What is widely recognised as the most authoritative study of the United States’ responses to mass killings around the world — from the massacres of Armenians by the Turks a century ago, to the Holocaust, to the more recent Serbian atrocities against Bosnian Muslims and the ethnic cleansing of the Tutsis in Rwanda — concluded that they all shared unfortunate commonalities: “Despite graphic media coverage, American policymakers, journalists and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil.”
“Ahead of the killings, they assume rational actors will not inflict seemingly gratuitous violence. They trust in good-faith negotiations and traditional diplomacy. Once the killings start, they assume that civilians who keep their heads down will be left alone. They urge ceasefires and donate humanitarian aid.”
This is an almost perfect description of how the US has acted over the past two years as it has tried to come up with some kind of policy to end the Syrian regime’s brutal war on its own people.
The author who wrote the scathingly critical history of how the US has generally dithered in the face of genocide and mass killings went on to win a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.
A decade after winning the Pulitzer, that author is now the US ambassador to the United Nations. Her name, of course, is Samantha Power, and she is a longtime, close aide to President Barack Obama. She started working for Obama when he was a largely unknown junior senator from Illinois.
Power called her 610-page study of genocide A Problem from Hell because that’s how then-US Secretary of State Warren Christopher referred to the Bosnian civil war and the unpalatable options available to the US in the early 1990s to halt the atrocities by the Serbs.
One of the US officials who Power took to task in her book is Susan Rice. As the senior State Department official responsible for Africa, Rice did nothing in the face of the genocide unfolding in Rwanda in 1994.
Rice is quoted in the book as suggesting during an interagency conference call that the public use of the word “genocide” to describe what was then going on in Rwanda while doing nothing to prevent it would be unwise and might negatively affect the Democratic Party in upcoming congressional elections.
Rice later told Power she could not recall making this statement, but also conceded that if she had made it, the statement was “completely inappropriate, as well as irrelevant”.
Rice is now Obama’s national security adviser.
In 2012, at Power’s urging, Obama announced the creation of an interagency taskforce to help stamp out atrocities around the world. Called the Atrocities Prevention Board, it was led by Power during its first year. Meanwhile, the body count in Syria kept spiraling upward.
For the past two years, Obama hasn’t wanted to intervene militarily in Syria.
Who would? The country is de facto breaking up into jihadist-run “emirates” and Alawite rump states. It is also the scene of a proxy war that pits al-Qaeda affiliates backed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia against Hezbollah, backed by Iran.
Whoever ultimately prevails in this fight is hardly going to be an ally of the US. It’s an ungodly mess that makes even Iraq in 2006 look good.
It is, in short, a problem from hell.
Power, Rice and Obama today face some of the very same unpalatable choices that have confronted other US national security officials as they tried to prevent mass killings in other distant, war-torn countries.
Doing nothing will not be treated kindly by future historians writing in the same vein as Power.
The issue now in Syria is not simply that al-Assad is massacring his own civilians at an industrial rate, but he is also flagrantly flouting a well-established international norm by this regime’s reported large-scale use of neurotoxins as weapons against civilians.
It seems inconceivable that the US as the guarantor of international order would not respond to this in some manner.
But on what authority? There is scant chance of a UN resolution authorising military action. When she was UN ambassador, Rice skillfully ushered a resolution through the Security Council that authorised military action in Libya in 2011. But Russia and China will almost certainly veto any similar kind of resolution on Syria.
Russia is one of Syria’s few allies, and Russia and China are generally staunchly against any kind of international intervention in the affairs of other countries, no matter how egregious the behaviour of those states might be.
That leaves the possibility of some kind of unilateral action by the US.