Center for American Progress

“A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide




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My introduction to Sidbela Zimic, a nine-year-old Sarajevan, came unexpectedly one Sunday in June 1995. Several hours after hearing the familiar whistle and crash of a nearby shell, I traveled a few blocks to one of the neighborhood’s once-formidable apartment houses. Its battered façade bore the signature pockmarks left from three years of shrapnel spray and gunfire. The building lacked windows, electricity, gas, and water. It was uninhabitable to all but Sarajevo’s proud residents, who had no place else to go.

Sidbela’s teenage sister was standing not far from the entrance to the apartment, dazed. A shallow pool of crimson lay beside her on the playground, where one blue slipper, two red slippers, and a jump rope with ice-cream-cone handles had been cast down. Bosnian police had covered the reddened spot of pavement with plastic wrapping that bore the cheery baby blue and white emblem of the United Nations.

Sidbela had been known in the neighborhood for her bookishness and her many "Miss" pageants. She and her playmates made the best of a childhood that constrained movement, crowning "Miss Apartment Building," "Miss Street Corner," and "Miss Neighborhood." On that still morning, Sidbela had begged her mother for five minutes of fresh air.

Mrs. Zimic was torn. A year and a half before, in February 1994, just two blocks from the family’s home, a shell had landed in the main downtown market, tearing sixty-eight shoppers and vendors to bits. The graphic images from this massacre generated widespread American sympathy and galvanized President Bill Clinton and his NATO allies. They issued an unprecedented ultimatum, in which they threatened massive air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs if they resumed their bombardment of Sarajevo or continued what Clinton described as the "murder of innocents."

"No one should doubt NATO’s resolve," Clinton warned. "Anyone," he said, repeating the word for effect, "anyone shelling Sarajevo must�???be prepared to deal with the consequences." In response to America’s perceived commitment, Sarajevo’s 280,000 residents gradually adjusted to life under NATO’s imperfect but protective umbrella. After a few cautious months, they began trickling outside, strolling along the Miljacka River and rebuilding cafes with outdoor terraces. Young boys and girls bounded out of dank cellars and out of their parents’ lines of vision to rediscover outdoor sports. Tasting childhood, they became greedy for sunlight and play. Their parents thanked the United States and heaped praise upon Americans who visited the Bosnian capital.

But American resolve soon wilted. Saving Bosnian lives was not deemed worth risking U.S. soldiers or challenging America’s European allies who wanted to remain neutral. Clinton and his team shifted from the language of genocide to that of "tragedy" and "civil war," downplaying public expectations that there was anything the United States could do. Secretary of State Warren Christopher had never been enthusiastic about U.S. involvement in the Balkans. He had long appealed to context to ease the moral discomfort that arose from America’s nonintervention. "It’s really a tragic problem," Christopher said. "The hatred between all three groups–the Bosnians and the Serbs and the Croatians–is almost unbelievable. It’s almost terrifying, and it’s centuries old. That really is a problem from hell." Within months of the market massacre, Clinton had adopted this mindset, treating Bosnia as his problem from hell-a problem he hoped would burn itself out, disappear from the front pages, and leave his presidency alone.

Serb nationalists took their cue. They understood that they were free to resume shelling Sarajevo and other Bosnian towns crammed with civilians. Parents were left battling their children and groping for inducements that might keep them indoors. Sidbela’s father remembered, "I converted the washroom into a playroom. I bought the children Barbie dolls, Barbie cars, everything, just to keep them inside." But his precocious daughter had her way, pressing, "Daddy, please let me live my life. I can’t stay at home all the time."

America’s promises, which Serb gunners took seriously at first, bought Sarajevans a brief reprieve. But they also raised expectations among Bosnians that they were safe to live again. As it turned out, the brutality of Serb political, military, and paramilitary leaders would be met with condemnation but not with the promised military intervention.

On June 25, 1995, minutes after Sidbela kissed her mother on the cheek and flashed a triumphant smile, a Serb shell crashed into the playground where she, eleven-year-old Amina Pajevic, twelve-year-old Liljana Janjic, and five-year-old Maja Skoric were jumping rope. All were killed, raising the total number of children slaughtered in Bosnian territory during the war from 16,767 to 16,771.

* * *

If any event could have prepared a person to imagine evil, it should have been this one. I had been reporting from Bosnia for nearly two years at the time of the playground massacre. I had long since given up hope that the NATO jets that roared overhead every day would bomb the Serbs into ceasing their artillery assault on the besieged capital. And I had come to expect only the worst for Muslim civilians scattered throughout the country.

Yet when Bosnian Serb forces began attacking the so-called "safe area" of Srebrenica on July 6, 1995, ten days after I visited the grieving Zimic family, I was not especially alarmed. I thought that even the Bosnian Serbs would not dare to seize a patch of land under UN guard. On the evening of July 10, I casually dropped by the Associated Press house, which had become my adopted home for the summer because of its spirited reporters and its functional generator. When I arrived that night, I received a jolt. There was complete chaos around the phones. The Serb attack on Srebrenica that had been "deteriorating" for several days had suddenly "gone to hell." The Serbs were poised to take the town, and they had issued an ultimatum, demanding that the UN peacekeepers there surrender their weapons and equipment or face a barrage of shelling. Some 40,000 Muslim men, women, and children were in grave danger.

Although I had been slow to grasp the magnitude of the offensive, it was not too late to meet my American deadlines. A morning story in the Washington Post might shame U.S. policymakers into responding. So frantic were the other correspondents that it took me fifteen minutes to secure a free phone line. When I did, I reached Ed Cody, the Post’s deputy foreign editor. I knew American readers had tired of bad news from the Balkans, but the stakes of this particular attack seemed colossal. Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic was not dabbling or using a petty landgrab to send a political signal; he was taking a huge chunk of internationally "protected" territory and challenging the world to stop him. I began spewing the facts to Cody as I understood them: "The Serbs are closing in on the Srebrenica safe area. The UN says tens of thousands of Muslim refugees have already poured into their base north of the town center. It’s only a matter of hours before the Serbs take the whole pocket. This is a catastrophe in the making. A United Nations safe area is going to fall."

A new contributor to the Post, I had been advised that Cody, a veteran of carnage in the Middle East, would not be one to get easily rattled. In this instance he heard me out and then posed a few incisive questions–questions that led me to believe he had understood the severity of the crisis unfolding. Then he stunned me: "Well, from what you are telling me, even if things proceed, the Serbs are not going to take the town tonight." I grimaced in anticipation of his next sentence, which duly followed. "It sounds like when Srebrenica falls, we’ll have a story."

I protested, but not strenuously. I was half sure the Serbs would back down and was reluctant to cry wolf. By the following afternoon, however, Srebrenica had fallen, and the petrified inhabitants of the enclave were in the hands of General Mladic, a suspected war criminal known to have orchestrated the savage siege of Sarajevo.

I had worked in Sarajevo, where Serb snipers took target practice on bundled old ladies hauling canisters of filthy water across town and where picturesque parks had been transformed into cemeteries to accommodate the deluge of young arrivals. I had interviewed emaciated men who had dropped forty and fifty pounds and who bore permanent scars from their time in Serb concentration camps. And I had only recently covered the massacre of four schoolgirls. Yet despite my experiences, or perhaps because of them, I could only imagine what I had already witnessed. It never dawned on me that General Mladic would or could systematically execute every last Muslim man and boy in his custody.

A few days after Srebrenica fell, a colleague of mine telephoned from New York and said the Bosnian ambassador to the UN was claiming that the Bosnian Serbs had murdered more than 1,000 Muslim men from Srebrenica in a football stadium. It was not possible. "No," I said simply. My friend repeated the charge. "No," I said again, determined.

I was right. Mladic did not execute 1,000 men. He killed more than 7,000.

* * *

When I returned to the United States, Sidbela and Srebrenica stayed with me. I was chilled by the promise of protection that had drawn a child out of a basement and onto an exposed Sarajevan playground. I was haunted by the murder of Srebrenica’s Muslim men and boys, my own failure to sound a proper early warning, and the outside world’s refusal to intervene even once the men’s peril had become obvious. I found myself flashing back to the many debates I had had with my colleagues about intervention. We had wondered aloud–at press briefings, on road trips, and in interviews with senior Bosnian and American officials–how the United States and its allies might have responded if the same crimes had been committed in a different place (the Balkans evoke age-old animosities and combustible tinderboxes), against different victims (most of the atrocities were committed against individuals of Muslim faith), or at a different time (the Soviet Union had just collapsed, no new world vision had yet replaced the old world order, and the United Nations had not oiled its rusty parts or rid itself of its anachronistic practices and assumptions). In 1996, with some distance from the field, I began exploring America’s responses to previous cases of mass slaughter. It did not take long to discover that the American response to the Bosnia genocide was in fact the most robust of the century. 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.

As I surveyed the major genocides of the twentieth century, a few stood out. In addition to the Bosnian Serbs’ eradication of non-Serbs, I examined the Ottoman slaughter of the Armenians, the Nazi holocaust, Pol Pot’s terror in Cambodia, Saddam Hussein’s destruction of Kurds in northern Iraq, and the Rwandan Hutus’ systematic extermination of the Tutsi minority. Although the cases varied in scope and not all involved the intent to exterminate every last member of a group, each met the terms of the 1948 genocide convention and presented the United States with options for meaningful diplomatic, economic, legal, or military intervention. The crimes occurred in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The victims covered a spectrum of races and religions–they were Asian, African, Caucasian, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim. The perpetrators operated at different stages of American might: the Armenian genocide (1915-1916) was committed during World War I, before the United States had become a world leader. The Holocaust (1939-1945) took place just as the United States was moving into that role. The Cambodian (1975-1979) and Iraqi (1987-1988) genocides were perpetrated after the Holocaust but during the Cold War and after Vietnam. Bosnia (1992-1995) and Rwanda (1994) happened after the Cold War and while American supremacy and awareness of the "lessons" of the Holocaust were at their height. U.S. decision makers also brought a wide variety of backgrounds and foreign policy ideologies to the table. Every American president in office in the last three decades of the twentieth century–Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton–made decisions related to the prevention and suppression of genocide. Yet notwithstanding all the variety among cases and within U.S. administrations, the U.S. policy responses to genocide were astonishingly similar across time, geography, ideology, and geopolitical balance.

In order to understand U.S. responses to genocide, I interviewed more than 300 Americans who had a hand in shaping or influencing U.S. policy.* Most were officials of varying ranks at the White House, State Department, Pentagon, and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Some were lawmakers and staff members on Capitol Hill. Others were journalists who covered the carnage or nongovernmental advocates who attempted to ameliorate it. A grant from the Open Society Institute enabled me to travel to Bosnia, Cambodia, Kosovo, and Rwanda, where I spoke with victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. I also visited the international war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague in the Netherlands, as well the UN court for Rwanda, located in Arusha, Tanzania. Thanks to the National Security Archive, a nonprofit organization that uses the Freedom of Information Act to secure the release of classified U.S. documents, I was able to draw on hundreds of pages of newly available government records. This material provides a clearer picture than was previously discernible of the interplay among people, motives, and genocidal events.

People have explained U.S. failures to respond to specific genocides by claiming that the United States didn’t know what was happening, that it knew but didn’t care, or that regardless of what it knew, there was nothing useful to be done. I have found that in fact U.S. policymakers knew a great deal about the crimes being perpetrated. Some Americans cared and fought for action, making considerable personal and professional sacrifices. And the United States did have countless opportunities to mitigate and prevent slaughter. But time and again, decent men and women chose to look away. We have all been bystanders to genocide. The crucial question is why.

The answers seemed to lie in the critical decisions–and decisions not to decide–made before, during, and after the various genocides. In exploring a century of U.S. reactions to genocide, I asked: Were there early warnings that mass killing was set to commence? How seriously were the warnings taken? By whom? Was there any reason to believe the violence expected would be qualitatively or quantitatively different from the "run-of-the-mill" killings that were sadly typical of local warfare? Once the violence began, what classified or open intelligence was available? What constraints operated to impede diagnosis? How and when did U.S. officials recognize that genocide (and not merely war) was under way? Who inside or outside the U.S. government wanted to do what? What were the risks or costs? Who opposed them? Who prevailed? How did public opinion and elite opinion diverge? And finally, how were the U.S. responses, the genocides, and the Americans who urged intervention remembered later? In reconstructing a narrative of events, I have divided most of the cases into warning, recognition, response, and aftermath sections.

Contrary to any assumption I may have harbored while I traveled around the former Yugoslavia, the Bush and Clinton administrations’ responses to atrocities in Bosnia were consistent with prior American responses to genocide. Early warnings of massive bloodshed proliferated. The spewing of inflammatory propaganda escalated. The massacres and deportations started. U.S. policymakers struggled to wrap their minds around the horrors. Refugee stories and press reports of atrocities became too numerous to deny. Few Americans at home pressed for intervention. A hopeful but passive and ultimately deadly American waiting game commenced. And genocide proceeded unimpeded by U.S. action and often emboldened by U.S. inaction.

The book’s major findings can be summarized as follows:

  • Despite graphic media coverage, American policymakers, journalists, and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil. Ahead of the killings, they assume rational actors will not inflict seemingly gratuitous violence. They trust in good-faith negotiations and traditional diplomacy. Once the killings start, they assume that civilians who keep their heads down will be left alone. They urge cease-fires and donate humanitarian aid.
  • It is in the realm of domestic politics that the battle to stop genocide is lost. American political leaders interpret society-wide silence as an indicator of public indifference. They reason that they will incur no costs if the United States remains uninvolved but will face steep risks if they engage. Potential sources of influence–lawmakers on Capitol Hill, editorial boards, nongovernmental groups, and ordinary constituents–do not generate political pressure sufficient to change the calculus of America’s leaders.
  • The U.S. government not only abstains from sending its troops, but it takes very few steps along a continuum of intervention to deter genocide.
  • U.S. officials spin themselves (as well as the American public) about the nature of the violence in question and the likely impact of an American intervention. They render the bloodshed two-sided and inevitable, not genocidal. They insist that any proposed U.S. response will be futile. Indeed, it may even do more harm than good, bringing perverse consequences to the victims and jeopardizing other precious American moral or strategic interests. They brand as "emotional" those U.S. officials who urge intervention and who make moral arguments in a system that speaks principally in the cold language of interests. They avoid use of the word "genocide." Thus, they can in good conscience favor stopping genocide in the abstract, while simultaneously opposing American involvement in the moment.

The sharpest challenge to the world of bystanders is posed by those who have refused to remain silent in the age of genocide. In each case a few Americans stood out by standing up. They did not lose sight of right and wrong, even as they were repeatedly steered to a "context" that others said precluded action. They refused to accept either that they could not influence U.S. policy or that the United States could not influence the killers. These individuals were not alone in their struggles, but they were not in crowded company either. By seeing what they tried to get done, we see what America could have done. We also see what we might ourselves have attempted. By seeing how and why they failed, we see what we as a nation let happen.

In 1915 Henry Morgenthau Sr., the U.S. ambassador in Constantinople, responded to Turkey’s deportation and slaughter of its Armenian minority by urging Washington to condemn Turkey and pressure its wartime ally Germany. Morgenthau also defied diplomatic convention by personally protesting the atrocities, denouncing the regime, and raising money for humanitarian relief. He was joined by former President Theodore Roosevelt, who went a step further, calling on the administration of Woodrow Wilson to enter World War I and forcibly stop the slaughter. But the United States clung to its neutrality and insisted that Turkey’s internal affairs were not its business. An estimated 1 million Armenians were murdered or died of disease and starvation during the genocide.

Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew and international lawyer, warned about Hitler’s designs in the 1930s but was scoffed at. After finding refuge in the United States in 1941, he failed to win support for any measure to protect imperiled Jews. The Allies resisted denouncing Hitler’s atrocities, granting refuge to Europe’s Jewry, and bombing the railroad tracks to the Nazi concentration camps. Undaunted, Lemkin invented the word "genocide" and secured the passage of the first-ever United Nations human rights treaty, which was devoted to banning the new crime. Sadly, he lived to see the genocide convention rebuffed by the U.S. Senate. William Proxmire, the quixotic U.S. senator from Wisconsin, picked up where Lemkin left off and delivered 3,211 speeches on the Senate floor urging ratification of the UN treaty. After nineteen years of daily soliloquies, Proxmire did manage to get the Senate to accept the genocide convention, but the U.S. ratification was so laden with caveats that it carried next to no force.

A handful of U.S. diplomats and journalists in Cambodia warned of the depravity of a sinister band of Communist rebels known as the Khmer Rouge. They were derided by the American left for falling for anti-Communist propaganda, and they failed to influence a U.S. policy that could not contemplate engagement of any kind in Southeast Asia after Vietnam. Pol Pot’s four-year reign left some 2 million Cambodians dead, but the massacres elicited barely a whimper from Washington, which maintained diplomatic recognition of the genocidal regime even after it had been overthrown.

Peter Galbraith, a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, drafted punishing legislation for his boss, Senator Claiborne Pell, that would have cut off U.S. agricultural and manufacturing credits to Saddam Hussein in retaliation for his 1987-1988 attempt to wipe out Iraq’s rural Kurds. The sanctions package was defeated by a determined White House, State Department, and U.S. farm lobby, which were eager to maintain friendly ties and sell rice and wheat to Iraq. And so Hussein’s regime received generous American financial support while it gassed and executed some 100,000 Kurds.

Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian major general who commanded UN peacekeeping forces in Rwanda in 1994, appealed for permission to disarm militias and to prevent the extermination of Rwanda’s Tutsi three months before the genocide began. Denied this by his political masters at the United Nations, he watched corpses pile up around him as Washington led a successful effort to remove most of the peacekeepers under his command and then aggressively worked to block authorization of UN reinforcements. The United States 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, the issue never became a priority for senior U.S. officials. Some 800,000 Rwandans were killed in 100 days.

A few diplomats at the State Department and several lawmakers on Capitol Hill relentlessly tried to convince an intransigent bureaucracy to bomb Serb ethnic cleansers in Bosnia. These men watched the sanitization of cables, the repackaging of the conflict as "intractable" and "ancient," and the maintenance of an arms embargo against Bosnia’s outgunned Muslims. Several foreign service officers who quit the department in disgust then watched, from a no less frustrating perch outside the U.S. government, the fall of the Srebrenica safe area and the largest massacre in Europe in fifty years. Between 1992 and 1995, while the nightly news broadcast the Serb onslaught, some 200,000 Bosnians were killed. Only when U.S. military intervention came to feel unavoidable and Bob Dole, the Kansas Republican and Senate majority leader, had persuaded congress to lift the arms embargo did U.S. policy change. By bringing the war in Bosnia home, Dole helped spur President Clinton to begin NATO bombing. By then, however, Bosnia’s genocide had been largely completed, and a multiethnic state had been destroyed.

This book deliberately spotlights the response of American policymakers and citizens for several reasons. First, the United States’ decisions to act or not to act have had a greater impact on the victims’ fortunes than those of any other major power. Second, since World War II, the United States has had a tremendous capacity to curb genocide. It could have used its vast resources to do so without undermining U.S. security. Third, the United States has made an unusually pronounced commitment to Holocaust commemoration and education. The Holocaust Memorial Museum, which stands baldly on the Mall alongside the Lincoln Monument and the Jefferson Memorial and just yards from the Vietnam Wall Memorial, draws 5,500 visitors a day, or 2 million per year, almost double the number of visitors tallied annually by the White House. Fourth, in recent years American leaders, steeped in a new culture of Holocaust awareness, have repeatedly committed themselves to preventing the recurrence of genocide. In 1979 President Jimmy Carter declared that out of the memory of the Holocaust, "we must forge an unshakable oath with all civilized people that never again will the world stand silent, never again will the world fail to act in time to prevent this terrible crime of genocide." 4Five years later, President Ronald Reagan, too, declared. "Like you, I say in a forthright voice, ‘Never again!’"5 President George Bush Sr. joined the chorus in 1991. Speaking "as a World War II veteran, as an American, and now as president of the United States," Bush said his visit to Auschwitz had left him with "the determination, not just to remember, but also to act."6 Before becoming president, candidate Clinton chided Bush over Bosnia. "If the horrors of the Holocaust taught us anything," Clinton said, "it is the high cost of remaining silent and paralyzed in the face of genocide."7 Once in office, at the opening of the Holocaust Museum, Clinton faulted America’s inaction during World War II. "Even as our fragmentary awareness of crimes grew into indisputable facts, far too little was done," he said. "We must not permit that to happen again."8 But the forward-looking, consoling refrain of "never again," a testament to America’s can-do spirit, never grappled with the fact that the country had done nothing, practically or politically, to prepare itself to respond to genocide. The commitment proved hollow in the face of actual slaughter.

Before I began exploring America’s relationship with genocide, I used to refer to U.S. policy toward Bosnia as a "failure." I have changed my mind. It is daunting to acknowledge, but this country’s consistent policy of nonintervention in the face of genocide offers sad testimony not to a broken American political system but to one that is ruthlessly effective. The system, as it stands now, is working.9 No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.

Reprinted by permission of basic books – Copyright 2002.

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