the larger (and valid) point that the U.S.’s responsibility, whether direct or indirect, for violence all over the world is not addressed in the “mainstream” with any honesty or intellectual seriousness. It is in this elision, though, that his case against Power crumbles. On Herman’s playing field, he merely has to show that Power doesn’t call American violence genocide to “prove” that these instances of violence are considered “unworthy” genocides: “In short, Samantha Power can identify with Holbrooke because they both follow the U.S. party line on worhty and unworthy genocides. As the United Sates was directly involved in the great Vietnam genocide, as its leaders were part of the ‘joint criminal enterprise’ with Indonesia in East Timor, and as they were mainly responsible for the ‘sanctions of mass destruction’ and those 500,000 dead children whose deaths were ‘worth it’ for Albright, Samantha Power evades these cases.”
See? It is that simple. Call something a genocide, show that person x does not call it a genocide, and assert that person x is in the apologia business. WHETHER things like Vietnam, Cambodia 1969-75, Iraq 1991-2003, Indonesia, West Papua, East Timor, Guatemala, Israel, Angola, Mozambique, and South Africa are genocides as Power (and the international community) uses the term doesn’t matter. The elision has occured, and the argument construction phase is over.
So, what is Power’s book about? How DOES she use the term? What was her scope?
Power’s book, A Problem From Hell, is a study of America’s responses to selected genocides and is broadly critical of the U.S. throughout. She details the genocides she will cover: In addition to “…Bosnian serbs’ eradication of non-serbs, I examined the Ottoman slaughter of 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 (preface, xv).” Herman would argue that this list betrays her bias, that it can be judged according to what it does not include. This is certainly a valid concern, but it is a tricky one. The book is the book, after all. It makes no claim that it is exhaustive. One may well accuse Herman, in this vein, of downplaying the Holocaust since he doesn’t discuss it, just as one may well accuse me of ignoring any number of American atrocities in this post… Are we all apologists?
Power devotes a significant portion of her book to describing the origin of the concept (and the word) genocide itself. She discusses the 1948 genocide convention and, on pg. 57, gives its definition of the term:
“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such:
A. Killing members of the group;
B. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
C. Deliberately inflicting on the group the conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
D. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
E. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
For a party to be found guilty of perpetrating…genocide, it had to (1) carry out one of the aforementioned acts, (2) with the intent to destroy all or part of (3) on of the groups protected…If the perpetrator did not target a national, ethnic, or religious group as such, then killings would constitute mass homicide, not genocide.”
That last sentence marks the ghoulish distinction that concerns us. Power’s book operates under a constraint, a constraint that Herman is demonstrably not interested in. There is nothing wrong with this prima facie, but the two positions, Herman’s and Power’s, are incommensurable.
And Power is quite critical of the U.S., laying bare the often shameful, craven, and enervated waffling of our government officials (pgs. 65-70). She writes, “Again, the Senate subcommittee had sought to soothe the senators’ fears by attaching an explicit, legal ‘understanding’ that shielded the southern states by stating clearly, ‘Genocide does not apply tp lynchings, race riots, or any form of segregation.’ The critics did not heed this (embarrassing) recommendation (pg. 68).” Where Power writes “embarrassing”, I would write “inhuman, hypocritical, and morally bankrupt”, but I would not accuse her of racism. I could only accuse her of lack of zeal, and this, in the end, is what Herman does as well (whether he knows it or not).
This paragraph from Power’s conclusion may help to illustrate the point:
“Indeed, on occasion the United States directly or indirectly aided those committing genocide. It orchestrated the vote in the UN Credentials Committee to favor the Khmer Rouge. It sided with and supplied U.S. agricultural and manufacturing credits to Iraq while Saddam Hussein was attempting to wipe out the country’s Kurds. Along with its European allies, it maintained an arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims even after it was clear that the arms ban prevented the Muslims from defending themselves. It used its clout on the UN Security Council to mandate the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers from Rwanda and block efforts to redeploy there. To the people of Bosnia and Rwanda, the United States and its Security Council allies held out the promise of protection–a promise that they were not prepared to keep (pg. 504).”
The words of an apologist? Herman accuses the U.S. of aiding genocidal regimes. Power accuses the U.S. of aiding genocidal regimes. Herman notes the shameful 40 year lag between the genocide convention’s treaty and our (provisional) ratification of the same. Power details the 40 year lag between the genocide convention’s treaty and our (porvisional) ratification of the same. Herman accuses the U.S. of perpetrating genocide. Power does not. There is the difference. Lack of zeal.
There are a few minor things I’ll note in closing: He cites her infrequently and does not cite her where a citation would be appropriate (cf. his reference to her article in the New Republic). The very first footnote is misleading. He places the “” after this phrase: “…for their denunciations of some genocides and ‘problems from hell’ while actually facilitating, ignoring, or apologizing for others.” I thought I had hit the jackpot, but the footnote merely noted that Power had indeed won the Pulitzer. This is not merely a stylistic/editorial tic, because other footnotes, for example number 4, are placed after the part of the sentence that they actually refer to…
Much of the 2007 essay proceeds by way of innuendo. He has beefs with Holbrooke and Sewell (which I will not examine), and sort of lumps Power in with them with no explanation and (presumably) no proof.
He uses unattributed quotes, most notably toward the end of the 13th paragraph of his 2007 essay, in which he disputes a portion of Power’s analysis of the violence in Kosovo.
He makes large assumptions and draws tenuous equivalences throughout both pieces, but this gripe can be explained, at least in part, by the central elision detailed above.
I encourage anyone interested to read the pieces in question and to read Power’s book. The question of whether or not Sen. Obama, a potential President of this country, has a genocide apologist close to him is a (to say the least) germane one. I’ve put my own fears to rest by digging in the sources. So can you.