At Large

The Rwanda Legacy

It is a thankless job, walking the global beat.

By 9.6.13

In 1994, tribal tensions between Rwanda’s Hutus and Tutsis exploded into violence. For 100 days the slaughter of Tutsi men, women, and children continued unabated. The Free World, feeling complacent over the end of the Cold War, scarcely noticed.

Bill Clinton would later say that doing nothing during what is now known as the Rwandan Genocide was the biggest regret of his presidency.

The Rwandan legacy haunts American presidents to this day. It is the main impetus for the Obama Administration’s desire to intervene in the Syrian Civil War. President Obama, who won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, especially does not want to be known as the Nobel Prize laureate who did nothing to prevent another genocide.

The 2011 U.S. intervention in Libya occurred for much the same reasons. The Obama Administration didn't need the red line of chemical weapons to intervene in Gaddafi's overthrow. It needed only a credible report of a slaughter of the innocents.

Naturally the administration does not say any of this outright. Instead it uses code words carefully designed to win the public’s approval: “We don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.” “It is our moral obligation to act.” All these reasons harken back to Rwanda, when the U.S. was supposedly on the wrong side of history and failed in its moral obligation to act.

This is not to say all of our leaders share this burden of guilt. The neoconservatives demand intervention in Syria for their usual reasons: they want to build democratic nations abroad in order to make America safer at home.

And the theocratic Wilsonians still believe America, the shining city on the hill, was called by God to make the world safe for democracy. Still others, like Sen. John McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, simply want to damage Iran by taking out its main ally.

AS THE U.S. PREPARES to go it alone -- or nearly alone -- Americans may well wonder why other nations do not suffer the same guilt over Rwanda that our leaders feel? Why has the British Parliament resolutely denied getting involved in Syria? Have the British people no sense of guilt? No collective memory?

The British, doubtless, feel they were duped by the Americans into a pointless war in Iraq. They will be sitting out America’s oversea interventions for years to come. Other nations, less nationalistic than the U.S., are more open to the United Nations and the World Court handling such affairs. Without a United Nations’ resolution, they, too, are happy to sit this one out. Besides, European and Asian countries do not share the same sense of duty that America feels. As the world’s policeman, it was supposedly America’s duty to intervene in Rwanda.

It is a thankless job, walking the global beat.

There is one exception. France has linguistic ties to Rwanda. It, too, suffers guilt over the Rwandan Genocide. It, too, is gearing up to intervene in Syria.

What of the American people? Weary of Middle Eastern conflict after conflict, they are overwhelming against intervening in the Syrian Civil War. My little newspaper in central Missouri, indicative of where the bulk of U.S. military casualties would come from in a full-out, boots-on-the-ground Syrian intervention, asked readers whether the U.S. should intervene. The respondents were markedly opposed to intervention. The Washington elites have simply decided to dismiss their concerns. Apparently the common people lack a proper sense of guilt over Rwanda. We are too parochial in our concerns, more interested in our own backyards, our own families, than tribal conflicts in east Africa or Islamic countries, where despots wage war against Islamic extremists.

Hopefully a few insignificant smart bombs dropped on Damascus will assuage Mr. Obama and the Washington elite’s guilt. Hopefully, this act of war will not occasion terrorist reprisals from Syria and its allies on U.S. or Israeli targets. The main thing, however, is that the folks in Washington can sleep well at night knowing we did something.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.