DATE June 5, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Andrew Meldrum discusses his abduction in Zimbabwe
and why the government authorities expelled him
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In his war reporting from Zimbabwe, Andrew Meldrum investigated and chronicled
corruption, tyranny, massacres and other human rights abuses under the regime
of President Robert Mugabe. Over the past year and a half, Meldrum had been
harassed by the government, accused of being a liar, arrested and briefly
jailed. He was tried and acquitted. Last month he was thrown out of the
country. He'd been the last foreign correspondent allowed to remain; the
others had already been deported after the enactment of new press laws that
restricted foreign journalists, required journalists to be licensed by the
government and made it illegal to criticize the president. Mugabe's crackdown
on the free press parallels its suppression of the opposition party and its
co-optation of the judicial system.
Meldrum is an American-born reporter who has lived in and reported from
Zimbabwe for the past 23 years. He writes for the London newspaper The
Guardian. He says that in the '80s it was thrilling to report on a newly
independent Zimbabwe, but that changed as President Mugabe changed.
Well, first of all, Andrew, I'm glad to hear that you're safe. How were you
abducted and expelled from the country?
Mr. ANDREW MELDRUM (Correspondent, The Guardian): Yes. Well, that's the
correct terminology. Many people have said I was deported, and my lawyer
tells me that I was not deported, because deported is a legal procedure. And
she said everything about what happened to me was illegal. And it's a long
On May 7th some security agents, one of whom identified himself as a
immigration official, came to our house after dark. I was not at home. My
wife answered and told them I wasn't there. They said they would wait until I
came home. They refused to show any identification papers. They had four
vehicles, including a large van with blacked-out windows. My lawyer came.
They, once again, refused to show any identification papers and they wouldn't
say why they wanted to talk to me. And so my wife and lawyer reached me on my
cell phone and advised me not to come home. They at that time felt that they
wanted to take me away and throw me out of the country at that time. Or even
worse, they were afraid that they might want to abduct me and rough me up,
which is what's happened to many Zimbabweans in recent months. So for about
10 days I was actually not going home, not sleeping at home.
My lawyer did go into immigration. They said, `Yes,' they wanted to see me,
but they would not say what it was about. And so she and I went into
immigration together. They asked me a few very basic questions, which they
could have found the answers on my residence permit. Then they seized my
passport and my residence permit when we left. We went back a couple days
later, and at that time they issued me with deportation orders, they declared
me a prohibited immigrant, saying I was undesirable in the country. My lawyer
went for a court order to say that this was illegal, which she did get. But
as we were walking out, I was surrounded by six or seven police officers. And
when I was trying to speak to the assembled press, I was forcibly kicked,
punched, pushed and just at one point lifted up and taken away, put into a car
that then sped away.
When I was in the car, the plain-clothes security officers around me put a
jacket over my head and held it around my neck so that it was a hood, which I
could not see out of. They drove me around for about, oh--and when they put
the hood on, they thumped me on the back and they said, `The time for games is
over.' And then they drove me around for about 40 minutes, I would say. It
was very disorienting. I couldn't tell exactly where they took me, but I was
hoping that would take me directly to the airport, but they did not. We went
on to a kind of gravel or dirt road, and my heart sank at that point.
GROSS: Andrew, at this point, were you preparing yourself for torture,
because that has happened to people in Zimbabwe, people you've interviewed?
Mr. MELDRUM: That's exactly--I was mentally preparing myself for that kind of
treatment to me. People that I've interviewed have been taken away on dirt
roads with a hood over their head, have been taken to rural police stations,
taken into the basement and have spent two days being beaten unconscious,
being electric shocked to the point of convulsions. And I was afraid that
that was what was going to happen to me.
What I did was I thought, `These men are bullies, and I don't want them to
know that I'm afraid.' And I started wiping my sweaty hands on my pants, and
I put my shoulders back and I took a deep breath. And I thought, `I don't
want them to have the satisfaction of knowing that I'm frightened.' And I
tried to just--I started thinking about the crunch of bones and the, you know,
kind of singeing of electricity. And I thought, `Don't think about that.
You're frightening yourself.' And so then, happily, at just about that point,
when I was just kind of mentally preparing myself, the car pulled back onto a
tarred road and we started speeding ahead. And I could just make out the
faint outline of the Independence Arch, which is right before the entrance to
the airport. And I was delighted because I realized we were getting to the
airport and they were just trying to frighten me.
GROSS: So you got to the airport, they put you on a plane and you went to
Mr. MELDRUM: Not quite that simple. I was actually taken into the basement
of the airport and held in a small room, a little cubicle, for 10 hours. And
actually what I found out later was happening at that time--I was still a bit
afraid that they would come back after dark and, you know, beat me up in the
basement of the airport. But actually what was happening was my lawyer had
won a court order saying that this was illegal. She had taken it to the
airport. And the government had tried to put me on a South African Airways
flight to Johannesburg, but South African Airways refused, saying, `This is
illegal, and we cannot take somebody in an illegal action like this.'
So the government had to wait until there was a night flight going to London
by Air Zimbabwe, and they did put me--they had to forcibly put me on it. They
forcibly kept my lawyer from getting to me and giving me the court order. And
they were informed, both by my lawyer and by me, that this was illegal, and
they all just said, `You know, we're not obeying any court order. We are just
GROSS: During the 10 days that you didn't go home because you knew that they
were looking for you, that the police were looking for you, why didn't you try
to sneak out of the country?
Mr. MELDRUM: I was very firm about this. If I had left the country, I would
have been running away, and it would have given the government the opportunity
to say, `You see, he had something to hide; he was running away.' And
although I was not sleeping at home, I made a point of going to a few
different public engagements, diplomatic receptions and press conferences, and
then I would leave, so that I could tell people, `I'm not in hiding. I am
here. I'm trying to do my work as best I can. And I'm not running away from
anything. I'm just waiting for my lawyer to sort things out so I can meet
with people officially who will give me identification as to who they are and
can tell me what it is they want to speak to me about.'
GROSS: You were the last foreign correspondent in Zimbabwe. How were you
able to stay that long?
Mr. MELDRUM: Yes. I'm the last foreigner who was able to report on Zimbabwe.
There are several Zimbabwean journalists who write for the foreign media; but,
yes, I was the last foreign journalist in Zimbabwe. I was lucky in that I had
a permanent residence permit, a permit of permanent residence, which I
received about eight or nine years ago. I've been living in Zimbabwe for 23
years, and at that time it didn't seem like there was anything too dangerous
to the government for giving me that residence permit. And I have purchased
my home in Harare and had settled in there, and I was very much a fixture on
the local scene. And so I was able to continue working.
And as things got tougher and hotter, I continued doing my work. And I'd like
to point out I was not the only person writing, you know, the stories which
focused on human rights abuses, on repression of the press, on the breakdown
of the rule of law, on the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy. Those are not
things that I was the only journalist writing about. There are many fine and
committed journalists, both for the local press and for the foreign press, who
write about the very same issues.
GROSS: So because you had this valid residence permit there was a court order
that said you had a constitutional right to stay in the country even though
most of the foreign press had been expelled.
Mr. MELDRUM: That's correct. In fact, this was not the first time. As you
know, a year ago, in May of 2002, I was put in jail briefly for 33 hours. The
government pressed criminal charges against me. I was put on trial for two
months. I was acquitted. And moments after I was acquitted the government
then tried to deport me at that time. My lawyer insisted that I had every
legal right to be in the country. And we went back to the courts and they
ruled, `Yes,' that I had the constitutional right to stay in the country.
And so then I continued working for another year, but I was harassed over that
period. There were numerous articles written about me in the state press
suggesting that--well, charging that I was a spy for the US government, a spy
for British government, a liar, a cheat. They said just about everything
except that I beat my dogs.
GROSS: Why was it so important to the Zimbabwe government and to President
Robert Mugabe to expel foreign reporters from the country?
Mr. MELDRUM: Well, I think the government is more and more threatened. The
collapse of the economy has become so acute that it's creating great problems
and the government is becoming more desperate. And I think it's a classic
case of shooting the messenger or, in my case, deporting the messenger because
they don't like the message, and that message is that the government is very
unpopular, that the government has lost any ability to come up with solutions
for the country's pressing problems.
GROSS: What were some of the stories that you had recently covered that you
knew would make the government of Robert Mugabe very angry?
Mr. MELDRUM: Well, political manipulation of food aid. Zimbabwe currently
has a dire shortage of food, a famine, that is affecting more than half of the
country's 12 million people, and those people are only getting by because of
international food aid. And I had interviewed many people that told how they
were denied food, food aid, because they were identified as being supporters
of the opposition party. That's one story.
Torture by police. I interviewed members of parliament, lawyers, other
prominent citizens, who were tortured, including an 18-year-old boy--who were
tortured with electric shock treatment, with beatings, at the hands of police
in police stations. And this was confirmed by medical evidence that
was--medical examinations that were done the moment they were released from
Well, also I wrote about the economic collapse. There is inflation of 270
percent. There is unemployment of more than 70 percent. And there's a
shortage of gasoline, of electricity. There's even a shortage of bank notes,
of Zimbabwe currency notes. A worker last week who went to the bank could not
get paid his full paycheck. He would only get paid about 20 percent of the
paycheck. And this is with inflation going sky high, with shortages of food.
And these workers need to buy food for their families. So those are just some
of the stories.
GROSS: Were the people who you interviewed punished for talking with you?
Mr. MELDRUM: I was careful actually for the past year or more. When I
interview people, unless they are public figures who stand up and say, you
know, `I want to be counted as saying this,' other people I would change their
names and I would tell the reader in the story that the names have been
changed to protect people from retribution. Because, you know, some
journalists would change the names without flagging it in the story, but then
I was worried that there might be somebody who had that name and then they
would get punished, so I was pretty careful to do that. And I don't know of
anybody that I interviewed that has suffered anything. But particularly when
I went into the rural areas I was very aware that that was a danger for them.
GROSS: What were some of the other government attacks against the press in
Mr. MELDRUM: Well, in recent months there have been more than 30--I mean, in
the past year there have been more than 30 journalists and editors who have
been arrested and jailed and all held, I might add, under the same charges
that I was, which is the abuse of journalistic privilege by publishing a
falsehood. And I'm happy to say that after my acquittal only two of the other
cases came to trial, and those were also acquitted. So, in other words, none
of the journalists who were arrested were convicted of that crime, which is
punishable by a jail sentence of up to two years.
And I'm very pleased, because I think that my stubbornness to stay on and
stand trial and the great and brilliant work of my lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, to
get my acquittal helped the whole press stand firm, and it made the government
have to back down because they thought that they could get us all convicted.
GROSS: My guest is Andrew Meldrum. After 23 years reporting from Zimbabwe,
he was expelled last month by the Mugabe regime. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Meldrum, and he reported
from Zimbabwe for 23 years. Last month he was expelled from the country; he
was abducted and expelled. And he's now in London. He's reported all these
years for The Guardian of London.
This week is a week of protest in Zimbabwe, a week that was organized by the
opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. What's going on this week in Zimbabwe?
Mr. MELDRUM: Well, there's a national strike which has been extremely
effective in closing down all industrial and commercial activity--the country
has virtually ground to a halt--and it's for five days, and it comes hot on
the heels of a two-day national strike in March and a three-day national
strike in April. So this is a continual building of pressure against the
There is also--this time there are public demonstrations. They're very small
scale, but they do keep on cropping up, and they're being met with very heavy
repression from the government by armed police, by army tanks that are
patrolling the streets of the city center and of the outlying townships by
tear gas, by arrests, by beatings. I just had word that a hospital that was
treating victims of state violence has been attacked by riot police. So, you
know, there is very heavy government repression. But what I think is
significant is that there are people, it may only be a few thousand people,
but they are risking their safety to stand up and say, `We are fed up with
this government, and we want to see democracy restored.'
GROSS: What are some of the things that the Mugabe government has done that
has most alienated the people of Zimbabwe?
Mr. MELDRUM: They've allowed the economy to get completely run down.
Zimbabwe used to have one of the strongest economies in Africa and the people
enjoyed one of the best standards of living. And today, as I've told you,
half the people are on international food aid; the other half are grappling
with inflation, which is just out of control. The currency has become so
worthless we pay bills in what we call bricks; you know, wads of $500 notes
and, you know, you have to have several of the bricks in order to get a week's
worth of groceries. And it is the economic degradation of the country that is
really getting people angry.
A man or a woman with a job cannot afford to take public transport, and so
often I have very good friends who get up before 4:00 in the morning in order
to hike their way into work by 8:00, and then they hike their way back, and
they only get home after 9 or 10:00 at night. It is this kind of suffering as
a result of the economic collapse of the country that I think is driving the
GROSS: President Mugabe has also run this program confiscating farmland from
white farmers. What was his motivation for doing that? And what has the
outcome of the program been?
Mr. MELDRUM: Well, I believe that he had a very cynical aim by seizing the
white farms, and he had run out of policies and he had also run out of
popularity in the year 2000, and he realized he had to do something. And so
he took the step to make a kind of big grandstand of grabbing the farms owned
by whites and saying that they would turn them over to poor blacks. And he
used that very much as a smoke screen. He wants to be seen as the great
African leader who is standing up against the whites, who is standing up
against the colonial power, Britain, and shaking his fist at them and telling
them where to go. And he is using that as a facade to hide the fact that he
is actually repressing and using violence to put down a legal opposition party
that is made up overwhelmingly of black Zimbabweans. And he doesn't want the
world to see that. He wants the world to see him as the African leader who is
standing up to whites and the former colonialist power.
GROSS: What has he done with the white land that he confiscated?
Mr. MELDRUM: Well, unfortunately and the greatest tragedy is that that land
that has been confiscated is not being productively farmed. A great deal of
that land was not turned over to poor black farmers, as he had promised;
instead, it was turned over to rich blacks who are close to him. His
generals, his generals' wives, Cabinet ministers, his own wife, his sister,
many other people who are tied in with the government got the biggest and
nicest farms. The farms that were turned over to poor blacks were portioned
or parceled up into tiny little plots, and poor black farmers were just dumped
on those areas without any economic support, without any special training, and
they just continued as they had been before, as subsistence farmers. And what
Zimbabwe does not need is more subsistence farming. What it needs is more
And it's no surprise that when all this disruption to a once healthy
productive agricultural land now the country that used to be called the
breadbasket of Africa is subsisting on international food handouts.
GROSS: Andrew Meldrum writes for the London newspaper The Guardian. He was
expelled from Zimbabwe last month, after reporting from the country for 23
years. He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, Samantha Power. She won a Pulitzer Prize this year for her
book "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide"; and we continue
our conversation with journalist Andrew Meldrum, who was recently expelled
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Andrew Meldrum. After
reporting from Zimbabwe for 23 years, he was expelled last month by the Robert
Mugabe regime. In the past year and a half the government had cracked down on
the media with several anti-press laws. Meldrum was the last foreign
correspondent who'd been allowed to remain. The others had already been
deported. He writes for the London newspaper The Guardian.
Three African leaders recently tried to convince Robert Mugabe to step down
from the presidency. This was the presidents of Nigeria, South Africa and
Malawi. What was Mugabe's response?
Mr. MELDRUM: Mugabe's response publicly was to try and say that they came to
help him negotiate with Britain over the disagreements between Britain and
Zimbabwe on the land issue that we just talked about. In fact, he was
publicly contradicted by those presidents who said, `No, we came to try and
encourage negotiations between Robert Mugabe and the opposition.' So he was
publicly contradicted by these leaders, and they put pressure on him. They
said, `We want you to come to the negotiation table.' So far Mr. Mugabe has
not made any steps in that direction, but I do believe that the pressure is
building, and he won't be able to avoid having to negotiate a peaceful
transition to democracy in Zimbabwe.
GROSS: It sounds like President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa is in a slightly
difficult spot because Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe were very supportive of the
anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. And a lot of anti-apartheid leaders
took safe haven in Zimbabwe when it was unsafe for them to operate from South
Africa, so I think they feel like it's awkward for them now to ask Mugabe to
Mr. MELDRUM: It is awkward for them. But on the other hand, for them to
continue to watch the economy of their largest trading partner, which is what
Zimbabwe is--and to see the economy of their largest trading partner decline
so much is hurting their own economy. To see living standards and the rule of
law erode in their neighbor country so that they have two million illegal
immigrants from Zimbabwe that are seeking jobs and seeking safety in South
Africa, that is creating a problem for South Africa as well.
They would like to overlook all these problems because, as you say, Zimbabwe
is a fellow liberation movement--is run by a party that's a fellow liberation
movement that did give support to them during the anti-apartheid struggle, but
they have had to draw a line and say, `Well, they helped us then, but, in
fact, what they're doing now is something that we can't agree with. They're
oppressing their own people in much the same way that black South Africans
were oppressed under apartheid, that black Zimbabweans were oppressed by
Rhodesia.' The Mugabe government is using the very same laws and the very
same tactics that the Rhodesian government used to suppress African
nationalism back in the '60s and '70s in Zimbabwe. So they are, yes, put in
an awkward position, but on the other hand it's gone so far now that I believe
they really must own up to the fact that they can't continue to support the
GROSS: If Robert Mugabe stepped down and removed himself from power, or if he
was overthrown from power, would you want to move back to Zimbabwe?
Mr. MELDRUM: Oh, certainly. But, you know, let me say I believe that, you
know, a positive outcome for Zimbabwe is really not very far away. I believe
that the pressures are mounting on Robert Mugabe and his regime. When the
government cannot do the very things that a government is supposed to do,
which is to provide, let's say, enough currency so that people can have
ordinary transactions, cannot provide the rule of law so business can go on as
normal, cannot provide enough gasoline so that cars, buses, trucks can carry
out ordinary daily economic activities--when a government fails to do all
those things, it's not very long before it has to, you know, give up.
And the pressure is mounting both domestically and regionally amongst African
leaders on Robert Mugabe, and I don't think it's very long before he must
agree to a negotiated peaceful transition to free and fair elections. But I
have to say time is running out. If that is not done in a few months or
within a year, I would say the people's anger will grow to the extent that
then you will see a violent overthrow of Mugabe, and that is not good for the
country. What Zimbabwe desperately needs is to see the power of democracy,
the power of a ballot to change a government that the people are unhappy with.
And that would be an important historic precedent for Zimbabwe, but also for
the rest of Africa.
GROSS: But, of course, elections have been kind of rigged by Mugabe, so
overthrowing him by ballot seems kind of difficult.
Mr. MELDRUM: Well, that's why it has to be negotiated, because you have to
set ground rules for the elections so that it's not left, you know, that the
party who's running for election also runs all the balloting, all the
counting, which is what we saw in the past elections. They were so blatantly
rigged, and there was such a large amount of violence that no independent
observer agreed that those were free and fair elections. And the
commonwealth, which is the organization of 54 former British colonies, which
includes many African countries, many Asian countries, like India and
Pakistan, many Caribbean countries--so it wasn't an all-white organization by
any means--agreed that both the parliamentary elections in 2000 and also the
presidential elections in 2002 were not free and fair and therefore were not
valid or legitimate.
What I'm talking about is elections that are run under basic international
standards that would be free and fair. And I can tell you if only that would
happen in Zimbabwe, it would resolve the country's problems very, very
GROSS: Andrew, the Zimbabwe government abducted and expelled you. What about
your wife? Where is she?
Mr. MELDRUM: She remains in Zimbabwe at the moment. She does not appear to
be a target in any way. She's carrying on at our home with our dogs, and she
has her work to do in the health field. And at the moment, touch wood,
everything seems to be going well. We won't be apart for very long. We're
still trying to sort out what we're going to do.
GROSS: Is she from Zimbabwe?
Mr. MELDRUM: No. She's from California, actually.
GROSS: So she's in the same position as you are in terms of being...
Mr. MELDRUM: That's right.
GROSS: ...you know, foreign.
Mr. MELDRUM: That's right. She's a foreigner, but she has a residence
GROSS: OK. What do you plan on doing if you can't get back to Zimbabwe in
the near future?
Mr. MELDRUM: Well, then I intend to be in South Africa, I think, and to cover
Zimbabwe from South Africa and to also cover other countries in the region
because Zimbabwe doesn't stand alone. You know, the surrounding countries,
Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Angola and Namibia and South Africa, they all have
similar histories to Zimbabwe, and they're all going through similar issues at
different times and in different ways. So it's very interesting to cover
those and to have an understanding of all of them, so that's what I would like
to do. I also have been inspired by your questions and by this experience,
and I think I have a good story to tell, and I would like to write a book
GROSS: Andrew, it seems that whenever I talk to you it's because, you know,
your life is in crisis. You know, you're being tried by the Zimbabwe
government or expelled by the Zimbabwe government or being threatened by the
government. Is that your whole life? I mean, that's the part we always
present on FRESH AIR. What's the rest of your life like?
Mr. MELDRUM: Well, I'm glad you asked that question because actually I enjoy
life, and I'm actually a fun-loving guy. And I've stayed in Zimbabwe not just
because it's, you know, a struggle I'm committed to but because it's a
beautiful country and it has a gorgeous climate and I have lots of friends
there, and we have, you know, a great time. There's good music, and really,
you know, I enjoy life. And it's not all serious. That's all I'd like--oh,
and for instance, my lawyer. She was fantastic. She was brave. She was
brilliant in court. She was committed. But also, the best part for me, was
she was so funny, and we could crack a joke even as I was being dragged away
by the police, and it just made it almost fun.
Mr. MELDRUM: Almost. Yeah.
GROSS: OK. Well, so glad that you're well. Thank you so much for talking
Mr. MELDRUM: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Andrew Meldrum writes for the London newspaper The Guardian. He was
expelled from Zimbabwe last month after reporting from the country for 23
Coming up, Samantha Power, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "A
Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Samantha Power discusses her book "A Problem from Hell:
America and the Age of Genocide"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Samantha Power won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award
for her book "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide." The
book, which is now out in paperback, is critical of America's failure to
intervene to stop genocide in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and Cambodia. One of her
chapters is about America's failure in the late '80s to send a strong message
to Saddam Hussein that genocide would not be tolerated after he used chemical
weapons against the Kurds.
Samantha Power was the founding director of Harvard's Carr Center for Human
Rights Policy. She teaches human rights and US foreign policy at Harvard. I
asked her if she supported the US military action in Iraq before the war
started and where she stands now. Let's start with where she stood before the
Ms. SAMANTHA POWER (Founding Director, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy):
My basic line on the war ahead of time was that the war in Iraq, a unilateral
war, would make Iraq a more humane place and the world a more dangerous place.
And I came to that, you know, as many people who were agonizing about this
war, with a heavy heart. I sort of plunked, as it were, and I plunked against
the war, again not because I didn't think it would represent a liberation, as,
in fact, it has, as complicated as nation building is proving, for sure, but I
really felt that the United States, at the time it launched the war, had so
little capital internationally. That is that it was trying to make the
argument, the humanitarian argument, for war in Iraq within the four corners
of Iraq. That is it wanted to say, `Here are the abuses he committed back in
1988,' and it didn't itself want to come forward and say, `OK, and here's why
when Saddam committed genocide in '88 we actually doubled our aid to his
regime.' That's the story that I tell in the book.
In addition, of course, it was clearly the third argument that was tacked on
after the disarmament argument and then the al-Qaeda argument proved somewhat
unpersuasive to people. It seemed like a last-minute, you know, `OK, well,
let's bring out the genocide argument, you know. Let's make that case.' But
my feeling was that these individuals making this argument hadn't themselves
brought a sufficient track record to caring for and tending to human rights
situations. And I worried that, again, there would be an instant liberation
but that because it was kind of an afterthought--the human rights
argument--that we wouldn't actually follow through in the country itself,
again within the four corners, and then also that the ripple effects from this
pre-emptive intervention would actually undermine the one thing that the
intervention was for, which was US security.
GROSS: Now that the major military part of the war in Iraq is over, do you
still feel that Iraq will emerge from this war a more humane place, that the
world will be a more dangerous place?
Ms. POWER: The Bush administration launched this war and, I think, conducts
itself on a single premise, which is that it's much more important to be
feared than to be liked. And my basic instinct is that as important as it is
to be feared--and I do think, you know, if you do have terrorist threats in
your midst you do have to be feared. But as important as it is to be feared,
it's equally important, or perhaps even more important, to be respected. And
I think until the United States begins to cobble back together its legitimacy
as an international player, until it begins to work within international
institutions and even give something up occasionally for the sake of kind of,
you know, something resembling a global order where you have certain rules
that we don't exempt ourselves from, that the United States doesn't exempt
itself from and then insist that everybody else play by.
I think until we begin that, as it were, nation-building exercise, or
nation-rebuilding--inter-nation rebuilding exercise--I do feel that the world
is less stable, that more people are prone to invoke the pre-emption doctrine
to service whatever their needs are locally. We've already seen everyone from
Mugabe, you know, in Zimbabwe to the Indonesian government sort of citing the
war on terrorism and citing pre-emption as grounds for going after opposition
or going after national movements locally, self-determination movements. So I
think that you're going to see a contagion effect of sorts.
GROSS: You're one of the people whose view of American power was changed by
Bosnia. How did your view of American power change?
Ms. POWER: Well, I was a kid when I went to Bosnia. I was 22, I guess, when
I went for the first time, right out of college. And there was just something
to me surreal and gravely disappointing and disheartening about seeing
emaciated men behind barbed wire in concentration camps on the one hand and
NATO airplanes flying overhead monitoring the carnage but doing nothing about
it on the other. And so it was that gap between, you know, kind of `never
again,' you know, `I've been steeped on. Never again,' as many from my
generation had been. It changed me in that while I had grown up thinking that
war was something that had to be avoided at all costs, here was a circumstance
where what I wanted--and it wasn't an easy thing to acknowledge that this was
what I wanted, but I wanted those NATO planes to do something; that is, I
And so I think while some people, let's say, on the left in America are really
deeply skeptical after Vietnam and so on of the possibility of American power
being harnessed for good, I think having gone through that experience and
being almost desperate for American power, recognizing that it was American
power or nothing, you know, that the Europeans were not themselves going to do
anything, makes me perhaps more willing to entertain again the
possibility--not the likelihood, but the possibility--that the United States
can use its resources for liberal ends.
GROSS: Do you think that Iraq is an example of the liberal quandary on
Ms. POWER: I think Bosnia is the best emblem of the quandary because you
really saw the Clinton administration again sort of slow to grapple with the
evil and then, once convinced of the evil, very squeamish about asserting
American leadership, you know, saying to the Europeans, `You know what? This
is genocide. We have to go there. You're either with us or you're against
us.' I mean, in a sense, what the Bush administration has done. The Clinton
administration would never have that level of assertiveness and risk-taking
with force and risking confronting also the US military, which was quite
opposed to intervention. I think that's the better example of it.
Certainly Iraq brought out the conflict within liberal civil society in this
country. It brought out some of the squeamishness also in the Democratic
Party, you know, of a sort of reluctance to take a meaningful stand on that
war, to really push back. But I think Iraq is hard to put in the camp that we
were talking about because the security argument was the one that really
persuaded more people than not, and I think the Democratic Party mainly feels
disqualified about speaking on that war, less because of its liberal, you
know, squeamishness and more because of the kind of patriotism problem, you
know, this feeling that after 9/11, one just has to close ranks and kind of
defer to the executive branch regardless.
GROSS: My guest is Samantha Power, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book
"A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide." More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Samantha Power. She won a Pulitzer Prize this year for
her book "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide." It
criticizes the US for its failure to intervene and try to stop genocides in
Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Srebrenica and Iraq.
You are critical in your book of both Republican and Democratic
administrations for failing to intervene in genocides. Let's start with the
Reagan administration. You say the Reagan administration knew about Saddam
Hussein's acquisition and its use of chemical weapons. It knew about its use
of chemical weapons in the war against Iran and its use of weapons against the
Kurds. What did they know, and when did they know it?
Ms. POWER: Well, the genocide as we now know it began really in 1987, but
there was a kind of six-month period in early '88 or between February and
September of 1988 that it really intensified. And the internal cable traffic
and memo traffic reveals extensive knowledge of the use of chemical weapons,
the destruction of Kurdish villages in rural northern Iraq. This comes on the
heels of successive fact-finding missions to the Iran-Iraq front lines by the
United Nations throughout the 1980s which documented chemical weapons use
against Iranian soldiers. So that was very well documented, never sanctioned
internationally because, again, the feeling in both instances, both when it
came to the genocide against the Kurds and the use of chemical weapons against
the Iranians, was, you know, `He may be a son of a bitch, but he's ours,' you
know. And Iran is the greater nemesis in the neighborhood and so better to
have, you know, a bulwark against him, you know, in the region so better not
to denounce the use of a weapon that really hadn't been used in any extensive
way since World War I.
GROSS: You say that the administration of the first President Bush covered up
evidence of mass atrocities by Iraq in 1987 and '88 and tried to spin Saddam
Hussein as being a kinder, gentler dictator so that we wouldn't have to get
involved in Iraq.
Ms. POWER: Yeah. I mean, none of us like to live with the impressions of
ourselves as people who would turn away from genocide, of course. So one of
the patterns one sees repeated in case after case--and the Iraq case is a
great example--is we tell ourselves it's actually not genocide. And, of
course, we tell ourselves that working with a regime that is brutal will
constitute a form of constructive engagement; that is, that isolating the
regime isn't going to achieve anything. And, you know, there are those who
today would say, `Look, the policy that we made in the '80s during the
genocide was the right one. We tried the isolation approach in the '90s and
look where that got us: nowhere fast.'
So it is very--this is what I meant before when I said that, you know,
injecting concern for human rights into US foreign policy doesn't always tell
you what the best means is to advance those ends. But certainly excluding
consideration of human rights as we did during this genocide and many others
is a recipe for not improving the welfare of foreign citizens.
If I could just--there was one memo that was the most perhaps striking of the
book and of the 20th century maybe, and that was a memo related to Iraq that
came out that was issued by the assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs
at the State Department in September 1988. And it said, `Human rights and
chemical weapons use aside, comma, our interests run roughly parallel to those
of Iraq.' And I think that sort of sums up, in a way, what our response to
chemical weapons use, human rights abuses, genocide has been over time, which
is genocide, comma, and then what are our security or economic interests.
GROSS: Now you're also critical of the Democratic Clinton administration.
You point to Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State under President
Clinton, forbidding the use of the word `genocide' to describe murder in
Rwanda. How did you find that out?
Ms. POWER: There's this first-class non-governmental organization in
Washington called the National Security Archive that spends its days
submitting Freedom of Information Act requests, FOIA after FOIA after FOIA.
And they unearthed all of these documents, both from the Bosnia conflict and
from the Rwanda genocide; and in both instances, actually, it was Warren
Christopher who took a real leadership role within the bureaucracy and said in
both cases, "Be careful"--and this is an exact quote in the Rwanda case--"Be
careful, don't use the word `genocide.' Then we'd actually have to do
So the perception was, again, if you admit to the American people, if you
admit to yourselves, if you admit--you know, how could you look at yourself in
the mirror in the morning when you're not only not sending American troops but
when you're not even discussing something that actually rises to the level of
genocide? And so, again, the temptation is just pretend it isn't that,
pretend it isn't that thing that actually sort of implicates our own, you
know, perceptions of ourselves.
GROSS: Your book "A Problem from Hell" is very critical of America for not
intervening to stop genocide. Why do you think America has been slow to
intervene in most cases?
Ms. POWER: Well, one of the shocking but quite, I suppose, banal conclusions
of the book is that the system is working. I mean, we have a system that is
very responsive to two things: to executive leadership, so the presidential
leadership on the one hand, and domestic political pressure on the other. And
both have been sorely absent when it has come to genocide. No American
president, for all of the trips to the Holocaust Museum or all of the slogans
of `Never again,' no American president has ever said, `Not on my watch. You
know, genocide is not happening.' They've never issued a presidential
decision directive signaling the bureaucracy that that's a priority of theirs.
They've never issued public speeches or done contingency military planning
with our allies so that there could be a division of labor because God knows
this is a massive problem.
GROSS: I'll ask one more question. You've been writing about AIDS lately.
Do you see AIDS as connecting to your work on genocide?
Ms. POWER: Well, I'm most interested in why good people do nothing, I have to
say. I mean, I'm not somebody who has spent all that much time trying to get
into the head of the perpetrator of genocide. I sort of take some amount of
carnage as fixed on this earth; perhaps I shouldn't. But I'm really
interested in why those who have the power to do something to save large
numbers of lives don't do something. And so I went from working on this book
on why Americans who have the power to do so much more with less--I mean, even
our mere words and our mere economic sanctions and, you know, our freezing of
the foreign assets of potential perpetrators and these little things that we
could have done could have made a difference in addition to, obviously, having
the military might.
So I shifted then to AIDS where I look at specifically the government of Thabo
Mbeki in South Africa and ask, `Why? Why? Why?' The government that, you
know, accounts for 40 percent of Africa's GNP, why they are not giving
anti-retroviral medicines that are now available for a dollar a day to their
people. Why? Why? Why? I expected more from Nelson Mandela's successor.
And so really to get into the head of good people who do nothing for reasons
that are very, very logical to themselves but that have deeply, deeply
troubling, immoral results.
GROSS: Samantha Power, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. POWER: Thank you.
GROSS: Samantha Power is the author of "A Problem from Hell: America and the
Age of Genocide." It's now out in paperback.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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