Roger Smith article on Genocide

Chronicle of Higher Education
July 30, 2004


American Self-Interest and the Response to Genocide

For 20 years, I taught a course on genocide: What is “genocide,” why
does it happen, who is responsible for it, and how could this ultimate
crime be prevented? I told students that genocide — intentional acts to

eliminate in whole, or in substantial part, a specific human population
— had claimed the lives of some 60 million people in the 20th century,
16 million of them since 1945, when the watchword was “Never again.”
Genocide has, in fact, been so frequent, the number of victims so
extensive, and serious attempts to prevent it so few, that many scholars

have described the 20th century as “the age of genocide.” Some have
wondered if genocide is not itself a product of modernity, the dark
energy of civilization.

But what my students wanted to know was: Why had the nations of the
world, and particularly the United States, which they thought of as both

powerful and just, not prevented the killing of millions of innocent
people? Where was American power and moral commitment when a million
Armenians were being slaughtered in Turkey in 1915, six million
Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin in 1932-33, two million Bengalis
murdered by Pakistan in 1971? What was America doing when still more
millions were killed in Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda, not because of
what they had done, but because of who they were? And, of course, there
was the much-discussed question of whether more could have been done to
prevent the Holocaust.

My students also wanted to know why it had taken the United States 40
years to ratify the Genocide Convention, which the United Nations
endorsed unanimously in 1948, with strong U.S. support. The convention
defined genocide and declared it a crime against international law. Why,

as soon as the United States finally did ratify the convention, in 1988,

did it support Saddam Hussein’s regime despite evidence that the
dictator had committed genocide against the Kurds in Iraq in 1987-88?

Today we continue to hear about genocide. As before, however, few
Americans pay much attention. What is happening in Sudan? In Congo? With

indigenous peoples in many other regions? Can you tell me? My students’
questions — and my own — are increasingly important to all of us, both

morally and politically.

Unfortunately they are not easy to answer. Sometimes the response hinges

on factual information, but more often on judgment, an assessment of
competing responsibilities, and context. At the outset we can reject
claims that relieve all bystanders, whether states, organizations, or
individuals, of responsibility for attempting to prevent or mitigate
genocide. One argument, coming from perpetrators, is that victims of
genocide (although the term is avoided) bear responsibility for their
own destruction, having brought it upon themselves through provocation.
Genocide is strictly an internal matter, this argument goes. Outside
powers should mind their own business. Two immediate objections arise:
First, provocations, when they exist at all, stem from a minority of the

group of victims. Most of those who will be killed are innocent. Second,

genocide is seldom without international consequences, ranging from a
vast outpouring of refugees, with the need for large amounts of
humanitarian aid, to regional instability and war.

A recent article in the Journal of Genocide Research provides a chilling

variation on the argument about the responsibility of victims. In
“Provoking Genocide: A Revised History of the Rwandan Patriotic Front,”
Alan J. Kuperman states: “In most cases of mass killing since World War
II — unlike the Holocaust — the victim group has triggered its own
demise by violently challenging the authority of the state.” Kuperman
adds that he does not use provocation to excuse genocide. Nor does he
deny that there is an international responsibility to prevent genocide.
But the obligation takes a bizarre turn: Intervention by third parties
should not be directed against those we perceive as perpetrators; they,
after all, are only defending themselves. Rather, intervention should be

aimed at changing the behavior of the victims. In other words, in the
Rwandan genocide of 1994, the international community should have
ignored the Hutu preparations for genocide and focused, instead, on the
intended Tutsi victims. The upshot of that Alice in Wonderland argument
is that the victims become the perpetrators.

Claims are also made that genocides are inevitable, the result of
ancient hatreds, conflict over scarce resources, or the advance of
progress. A version of the inevitability thesis that found favor with
some international planners in the 1960s was that genocide is simply a
byproduct of development, and benefits to the surviving group outweigh
the costs to the group that is decimated, or perhaps eliminated. Over
the years that argument has been applied not only to the elimination of
indigenous peoples (the Yanomami in Brazil, the Chittagong Hills
tribesmen in Bangladesh), but also to the destruction of the Armenians
in Turkey, which, we are told by some historians, paved the way for a
more unified and stronger nation, one allied with the United States
during the cold war.

Genocide, however, is never inevitable: It is always the result of
choice. And surely lives are not interchangeable.

Another argument is that genocides should be allowed to run their
course: It is best to let the violence complete itself, reducing the
chance for further violence and, hence, any need for intervention. That
proposition, devoid of even animal pity, was advanced to me by a student

in international relations after I mentioned that Rwanda had had
recurrent genocides. Had the killers not been restrained, he asserted,
unity and peace would have been established. When I asked him if he
would maintain his position if he were a member of the group slated for
victimization, he replied that he lived in the United States, and that
therefore the question wasn’t relevant. That was shortly before
September 11.

The field of genocide studies itself is relatively new, dating to the
late 1970s. Several factors were involved: a growing emphasis on the
protection of human rights, the frequency of genocide in the 1960s
(Rwanda, Indonesia) and 1970s (Bangladesh, Burundi, Cambodia), a
rediscovery of the Armenian genocide and a new awareness of how it had
been denied. Not last: a disenchantment with the emphasis in the social
sciences on methodology at the expense of substance.

One of the best works is still Leo Kuper’s 1982 Genocide: Its Political
Use in the Twentieth Century, which discusses the nature and history of
genocide, its treatment under international law, the conditions that
promote it, and the inability of the United Nations to suppress it. But
since the book’s publication, new genocides have been committed,
extensive research on genocide has been conducted, and explanations of
why genocides occur have taken on new sophistication. Three recent books

provide essential, updated information about genocide in the 20th

The first, The New Killing Fields: Massacre and the Politics of
Intervention, edited by Nicolaus Mills and Kira Brunner, is perhaps the
narrowest, yet the most contemporary, focusing on four cases of
genocide: Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and East Timor. Most of the essays
are by journalists, some of whom were present as genocide was taking
place around them. Their accounts, mostly descriptive and personal,
provide a wealth of information. The New Killing Fields also includes
two essays, by Michael Walzer and Samantha Power, that suggest how we
can begin to evaluate international responses to genocide. When, where,
how, and at what cost should outside states intervene? More on that

Eric D. Weitz’s A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation also
concentrates on four cases of genocide in the 20th century: the Soviet
Union, Nazi Germany, Cambodia, and Bosnia/Kosovo. Systematic in his
comparisons, Weitz concludes that those genocides were the result of
“ideologies of race and nation, revolutionary regimes with vast utopian
ambitions, moments of crisis generated by war and domestic upheaval.”
What is distinctive about his thesis is that he maintains that genocide
has a dual character: It is organized by states but is possible on a
vast scale, as in the 20th century, only with widespread participation
by the population. The book is also strong in its emphasis on the
rituals of degradation and cruelty that occur in genocide. Its weakness
is that it omits the Rwandan genocide altogether, and its concentration
on the Soviet Union gets bogged down in party purges and political
repression, which Weitz admits are not examples of genocide. (Many of
those sent to the gulag were released, and Soviet officials often
thought they were pursuing “reform” rather than annihilation, he notes.)

On the other hand, the Stalin-induced famine in the Ukraine in 1932-33,
intended to destroy the kulaks as a class, end Ukrainian nationalism,
and force peasants into collective farms, receives virtually no
attention, though most scholars regard it as genocide.

If the other books are selective in the cases of genocide they focus
upon, The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective,
edited by Robert Gellately and Ben Kiernan, strives to be comprehensive.

It discusses the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and genocides against

indigenous peoples in Africa, North America, and Australia, and is
particularly strong on its coverage of genocides in the post-1945
period: Indonesia, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Bosnia, Rwanda, East Timor, and
Guatemala. The cumulative impact of the book is to demonstrate just how
prevalent state-sponsored mass murder has been in the 20th century.
Rather than an aberration, genocide has been commonplace, occurring in
most parts of the world. Oddly, however, at least two major examples are

omitted: the mass killing in East Pakistan, and Saddam Hussein’s gassing

of the Kurds. Those are important in their own right, but also, as we
shall see, in terms of the U.S. response to them.

Almost from the beginning, the field of genocide studies has been
concerned with two questions: Not just, Why does genocide take place?,
but also, How can it be prevented? One early idea seemed to offer great
promise: a “genocide early-warning system.” Comparative analysis would
provide indicators to predict where imminent threats of genocide
existed; intervention could follow immediately. Naïvely, scholars
assumed that individual states or international organizations would act
on evidence of when and where genocide was likely to occur. It didn’t
take long to realize that the problem wasn’t about knowing, but about
doing. It was a matter of political will.

Inaction and political will became the major topics of discussion in
genocide studies as of the mid-’80s. But as often happens in academic
life, we were talking mainly to each other. There was little attempt to
engage either policy makers or the public in a dialogue. Nor was there
an effort to provide a comprehensive account of American policy toward
genocide over the course of the 20th century. Some of us thought about
doing such a study, but the idea seemed so huge that it was shelved.
Then in 2002, the book did appear and, significantly, addressed not so
much the academy as the public and the political establishment.

Samantha Power’s “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide
won a Pulitzer Prize for its thorough documentation of the dark history
of the American inaction to stop genocide in the 20th century and its
explanation of why the United States had failed to act. Only rarely did
the U.S. government even condemn the killing as it was taking place. For

Power, “What is most shocking is that U.S. policy makers did almost
nothing to deter the crime.” Of course, there were individuals, both in
government and in society, who sought to change policy, but, Power
notes, their efforts failed. The United States, on the other hand, has
been both generous and effective in providing humanitarian aid after a
people has been decimated.

It is not just a question of inaction. Power tells us that on several
occasions, the United States “directly or indirectly aided those
committing genocide.” We provided $500-million in agricultural and
manufacturing credits to Iraq as that country was destroying thousands
of Kurdish villages and gassing Kurds. After Vietnam had ousted
Cambodia’s Pol Pot regime, the United States, in an effort to deny
Vietnam influence in that country, took the lead in the United Nations
in recognizing the genocidal Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of

Cambodia. The United States also led the arms embargo against the
Bosnian Muslims, even though it was clear that doing so would prevent
them from defending themselves. And it did everything in its power to
remove U.N. peacekeepers from Rwanda and prevent their return. Some
800,000 persons died as a result; the violence also spilled over into
neighboring countries, setting off local and regional wars. Other
examples pile up.

How can we explain the U.S. response to genocide? Those who made the
decisions not to act typically argued that they didn’t know what was
going on, that the facts were unclear, that any effort to stop the
killing would have been futile, that the United States lacked the means
to do so, that intervention would have made the situation even worse.
Power rejects such claims: “Simply put, American leaders did not act
because they did not want to. They believed that genocide was wrong, but

they were not prepared to invest the military, financial, diplomatic, or

domestic political capital needed to stop it.” On the other hand, when
it seemed to be in the national interest, those same policy makers could

collaborate in genocide either by giving permission (East Timor) or by
active support (Indonesia, Guatemala).

For the most part, genocide in the 20th century seemed to be something
that happened to other people, in other parts of the world, with little
effect on American interests, narrowly defined. It was seldom a subject
of public debate. There has been, Power says, a mutual failure in the
democratic process: An uninformed public makes no demands for the
suppression of genocide, and politicians, having done what they can to
silence the public, cite the lack of public demand as a basis for
inaction as genocide claims its victims.

There has always been, however, a problem about how public opinion is
related to public policy. I would argue that relatively small,
well-organized lobbying groups are more likely to be effective in moving

policy makers to act against genocide than broad, but somewhat
amorphous, public opinion. Public opinion may be reported, but it
doesn’t get direct access to policy makers the way human-rights
lobbyists sometimes can. Moreover, human-rights groups have the
expertise to be persuasive and the commitment to stay with the issue as
public opinion — easily manipulated by those with power and an
ideological agenda — waxes and wanes.

But the reverse is also true: Farm and manufacturing interests were able

to defeat the legislation that would have prohibited credits to Iraq
after the gassing of the Kurds. Nearly 25 percent of American rice
production annually went to Iraq, along with a million tons of wheat,
insecticides, fertilizers, tractors, and so on. Agricultural lobbyists
argued that Iraq was not an enemy, but an opportunity. Suspending
credits would not punish Iraq — other countries would supply Saddam
Hussein. American businesses would be the real victims. The Reagan
administration, also claiming that “engagement” with Iraq would allow a
gentler dictator to emerge, seconded those arguments.

We can see the impact of public opinion, and its limitations, in Peter
Balakian’s important book, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and

America’s Response. There are several interrelated themes and narratives

in The Burning Tigris. First, there are the detailed, heart-wrenching
accounts of the Turkish massacres of some 200,000 Armenians in the
1890s, and of the genocide, beginning in 1915, that claimed the lives of

at least a million Armenians. At the same time, the author describes the

dedication and courage of American diplomats, who tried, with little
support from the State Department, to end the carnage. But there is also

the story of a broadly based American humanitarian movement that sought
to provide relief to the Armenians in their desperate condition, and
that demanded that the U.S. government protect them from further
violence. Balakian, however, shows that by the beginning of the 1920s
there was a growing conflict between public opinion, which strongly
supported an independent Armenia, and a Congress and White House that
had other interests. In his final chapter, he documents Turkey’s
continuing denial of the Armenian genocide and its efforts, largely
successful, to enlist the White House and State Department in defeating
Congressional resolutions that would publicly recognize the genocide.

But the point to emphasize here is that while public support was crucial

for the relief efforts and helped save many lives, it was not able to
carry the day politically. The United States did not declare war on
Turkey in World War I, even though Turkey and Germany were allies. An
influential group of missionaries and their supporters argued that their

colleges and schools would be seized by Turkey, and that relief supplies

would not be allowed in the country. After World War I, although the
public strongly supported an American mandate to protect the fragile
Armenian state, a growing isolationism in Congress put an end to the
project. From 1920 on, where Armenia was concerned, it was through the
voice not of the people, but of big oil. As one Senate critic summarized

the Harding administration’s attitude: “Show this administration an oil
well, and it will show you a foreign policy.” Shades of the past
continue. Did Iraqi oil help blunt criticism of what was happening to
the Kurds?

Whether the issue is about taxes or human rights, elites and their
interest groups tend to prevail. In part that is because most
human-rights organizations in the United States have small budgets. And
in part because the major humanitarian organizations have differing
agendas: Amnesty International focuses on individuals, Human Rights
Watch on policy and institutions. Other groups focus on humanitarian aid

once the slaughter has commenced. As a result resources and efforts are
scattered. What recent scholarship helps us see is that those who want
the United States to take a more active stance against genocide have no
choice but to create organizations that can lobby more effectively than
they have in the past.

In addition, it is crucial that policy makers redefine “national
interest” to include the prevention of genocide abroad. How such a
conceptual revolution can come about is problematic, but without it, we
can expect only more of the same: the deaths of hundreds of thousands of

people while Uncle Sam takes a hike. The case for an expanded
understanding of the national interest is not new. It has had a
prominent place in scholarly discussions for at least the past 20 years,

but it has either been ignored or viewed with skepticism by most in

The argument rests on two elements. The first is moral: Genocide is a
crime committed upon a particular people, but by its very nature, it is
also a crime against humankind, permanently diminishing the biological
and cultural possibilities of human existence. It is an outrage to our
sense of justice. Since when can we support, allow, defend the mass
killing of the innocent? The second reason: Genocide leads to war,
regional and international instability, disruption of trade, an enormous

outflow of refugees, and if not stopped, sends a message to would-be
perpetrators that they can go ahead with impunity. Further still, as
Power reminds us, survivors of genocide may become a threat in the
future, harboring a thirst for vengeance and having learned that
violence is an acceptable way to “solve” social and political problems.
In that sense, the case for the prevention of genocide is rooted in
enlightened self-interest.

A major barrier to an expanded notion of national interest or, more
generally, a willingness to prevent or mitigate genocide, is that
“intervention” is widely thought to mean solely military intervention.
That is, in fact, how the political theorist Michael Walzer understands
the term in his essay in The New Killing Fields. He would limit military

intervention to cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing; other violations

of human rights, however egregious, would be left to the local
population. Whether he would approve of Britain’s recent military
intervention in Sierra Leone is uncertain.

Moreover, Walzer insists that the task of intervention is limited: “Once

the massacres and ethnic cleansing are really over and the people in
command are committed to avoiding their return, the intervention is
finished.” He notes that “when intervention is understood in this
minimalist fashion, it may be a little easier to see it through.” But in

his new book, Arguing About War, Walzer supports intervening countries’
staying for the long term: “Humanitarian intervention radically shifts
the argument about endings, because now the war is from the beginning an

effort to change the regime that is responsible for inhumanity.” That
position may be logical, but it also suggests the difficulties that make

countries and international organizations unwilling to commit

There are other ways of thinking about intervention. Actual military
intervention may sometimes be necessary to stop a continuing genocide,
as it was in East Pakistan in 1971 and East Timor in 1999. In some cases

intervention may prevent genocide: Gen. Roméo Dallaire, the U.N.
commander in Rwanda, thought that 5,000 troops would have been adequate
to thwart the impending genocide. But nations can also respond to
genocide, or the likelihood of genocide, short of military intervention,

with all of its human and political risks. The options are not confined
to either doing nothing or waging full battle with the genocidal regime.

Part of the problem is to identify in advance the countries most likely
to commit genocide and take steps to mediate conflicts; to transform, as

much as possible, the conditions that give rise to genocide; and to use
a variety of incentives and threats to affect decisions in the
potentially genocidal regime. Once genocide begins, there are also steps

that intervening nations or groups can take. Samantha Power provides a
compelling list of such actions. She urges countries to “respond to
genocide with a sense of urgency, publicly identifying and threatening
the perpetrators with prosecution, demanding the expulsion of
representatives of genocidal regimes from international institutions
such as the United Nations, closing the perpetrators’ embassies in the
United States, and calling upon countries aligned with the perpetrators
to ask them to use their influence.” Other actions might include
economic sanctions, freezing financial assets, and, to prevent
incitement of genocide, jamming radio and televisions channels that spew

out messages of hate. Ultimately, military intervention may nevertheless

be necessary, although that would not have to be undertaken by just one

Multilateral intervention provides greater legitimacy, reducing the
perception that action has more to do with self-interest than with
humanitarianism, and thus helps to securely establish the right to
intervene to stop mass killing. It also distributes the burden of
intervention. But intervention by a single state may be justified, as
when India used force in adjacent East Pakistan in 1971.

Yet, if the U.S. government has a dismal record on responding to
genocide, there have been signs in the past 10 years of possible change.

After a very late start a U.S.-led NATO force intervened in Bosnia,
first with air power, then with the orchestration of the Dayton Accords;

that was followed by military intervention in Kosovo. Then in 1999, the
United States supported U.N. intervention in East Timor to protect the
right to self-determination and what was left of a people still under
assault by militias and the Indonesian army. For several years a joint
CIA-State Department genocide early-warning system has been in place.

At present the State Department is discussing whether the mass killing,
razing of villages, and burning of crops in the Darfur region of Sudan,
by government-supported Arab militias against non-Arabs who live in the
region, constitutes genocide. (However, possible sanctions mentioned
publicly, like freezing the killers’ assets in the United States, are
more symbolic than likely to have a real impact.)

But there have also been countersigns: the steadfast refusal to
recognize the International Criminal Court that could try, as a last
resort, persons accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and
genocide. Moreover, the war against terrorism is taking center stage,
once more helping to push genocide to the back of our consciousness.

Even if the political will to prevent genocide suddenly appears, another

problem exists. Most genocide scholars and human-rights advocates
believe that, unless the United States takes the lead, other countries
will stay on the sidelines, as they have in the past. But American power

is not enough. To enlist others in the effort to prevent genocide, moral

authority is required. Therein lies the issue: What is left of America’s

moral credibility after Iraq?

Roger W. Smith is a professor emeritus of government at the College of
William & Mary and a former president of the Association of Genocide


Arguing About War, by Michael Walzer (Yale University Press, 2004).

The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, by
Peter Balakian (HarperCollins, 2003).

A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Raceand Nation, by Eric D. Weitz
(Princeton University Press, 2003).

Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century, by Leo Kuper (Yale

University Press, 1982).

The New Killing Fields: Massacre and the Politics of Intervention,
edited by Nicolaus Mills and Kira Brunner (Basic Books, 2002).

“A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha
Power (Basic Books, 2002).

“Provoking Genocide: A Revised History of the Rwandan Patriotic Front,”
by Alan J. Kuperman, in the Journal of Genocide Research, Vol. 6, No. 1,

March 2004:61-84.

The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective, edited
by Robert Gellately and Ben Kiernan (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 50, Issue 47, Page B6