If We Can Let Syria Burn, Have We Learned Anything at All from Rwanda?

The legacy of genocide and why humanitarian intervention still needs a president that's compelled to act.


When we think about Rwanda today, it is not the genocide that began 20 years ago that we are likely to recall, but the much more recent incidents of repression which President Paul Kagame is alleged to have perpetrated against opponents at home and abroad, and his exploitation of the chaos in next-door Congo. Kagame has undermined Rwanda’s reputation, and its victim status.

We should not, however, allow Kagame’s misdeeds to obscure the extraordinary achievement of the Rwandan people over the last two decades — thanks in part to Kagame himself. At an event at Yale University commemorating the mass killing, I had a long conversation with Yvette Rugasaguhunga, a Rwandan diplomat who as a Tutsi teenager had survived the killings by hiding with a succession of Hutu families, almost all of whom were at the same time actively slaughtering her own people. Her father, her brother, and her grandparents were murdered.

Yvette described all this with great composure until the conversation turned to the accusations against Kagame, at which point she furiously interjected that in the months and years after the genocide she had been so full of hate that had anyone given her a weapon, she would have happily killed any Hutu she came across. She mastered her own vindictive rage, she said, only because Kagame demanded that Tutsis seek reconciliation, in part through the use of local gacaca courts which turned the whole country into a sort of truth and reconciliation commission.

Kagame has earned the right to continue drawing attention to his role in preventing reciprocal massacres, as he did in a recent interview in Foreign Affairs. The Rwandan atrocities were bigger and far more intensely personal than those in the Balkans; but Rwandans have moved past them much more effectively than Bosnians have. No doubt that has a good deal to do with the dominant position Tutsis now enjoy in Rwanda, and the enforced meekness of Hutus; but it would not have been possible without an ethos of reconciliation.

This is an essential part of the legacy of the genocide in Rwanda. What about the international legacy? Asked whether Rwanda could happen again, one of the panelists at the Yale event, Edward C. Luck, the former special advisor on atrocities to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, pointed out that the shame over the failure there, and the rise of norms like the "responsibility to protect," has made both the U.N. and states react much more quickly to incipient atrocities than they did 20 years ago. In the Central African Republic, to take one current example, a combination of French and African Union forces have so far prevented the mutual massacres of Muslims and Christians from dissolving into wholesale slaughter. That is a success, if a very tenuous one.

The world really is better at preventive action, if still not very good. Today, the U.N. peacekeeping department would probably not bury a desperate telegram warning of an imminent pogrom, as it did in the case of Rwanda. But the fact remains that "another Rwanda," if that expression refers not just to genocides but to coordinated programs of mass murder, is happening right now in Syria, and there is no reason to hope it will stop any time soon.

Rwanda is not the most useful analogy to help us think about the world’s failure to respond to the atrocities in Syria. The Rwandan genocide might have been prevented by decisive action beforehand, but the killings happened so fast that, once they began, the world’s hesitation doomed the Tutsi people. On the other hand, the mayhem in Bosnia, as in Syria, was carried out by a national army and paramilitaries as a matter of state policy, which made it harder to prevent. And both went on for years, and thus offered outsiders innumerable opportunities to intervene.

President Bill Clinton desperately did not want to intervene in Bosnia. He feared the political costs of a failed intervention in the aftermath of the "Black Hawk Down" fiasco in Somalia in 1993. And he had convinced himself that Balkan blood feuds were immemorial and incurable, and thus that any deeper American engagement was likely to fail. Clinton worked to bring about a negotiated solution, hoping all the while that Europe would act. Unwilling to make a credible threat of force, the administration "applied a combination of half-measures and bluster that didn’t work," as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright writes in her memoirs.

President Barack Obama has also said repeatedly that the situation is Syria is hopelessly intractable. In a recent interview, Obama insisted that it’s "a false notion that somehow we were in a position to, through a few selective strikes, prevent the kind of hardship that we’ve seen in Syria." Of course, no one has suggested that "a few selective strikes" would have toppled the Syrian regime. Rather, in 2012, several of his most senior advisors, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus, proposed a much more serious effort to arm Syria’s moderate rebels. Obama declined to act, just as Bill Clinton did until the killings in Srebrenica finally forced his hand. Obama, too, has hoped for a negotiated solution which has never had a ghost of a chance of succeeding without the threat of force.

We can’t know for sure what’s going on inside the president’s head. What we do know is that he delayed acting as long as he could after his own Srebrenica moment — the chemical attacks which killed 1,200 Syrians and thus crossed his "red line" — and then seized on a Russian offer to remove the regime’s chemical weapons rather than launch airstrikes. Obama is convinced that a deeper American engagement will fail, and he knows that such a failure would have grave political costs. Put otherwise, his acute awareness of the costs has predisposed him to listen to advisors who say that intervention of any kind won’t work. The number of the dead in Syria now exceeds 150,000, with the regime in Damascus rolling barrel bombs out of helicopters into civilian areas. Obama has chosen not to destroy those helicopters with airstrikes, or to equip rebels with the capacity to shoot them down.

And yet this is the president who has established an Atrocities Prevention Board and who has surrounded himself with leading advocates of the responsibility to protect, including Susan Rice and Samantha Power. Obama did, of course, agree, if reluctantly, to join the NATO coalition assembled to prevent the expected mass killings in Libya were Muammar al-Qaddafi to have taken Benghazi in 2011. Yet Syria has proved too hard, as Bosnia did for Clinton until Srebrenica.

What, then, is the legacy of Rwanda? First, that reconciliation is possible even after the most horrific violence. Second, that the world has now developed mechanisms, and diplomatic reflexes, that may be deployed to prevent violence from exploding into mass killing. Regional organizations like the African Union are now prepared in some cases to send troops to quell such violence. But when the killing can be curbed only by the kind of force the West can bring to bear, the world will look to the United States, which means, to the president. And a sad legacy of Rwanda that we witness now in Washington is a president that looks at his options much more skeptically than advocates of action, including those in the White House — both because he is fully aware of the kinks and weak spots of every plan, and because he fears the costs of failure. He will act only when the probability of success is very high.

The price of failure will remain prohibitively high so long as voters feel little urgency about stopping atrocities abroad. If, on the other hand, broad publics, and not just newspaper columnists and political opponents, clamor for some kind of intervention, the president’s political calculus will change. But no leader can wait for public opinion on so agonizing an issue to change by itself. We need a president brave enough to explain to Americans why it is profoundly in their own interest, as well as humanity’s, to act in such dire settings.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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