My Take on Samantha Power’s Genocide Book

I finished reading Samantha Power‘s (Harvard) “Problem from Hell” just last night, and coincidentally, her husband, Cass Sunstein (Univ. of Chicago) was named by Obama to head the Office of Information of Regulatory Affairs this morning. Surely Sunstein and Power are now one of the power couples in DC, considering that they are both close to Obama, and aside from Power’s “monstergate” gaffe in the primaries, they are pretty blemish-free, not to mention really smart. Man, their kids must be fucking geniuses.

On a side note, is it weird (or maybe even sexist) for me to think that Samantha Power is really attractive? Granted, redheads are to me what Kryptonite is to Superman: they are my only mortal weakness. I’d give up state secrets for a redhead; they don’t even need to torture me or anything. I guess I should not let myself go to Ireland, because I might just be too overloaded sensory-wise. But all kidding aside, I think Samantha Power’s intelligence definitely makes her extremely attractive.

But that’s not enough for me to give her book on genocide a completely glowing review. In fact, I found the book to be unsystemtatic and lacking in philosophical rigor. It is a book written by a journalist first and foremost, not a theorist or a philosopher.

Yet I come here not to damn but to praise. So here are the good parts of the book: as a journalistic case study, it is extremely informative and eye-opening. Clearly Power has meticulously researched each case of genocide in the 20th century (Armenian, the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge, the Kurds, the Balkans, and Rwanda) and American policy responses to each. The end notes are impeccable, so you can check out the primary sources for yourself if you are ever curious. As a story teller, Samantha Power does a great job creating a coherent narrative, identifies the key actors, describes important turning points in great detail, and all in a very readable prose.

Perhaps the greatest asset of her book is her ruthless (in a good way) dissection of American foreign policy response to all these instances of genocide. She quotes liberally from primary sources, presents all the arguments for and against intervention in each case of genocide, and in general does an excellent job showing how US action or inaction affected what was happening on the ground. When speculating on what US action could have done, Power does not veer off into the wildly implausible either. This is an important point, because as her book amply demonstrates, the US did not act most of the time, so an essential question posed by this inaction is what effect US action could have had on preventing/mitigating genocide?

My point is this: as a purely journalistic/descriptive piece of work, Problem From Hell is generally very good, and I would have had very little, if any, meaningful criticism to make. However, anyone who has read the book can clearly see that the descriptive part of the work is not its chief aim: the description aims to make an ultimate normative argument: namely, that America could and should have intervened, to various degrees, in these cases of genocide and that American intervention would have likely prevented and/or mitigated the horrendous results of these genocides.

So what’s the problem here? The problem is that Samantha Power never explicitly spells out this argument, though even a rudimentary reading of her book can easily tell the normative point she drives at throughout the entire book. On its surface, this criticism doesn’t seem to be warranted, since the duty to prevent genocide seems to be as about uncontroversial as can be in applied ethics. However, it is still the duty of a writer to actually spell out the argument explicitly and rigorously. If the writer does not do this, then he/she can be accused of begging the question.

Ironically, however, Samantha Power provides some pretty detailed counter-arguments against the ones advanced by the American government for not doing anything in these instances of genocide. She rejects various justifications made by the American government through out the years as it refused to engage with genocide, such as lack of credible intelligence, the argument that intervention would only make things worse, the claim that intervention would have neglible results, so on and so forth. I assume that to Samantha Power, her normative argument seems self-evident and thus requires no explicit justification, but one should never assume that something is self-evident.

Also, I think Samantha Power focuses too much on criticism (not that criticism is an unimportant function) and not enough on offering any systematic alternative. As it was once said (allegedly attributed to Richard Epstein): it takes a theory to beat a theory. And in this book, Power offers no theory of her. For example, she does a pretty good job of talking about some of the legal limitations of the UN Convention on Genocide, but offers no suggestions on how the Convention or its legal interpretation could be changed to make the Convention more credible and more effective in preventing and prosecuting genocide. She also argues that the pattern of American inaction can largely be explained by lack of domestic political pressure on foreign policy leadership and a narrow definition of American interests. But again, she doesn’t offer any systematic account of how to effectively mobilize public opinion, and nor does she offer any systematic argument for how genocide-prevention ought to be included in the definition of American interests.

Again, the problem seems to be this: Power thinks that the self-evident morally horrendous nature of genocide, by itself, should be sufficient to mobilize public opinion and compel American officials to act out of a sense of duty. I am inclined to substantively agree with her in that genocide’s moral reprehensibility ought to be self-evident to anyone who posseses the capacity for moral reasoning, but I’m a Humean about motivation, so I think that moral facts by themselves cannot motivate. I think Power misses this point and therefore does not offer any systematic and rigorous account on how to get the US to act on genocide in the future.

But even if one were inclined to agree with Samantha Power that doing nothing is not an option, there is still that all-important question of when and how to intervene. To me, Power only engages with this question on a somewhat superficial level: namely, she argues that sovereignty, by itself, is not a sufficient reason for nations not to act. Well, this point seems obvious to me: sovereignty cannot be the absolute shield against any and all intervention, but this still begs the question: under what circumstances can sovereignty be violated? Unfortunately, I could not detect any systematic and rigorous attempt on Power’s part to engage with this hugely difficult question.

The bottom line for me comes down to this: I am fully sympathetic to Power’s normative argument, but this is the giant caveat, provided that she gives a systematic and philosophically rigorous account of it. This is where I think she falls short, because to her the normative argument is self-evident and thus requires very little justification and spelling out. And although I am inclined to agree with her substantive normative conclusion, I cannot, by virtue of my four years of undergraduate philosophy career, simply give her a pass on this.

However, this is by no means a discouragement to potential readers, as I think her book provides a good empirical account of US (in)action in genocides of the 20th century. If you want to learn more about the American role in the genocides of the 20th century, this book is a great one to read.


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