How Samatha Power's Study on Genocide Was Used to Justify the War in Iraq





Paige Williams, writing for the Financial Times (London) (March 13, 2004)

One of Samantha Power's favourite lunch spots is a place off Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts called Casablanca. Decorated with 20ft murals of the movie, Bogart and Bergman gaze with melancholy at diners digging into their seared cod and mixed greens.

The theme has echoes of Hitler and of Hollywood, which resonate because Power's seminal writings on war and human rights have made her a celebrity favoured by the American left...

She is equally distinguished in accomplishment. Over-achievement is de rigueur in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but rarely does it come so globally at the age of 33. In her best-selling book of 2002, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Power chronicled the role of the US in the history of genocide. The book criticises America's record of passivity in the face of international slaughter and has become required reading for anyone hoping to strengthen US foreign policy on human rights. Power pushes the issue as founding executive director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard, where her obsessive tendencies have not gone unnoticed. (When she was working on the book she would crank the heat up to 80 deg F during the day so she could stay warm while she worked late into the night.)

Yet lately, to her dismay, she has been at risk of being interpreted as a bit more hawk than dove - of being appropriated to justify President George W. Bush's war in Iraq. She cringes at the idea...

..."It causes me great discomfort when my book is read in its most narrow sense, which is that, 'The United States should intervene militarily when it feels like it'," she says. She puts down her fork."I mean, the book is the furthest thing from a plea for American military intervention, and certainly for unilateral military intervention on a whim or on a subjective set of excuses and justifications. It's not even about genocide. It's about are we injecting concern for foreign life, for human life, into our foreign policy as a matter of course and not as a fluke matter of convergence with national interests? And the answer remains no."...

...Power is hyper-articulate, and unhesitant in her delivery, which gives me a chance to work on the grilled pear salad. She is also fiercely accommodating of the tape recorder under her nose and doesn't knock it over once, even though she speaks with her hands: twisting and turning as though wringing out a point, this one being that the US should have intervened in Iraq not last year but in 1987-88, when Saddam Hussein's regime was exterminating an estimated 100,000 Kurds.

"I think the narrow read on my book is, 'Intervene when there is badness on the face of the earth, and if you can't get (UN) Security Council support, well, so what?'

"Having experienced a little of war in Bosnia, it is so awful that it really is something one should employ as an absolute last resort, and my criteria for military intervention - with a strong preference for multilateral intervention - is an immediate threat of large-scale loss of life. That's a standard that would have been met in Iraq in 1988, but wasn't in 2003."...

..."The war in Iraq very plainly was not about Saddam's genocide against the Kurds and human rights. It was about a perception of Saddam as a threat to very traditional American security interests. Now the so-called (WMD) security threat has been exposed as exaggerated, at best, and concocted, at worst, the only argument this administration has left for having gone to war is the human rights-democratisation-genocide argument. So they have an awful lot invested in trying to make Iraq a more humane place."...

..."A paradox is that I would hope I was a poster child for the integration of consideration of human rights into American foreign policy, and for the recognition that American interests will best be advanced if we do this," she says.

Other than her close friend Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian, Power is the only person I've met who can speak at such length while barely coming up for air.

She says it's critical for the US to win back some credibility,"and not be the bull in the china shop".

"Can this administration restore America's credibility?" I ask.

"No," Power says."I don't think so."...

..."We're still going to have special interests no matter who's the president," she says."We're still going to have a reluctance to subject ourselves to international law that we feel we're above. The unfortunate part of the relationship about human rights and security is that now we view the welfare of foreign citizens as valuable and relevant only in so far as it advances our security."...


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