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A Problem From Hell, Genocide in the 20th Century

By her own definition Samantha Power is a child of Bosnia. Not literally: born in Ireland in 1970, she came to the United States when she was 9. With her billowy red hair and long-legged stride, she exudes a purposeful all-American energy that is far from the bleakness of the Balkans.

But Bosnia is where she came of age, she says, just as a generation before hers was marked by Vietnam, and another was defined by World War II.

''Our view of American power was born'' in Bosnia, said Ms. Power, author of ''A Problem From Hell,'' about American responses to genocide in the last century that has prompted new debates about the moral responsibilities that go with American power.

She came to Bosnia in 1993, joining the swarms of freelance reporters drawn to the unfolding war.

The story there was shocking -- a widening arc of atrocities against victims targeted not for what they had done, but for who they were -- all taking place on a continent where genocide was never supposed to happen again. But more shocking for this 23-year-old, one year out of Yale University, was that the American government seemed unwilling to stop it.

The final blow came in Srebrenica, a doomed town that had been designated a ''safe haven'' by the United Nations and its international peacekeepers, where in July 1995 an estimated 7,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred by Bosnian Serbs.

Ms. Power then realized that newspaper articles -- however grisly, however accurate -- do not change policy. She left the region in anger and frustration. ''It wasn't about me, Samantha,'' she said. ''It was about impotence.'' Ms. Power's response was to embark on what was to become a 610-page book, with a title borrowed from the phrase once uttered by Warren Christopher, the former secretary of state. She began as a reporter, and ended up with a mission.

There is an intensity in just about everything Ms. Power does, including the way she speaks. She weaves ideas together so fast that sometimes she has to jot down what she has just said, to remind herself how she made the leap from one subject to another.

She grew up with sports -- her mother was an Irish squash champion -- and her first ambition was to be a sports broadcaster.

Returning to the United States in the mid-1990's Ms. Power was struck by this country's rediscovery of the horrors of the Holocaust, through books, films and newly opened museums. The words ''never again'' had become a political commonplace. But to her ears, they seemed a mockery of the policy failures she had witnessed in Bosnia.

When she went looking for books to explain this discrepancy, she could not find any, so she decided to write one herself.

''It was a totally innocent book,'' she said. ''This was not a graduate-school thesis. I just wanted to find out the answer to the question: What was the American response and why?''

Her friends in this period described her obsession as ''all genocide, all the time.'' A die-hard Red Sox fan (is there any other kind?) who attended 45 games last season, she found herself at a party talking to her idol, the pitcher Pedro MartĀnez. Only later did she realize that she hadn't let him get a word in, as she bombarded him with accounts of Rwanda and Bosnia.

The book has been praised for its mix of scholarship and journalism. It starts with an account of a futile effort by Henry Morgenthau, then the United States ambassador to Turkey, to persuade Washington to stop the killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915 and moves on to the compelling and little-known story of Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish linguist from Poland whose family was killed in the Holocaust and who waged an obsessive battle to put genocide -- a word he coined -- on the international agenda.

But the crux of ''A Problem From Hell'' is an account of how American foreign policy -- despite the Holocaust -- stayed largely silent in the face of the atrocities in Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia and most recently and dramatically in Rwanda. The United States pushed for the withdrawal of United Nations troops from Rwanda as the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis got under way.

In the case of Bosnia, the United States did take action -- albeit belatedly, and through NATO -- and later in Kosovo led NATO in a bombing campaign to force the Serbs to stop their atrocities against the rebellious ethnic Albanians there.

Ms. Power, now 32, wrote the book in five years, traveling to the Balkans and other site of genocide and managing to graduate from Harvard Law School in 1999. In 2001 her first publisher, Random House, dropped the book when, by her account, she refused to make it ''more personal, more polemical.'' New Republic/Basic Books published the work last spring.

By the time ''A Problem From Hell'' came out, its analysis of Washington's paralysis in the face of genocide seemed like an echo from the past. The terrorist attacks of September 2001 had reshaped the world and made national security the overriding foreign policy priority.

''Someone said the other day that genocide is so 1990's,'' Ms. Power said in a borrowed office in New York, where the United Nations Security Council was wrangling over the United States' apparent intention to wage war against Iraq. ''There is a way in which nonintervention now seems to be a moot point.''

While the Bush administration is ready to intervene in Iraq in the name of national security, there is no indication that humanitarian intervention, as cited in Kosovo by the Clinton administration, is still a feature of American policy.

And yet Ms. Power's book, which has been nominated for several prizes, has stirred debate in foreign policy circles as diplomats and experts deal with the question of when and how American power, military and diplomatic, should be deployed on behalf of humanitarian goals.

Richard Holbrooke, the former United Nations ambassador and architect of the Dayton accords that ended the Bosnian war, has declared it a ''breakthrough book''; he has distributed copies around the foreign policy circuit, including one to the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.

''It is not about moralism as foreign policy, it is about moral values in foreign policy,'' Mr. Holbrooke said. He likened Ms. Power to Maude Gonne, the fiery Irish nationalist who was W. B. Yeats's longtime love and muse. (Ms. Power was recently featured in an magazine advertisement for the luxury car Infiniti promoting a book about projects and people trying to change the world. Ms. Power said she hesitated before appearing in the ad, but went ahead on the theory that it would put her theories ''into the mainstream.'')

Ms. Power bridles at critics who interpret the book as a simplistic call for military intervention in cases of humanitarian crises. Her point, she said, is not that the United States failed to intervene in Cambodia, Iraq or Rwanda, but that it failed to do anything at all.

''If you think of foreign policy as a toolbox, there are a whole range of options -- you can convene allies, impose economic sanctions, expel ambassadors, jam hate radio,'' she said. ''There is always something you can do, but if you look at most of these cases, you see that the toolbox stays closed even when the violations are bad, really bad, even when they are in the red zone.''

In the case of Rwanda, for instance, genocide never came up at any cabinet meeting, and the word was banned at the State Department. ''Be careful,'' said one document found by Ms. Power. ''Legal at State was worried about this yesterday -- Genocide finding could commit (the U.S. Government) to actually 'do something.' ''

Ms. Power now teaches at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. A colleague there, Michael Ignatieff, said her book ''has had a big echo.'' He said, ''it raises such disturbing questions about how bureaucracies advertently and inadvertently conspire to deny evil, and to construe themselves to be helpless against evil.''

Everyone, Ms. Power included, agrees that humanitarian intervention is never simple. By its very definition, it implies a violation of another country's sovereignty, which can have a destabilizing effect and lead to unintended consequences; for instance, intervention did not stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, where the Albanians have pushed out most Serbs, Roma and Gorani, a Muslim minority.

Politics and history must be taken into account: after the Vietnam War, Americans had no stomach for any involvement in Cambodia, no matter how horrible the crimes of the Pol Pot regime. Many attribute Washington's passivity to the genocide in Rwanda in April 1994 to the public's horrified response to the botched humanitarian mission in Somalia the year before.

Anthony Lake, who was President Clinton's national security adviser, now admits that the United States failed in Rwanda. ''It was a failure of the international community, and we are the leaders of that community,'' he said, adding that he hopes Ms. Power's book will stimulate debate about how best to intervene in humanitarian crises, including the largely unnoticed civil war in Southern Sudan, which by his estimate has cost two million lives.

In The London Review of Books, Ms. Power's book was cited as an example of how humanitarian intervention as embraced by American liberals helped lay the groundwork for the Bush administration's policy of pre-emptive intervention, as now foreseen for Iraq. ''Having supported unilateralist intervention outside the U.N. framework during the 1990's, liberals and progressives are simply unable to make a credible case against Bush today,'' wrote Stephen Holmes, a professor at New York University.

But Ms. Power questions the legitimacy of the Bush administration's approach. ''Because it adheres to international law in such a selective way, it lacks the legitimacy to stand as the military guardian of human rights,'' she said. ''A unilateral attack would make Iraq a more humane place, but the world a more dangerous place.''

Ms. Power argues that Iraq exemplifies America's failure to recognize that responding to genocide is in the national interest. In 1989, she noted, the United States doubled its aid budget to Iraq, months after Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons against his Kurdish citizens, as well as against Iranian soldiers.

Such policies lead to the credibility gap that she said the United States is facing today as it tries to convince world public opinion of its motives for a pending invasion of Iraq.

''You can't allow these kinds of crimes to go unnoticed, and not have them come back and reflect on us,'' she said.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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