Michael Dobbs on Genocide Prevention: The Propaganda System in Overdrive

Michael Dobbs is a veteran Washington Post reporter who has received some modest attention recently with his Foreign Policy blog, where he has covered (or rather obfuscated) the background and trial of Ratko Mladic and had some exchanges with critics of his undeviatingly establishment positions on the Balkans wars. I won’t deal now with his positions in that Mladic debate, but want to focus on a blog he put up on April 23, 2012 on “Obama, Samantha Power, and the ‘problem from hell’,” which gives in compact and convenient form a string of establishment truths from which Dobbs does not deviate.

This blog is built around a speech that President Obama gave at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on April 23, 2012, in which he announced new sanctions against perpetrators of mass atrocities. Predictably, the named villains in Obama’s speech were the Nazis (the Holocaust), Cambodia (presumably under the Khmer Rouge; the genocidal bombing under Nixon doesn’t exist in establishment thought), Rwanda (1994), Bosnia, Darfur, Iran, South Sudan, Côte D’Ivoire, Libya, Joseph Kony’s Lords’ Resistance Army, Ratko Mladic, and Syria and Assad.

First Principle of a Propaganda System

This selectivity, and the absence of Bahrain, Kagame, and Rwanda (operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo), or Israel, certainly doesn’t bother Dobbs in the least. He adheres closely to the first principle of a dependable agent of a propaganda system: namely, his country is only a positive actor in the mass atrocities scene—it doesn’t commit atrocities or support those that do. Its official targets are the genuine villains needing condemnation and punishment and it has a right and responsibility to set things straight. But Dobbs shows his independence by criticizing his leaders a bit—they have lagged in aggressiveness in pursuing their targeted villains.

Second Principle

A second principle of propaganda is to rely strictly on establishment sources. So Dobbs’s sources are Obama, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and Elie Wiesel. Samantha Power ranks high with Dobbs, as the author of that great and Pulitzer Prize-winning establishment treatise “A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide (2002). Dobbs says that she “provided much of the intellectual heft for a growing genocide prevention movement that has sought to pressure the United States government to live up to the slogan ‘Never Again’.” Power, like the bold Dobbs, also feels that the United States has been laggardly in fighting against genocide, though it has apparently never occurred to her, or Dobbs, that its first order of business in opposing genocide should be to stop doing it.

Samantha Power is, in fact, the perfect intellectual to chair the Obama administration’s new Atrocities Prevention Board, to which she has been appointed, as her book and record show that she picks and chooses “atrocities” and “genocide” with exquisitely fine selectivity. Dobbs mentions that Power is “haunted” by her failure to do more at the time of the Srebrenica Massacre in Bosnia in 1995. These were “worthy” victims and this attention to Bosnia and Srebrenica was and remains well attuned to the U.S. foreign policy agenda.

The index of Power’s book does not list Indonesia, South Africa, Vietnam, or Guatemala. While she does mention Iraq and Saddam’s crimes, she fails to discuss the “sanctions of mass destruction” that caused the deaths of more than 25 times the number of Bosnian Muslim civilians killed in the 1990s Bosnian wars (which include Srebrenica and to which Power devotes concentrated attention). As regards Indonesia in East Timor, where, again, many more were killed than in Bosnia, she says that the United States simply “turned away.” This is extremely misleading, as President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited Jakarta immediately prior to the Indonesia invasion of East Timor and clearly did not veto it. Arms flowed from the United States to the killers before and after the invasion and U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, bragged in his memoirs of having prevented any UN intervention to stop the genocide. 

Dobbs mentions that another Obama foreign policy adviser, Susan Rice, is also “haunted”—by the experience of the failure of the Clinton administration to intervene to stop the genocide in Rwanda—and she swore that “if I ever faced such a crisis again I would come down on the side of dramatic action.” Samantha Power also stated that, as in East Timor, the United States once again “stood on the sidelines,” as genocide developed in Rwanda. These are twin lies and liars.

The United States supported Paul Kagame and the Rwanda Patriotic Front in its invasion of Rwanda from Uganda starting in 1990. It helped cover up Kagame’s and the RPF’s shooting down of the plane carrying President Habyarimana on April 6, 1994. This event triggered the massive killings (ICTR prosecutor Louise Arbour, under instruction from U.S. officials, cancelled any further investigation of this shootdown once the ICTR’s chief investigator Michael Hourigan, found Kagame likely guilty). Knowing that Kagame had the upper hand militarily, the Clinton administration supported a cutback in UN peacekeeping forces in April 1994 as the killing was escalating.

A State Department memo of September 1994 indicated that Kagame’s forces were killing 10,000 Hutu civilians per month, but this did not interfere with the Clinton administration’s ongoing support of the killing regime, and it failed to “haunt” Rice or Power. So all of Clinton’s belated apologies for failure to intervene are hypocritical lies, Power and Rice are supportive liars and de facto apologists for genocide and Michael Dobbs is a protector of the hypocrites, lies and liars, and policies of genocide support (for details, see Herman and Peterson, The Politics of Genocide).

Dobbs mentions that Elie Wiesel (who spoke at the Holocaust Memorial Museum on April 23) was also haunted and had been “unable to sleep” because of the bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia. Isn’t it remarkable that Power and Wiesel have not been “haunted by” or “unable to sleep” at what happened to the Mayan Indians of Guatemala in the 1980s and what has been going on in nearby Honduras since 2009 or those 500,000 Iraqi children whose deaths via the “sanctions of mass destruction” were said to be “worth it” by Madeleine Albright in 1996? The power of selective indignation is great, but so is the payoff. Here is Power, a professor at Harvard, an adviser to Obama, now chair of an Atrocities Prevention Board, and celebrated here by Michael Dobbs.

Elie Wiesel also contributes to Dobb’s understanding by calling attention to the fact that “Bashar Assad is ‘still in power’ in Syria alongside ‘number one Holocaust Denier’ Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.” Of course, the number one ethnic cleanser of the current period, Benjamin Netanyahu, is still in power in Israel, and the number one (and only) global free-fire-zone-bomber was standing right next to Wiesel in the Holocaust Memorial Museum. But this is the land of hypocrisy and home of the knave, so it all fits together.

Dobbs tells us that a main lesson of Power’s “seminal” book is that “U.S. policy-makers are adept at calling for action to stop ‘genocide in the abstract while simultaneously opposing American involvement at the moment’.” Actually, the United States has often been involved “at the moment” in carrying out genocide directly, as in Vietnam (maybe 3 million killed, versus 100,000 in Bosnia), the “sanctions of mass destruction” in Iraq (maybe 1 million), and in Indonesia, East Timor, and the DRC (through support of murderous clients Kagame and Museveni). The United States has also been a crucial participant in the slow genocide being carried out by Israel in Palestine where there has been a long-standing effort to get the untermenschen to die or migrate and to crush them as a people and a culture. So Americans are deeply involved “at every moment,” but with morally bereft tools like Obama, Power, Rice and Wiesel, with a depoliticized and brainwashed public, and with pathetic hacks like Michael Dobbs to spew forth the party lines, reality can be stood on its head.


Edward S. Herman is an economist, media critic, and author. His latest book is The Politics of Genocide (with David Peterson).