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Genocide and America


Over the course of the last century, the United States has made modest progress in its responses to genocide, the deliberate destruction of ethnic, national, or religious groups. The persistence and proliferation of dissenters within the US government and human rights advocates outside it have made a policy of silence in the face of genocide more difficult to sustain. As Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic learned, state sovereignty no longer necessarily shields a perpetrator of genocide from either military intervention or courtroom punishment.

But such advances have been eclipsed by America’s toleration of unspeakable atrocities, often committed in clear view. The personalities and geopolitical constraints influencing US decision-making have shifted with time, but the United States has consistently refused to take risks in order to suppress genocide. The United States is not alone. The states bordering genocidal societies and the European powers have looked away as well. Despite broad public consensus that genocide should “never again” be allowed, and a good deal of triumphalism about the ascent of liberal democratic values, the last decade of the twentieth century was one of the most deadly in the grimmest century on record. Rwandan Hutus in 1994 could freely, joyfully, and systematically slaughter some eight thousand Tutsi a day for one hundred days without any foreign interference. Genocide occurred after the cold war; after the growth of human rights groups; after the advent of technology that allowed for instant communication; after the erection of the Holocaust Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Perversely, America’s public awareness of the Holocaust often seemed to set the bar for concern so high that we were able to tell ourselves that contemporary genocides were not measuring up. As the writer David Rieff noted, “never again” might best be defined as “Never again would Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940s.”1 Either by averting their eyes or attending to more pressing conventional strategic and political concerns, US leaders who have denounced the Holocaust have themselves allowed genocide.

What is most shocking about America’s reaction to Turkey’s killing of close to a million Armenians, the Holocaust, Pol Pot’s reign of terror in which some two million died, Iraq’s slaughter of more than one hundred thousand Kurds, Bosnian Serbs’ mass murder of some two hundred thousand Muslims and Croats, and the Hutu attempt to eliminate the Tutsi is not that the United States refused to deploy its ground forces to combat the atrocities. For much of the century, even the most ardent interventionists did not lobby for US ground invasions. What is most shocking is that Washington’s policymakers did almost nothing to deter the crime. Because America’s “vital national interests” were not considered imperiled by mere genocide, senior US officials did not give genocide the moral attention it warranted. Instead of undertaking steps along a continuum of intervention—from condemning the culprits or cutting off US aid to bombing or rallying a multinational combat force—US officials tended to trust in negotiation, cling to diplomatic niceties and “neutrality,” and ship humanitarian aid.

Indeed, on occasion the United States directly or indirectly aided those committing genocide. In 1979 the Carter administration orchestrated the vote in the UN Credentials Committee to favor the Khmer Rouge, enabling the barbarous radicals to occupy Cambodia’s UN seat for a decade after their overthrow. In 1987–1988 the Reagan administration supplied more than $500 million worth of annual US agricultural and manufacturing credits to Iraq while Saddam Hussein was attempting to wipe out the country’s rural Kurds. Between 1992 and 1995, along with their European allies, the Bush and Clinton administrations maintained an arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims even after it was clear that the arms ban prevented the Muslims from defending themselves. Reluctant to “Americanize” the war or to “take sides,” they froze in place a gross arms disparity that benefited the aggressor. In April 1994, while the Bosnian war still continued, the Clinton administration used its influence 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 allies on the UN Security Council held out the promise of protection—a promise that they were not prepared to keep.

The crucial question, after a century of false promises, is, Why does the United States stand so idly by?

The most common response is, “We didn’t know.” This is not true. To be sure, the information emanating from countries wracked by genocide was imperfect. Embassy personnel were withdrawn, intelligence assets on the ground were scarce, editors were typically reluctant to assign their reporters to places where neither US interests nor American readers were engaged, and journalists who attempted to report the atrocities were limited in their mobility. For example, the Khmer Rouge sealed off Cambodia completely, forcing concerned reporters to camp out at the Thai border to debrief those Cambodians lucky enough to have escaped. The handful of brave Western reporters who remained in Rwanda during the genocide were rarely able to leave the capital city of Kigali. As a result, survivors’ claims were difficult to confirm and body counts notoriously hard to establish. Because genocide is usually veiled under the cover of war, some US officials at first had genuine difficulty distinguishing the deliberate massacre of civilians from the casualties incurred in conventional conflict.

But although US officials did not know all there was to know about the nature and scale of the violence, they knew a remarkable amount. From Henry Morgenthau Sr., the well-connected US ambassador in Constantinople in 1915, to Charles Twining, the Cambodia expert at the US embassy in Bangkok in 1976 and 1977, or Jon Western, a junior intelligence analyst who gathered atrocity reports on Bosnia in 1993, US officials have pumped a steady stream of information up the chain to senior decision-makers—both early warnings ahead of genocide and vivid documentation during it. Much of the best intelli-gence appeared in the morning papers. Back in 1915, when communications were primitive, The New York Times managed to publish 145 stories about the Turkish massacre of Armenians. Nearly eighty years later, the same paper reported just four days after the beginning of the Rwanda genocide that “tens of thousands” of Rwandans had already been murdered. It devoted more column inches to the horrors of Bosnia between 1992 and 1995 than it did to any other single foreign story.

In an age of instant information, US officials have gone from claiming that they “didn’t know” to suggesting—as President Clinton did in his 1998 Rwanda apology—that they “didn’t fully appreciate” the crime underway. This, too, is misleading. It is true that the atrocities that were known remained abstract and remote, rarely acquiring the status of knee-buckling knowledge among ordinary Americans. Because the savagery of genocide so defies our everyday experience, many of us failed to wrap our minds around it. We gradually came to accept the depravity of the Holocaust, but then slotted it in our consciousness as “history”; we resisted acknowledging that genocide was occurring in the present. Survivors and witnesses had trouble making the unbelievable believable. Bystanders were thus able to retreat to the “twilight between knowing and not knowing.”2

But this is not an alibi. We are responsible for our incredulity. The stories that emerge from genocidal societies are by definition incredible. That was the lesson the Holocaust should have taught us. In case after case of genocide, accounts that sounded farfetched and that could not be independently verified repeatedly proved true. With so much wishful thinking debunked, we should long ago have shifted the burden of proof away from the refugees and to the skeptics, who should be required to offer persuasive reasons for disputing eyewitness claims. A bias toward belief would do less harm than a bias toward disbelief.

US officials have been reluctant to imagine the unimaginable because of the implications. To believe that Saddam Hussein was gassing Kurdish civilians would have required US officials to rethink their “strategic” partnership with him. To accept that Muslim refugees from Srebrenica had in fact spotted piles of bodies stacked on the side of the road would have forced US officials to confront either General Mladic’s Serb forces or their own consciences. Thus, instead of aggressively hunting for deeper knowledge or publicizing what was already known, US officials have consistently taken shelter in the fog of plausible deniability. They have used the search for certainty as an excuse for paralysis and postponement. In the cases of genocide documented in my book ‘A Problem from Hell’,3 US officials who “did not know” or “did not fully appreciate” usually chose not to.

A second response to the question of why the United States did so little is that it could not have done much to stop the horrors. The only way to ascertain the consequences of US diplomatic, economic, or military measures would have been to undertake them. We do know, however, that those responsible for genocide were quick studies who were remarkably attuned both to the tactics of their murderous predecessors and to the world’s response. From their brutal forerunners, they learned lessons in everything from dehumanizing their victims and deploying euphemisms to constructing concentration camps and lying about and covering up their crimes. And from the outside world they learned the lesson of impunity.

If anything testifies to the US capacity for influence, it is the extent to which the plotters of genocide kept an eye trained on Washington and other Western capitals as they decided how to proceed. Talaat Pasha, the Turkish minister of the interior, frequently observed that no one had prevented Sultan Abdul Hamid from murdering Armenians. Hitler was emboldened by the fact that absolutely nobody “remembered the Armenians.” Saddam Hussein, noting the international community’s relaxed response to his chemical weapons attacks against Iran and his bulldozing of Kurdish villages, rightly assumed he would not be punished for using poison gases against the Kurds. Rwandan gunmen deliberately targeted Belgian peacekeepers at the start of their genocide because they knew from the US reaction to the deaths of eighteen US soldiers in Somalia in 1993 that the murder of Western troops would likely precipitate their withdrawal. The Bosnian Serbs publicly celebrated the Mogadishu casualties, flush with a new confidence that they would never have to do battle with US ground forces. Milosevic saw that he got away with the brutal suppression of an independence movement in Croatia in 1991 and reasoned he would pay no price for committing genocide in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Because so many people were killing for the first time and deciding daily how far they would go, the United States and its allies had critical opportunities to try to deter them, and failed to do so. When they ignored genocide around the world, US officials certainly did not intend to give the go-ahead to those who were committing it. But since at least some killers thought they were doing the world a favor by “cleansing” the “undesirables,” they likely interpreted silence as consent or even support.

  1. 1

    David Rieff, Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (Simon and Schuster, 1995), p. 27.

  2. 2

    W.A. Visser’t Hooft, a Protestant theologian and first general secretary of the World Council of Churches who lived in Switzerland during the Holocaust, used this phrase in his Memoirs (London: SCM Press, 1973), p. 166.

  3. 3

    To be published by Basic Books in March.

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