Samantha Power has just resigned as Barack Obama’s chief foreign-policy adviser after intemperately referring to Hillary Clinton as a “monster” in an interview with the Scotsman. She was thought to be on the fast track to a top job in an Obama White House, should such a thing come to pass. Perhaps, after a suitable period of rehabilitation, she still may be.
Power did the right thing in quitting. The purpose of this post is to offer a little perspective on why she might think the Clintons are monstrous. In September 2001, the Atlantic Monthly published a long article by Power titled “Bystanders to Genocide,” in which she criticized the Clinton administration for its inaction in the slaughter of 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994.
Here’s an excerpt that will give you some idea of Power’s take on the Clinton team’s behavior:
In March of 1998, on a visit to Rwanda, President Clinton issued what would later be known as the “Clinton apology,” which was actually a carefully hedged acknowledgment. He spoke to the crowd assembled on the tarmac at Kigali Airport: “We come here today partly in recognition of the fact that we in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred” in Rwanda.
This implied that the United States had done a good deal but not quite enough. In reality the United States did much more than fail to send troops. It led a successful effort to remove most of the UN peacekeepers who were already in Rwanda. It aggressively worked to block the subsequent authorization of UN reinforcements. It refused to use its technology to jam radio broadcasts that were a crucial instrument in the coordination and perpetuation of the genocide. And even as, on average, 8,000 Rwandans were being butchered each day, U.S. officials shunned the term “genocide,” for fear of being obliged to act. The United States in fact did virtually nothing “to try to limit what occurred.” Indeed, staying out of Rwanda was an explicit U.S. policy objective.
With the grace of one grown practiced at public remorse, the President gripped the lectern with both hands and looked across the dais at the Rwandan officials and survivors who surrounded him. Making eye contact and shaking his head, he explained, “It may seem strange to you here, especially the many of you who lost members of your family, but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate [pause] the depth [pause] and the speed [pause] with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.”
Clinton chose his words with characteristic care. It was true that although top U.S. officials could not help knowing the basic facts — thousands of Rwandans were dying every day — that were being reported in the morning papers, many did not “fully appreciate” the meaning. In the first three weeks of the genocide the most influential American policymakers portrayed (and, they insist, perceived) the deaths not as atrocities or the components and symptoms of genocide but as wartime “casualties”—the deaths of combatants or those caught between them in a civil war.
Yet this formulation avoids the critical issue of whether Clinton and his close advisers might reasonably have been expected to “fully appreciate” the true dimensions and nature of the massacres. During the first three days of the killings U.S. diplomats in Rwanda reported back to Washington that well-armed extremists were intent on eliminating the Tutsi. And the American press spoke of the door-to-door hunting of unarmed civilians. By the end of the second week informed nongovernmental groups had already begun to call on the Administration to use the term “genocide,” causing diplomats and lawyers at the State Department to begin debating the word’s applicability soon thereafter. In order not to appreciate that genocide or something close to it was under way, U.S. officials had to ignore public reports and internal intelligence and debate.
Power continues, “The story of U.S. policy during the genocide in Rwanda is not a story of willful complicity with evil. U.S. officials did not sit around and conspire to allow genocide to happen.”
Nevertheless, Power’s research clearly convinced her that not only could the White House have done much more to stop the killing, as Clinton himself acknowledged; but also that the administration knew much more than Clinton has ever acknowledged, and that top officials — including the president — chose, for the most part, to look the other way.
Here is an interview I conducted with Power for the Boston Phoenix in 2003 on the future of Iraq.