A new documentary film, “The corridors of power,” portrays how US government decision-makers agonised over what to do about genocide. It also shows, unwittingly, their narrow perspective.
At the Sydney Film Festival in June this year, I saw a new film, “The corridors of power.” It is about human rights violations and US policymakers, showing how they responded — or didn’t. The background was World War II. The Allies had reliable evidence that the Nazis were undertaking genocide against the Jews, now known as the Holocaust, but did nothing about it, not even bombing rail lines conveying Jews to Auschwitz and other death camps.
The filmmakers don’t try to explain this but present it as the motivation for the United Nations genocide convention, passed soon after the war. The slogan was “Never again.” Never again should the world — meaning governments — be bystanders to genocide.
The film focuses on events following the end of the Cold War in 1989. It features high-level policy-making discussions under US presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The film is built around interviews with high-level players in the decision-making process, plus photos and videos of the victims of massacres and genocides. There is vintage footage of presidential speeches, UN Security Council meetings, and meetings of world leaders.
The filmmakers were able to obtain interviews with many high-level figures and their advisers. A few, like Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton, are prominent public figures. Others are well-known to those who follow US foreign affairs, like Madeleine Albright, George Moose, George Schultz and Paul Wolfowitz.
As the film presents it, the end of the Cold War unleashed ethnic warfare in former Yugoslavia, and in 1992 there was a war in Bosnia with so-called “ethnic cleansing,” which included forced relocation by ethnicity plus much killing. For US policymakers, the question was “What to do?” If this was genocide, then by the Genocide Convention there was a responsibility to do something about it.
Next was the Rwandan genocide in 1994, in which a half million or more members of the minority Tutsi ethnic group were massacred in just a hundred days. Rather than intervening, Western governments withdrew their citizens and then the United Nations withdrew most of its peacekeeping force.
The film continues with the story of Serbian massacres in Srebrenica and Kosovo, the NATO bombing of Serbia, 9/11, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and then the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Obama came to office with a human rights rhetoric. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 before he had done anything for peace. The film tells of the advisers who helped with Obama’s Nobel lecture, including how it was carefully worded not to make definitive promises of action.
If the film could be said to have a central figure, it is Samantha Power. She had direct experience with US policymaking and wrote a book, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide. Published in 2002, it is a scathing critique of US government policy in relation to genocide. She wrote, “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,” the only possible exception being the 1999 bombing of Serbia. She said that US politicians saw no political cost — namely, citizen protest — in doing nothing. I read the book when working on an article about the Rwandan genocide.
Obama, before he ran for president, read Power’s book and sought her out for discussions. She joined his administration and became US ambassador to the UN, and was a persistent voice pushing for US government action against genocide and mass killing.
In 2010 and 2011 there were uprisings in Tunisia and then Egypt, overthrowing long-time dictators, and these inspired uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, including Libya and Syria. The governments of the US and European allies led a military attack in Libya to stop impending massacres, but then withdrew as fighting spread throughout the country.
Chastened by this disastrous intervention, the next question was what to do about horrendous violence in Syria, including chemical weapons attacks. Obama initially supported US military intervention but then had second thoughts, and sought Congressional approval, which meant no intervention although the Syrian government, by using chemical weapons, had transgressed Obama’s “red line.” Through this time, Power was the voice arguing for doing something, with the argument that early intervention could prevent worse consequences later.
“The corridors of power” is a long film and, with so much graphic footage of bombings and dead and mutilated bodies, is not easy to watch. For me, it was incredibly frustrating, because for decades I’ve studied these issues and I had a good idea of what was missing.
Throughout the film, there is no mention of nonviolent action. Over previous decades, there have been numerous dictatorships overthrown via people power — protests, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and other methods — so it might be imagined that this sort of resistance could be supported by policymakers. Maybe some of them knew about it, but it doesn’t come through in the film.
In Kosovo, there was a society-wide nonviolent struggle for a decade, but it was not supported by the US government, perhaps not even known about or understood by policymakers. Instead, the US government only took notice when an armed group in Kosovo took action.
The Arab spring uprisings are discussed briefly, but without acknowledgement that in nearly every country — including Libya and Syria — the protests began largely peacefully. Policymakers seemed completely unaware of the dynamics of nonviolent action.
The 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia is covered, with no mention that a year later the authoritarian Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, was ousted from power following a massive nonviolent movement led by the group Otpor. US policymakers, as shown in the film, seem oblivious to people’s movements.
The president and his advisers seemingly discussed only two options: do nothing or use military force. In only one case was a diplomatic resolution discussed. Not only were nonviolent alternatives ignored, so were arms embargoes, offering safe havens for defectors, and collecting documentation of human rights crimes.
Imagine a different sort of intervention: providing information and training in nonviolent strategy and tactics. Of course, that might get out of hand, with skills used against US-backed rulers in places like Saudi Arabia.
The film shows the world as seen from the perspective of US leaders, and this may lead viewers to see the world the same way. It’s all about whether and how to use US military power to fix other people’s problems. How different it would be to see discussions in a peace movement or in other countries. In the film, that others might see things differently only arose when joint operations were considered. Everything that happens seemingly is from a US government point of view. Policymakers regularly refer to “we,” taking for granted their identification with the US government.
The plotline of the film follows the major international crises involving major human rights violations, as recognised by US policymakers. What it omits are massacres and genocides that don’t conform to the assumption that the US is the solution.
In 1965-1966, there was a genocide in Indonesia, with up to a million people killed. It was an anti-communist purge, and the US government did nothing about it except aid the killers behind the scenes. So much for “never again.” In 1971, there was genocide in Bangladesh, with one to three million killed. Unmentioned. In 1975, the Cambodian genocide began. The conditions for it were laid by covert US bombing as part of the Indochina war. This genocide is mentioned in the film, but not the US government’s role in its genesis. Nor is there any mention that when, in late 1978, Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia and stopped the genocide, the US government continued to support the deposed genocidal Cambodian regime. So much for “the responsibility to protect.”
Those cases were during the Cold War. Subsequently, there was a genocide in Iraq, almost entirely hidden and forgotten. During the 1991 Gulf war, Iraqi troops were driven out of Kuwait, but Saddam Hussein remained in power. International sanctions were imposed, and they had a devastating impact on ordinary Iraqis. In the 1990s, as many as two million Iraqis died because of the sanctions, which were led by the US government.
Madeleine Albright was interviewed in the film, and sympathetically presented. No mention was made of the time she was questioned about half a million Iraqi children dying due to sanctions. She replied that the price was worth it.
If there is an imperative to intervene against human rights violations, then why has the US government supported so many ruthless governments, for example Argentina 1974-1983, Brazil 1964-1985, Chile 1973-1990, Iran 1954-1979, and others since?
Virgil Hawkins wrote a revealing book titled Stealth Conflicts. He documented how and why most major lethal conflicts have been ignored by governments, media, academics and the public — including human rights organisations. How much have you ever heard about the world’s most deadly wars since 1989, which include those in the Congo, Burundi, Algeria, Angola and Zaire, each with hundreds of thousands of deaths? The deadliest was in the Congo, where as many as five million died.
Ned Dobos is the author of Ethics, Security, and the War Machine, in which he presents a powerful non-pacifist argument against having a military. Recently, Ned alerted me to a recent article titled “The beliefs of the blob,” by political scientist Christopher J. Fettweis. Contrary to my usual mental image, “the blob” here refers to a set of assumptions underlying US foreign policy. These assumptions are familiar to many political scientists. Fettweis summarises them beautifully. Watching “The corridors of power” reminded me of the six beliefs he outlines.
#1. The US is the indispensable world leader. Several of the interviewees say explicitly that the US is the world’s superpower and needs to use its power accordingly. Fettweis notes that this belief leads to overconfidence and a preference for action over inaction.
#2. The world is dangerous. The entire film is about how the US government should respond to international dangers, especially to US citizens and soldiers. As well as shots of the 9/11 attacks, there is a scene showing the desecration of corpses of US soldiers killed in the 1993 mission in Somalia.
Fettweis notes one consequence of this assumption: there is no limit to military expenditure, because more of it means greater safety. In the film, there is no hint that some military spending might be usefully redirected to diplomacy or foreign aid.
#3. US rivals are realists. Hence, enemies are assumed to respond only to force, and lack any concerns beyond their national interests. Repeatedly in the film, policymakers assume that the only alternative to doing nothing is the use of force, which will achieve their objective: peace.
#4. US foreign involvement is beneficial. In the film, the only question for many interviewees is whether to intervene. They always assume that any such intervention is beneficial to everyone concerned, except to enemies.
#5. It’s worth maintaining credibility. Several times in the film, the point is made that the US government, especially the US president, must avoid making any promise that is not fulfilled. For Obama’s Nobel lecture, his advisers didn’t want him to say anything that would constrain policy options. The assumption was that promises were somehow binding, and this only makes sense if credibility is crucial. Indeed, one of the segments of the film is titled “credibility.”
A corollary is that credibility is assumed to be maintained by aggressive action, not inaction. This comes across repeatedly in the film.
#6. Don’t appease dictators.
Fettweis notes that sometimes appeasement is better. But viewers of “The corridors of power” would never get this impression.
One of the central tensions in the film is disagreements about intervention, notably the disagreements between Obama and Samantha Power. But these disagreements are not fundamental: they all take place within the blob.
Although I found “The corridors of power” annoying because of its unarticulated assumptions about the role of the US government and military in world affairs, on reflection I think there could be value in students reading Fettweis’s article and other critiques of US policymaking and then undertaking a minute-by-minute scrutiny of the film, pointing to examples of each of the beliefs of the blob.
By the way, at the film festival “The corridors of power” was “presented” by the human rights organisation Amnesty International.
Brian Martin, firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to Ned Dobos, Anneleis Humphries and Michael McKinley for valuable comments.