Q&Amp;A: Can We Ever Justify War?

The book documents the mass killings of the last half of the 20th century--from Pol Pot's slaughter of Cambodians to concentration camps in the former Yugoslavia--and analyzes the United States' reluctance, and sometimes outright refusal, to get involved. It also shows the struggle of the few officials who sought to intervene but went largely ignored.

On Wednesday, "A Problem From Hell" was awarded the prize for nonfiction by the National Book Critics Circle. Power is currently the executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She recently spoke by phone from Boston with NEWSWEEK's Christina Gillham about the humanitarian aspect of a war with Iraq. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: First of all, congratulations on your award. How does it feel?

Samantha Power: It is enormously gratifying to see people slowly but surely coming to this book, because it did not come quickly out of the gate. In a sense it confirms one of the central premises of the book, which is that the gatekeepers are forever making faulty judgments about what the American people do and don't stand for and do and do not want. I really think there is this constituency out there and it's so gratifying.

I heard that the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Richard Holbrooke, was so impressed with your book that his distributed copies among some of his colleagues. Did Holbrooke speak to you personally about the book?

He was very supportive, and while some were skeptical that this was a book that people would read, he felt that the book was going to have a very, very long life--that it was coming at a very important time. There were many who thought that because this was published after 9-11 that that sort of spoiled its chances to be read and taken seriously because some [would think], "How can we focus on foreign suffering when we have our own suffering at home?" But he insisted that was not going to be the case.

Your book takes to task not only the U.S. government for its nonresponse to the genocide being committed in other parts of the world, but the media and the American public. Residents of other countries accuse Americans of not knowing what's going on outside of their borders. How does one make the American public aware of these things and, more important, make them care about it?

One way is to make sure a political leader will pay a political price for doing wrong, which could include sins of omission. But to be fair to the public, leaders have created great transgressions, such as when [former secretary of State Warren Christopher] mischaracterized the violence as a "problem from hell" that we'll never be able to solve. When an American reads a powerful story about [genocide in Bosnia], for example, and the secretary of State says there's nothing we can do about it, then whatever temptation there might have been to call your congressman, or whatever, is muted very quickly.

Regarding today's situation, is Iraq a so-called "problem from hell"? From the humanitarian standpoint, is there a case that can be made in support of an intervention in Iraq, given Saddam Hussein's history of human-rights abuses?

Certainly Saddam Hussein committed genocide in 1987-88 and could pose a mortal threat to his people. [But] one of the reasons President Bush has failed to secure multilateral support so far is that people know that Saddam's human-rights record doesn't warrant unilateral, military intervention. But I don't think many in the administration would say that this is motivated primarily by human rights concerns, because so many of the individuals who comprise the administration were those who were partnering with Saddam while he was using chemical weapons against [the Kurds] ... And while [intervening under the premise of human rights] may make life better for Iraqis in the immediate term--which I think it will--it will do more to hurt the principles of security and human rights than it does good.

Why is that?

It will ratify and fuel the bubbling resentment against the U.S. and this anti-Americanism is the sea in which terrorists thrive. On the human-rights side, it sends a signal that the U.S. believes itself to be the guardian of principles that it itself observes only selectively.

You say that Saddam Hussein's human-rights record doesn't warrant intervention, yet in your own book you quite explicitly spell out how Saddam committed acts of genocide on the Kurds. Isn't that a pretty awful human-rights record?

It doesn't right now warrant unilateral military intervention. If this debate were happening in '87 or '88 when tanks were pointed at Kurdish villages and planes carrying chemical weapons were flying overhead, then to me humanitarian intervention would be warranted. The irony is the Kurds are much better off now than they were in 1988. It doesn't mean they're well-off, but I don't think we've shown that Saddam poses an immediate and direct threat to U.S. security and to Iraqis. Given that, [in order] to make a humanitarian argument, you would have to point to Saddam's tyranny, which warrants all kinds of external involvement. And if you could muster a multilateral coalition on behalf of outright military invention, I think there is an argument to be made. But it's very important in intervening for human-rights purposes to secure legitimacy within international law, and the only time that that presumption should bend is when genocide threatens.

How do you think the Bush administration will handle post-Saddam Iraq? What is its obligation to the Iraqi people?

The charge against this administration as well as all recent administrations, is that we hit and run in circumstances such as these. We go in, deal with someone who's a threat to us, then we get out and we don't follow through. It's a relief to be able to say that I think this administration is not going to do that. I think they are going to stick around--the criticisms of Afghanistan have sunk in and they see Iraq as a winnable nation-building circumstance. But they're insensitive to the danger of the imperial model [and concerns that] that they would stick around only for themselves and not for the country they occupy. That's why it's so important to get multilateral clearance going in so that you can get multilateral support in order to get out.

Can they "nation-build" without being perceived as hegemonic? With the anti-Americanism so rife today it seems they would have to be particularly sensitive to this.

I agree completely. What we're asking for is a revolution in American process, which requires looking and listening and being sensitive to this anti-Americanism, and to how an occupied people would feel upon having the conditions of their lives dictated to.

Do you think the Bush administration is capable of that sensitivity?

There's no evidence yet that they're capable of it, but it's in their interests to develop that sensitivity. A sustained, overbearing American presence isn't going to work, not just because it's not good for the local flowering of democracy and so on, but because it really will make life so much more dangerous for Americans operating abroad. I don't think there's evidence of these guys soliciting enough local advice as they make decisions.