As the Syrian civil war grinds on, proponents of getting the United States involved have resorted to moral condemnations to goad President Obama into action. "Syria may prove to be Obama's Rwanda," writes Peter Feaver. His Shadow Government colleague Kori Schake accuses President Obama of "moral negligence" for not allowing Syria's lung-eating rebels access to more advanced means of killing Assad's troops (which they promise, cross their hearts, not to turn on their American sponsors, unlike some other people Washington has armed in the past).
As moral cudgels go, the Rwanda charge is useful -- no less a figure than President Clinton has acknowledged, and apologized for, American inaction.
But it raises a couple of big questions: what could the U.S. have reasonably done in Rwanda, and are even those measures enough to help anyone in Syria?
It's easy, with hindsight and a wave of the hand, to insist that there were easy solutions within reach in Rwanda (ignoring the more debatable claim that it was up to the U.S. to "do something" in the first place). But the reality was far more complex. There was a reason that President Clinton didn't act.
Samathana Power, long a critic of America's failure to "do something" in Rwanda, wrote what is likely the definitive look at the policy options available to the administration at the time. Reading it, it's not clear why any of the measures proposed to the Clinton administration would have been decisive and, as Power recounts, there was deep skepticism at the Pentagon about a U.S. commitment there. The suggestions short of direct military intervention -- such as jamming "hate broadcasts" issuing from the country's radio stations and imposing embargoes on arms that weren't instrumental in the killings -- may not have done anything.
"Pentagon planners understood that stopping the genocide required a military solution," Power wrote. "Neither they nor the White House wanted any part in a military solution. Yet instead of undertaking other forms of intervention that might have at least saved some lives, they justified inaction by arguing that a military solution was required."
But this is deceptive. Another way to frame the Clinton administration's logic is that the Pentagon did not want to be drawn into Rwanda's conflict, so it refused to take steps along the road to being drawn into that conflict. All or nothing is not a false choice, because ultimately a "something" choice immediately ensnares the U.S., and the logic of doing more only grows more powerful. In for a dime, in for a dollar.
Now, unlike Rwanda, "other forms of intervention" in Syria consist of riskier policies than jamming radio stations. Things like arming rebel groups and establishing no-fly zones -- i.e. policies that even more explicitly tie the U.S. to the fighting in Syria. But like Rwanda, these interim steps are almost certainly not going to "help" Syria in the humanitarian sense of the word. They will help depose Assad, but absent a means to stabilize a post-Assad Syria, there's liable to be a failed state and all the attendant bloodshed and lawlessness that implies.
It's no surprise that the Obama administration is reluctant to "do something" more than it has already done. It has nothing to do with moral abdication and everything to do with common sense.