- Getting Things into Perspective
From a Latin American perspective, Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers (the Albright-Cohen Report) is an interesting but confusing report.1 Like many documents produced in the United States for domestic consumption, it is so embedded in the values of American society that even if we try to put ourselves in the writers' shoes, it is difficult for outsiders to evaluate it as an action plan.
Perhaps the most striking and significant feature of this report is not what it actually says but what it does not say about the causes of genocide and ways of preventing it. It is not that these omissions are deliberate; rather, they are a consequence of the perspective used to understand genocide. This perspective directs attention away from one of the principal causes of genocidal social practices since the beginning of the twentieth century, namely, the active role played by US governments in promoting such practices in the first place.
The Perspective of the Report
The Albright-Cohen Report reflects a point of view that is common in the United States and clearly discernible in Samantha Power's book "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, which focuses on genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, and the Balkans.2 Winner of a Pulitzer Prize, Power—a former Balkan war correspondent—has done perhaps more than anyone else to shape the way in which Americans view their country's relationship to genocide.
At the risk of oversimplifying her position, Power's book can be seen as a denouncement of the "failure" on the part of the United States to prevent, slow down, or hinder the development of genocidal processes when it has had the power to do so. Thus, Power complains of "America's toleration of unspeakable atrocities, often committed in clear view" and the fact that "the United States has consistently refused to take risks to prevent genocide."3 Similarly, she points out that "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."4
The Albright-Cohen Report takes this logic a step further and tries to develop proposals for greater US involvement, often riding roughshod over the national sovereignty of other states and even over international agreements; gaining the support of regional and international organizations is considered important, but by no means necessary, for US intervention to occur. We will return to these issues in a moment; but first we need to understand what is missing in the report.
The "Epistemological Obstacle"
The term "epistemological obstacle" was coined by Gaston Bachelard in 1938 to describe those psychological difficulties that preclude a proper appraisal of knowledge.5 Later, Jean Piaget and Rolando Garcia extended this concept to account for the process whereby certain ways of constructing (or "re-presenting") reality make it [End Page 155] impossible for us to observe phenomena that contradict our representations—even though these would be patently obvious to any observer with a different point of view.
By way of example, anyone living in a Third World country in Latin America, Southeast Asia, or Africa would find almost laughable the idea that the main problem of the United States with respect to genocide has been "non-intervention." From Mexico to Argentina, from India to Cambodia, and from Algeria to Angola, it is axiomatic that reduced US intervention in these regions has led to a significant reduction in systematic mass murder in recent years.
During the Cold War, the US government and its intelligence services played a key role in the processes of political violence and genocide around the world, from direct involvement of US advisers and troops in overthrowing democratic regimes and invading other states (e.g., the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Vietnam, Cuba, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq) to support for local movements attempting to destabilize democratically elected governments or to bring about military coups (e.g., Chile, Uruguay, Argentina) and funding insurgent organizations as a way of undermining "enemy" governments (e.g., the Khmer Rouge to undermine the Vietnamese government, the contras in Nicaragua to subvert the Sandinistas, the Taliban in Afghanistan...