by Rhodri C. Williams
In listening to the Obama administration’s latest contortions on the ever-shifting red-line in the face of ever-clearer evidence of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, it is hard not to be transported back in time to another Democratic administration facing another problem from hell twenty years ago.
In 1994, it was President Clinton facing a similarly impossible red line in Rwanda, unable to publicly recognize the brute reality of what was happening on the ground because of the legal responsibility it would entail to intervene. As described here by the Guardian in 2004, it would take a decade for the obvious to become a matter of public record:
President Bill Clinton’s administration knew Rwanda was being engulfed by genocide in April 1994 but buried the information to justify its inaction, according to classified documents made available for the first time. Senior officials privately used the word genocide within 16 days of the start of the killings, but chose not to do so publicly because the president had already decided not to intervene.
Meanwhile, as the assault on moderate Hutus and any Tutsis continued, officials in Washington, D.C. were reduced to the demeaning sophistry of discussing formulations rather than condemning mass-murder. For a sobering reminder, witness the agonies of State Department spokesperson Christine Shelly in April 1994:
In Rwanda, as in Syria, there were tremendous risks associated with intervention and little domestic political support for becoming bogged down in another sticky regional conflict. Indeed, in Syria, commentators are only beginning to awaken to the historical complexities that have shaped the region, providing a more accurate accounting of the difficulties that would face any intervention while at the same time feeding the risk of dismissive ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ narratives of the type that arguably delayed a meaningful international response to the crises in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.