“I know it when I see it,” Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about obscenity. And there’s no good way of stopping it, he might have added. We can say the same for genocide. The United Nations defines it as “the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part.”
But once we see it, what can we do about it? asks the provocative Israeli cinematographer-director Dror Moreh in a bracing new documentary, “The Corridors of Power,” debuting Dec. 2 on Showtime.
The skillful film portrays a dismal reality and is a horrifying and shaming tour of the killing fields of the 20th and early 21st centuries, from Auschwitz to Cambodia, Kosovo to Libya to Iraq to Syria, making the point repeatedly that good will is not enough. Interspersed with the images are interviews with U.S. policy makers, asked to analyze U.S. failures to respond adequately. While the interviews are in the halls of power, the camera takes us close to the atrocities and the inhumanity—a dead baby lying in the Turkish surf, bodies hacked to death along the road in Rwanda, bunches of corpses floating down a river like logs, chemical attack victims in Syria frothing in convulsions; Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, dragged in terror, tortured, bathed in blood, then left lying dead on a mattress. Moreh almost demands of us: Do not turn away. Silence is complicity. Evil begets evil.
Vladimir Putin makes a cameo appearance in 1999, months before he ascended to the Russian presidency, objecting to one of the few times that the United States finally did intervene militarily to stop a genocide, in the Balkans. President Bill Clinton had won support in March 1999 for a NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavian Serbs, who had been slaughtering people in the Muslim province of Kosovo (following their murderous rampages in Bosnia seven years earlier). The Kremlin protested and Putin ironically called for adherence to U.N. principles.
“The tragedy is that a group of states is attempting to change the international world order that formed after WWII,” Putin said. “The United Nations has been excluded from solving one of the most urgent conflicts of recent times.” Later in Chechnya, Syria, and Ukraine, of course, Putin couldn’t care less about such scruples. Analysts have said that the 2022 invasion of Ukraine was in part Putin’s payback for the NATO bombings triggered by Kosovo.
At the outset, the film features how U.S. officials in World War II opted not to authorize high risk bombing raids on Nazi death camps. “Detailed information about what was happening in the concentration camps was already available to the Allied forces,” narrative captions tell us over an aerial view of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Camp partially obscured by clouds. “Not a single bomb was dropped on the rail lines leading to the extermination camps or the crematoriums.” (Moreh fails to mention countervailing arguments that the raids posed unacceptable risks to bomber crews and the air command’s decision to concentrate on German infrastructure to shorten the war.) The U.N. Convention on Genocide was adopted in 1948, and two words became the focus of future action: “Never again.”
But it came again all too soon.
Strangely and craftily after that opening, the director has chosen two questionable authorities to reflect on the limits of governments to deal with genocide, Paul Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the deeply flawed U.S. invasion of Iraq, and Henry Kissinger, President Richard M. Nixon’s national security advisor and later secretary of state during the Vietnam War era.
“When I think about the Holocaust and what came after World War II ended, and how many times people said, ‘Never again, never again,’ and it happens over and over again,” says Wolfowitz. “I can tell you for sure too often there are cases where we make a mockery of this idea of ‘never again.’” Wolfowitz, as deputy secretary of defense under George W. Bush, is sometimes called the architect of the 2003 Iraq War, in which hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and military, and more than 7,000 U.S. troops and 8,000 contractors died.
Then Kissinger speaks. “If you look at human history, you have to say that genocide has occurred much too frequently. But you cannot simply say the United States has an obligation by military force to oppose evil wherever it exists in the world.” Kissinger, a principal player and strategist during the Vietnam War was harshly criticized, among other things, for his role in the carpet bombing of Cambodia in 1969-1970 and for hiding the fact from Congress. Estimates said that between 150,000 and 500,000 Cambodian civilians died.
Wolfowitz and Kissinger, surprising interlocutors to open a 135-minute examination of U.S. attempts to respond to genocide, never appear again in the film. Director Moreh appears to be saying that responsibility can be parceled out across the political spectrum. Good intentions are not good enough.
Moreh has a knack for landing good interviews and asking tough questions. In one of his previous works, The Gatekeepers, he interviewed six former heads of Shinbet, the Israeli internal security service, who candidly related the failure of Israel’s Palestinian policies. This time, the focus is on the failures of U.S. presidents and policy makers to get it right.
Certainly, there are no easy answers. It is A Problem From Hell, the title of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Samantha Power, whose testimony here serves as the structural and moral backbone of the film. Power, President Obama’s trusted advisor, and one-time U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is presently the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Her memories of dealing with war crimes are deep and seared into her face. Her regrets are many, and she is not alone; the many players interviewed by Moreh, or featured in file footage, appear alternately defensive, confounded, and apologetic.
Pleas to Stop Crimes Ignored
In one searing segment, Powers, in her role at the United Nations, begs the Syrians and the Russians to halt the killing of civilians in Aleppo, Syria. At that point, Bashir al-Assad had ignored President Obama’s warning not to use poison gas. In November-December 2016 more than 440 civilians—probably many more—had been killed in a series of Russian-led bombing attacks on Aleppo.
“Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later. Halabja, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and, now, Aleppo,” Power said on Dec. 13, 2016 at the U.N. Security Council. She called out Russia, Iran (which supported the Syrian regime), and the Syrian government itself. Her words overlay images of dead bodies, half-buried under rubble, the wounded, and the distraught survivors of some “950 new distinct impact sites consistent with the detonation of large high explosive bombs across the area during the month,” according to Human Rights Watch.
“Is there literally nothing that can shame you?” Power demanded of the perpetrators. “Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit? Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?”
Testimony throughout the film is startling, enraging, sometimes haunting: Former leaders, such as George H.W. Bush, George Shultz, Madeleine Albright, and Colin Powell are featured. So are key officials like Obama national security aide Ben Rhodes and James Baker, Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff and secretary of state for George H. W. Bush. Sandy Berger, White House national security advisor under President Bill Clinton, acknowledges that in his first years Clinton was confronted with foreign policy challenges without sufficient foreign policy chops to make independent choices. Rwanda paralyzed him. Moreh repeatedly asks the ultimate question: Why did you fail? The answers are often testy
Confronting Colin Powell
Moreh also revisits Colin Powell’s discredited, largely false speech before the U.N. on February 5, 2003, in which he said that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction [it did not] and was preparing for war [it was not]. An interviewer for “Corridors of Power” confronts Powell on the issue. What, he asks, were the real reasons Bush went to war? “Wasn’t it above all [the United States] would show the world that nobody can mess with us, and we will, by force, show them,” the questioner asks.
“You’re putting words into my mouth,” Powell answers angrily. “What you’re saying is: weren’t we just a bunch of idiots who just wanted to show the world how tough we were. And the answer is no.”
Alas, Moreh has no answers on how to prevent another genocide erupting somewhere in the world. He seems to agree with Anthony Lake, national security advisor under President Clinton, that it’s just human nature for some to turn savage under certain conditions. And there are no easy ways to stop them.
“There will always be genocides or war crimes because human nature hasn’t changed,” says Lake. “The democratic institutions that were put in place 70 years ago are all under assault and in too many countries they are losing, including the values themselves.”
Originally published in SpyTalk