Monday, September 13, 2004


The magic word: Genocide

Mondays are always tough. The news never ceases to be simply appalling, but on Mondays you're faced with all the fresh stuff plus the detritus from the weekend. Such a wealth of topics to choose from. Which shall it be—campaign lies, voting irregularities, economic misfeasance, prosecutorial malfeasance, police brutality? It really forces you to prioritize.

So let's go for the gold. How about genocide?

According to the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, as ratified by the General Assembly in December 1948,

genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
  • Killing members of the group;
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The definition seems clear enough. Given the facts of a case, you'd expect any twelve-year-old to be able to come to a conclusion one way or the other.

But you'd be amazed what a tough time governments have in deciding whether an obvious atrocity is "genocide." You see, most governments are quite content with atrocities, but genocide puts them in a bind—namely, that they're supposed to do something about it.

So while wholesale murder, rape and deprivation are widely reported, they just never quite rise to the level of genocide. Once that's been determined, we can all relax a little bit—especially your hard-working government officials, who were hoping to get away, say, to a little island conference on regulatory relief for the pharmaceutical industry, weather permitting.

But not our Colin Powell!

Here's what yesterday's Washington Post editorial has to say:
THE MORAL ORDER we inhabit fell into focus on Thursday, and it was an awful moment. In an act without precedent since the U.N. Genocide Convention was adopted in 1948, a government accused a sitting counterpart of genocide — a genocide, moreover, that even now is continuing. And yet the accused government may not pay a price for committing this worst of all humanitarian crimes, because there is a limit to how much powerful nations care.

Imagine that! My government accusing another government of genocide! And while it's actually happening! I don't know about you, but that's the sort of thing that makes me feel resplendent with moral rectitude. And believe me, that's a feeling that doesn't come over me often.

No doubt feeling as rectitudinous as I do, the Post's editorial board could scarcely contain its admiration.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who leveled the accusation of genocide against Sudan's government, is to be commended for his honesty.

The editorial quickly draws a contrast between Powell's bold action and that of the pusillanimous Clinton administration.
During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the Clinton administration initially shrank from using the word lest it compel a risky intervention....

"Lest it compel a risky intervention?" Is that what Powell had in mind? That we're going to send troops to Sudan? I mean, Article I of the Genocide Convention says, "The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish."

No, that is not what Powell had in mind. Actually, he decided instead to conduct a genocide poll:
.... Mr. Powell, by contrast, dispatched a team of expert investigators to interview Sudan's victims; they were careful to collect only first-person accounts and to conduct a sufficiently large survey on which to base a strong conclusion.

Of 1,136 people interviewed, a third had heard racial epithets while being attacked, and three-quarters had seen government insignia on the uniforms of their attackers. The culpability of Sudan's government, along with its racial motive, seems beyond doubt.

Racial epithets? Government insignia? I can't think of a more compelling case—unless maybe you count the bodies.
... Numerous reports from journalists and human rights observers reinforce the verdict that the Arab-led government has been waging a war of ethnic extermination.

I'm so damned gullible I probably shouldn't be allowed to vote. Here I was, thinking that it was the journalists and human rights observers who had alerted the world to the genocide, with Colin Powell's "genocide poll" reinforcing that verdict. But I had it just ass-backwards.

In any case, isn't it about time to stop it? Apparently not.
... having spoken the truth about Sudan's barbarity, Mr. Powell offered little hope of ending it. "No new action is dictated by this determination," he told a Senate hearing on Thursday; the administration will continue to press other countries to press the United Nations to press Sudan's government....

Until I read that last sentence I had never really understood what a "pressing issue" was. And it's some of those same "old" countries that are still getting in our way.
... The uncertainty of this strategy was immediately apparent after Mr. Powell spoke. Brushing aside the evidence, France and Germany declined to call the killings genocide. Pakistan, currently a member of the U.N. Security Council, warned of the danger in terminating engagement with Sudan's government. China, the leading foreign investor in Sudan's burgeoning oil fields, said it might veto a tough Security Council resolution.

This is the sort of thing that makes me tremble with righteous anger. The French and the Germans want to conduct their own genocide polls before declaring the matter a genocide. The Pakistanis do not believe in foreign intervention, unless it's on the Indian subcontinent. And the Chinese? Well, what can you say about a bunch of rice-eating, oil-consuming workaholics who wouldn't know a genocide if they were conducting it themselves.

The editorial ends with a rhetorical question and a call to arms:
But do these countries really want to cast themselves as abettors of genocide? Mr. Powell and President Bush must force them to answer that question.

Golly, I wish I could write like that. Dastardly evil, bewildered and frightened onlookers, complacent potentates—and then come our white knights with their swords of righteousness unsheathed.

If I ever stop writing this damned blog, I'm going to use that in a novel. But not now. Not today. Today I'm going to ask just what the hell is going on here.

I actually heard last week a suggestion on some news show that the administration's motive for this unheard-of declaration was to attract black voters. I almost spewed my oatmeal.

If this is the best tactic that Bush&Co have to attract black voters, they might as well call it a day. It's not that they're not cynical enough to try it—and if they pick up any black votes that way, I'm sure they'll be pleased. But the first President to decline to meet with the NAACP since Warren Harding is hardly going to use a pronouncement on genocide to garner black votes.

So why did Powell do it?

First, a review of the facts of the current genocide:

Okay. Good blacks, bad Arab Muslims, and a well-publicized genocide. It looks promising, but by itself it doesn't really explain why now.

Then there was the earlier—and to some extent ongoing—genocide of the southern Sudanese Christians and animists. George Bush's evangelical Christians care a great deal about that. About the Christians, that is—not the animists.

Here's Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son, in an interview in Christianity Today of February 2004:

What does the country most need right now?

They need the United States of America to continue pushing this peace process. And I don't believe we'd be where we are today if it wasn't for George Bush. He has not allowed the events in Iraq and Afghanistan to divert his attention away from Sudan. He has kept the pressure on Sudan. And, as a result, we are very close to a peace process that, once it is signed, it doesn't mean that we can now just go on to something else. We're going to have to monitor this for compliance. We're going to have to keep involved, and it's going to take a long time.

Yet some evangelicals don't feel that Bush has been putting the pedal to the metal to the degree he should. A declaration of genocide might not do much for him with Black voters, but it would help to get the evangelicals off his ass.

But is that enough to explain this remarkable declaration? I think not. The evangelicals are going to vote for him regardless of events in Sudan.

So let's see what the media were up to.

In the week of September 5th, the news was all about Iraq. There was the death of the 1000th American soldier. Also, the military was dropping hints that there were attacks planned on virtually every city in Iraq—aside from Najaf, of course, which had already been pretty much leveled.

Here are the lede stories on the NewsHour for Monday the 6th through Wednesday the 8th: "Frances' Fury," "Issue and Debate: Iraq Policy," "Struggle for Security in Iraq."

But last Wednesday the NY Times carried this headline: "U.S. to Propose New U.N. Strategy on Sudan." And by the time Thursday had rolled around, the media could think of nothing else:
PBS NewsHour, lede story, "Crisis in Sudan"
NPR All Things Considered, lede story, "Powell: Attacks in Sudan Are 'Genocide'"
NY Times, two stories by two of their top reporters on Sudan

On Friday, the Washington Post's page-one story was "U.S. Calls Killings In Sudan Genocide."

And Iraq? By Friday I was so fixated on the Sudanese genocide that I forgot to ask.

Last Wednesday, before Colin Powell used the magic word, Margaret Warner of the PBS NewsHour had a talking-head discussion of Iraq with retired Marine Lt. General Bernard Trainor and retired U.S. Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner. [audio]
MARGARET WARNER: Are there tactical or strategic things that the U.S. forces could do there while there to reduce these fatalities—these U.S. fatalities—or is the fix only going to be leaving or setting a timetable to leave?

What's your view of the fix for this?

COL. GARDINER: The fix is, I think, the fix that the administration has picked—which is to get it off of the newspapers. The strategic communications objectives right now, as I read them, are to take this off the radar screen of the American people. In July we were seeing roughly 250,000 articles in the world press per day about this. It's now down to 150 (thousand).

MARGARET WARNER: Well, what about the fix on the ground?

COL. GARDINER: There is no fix on the ground.

The fog is beginning to lift. Powell's declaration that the atrocities in Sudan constituted genocide served a number of minor goals of the administration: (1) Propagandistically, it put a group of Muslim Arabs in a most deserved bad light here at home, just as the U.S. was about to attempt the extermination of another group of Muslim Arabs. (2) It reinforced an image of Bush as a "strong" leader and defender of the Christian faith. (3) It portrayed the government as opposing racism.

Also, my guess is that Colin Powell really wanted to make the declaration. After four years in the Bush administration, his reputation is in ruins and his accomplishments are practically nil. He must be dying to scramble onto any high ground that's left.

But the main purpose of the genocide declaration was to distract the media and you and me from Iraq. Iraq is a major campaign issue.

The events in Iraq that need to be hidden are twofold: On the one hand, the situation there—militarily, politically, socially—continues to deteriorate. But on the other hand, the U.S. military is currently pounding the hell out of the Iraqi population. The Bush administration hopes that the American people will reserve their sympathy for the Sudanese.

And now that the magic word has been spoken, what will the Bush administration do for the Sudanese? "Nothing" would be my guess.

Related post:
While George Bush was considering the latest polls.... (9/12/04)

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