Power, Samantha 1970-
POWER, Samantha 1970-
CAREER: Journalist and educator. U.S. News and World Report and Economist, reporter, 1993-96; International Crisis Group, political analyst, 1996; Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, adjunct lecturer in public policy and executive director.
AWARDS, HONORS: Nation Book Critics Circle Award; Pulitzer Prize, 2003, for A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.
Breakdown in the Balkans: A Chronicle of Events,January 1989 to May, 1993, Preface by Morton Abramowitz, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (Washington, DC), 1993.
(Editor, with Graham Allison), Realizing HumanRights: Moving from Inspiration to Impact, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2000.
A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Basic Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to publications such as New Republic and Atlantic Monthly.
SIDELIGHTS: In A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Irish-born author Samantha Power offers a detailed account of U.S. reactions to international cases of genocide. Power, an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard University, "expertly documents American passivity in the face of Turkey's Armenian genocide, the Khmer Rouge's systematic murder of more than a million Cambodians, the Iraqi regime's gassing of its Kurdish population, the Bosnian Serbian Army's butchery of unarmed Muslims and the Rwandan Hutu militia's slaughter of some 800,000 Tutsi," wrote Laura Secor in New York Times Book Review. Other "massacres of similar and larger scale" in countries such as Burundi, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and East Timor are mentioned only briefly due to space limitations in the book, Secor noted.
To Secor, A Problem from Hell is "a vivid and gripping work of American history [that] doubles as a prosecutor's brief: time and again, Power recounts, although the United States had the knowledge and the means to stop genocide abroad, it has not acted. Worse, it has made a resolute commitment to not acting. Washington's record, Power ruefully observes, is not one of failure, but success."
Power, a former reporter for U.S. News and World Report and Economist, has seen first-hand the effects of war as a correspondent in Yugoslavia. Much of her professional work has focused on issues of politics and human rights. She has served as a political analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), as the executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and as the editor of volumes such as Realizing Human Rights: Moving from Inspiration to Impact, edited with Graham Allison. In addition, she has taught such classes at Harvard as "Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy." It is this deep level of expertise that Power brings to A Problem from Hell, a book which the author describes on the Perseus Books Group Web site as "an effort to understand why," despite symbolic steps such as Holocaust remembrance, "the United States has never intervened to stop genocide."
Power focuses her expertise on a systematic and historical examination of genocide in A Problem from Hell. She sets the theme for the book with a detailed account of the Turkish killings of Armenians during World War I, "what is commonly considered the first modern instance of genocide," wrote an online reviewer for the Complete Review. "Despite receiving considerable media attention, the United States took essentially no action that might have limited the killings, a type of nonresponse that, as Power writes, 'established patterns that would be repeated.'" Similar cases of post-World War II genocide face the same level of inaction by the United States.
Power devotes a substantial portion of A Problem from Hell to Raphael Lemkin, a Polish attorney born near the turn of the twentieth century who coined the term "genocide." Lemkin's interest in the issue began in 1921 when, while a student at the University of Lvov, he read a news report about a young Armenian survivor of the Turkish massacres, Soghomon Tehlirian, who assassinated Talaat Pasha, a former Turkish minister of the interior. Lemkin wondered why Talaat could not have been held accountable for the massacre. He "was told there was no law under which [Talaat] could have been tried," wrote Brian Urquhart in New York Review of Books. Lemkin could not understand why the Armenian could be charged with killing one man while someone responsible for killing hundreds of thousands could not be held accountable. "'It is a crime for Tehlirian to kill a man, but it is not a crime for his oppressor to kill more than a million men?' Lemkin asked. 'This is most inconsistent.' Lemkin transferred to the Lvov law school and spent the rest of his life searching for a way to correct this inconsistency," Urquhart wrote. Lemkin was instrumental bringing the term and concept of "genocide" to a mass audience. "Gaunt, shabby, his pockets brimming over with notes and papers, he was the most indefatigable and relentless of lobbyists" of the United Nations, Urquhart wrote. "Diplomats, politicians, officials, and correspondents, busy with their own affairs, tried to shake him off, but in Lemkin's single-minded determination there was a heroic quality, an indomitable cheerfulness and sweetness that compelled busy people, often reluctantly, to pay attention to his cause."
In 1948, Lemkin's persistence paid off with the passing of the UN's Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. "Theoretically, once the convention was ratified states committing genocide would no longer have a legal right to be left alone," Urquhart said. "Genocide, in principle at least, would henceforth be the world's business."
But if genocide became the world's business, A Problem from Hell suggests that the world largely ignored it. "Power's book is largely documentary rather than accusatory, but the facts alone are enough to condemn almost all American responses (and lack thereof) to some of the most Heinous and outrageous acts perpetrated over the past hundred years," the Complete Review critic wrote. "Because it is a book primarily about the United States and genocide, other countries get off rather lightly," Urquhart observed. "Power's underlying assumption seems to be that only United States leadership could ensure successful action."
Power "presents a superb analysis of the U.S. government's evident unwillingness to intervene in ethnic slaughter," a contributor wrote in Kirkus Reviews. A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that Power "offers an uncompromising and disturbing examination of 20th-century acts of genocide and U.S. responses to them." A Problem from Hell examines recorded instances of genocide case by case and country by country. "It is depressing, frustrating, and sometimes sickening reading," the Complete Review critic remarked. U.S. involvement and intervention "need not always have been military," the Complete Review critic wrote. "Financial, political, and other pressure could have also helped in each of these situations. But the U.S. largely simply stood aside."
Despite her stance on U.S. non-intervention, however, Power "gives us a Washington that is vibrant, complex, and refreshingly human," commented Secor. "Within it, she finds an unlikely, bipartisan collection of men and women whose courage and moral commitment she admires." Among those who attempted to influence the government's stance on genocide were Henry Morgenthau, Madeline Albright, Robert Dole, a number of junior State Department officials who resigned in protest over America's lack of action in Bosnia, and Senator William Proxmire, who "regaled the senate with a 'speech a day' for twenty years urging that the United States become a party to the Genocide Convention," Secor wrote.
However, the Washington in Power's book, Secor observed, remains "a place of defeatism, inertia, selfishness, and cowardice. Warnings pass up the chain and disappear. Intelligence is gathered and then ignored or denied. The will of the executive remains steadfastly opposed to intervention; its guiding assumption is that the cost of stopping genocide is great, while the political cost of ignoring it is next to nil."
"In some cases, the stories of genocide were not believed because they were so extreme," the Complete Review critic observed. "Power repeatedly notes that many accounts were simply not thought to be credible because the outrages were on such an incredible scale and of such obscene callousness and violence (and often served no remotely rational purpose)."
Throughout A Problem from Hell, "Power manages—astonishingly—to keep her emotions largely in check," the Complete Review critic observed. "She recounts with some passion, but she never loses her objectivity. For the reader it might be harder going; the events recounted here are as unpalatable and disturbing as it gets. The book is, literally, a terrible one, telling truths that few people probably want to hear."
Despite the book's harsh honesty, it is considered "a well-researched and powerful study that is both a history and a call to action," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer. A Kirkus Reviews critic called A Problem from Hell "a well-reasoned argument for the moral necessity of halting genocide wherever it occurs, and an unpleasant reminder of our role in enabling it, however unwittingly." For the Complete Review critic, "there is no doubt the book is an impressive accomplishment. This is one of those truly 'important books.' One hopes that it will lead readers to try and influence their elected representatives and help get America to assert some moral leadership in the world. It clearly shows idly standing by is simply not acceptable."
Power's Realizing Human Rights: Moving from Inspiration to Impact, edited with Graham Allison, also tackles fundamental human rights issues. Contributors include such well-known public figures as Jimmy Carter and Kofi Annan, academics such as Louis Henkin, and U.S. government officials such as Morton Halperin and John Shattuck. Power and Allison "have gathered an eclectic collection of authors to address the issue of how best to impalement international standards on human rights," wrote D. P. Forsythe in Choice. The book offers basic information on human rights combined with "the views of official who have had some practical experience," Forsythe remarked.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Power, Samantha, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Basic Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Canadian Slavonic Papers, September-December, 1995, Anto Knezevic, review of Breakdown in the Balkans: A Chronicle of Events, January 1989 to May, 1993, pp. 552-554.
Choice, May, 2001, D.P. Forsythe, review of RealizingHuman Rights: Moving from Inspiration to Impact, pp. 1691-1692.
Chronicle of Higher Education, November 12, 1998, "A Hands-on Approach to Human Rights," p. A9.
Economist, March 23, 2002, "How to Stop the Killing: Genocide."
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2002, review of AProblem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, pp. 167-168.
Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2002, Jacob Heilbrunn, review of A Problem from Hell, p. R-7.
New Yorker, March 18, 2002, review of A Problem from Hell, p. 145.
New York Review of Books, April 25, 2002, Brian Urquhart, review of A Problem from Hell, pp. 12-14.
New York Times Book Review, April 14, 2002, Laura Secor, review of A Problem from Hell, p. 9.
Publishers Weekly, February 25, 2002, review of AProblem from Hell, p. 52.
Complete Review Web site,http://www.completereview.com/ (May 8, 2002), review of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.
Conversation with History,http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/ (May 2, 2003), interview with Samantha Power.
Perseus Books Group Web site,http://www.perseusbooksgroup.com/ (May 8, 2002), author's comments on A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.
Samantha Power Web page,http://ksgnotes.harvard.edu (May 2, 2003).*