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It's safe to say that nobody but genocidaires likes genocide. It's also safe to say that everyone but genocidaires wants to halt on-going campaigns of mass murder and prevent future ones. The question, of course, is how to do this in practice.

Keith Pomakoy's significant new book Helping Humanity: American Policy and Genocide Rescue (Lexington Books, 2011) explores exactly this question by analyzing American responses to mass murder over the past 125 years. The results are surprising. Contra Samantha Power, Pomakoy demonstrates that the United States has been anything but indifferent to the suffering of genocide victims abroad. The U.S. has taken measures to stop genocidal campaigns against Cubans, Armenians, Ukrainians, Jews, Cambodians, Bantus, Tutsis, Bosnian Muslims, and Albanians. These measures were not uniform: they were sometimes military (as in the case of Cuba), sometimes humanitarian (as in the case of the Armenians), and sometimes purely diplomatic (as in the case of the Ukrainians). Neither were they always effective: the U.S. was able to halt the Spanish attack on Cubans, while it was unable to do anything of significance to ameliorate the suffering of the Ukrainians.

The primary lesson of Pomakoy's book--and I hope it is a lesson that the Obama administration hears--is that the ability of the U.S. to halt genocidal campaigns is very limited. This is particularly true in cases in which a powerful and distant genocidal state is determined to kill. The U.S. simply could not have halted the Ottoman campaign against the Armenians, the Stalinist campaign against the Ukrainians, or the Nazi campaign against the Jews. But even in instances where the genocidal state is weak, there is not a lot the U.S. can do. Military intervention often does more harm than good in the long term (as in Iraq) and humanitarian intervention is often difficult (as in North Korea). Diplomatic and economic pressure almost never works.

Liberal internationalists like Power tell us that the U.S. must stop genocide by any means necessary. Fine. But American policymakers must recognize that we almost never have the means necessary to halt it. The most we can usually do is ease the suffering of the victims of genocide and pray for it to end quickly.


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