May 21, 2004

Samantha Power speaks against political amnesia

"American foreign policy is a case of historical amnesia. Why haven't we ever stopped torture or genocide? The answer is embarrassingly simple: We haven't wanted to."

For the past 10 years, Pulitzer Prize winning Harvard professor Samantha Power has attempted to explain the apathy reflected in American foreign policy, which leads to gross human rights violations.

Last Thursday and Saturday, students and faculty eagerly gathered to see Power, who came to the University to address the issues of the torture of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib and the failure of American foreign policy to prevent genocide. Her Thursday lecture on "historical amnesia" in American foreign policy was the penultimate installment in the Center for International Studies' "World Beyond the Headlines" series. Power's Saturday lecture on "tyranny and human rights" was sponsored by the John Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy.

Power, a lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, received the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award for her recent book, "A Problem from Hell:" American and the Age of Genocide. She was the founding executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and from 1993 to 1996 covered the wars in former Yugoslavia as a reporter for U.S. News and World Report, The Boston Globe, and The Economist.

Samantha Power's book, "A Problem from Hell," chronicles the American government's reactions to cases of genocide in the 20th century. Power argues that America favors inaction. Her book condemns almost all American responses, or lack thereof, to some of the most heinous acts committed over the past century.

Power explained that the idea for her book came to her during the war in Bosnia.

"I was in Bosnia; Bosnian Muslims were being allowed to die. I came back to America; everywhere I went there were Holocaust memorials and remembrances and a lot of talk of ‘never again' and no sense of dissonance between these two events," she said. "So the question was initially, how can it be that the Bosnian Muslims fall outside this universe of obligation, and how do they differ from past victims of genocide, who, presumably, somewhere along the line, must have been aided for us to say ‘never again,' as if we've meant it?"

The American allowance of genocide, Power claimed, resulted from apathy.

"Before we can prevent and suppress genocide, we must understand why we have allowed and at times even abetted it," Power added. "We have been bystanders not because we lacked information or because we lacked the resources to achieve anything. Most of us, when confronted with the facts, prefer the ‘twilight between knowing and not knowing.'"

In the wake of the Iraqi-prison scandal, Power noted the administration has a narrow-minded approach, which is undermining its strategic interests in the long run.

"There is a shift in classical realist intervention to something bordering on American liberation theory. The National Security Strategy in 2002 misuses the word ‘freedom,' which is repeated 47 times in the document—very ironic."

She described how other elements direct the force of American foreign policy in Washington. "Somewhere there is the recognition that among the 19 hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks, all but one did not come from an American-friendly nation."

Recently, American foreign policy has come under scrutiny. Power's claims that even if the U.S. turned around and genuinely advocated human rights, America's previous wrong doings would never be totally recognized.

"In Iraq, why didn't the US look at what happened to the British in the Middle East? In 1980, the U.S. was loosely tied to Iraq and gave them millions in foreign aid to combat Iran. Saddam used U.S.-funded chemical weapons to kill his own people and America actually rejected nearly every resolution to condemn such actions," Power said.

Additionally, in the wake of the Gulf War, the U.S. had taken no action to apologize or acknowledge the fact that it called upon Iraqi Shiites to rise up against the government, only to abandon them when the U.S. had promised to provide aid.

"There was never a public acknowledgement or prospective reparation," Power responded. "To act as though history isn't happening—this adds up."

Now, as more Iraqi prisoner-abuse photos surface everyday, questions arise regarding what the American government should do about the situation.

"[The U.S.] will make a change and push for it, but never look back," Power said. All Bush has claimed is that "we acted, and now there are no longer torture rooms in Iraq."

Power explained that the kind of institutional loyalty American leaders have shown is nonpartisan. "Even if Kerry wins, he may not apologize for the errors of the past administration or the system of American action as a whole."

Speaking about Bush's appearance on Arab television networks, Power suggested that he was "dragged to apologize" and instead should have said, "I am sorry you didn't see the true nature of the American people."

She also said that "the big Rumsfeld stain" shows where the responsibility lies. "Bush has to fire Rumsfeld, it is so important."

She noted that the policy failures lay not only in Iraq, but around the world.

Power said that despite the mantra of "never again," the U.S. has still been mute to the atrocities in Uzbekistan, Chechnya (in the interest of keeping Russia stable), Zimbabwe, and Darfur.

Indeed, recent accounts have shown that for the past year in Darfur, Sudan the augmenting civil conflict has escalated to a devastating humanitarian crisis. Reports indicate that over one million non-Arab black Sudanese have been exiled from their homes through a systematic strategy of scorched-earth destruction by the "Janjaweed" Arab militias and the government. The government forces have either overseen or directly participated in massacres, summary executions of civilians, burnings of towns and villages, and the forced depopulation of wide swathes of land previously inhabited by the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa ethnic groups.

Since then, many have asked: Why is nobody talking about this? What happened to the influential international media?

"People did talk about Darfur for the single week that we were allowed, but it seemed as if you could only talk about Darfur from April 1 to April 10. And there were a lot of Darfur-Rwanda connections made in that single week. However, the reality is that the U.S. government is bad at walking and chewing gum at the same time, especially as it is overstretched militarily. We are all scratching our heads now to find the entity that can bridge the distance between amazing human-rights reporting and policy change."

Nevertheless, Power did acknowledge that the whistleblowing of the media has effected some change internationally. Human Rights Watch, for example, began to use "rendition reporting," which has publicized ways certain U.N. member states will outsource other non-member countries to torture individuals for information and simultaneously avoid accountability for human rights violations.

Power stressed that the U.S. government must be convinced that it is in their national interest to link foreign policy with the human rights agenda. "The challenge is squeezing the human rights concerns in the dominant paradigm." She revealed that in Rwanda, officials were looking for any reason to intervene in a way that was not a response to "genocide." "They looked for guerillas, insurgency, oil, or something that would create a policy of priority."

Power's words have displayed how the "war on terror" has distracted the greater urgency for maintaining human rights standards. The imperative remains to reconsider the way foreign policy is conducted as a whole. She recalled her response to one U.S. official who said to her, "genocide is so, so passé. It's so '90s":

"This reminds the world that the crime has been with us from Genesis in the Bible on forward, and it will be with us tomorrow. My hope is that [we will gain] the capacity to mobilize people when a crisis actually hits, because it is not enough to remember. [Otherwise] we'll just have another ‘never again.' "