A Pattern of Inactivity

In October of 1993 in Somalia, eighteen US lives were lost in what is now called the Battle of Mogadishu.  The aftermath of this event influenced humanitarian aid and UN and US involvement, or lack thereof, in other foreign conflicts and humanitarian territories, including Haiti and Rwanda.   After these lives were lost in the two-day firefight, the US decided to pull its troops out of the conflict because it was deemed too dangerous.  Because of this withdrawal, many critics said, “the U.S. military intervention in Somalia was, at best, a setback in America’s efforts to define its role in a new world order at a time of growing regional conflicts.” (Mark Fineman, LA Times).

Merely a week after these events in Mogadishu had occurred, their ripples were being felt throughout the world.  In 1990, the first democratic presidential elections were held in Haiti, and President Aristide was elected.  However, in 1991, General Cédras took power in a successful coup carried out by the Haitian military.  They began torturing and executing pro-Aristide citizens.  The UN went into Haiti with the goal of providing witness to these violent acts.  On October 11, the USS Harlan County was supposed to dock in Haiti, bringing American soldiers to help the efforts there to return Aristide to rightful power.  A mob of macoutes, those who opposed Aristide, gathered on the dock, yelling, “Haiti, Somalia!  Haiti, Somalia!”  President Clinton took this as a credible threat to American lives and ordered the USS Harlan County to turn around.  “The problem is not military; it’s psychological.  Fear ripples from Somalia through Washington to Haiti.  A few punks with small guns and big mouths and the world’s only superpower is in retreat.” (Thomson, Cain et al 171).   What does this say about the value of American lives as compared to the lives of other counties’ citizens?  Thomson has something to say to this as well: “We just showed Haitians that our lives are more valuable than theirs.  The logic of the mission was ours, not theirs, and so is that logic of our retreat.  ‘Tell us the truth and we will seek justice’ was our idea.  ‘It’s too dangerous and we must evacuate’ is our privilege.  Neither applies to the Haitians.  A ship with soldiers arrives at the dock and exits the dock.  Haitians have no exit… harm is exactly what we’ve done, identifying the next victims for the assassins running Haiti.”  (Thomson, Cain et al 174).  The UN and US abandonment of Somalia was a precursor to Haiti, and that pattern continued into Rwanda.

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Rwanda, 1994.  3 months.  800,000 people killed.  From April 6 to July 4, the world stood by while nearly a million Tutsi rebelling against the Hutu government were brutally murdered.  Why was no action taken to stop this atrocity?  The UN and US cannot feign ignorance on this count.  On April 29, 1994, two months before outside forces were deployed in Rwanda to stop the genocide, the US Department of State wrote an Intelligence Assessment stating, “The plan appears to have been to wipe out any RPF [Tutsi] ally or potential ally, and thus raise the costs and limit the possibility of an RPF/Tutsi takeover… No end to the unprecedented bloodshed is yet in sight.”  If we knew what was happening in Rwanda, why was nothing done?  US troops were already on the ground!  No time was wasted in safely evacuating US soldiers from the danger.  Ken Cain sums up what happened in Rwanda and why so many people are upset with how the situation was handled:

“The UN was here when the massacres started, twenty-five hundred troops.  UN Headquarters in New York knew it was being planned, they had filed and faxes and informants and they sat in their offices, consulted each other, and ate long lunches.  Most UN forces ran to the airport, they couldn’t get out fast enough.  This is not a case in which the UN failed to send troops to stop genocide.  An armed, predeployed UN force evacuated as soon as it started…Tanks and supply planes and helicopters and soldiers sat useless and stationary for six months in Somalia, two hours away by C-130, and then drunk peasants armed with machetes and lists of names killed 800,000 civilians in Rwanda.  And we evacuated.” (Cain, Cain et al 209)

Looking at how the UN and US responded to situations in Somalia and Haiti in the years preceding the Rwanda genocide can give us some insight into why such inaction was ordered.  In present day, how can these events from nearly twenty years ago help the US decide its involvement in the Syrian conflict?

Bashar Al-Assad is the current president of the totalitarian Syrian government.   Beginning in March 2011, Syrian protestors were brutally attacked by their own Syrian military, starting with batons and ranging up to tanks.  In December 2011, the UN High Commission for Human Rights put the death toll at 5,000.  What was the UN’s response to this political murder spree?  A UN Press Release in June of 2011 stated, “We are particularly alarmed at the apparently systematic and deliberate attacks” and, “We remind the Government of Syria of its ongoing responsibility to protect its population.”  The extent of a threat against Syria and Assad in the press release was a warning, saying, “The Special Advisers urge the Government of Syria… to refrain from further attacks against the civilian population.  If it is found that human rights violations or crimes have been committed, those responsible must be held accountable.” (Smette, UN Press Release).  None of these statements have the teeth necessary to evoke a response from Syria.  This lack of action in a state where the government is attacking its own people can be seen as a continuation of the United States’ initial inactivity in foreign crises in Somalia, Haiti, and Rwanda.

"Dropped a strongly-worded resolution.  With any luck, Al-Assad will get a nasty papercut."

“Dropped a strongly-worded resolution. With any luck, Al-Assad will get a nasty papercut.”

Although this pattern is understandable, I do not think it is commendable.  Through the UN Responsibility to Protect initiative, I believe it is the duty of the international community to do more than throw meaningless pieces of paper at the Syrian government, asking them to stop and reminding them of their responsibility to their citizens.  I have not been in the room where these decisions are made, and, most likely, there are other factors to consider.  However, loss of life trumps economic concerns and ally ties in my book.

Aaron David Miller argues that US intervention in Syria is not feasible at this time.  “But right now, the political, practical, and psychological obstacles standing in the way of effective unilateral or collective military interventions are just too great. Additional sanctions, clandestine military and intelligence support for the opposition; and a contact group on Syria to orchestrate political and economic pressure will have to do.”  To be frank, I think he’s suggesting that we run scared and take the easy way out through weak condemnation tactics.  Looking at our experiences in Somalia, Haiti, and Rwanda, you can see that if a military power had intervened, mass crimes against humanity could have been prevented or at least cut down.

Looking at these conflicts in this light, how long do we wait before we intervene?  Do we intervene?  Where is the line between letting a country settle their own disputes and intervening because the wrong things are being done?  Recently in Turkey, thousands of citizens have been assaulted with teargas and water cannons and arrested for protesting against Prime Minister Tayyip Ergodan.  Turks are protesting many things, among them the authoritarian nature of the Turkish government and their desire for free speech and right to assembly.  Already six people have died as a result of these protests, over seven thousand have been injured, and over three thousand are in jail.

Again, where is the line between staying out of it and intervening?  What should the response to these protests be?  Is it America’s responsibility to intercede in every conflict?  There is a line, somewhere between The World’s Constable and complete neutrality.   I just don’t think anyone really knows where that line is.


Works Cited


Butler, Daren, and Parisa Hafezi. “Dozens Held in Turkey, Silent Protester Goes Viral.” Reuters. Reuters, 18 June 2013. Web. 18 June 2013. <http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/18/us-turkey-protests-idUSBRE9590QA20130618>.

Cain, Kenneth, Heidi Postlewait, and Andrew Thomson. Emergency Sex (and Other Desperate Measures). New York: Hyperion, 2004. Print.

“Crisis in Syria.” International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect. International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, n.d. Web. 18 June 2013. <http://responsibilitytoprotect.org/index.php/crises/crisis-in-syria>.

Dalrymple, Louis. “The World’s Constable.” Cartoon. The Granger Collection. The Granger Collection, n.d. Web. 18 June 2013. <http://www.granger.com/results.asp?image=0008303&screenwidth=1279>.

Fineman, Mark. “It’s Nervous Time as U.S. Troops Pull Out of Somalia : Africa: Most of the Ground Force Will Be Gone by Week’s End. They Leave behind Escalating Chaos and Fear.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 07 Mar. 1994. Web. 18 June 2013. <http://articles.latimes.com/1994-03-07/news/mn-31134_1_ground-force>.

Miller, Aaron David. “Too Many Obstacles Stand in the Way of a Syrian Intervention.” US News. U.S. News & World Report, 14 Feb. 2012. Web. 18 June 2013. <http://www.usnews.com/debate-club/should-the-us-intervene-in-syria-with-military-action/too-many-obstacles-stand-in-the-way-of-a-syrian-intervention>.

Robbins, James. “Intervening in Syria Is Tough, but the Civilian Victims Deserve It.” US News. U.S. News & World Report, 14 Feb. 2012. Web. 18 June 2013. <http://www.usnews.com/debate-club/should-the-us-intervene-in-syria-with-military-action/intervening-in-syria-is-tough-but-the-civilian-victims-deserve-it>.

Sheneman, Drew. Cartoon. Middle East Protest Cartoons. U.S. News & World Report, n.d. Web. 18 June 2013. <http://www.usnews.com/opinion/photos/egypt-protest-cartoons/122>.

“The Genocide in Rwanda.” United Human Rights Council. United Human Rights Council, 26 May 2009. Web. 18 June 2013. <http://www.unitedhumanrights.org/2009/05/the-genocide-in-rwanda>.

“The U.S. and the Genocide in Rwanda 1994: Evidence of Inaction.” The National Security Archive. Ed. William Ferroggiaro. George Washington University, 20 Aug. 2001. Web. 18 June 2013. <http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB53/>.

United Nations. Office of the Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide. Special Advisers of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, Francis Deng, and on the Responsibility to Protect, Edward Luck, on the Situation in Syria. United Nations, 2 June 2011. Web. 18 June 2013. <http://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/adviser/pdf/OSAPG%20statement%20Syria%202%20June%202011%20FINAL%20ENGLISH.pdf>.

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