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.” 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 …