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Why the U.S. Has Failed to Stop Genocide
There are several reasons why America has failed in its moral responsibility to prevent or stop genocide. Author Samantha Power provides an overview of the reasons and rationalizations behind U.S. inaction.
For all the rhetoric, Samantha Power claims that:
“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.”
Based on her research into acts of genocide since World War I, Power identifies four main reasons why the U.S. has failed to stop or prevent genocide.
Inability to Imagine the Magnitude of Evil
Powers says that, even when faced with graphic images and accounts of genocide, Americans seem to be unable to grasp the magnitude of the evil involved.
Irrationality of Evil
Most Americans appear to assume that, before the killing begins in earnest, the agents of genocide really cannot be that bad, or cannot be so stupid as to carry out a systematic campaign of murder. To the American mind, there is a sort of irrationality to genocide. It does not make sense. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, when told of the ongoing Nazi genocidal campaigns against European Jews replied, “I don't believe you....I do not mean that you are lying. I simply said that I cannot believe you.” Frankfurter's response may be typical of the mindset of many Americans.
Because of this, American officials have been more apt to trust in good faith diplomacy with the guilty government.
Only the Troublemakers Are in Real Danger
Once the killing starts, Americans tend to believe that if the civilians who are in danger just keep their heads down they will be left alone. After all, a “rational” regime would only be a threat to groups that threaten the government. Why waste time, effort and resources killing innocent people who pose no threat?
The case of Turk genocide against the Armenian population in Turkey during World War I is a case in point. Henry Morgenthau Sr., U.S. ambassador to Turkey at the time, provided detailed and gruesome accounts of Turk atrocities against the Armenians to the U.S. government. However, the official line from Mehmed Talaat, Turkey's interior minister, was that Turkish forces were merely responding to the threats of Armenian groups against the Turkish government. Civilians were not the targets.
This was not the only reason for American non-involvement, but it was a convenient excuse—even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.
Risks Outweigh Benefits for American Political Leaders
American political leaders are accountable to the U.S. public. However, when the U.S. public is largely silent on the issue of genocide, policymakers can interpret this as indifference. Non-action then becomes the politically safest route.
The calculus is quite simple. To try to tackle an issue like genocide without public backing is only to put one's elected position at stake. The costs of action are potentially very high. However, if the public is unconcerned, then the costs of inaction are negligible. Act and perhaps lose big; don't act and stay “safe.” It is not a difficult choice from that perspective.
Samantha Power says that potential sources of influence simply have not mounted sufficient pressure on American leaders to change the course.
The U.S. Is Largely Inactive
American leaders have refused to commit troops to stop most 20th century genocidal campaigns:
This is to say nothing, of course, about American inaction with respect to Stalin's and Mao's atrocities against their own people.
And, even though the U.S. did commit troops to the Serb campaign against Bosnians, this was only after much foot dragging on the part of the Clinton administration.
But, says Power, committing troops is only one intervention on a continuum of possible actions to stop or prevent genocide. However, America has done very little within the range of possible actions.
U.S. Officials Offer a Range of Reasons for Inaction
When genocidal atrocities receive wide press, American leaders are forced to justify their inaction. U.S. political leaders “spin” the situation in a number of ways to argue that inaction is the appropriate course.
Data and Methods:
Power, Samantha. 2003. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. London: Flamingo. Preface, pp. xi-xxi.