A problem from hell for the 2010s

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.

It is probably true that the stakes are higher in Syria than they were in Rwanda. The risks of regional war existed in both cases, as witnessed by the evidence of Rwanda’s deep implication in the violence that continues to ravage the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. But in the absence of powerful regional actors with nuclear arms or aspirations or a direct standoff between permanent members of the Security Council, the ongoing conflagration at the heart of Africa is portrayed as a sideshow in comparison to Syria.

At the same time, Syrian actors are undoubtedly little less attuned to signals than the Rwandans were two decades ago:

Many analysts and historians fault Washington and other western capitals not just for failing to support the token force of overwhelmed UN peacekeepers but for failing to speak out more forcefully during the slaughter. Some of the Hutu extremists orchestrating events might have heeded such warnings, they have suggested.

And the signals they are getting continue to be largely permissive. It is easy to understand why, but it is also clear that the cost of not intervening continues to mount. Meanwhile, the latest report from the UN Commission of Inquiry finds heightened levels of brutality on both sides in what is now becoming both an increasingly sectarian and regional conflict in light of the Lebanese Hizbollah’s role in the fall of Qusayr.

At this stage, the best we can hope for is that after further unjustifiable suffering and loss of life, a chastened President Obama may yet have the opportunity to go to a free but damaged Damascus in order to apologize for not having acted earlier, following the footsteps of President Clinton in Kigali in 1998. However, under the current circumstances, even such a Pyrrhic victory is by no means guaranteed.

9 responses to “A problem from hell for the 2010s

  1. On the lighter side, here is Jon Stewart giving some context to the Syria discussion by extracting lessons learned from the Iraq invasion:


  2. Robin Yassin-Kassab

    i wrote more after the ‘not writing about syria’ piece. Quite a lot more. Plus I’m witing a novel about it.

  3. Robin’s above comment refers to the fact that the original text of this post put words in his mouth. After initially apologizing, I have now removed the objectionable part of my post on Syria entirely. While I have no illusions about the influence my blogging is likely to have on international policy debates regarding Syria, I am also aware that I can at least draw more attention to those whose blogging should rightfully influence these debates. In that sense, pointlessly antagonizing someone I consider to be one of the most thoughtful voices on Syria these days is a bit of an own-goal. Gives me something to reflect on as a blogger. Should you, as readers, want something more substantive to reflect on, allow me commend Robin’s blog: http://qunfuz.com/

  4. With Susan Rice tapped to lead the National Security Council, it seems that Samantha Power, the author of a Pulitzer Prize winning study on US foreign policy in the face of post-Cold War atrocities (“A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide”) is likely to go to the UN as the US Ambassador there. Full circle, as described in UN Dispatch:

    “She will represent the USA at a key institution of foreign policy — the Security Council– as it is in the midst of failing to adequately respond to the crisis in Syria. This is the largest mass atrocity event in the world today, and it is only getting worse. At the Security Council, she will have a front row view to diplomacy at the Security Council as it is stuck in a rut, with Russia abjectly opposed to the West’s view of Syria and vice-versa.”


  5. The Clinton comparison has now become irresistible by virtue of Samantha Powers’ ascension to the UN Ambassadorship. Here is Aaron David Miller at Foreign Policy on how Syria is worse than Rwanda but the US will probably end up intervening anyway:

    “Obama has avoided intervention not because he’s insensitive, incompetent, or even uninterested. He has done so because his options aren’t just bad, they’re terrible. Syria is already a disaster, but a ham-handed intervention could make matters worse, certainly for America.”


  6. Interesting blog Rod, I should come here more often.

    I’ve been contemplating this problem for a couple of years now, like everyone else, and I’ve defaulted towards inaction. I simultaneously hold contradictory thoughts, that the killing is a terrible human tragedy, and we have no good options to make the situation any better. In fact, it’s my fear that we’re just as likely to make things worse, with no means of measuring the probabilities, that lead me to support doing nothing. No matter how much I dislike it.

    In thinking about this post, I went and looked up Doublethink, from 1984. Check out this quote, and how aptly it applies to being a US president:

    “If one is to rule, and to continue ruling, one must be able to dislocate the sense of reality. For the secret of rulership is to combine a belief in one’s own infallibility with the power to learn from past mistakes.”

  7. Robin Yassin-Kassab

    just seen your apologetic comment, rhodri. nothing to apologise for, and i’m certainly not antagonised.

  8. @ Todd – sounds like parenting, actually! I would agree with you but I remember the same sense of despair and paralysis about Bosnia in the 1990s and the astonishment that everyone felt when some good old fashioned policy calculation and diplomatic hustle got a peace agreement to stick at Dayton (read Holbrook’s book on that, it is truly amazing what they achieved, warts and all). The difference is of course that the regional element is so much more precarious and loaded in Syria. Bosnia is still a healthy reminder that comprehensible political interests are primarily at stake rather than primordial incompatibilities

    @Robin, thanks and great pictures on your Facebook site. Good to recall that this is about human beings rather than categories.


  9. Pingback: Cleaning up the maps? Portents of unilateral partition in Syria | TerraNullius

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