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.