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A Problem from Hell: America and the Age…

"A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide

by Samantha Power

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1,381195,516 (4.31)24
  1. 20
    Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Roméo Dallaire (bookalover89)
    bookalover89: Samantha Power writes an intro to this extraordinary book!
  2. 00
    To Bear Any Burden by Al Santoli (paulkid)
    paulkid: Read Power's book for a more recent overview of many incidents of genocide, including that in Cambodia. Read Santoli's book for many personal accounts of the refugee crises caused by the indochina wars.

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This book was a serious, but very easy to understand, read. I say it was tough, but it is not necessarily the writing, more the subject matter. It is hard to read about genocide no matter how nicely it is written about.

I thought this book was a great overview of how US foreign policy has reacted to genocide in the last century, and how each subsequent crisis has shaped how we look at the future. It was well written and worth all the time I spent reading it. ( )
  kateminasian | Nov 22, 2014 |
Genocide and America’s lack of response to it from the Turks killing the Kurds onwards (with not much about the Holocaust—while it’s the point of comparison, it’s also almost unaddressable on its own terms in this book). Power argues that American policy has in fact been a success, in that American policy has been to ignore genocides whenever possible. She documents that the same arguments always pop up—we don’t know for sure what’s going on, we couldn’t do anything anyway, if we intervened we’d make it worse—and argues that in many cases more aggressive policies could have done some good. That’s the weakest part of the book, in part because there’s so little evidence of any strong power taking military or military-lite action and actually stopping a genocide. (For some instances, she argues, economic threats could’ve worked, or even un-carried-out threats of military action, but again she doesn’t have much to go on.) As a catalog of unredressed atrocities treated as problems of political management, it’s depressing in a completely different way than Generation Kill, although that book possibly works as an argument against her proposal for more aggressive actions. ( )
  rivkat | Jul 8, 2014 |
Great work, full of references. But The last chapters feel rushed and full of personal anecdotes. Furthermore there's a general feeling, specially in the last chapter (conclusion), of the author's trying to justify interventionism for each and every case. ( )
  emed0s | Jan 4, 2014 |
A passionate, but incomplete look at the problems of genocide and intervention. Argues that political quagmires and mismanagement lead to a lack of intervention in times of humanitarian necessity, leading to disaster. Her own experience is with the Balkans and Rwanda, and these chapters are easily the best in the book.

It is one thing to recognize and stop evil. It is another to fight apathy, which the author fights with all her might.

The greatest omission, and one which is only too relevant, is where the United States openly cooperates with or aids dictatorial regimes. The Khmer Rouge was allowed to continue to exist because it would serve as a counterweight to Vietnam or China.

Reagan in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Iraq. Nixon and Pinochet. Guatemala. Haiti and the Duvaliers. Mobutu in Zaire. Noriega. Suharto. Videla in Argentina. Any dictatorial bastard who claimed to be fighting Communism was thus approved and aided, because he's our son of a bitch.

Perhaps in the early stages of the Cold War, such 'lesser of two evils' talk was necessary, with the absolute terror coming out of Stalin's or Mao's little empires. But such is the inherent contradiction in foreign policy. The ideal democratic peace will be brought about by power plays and force. Would such ideas be excusable now?

Presently, the author has a position in the Obama administration, and was the primary reason they decided for intervention in Libya. There, at least, this was widely approved. Of course, our own ugly history makes an appearance there, as new records have shown that Bush II, after removing Qaddafi from the 'Axis of Evil', cooperated with him on imprisonment and torture.


A frightening and passionate book, but one which does not tell the whole story. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
There are, I suspect, a lot of people out there who'd accuse Samantha Power of taking an excessively negative view of American foreign policy. Of course, I also suspect that most of those people would never sit down with "A Problem from Hell" in the first place, to say nothing of getting through its five-hundred pages. This book is, in a certain sense, a gigantic refutation of the notion that the United States is "the world's policeman" or that it constantly goes out of its way to defend the defenseless. Power makes her argument carefully and at length: from the legal and linguistic origins of the concept of genocide to verbatim accounts from victims, perpetrators, and bystanders, "A Problem From Hell" is skillfully sourced and meticulously written. It often makes for tough reading, though, and many American readers may end up sharing the author's sense of outrage when she considers what the U.S. government could have done differently in order to avert some of the human tragedies that took place during the last half of the twentieth century.

"A Problem from Hell" isn't just dry policy analysis, though. Power also investigates how outsiders react to the fact of genocide, paying particular attention to defense mechanisms that policy makers tend to use to deny its existence or justify not having to do much to stop it, and its these analyses that might make it really useful. Power wants to let her readers know that genocides are neither uncommon nor wholly unpredictable: they can, according to this account be stopped -- or at least slowed down -- by acute observation and decisive action. If genocide is a permanent feature of our modern age, though, it's also important to realize that most of our modern institutions are not terribly well equipped to deal with it. "A Problem From Hell" is, in some ways, less a criticism of past American foreign policies than an attempt to point out the shortcomings of the institutions that could conceivably halt the next genocide before all that's left for us to do is provide aid to the survivors and to tally the dead. Apparently, Ms. Power has gone on to bigger and better things in the Obama administration since she won the Pulitzer for "A Problem from Hell." Her own descriptions of political infighting and bureaucratic negligence make it seem unlikely that this, in itself, means that the American government has made the halting of genocide a genuine priority. Even so, I'd be willing to bet that a lot of important people read her book. Here's hoping that someday, some historian can honestly tell us that it made a real difference. ( )
1 vote TheAmpersand | Feb 27, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 18 (next | show all)
In '' 'A Problem From Hell,' '' Power 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 militias' slaughter of some 800,000 Tutsi. This vivid and gripping work of American history 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.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0061120146, Paperback)

During the three years (1993-1996) Samantha Power spent covering the grisly events in Bosnia and Srebrenica, she became increasingly frustrated with how little the United States was willing to do to counteract the genocide occurring there. After much research, she discovered a pattern: "The United States had never in its history intervened to stop genocide and had in fact rarely even made a point of condemning it as it occurred," she writes in this impressive book. Debunking the notion that U.S. leaders were unaware of the horrors as they were occurring against Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Iraqi Kurds, Rwandan Tutsis, and Bosnians during the past century, Power discusses how much was known and when, and argues that much human suffering could have been alleviated through a greater effort by the U.S. She does not claim that the U.S. alone could have prevented such horrors, but does make a convincing case that even a modest effort would have had significant impact. Based on declassified information, private papers, and interviews with more than 300 American policymakers, Power makes it clear that a lack of political will was the most significant factor for this failure to intervene. Some courageous U.S. leaders did work to combat and call attention to ethnic cleansing as it occurred, but the vast majority of politicians and diplomats ignored the issue, as did the American public, leading Power to note that "no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on." This powerful book is a call to make such indifference a thing of the past. --Shawn Carkonen

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:29 -0400)

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Winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize For General Nonfiction National Book Critics Circle Award Winner In her award-winning interrogation of the last century of American history, Samantha Power -- a former Balkan war correspondent and founding executive director of Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy -- asks the haunting question: Why do American leaders who vow "never again" repeatedly fail to stop genocide? Drawing upon exclusive interviews with Washington's top policy makers, access to newly declassified documents, and her own reporting from the modern killing fields, Power provides the answer in "A Problem from Hell" -- a groundbreaking work that tells the stories of the courageous Americans who risked their careers and lives in an effort to get the United States to act.… (more)

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