05/13/2013 11:51 am ET Updated Jul 13, 2013

Differences Between Rwanda and Syria Highlight Challenges of Intervention

In an essay published in the Washington Post, former State Department official and Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter evokes the humanitarian disaster of Rwanda to push for U.S. intervention in Syria in the wake of the use of chemical weapons by the regime. For Slaughter, this violation of international norms demands a forceful U.S. response, as President Obama seemed to imply in his discussion of "red lines." She parallels the Clinton administration's public deliberations about genocide in Rwanda with President Obama's seeming reticence to follow through on evidence of chemical weapons use with decisive action. The problem with this analogy is that the Rwandan genocide is fundamentally different from the complex regional conflict underway in Syria and given the potential stakes for the United States and its limited capacity to achieve desired outcomes, the cautious and prudent policy response of the Obama administration remains preferable, if not ideal.

First, despite the violence, depravity and human suffering they share, Syria and Rwanda are very different conflicts. Rwanda was a purely "humanitarian" crisis. Vital U.S. national interests were not engaged in a communal conflict in Africa. This does not mean that more could not have been done; it simply means that in the absence of any meaningful action by the international community -- most notably the United Nations -- there was little impetus for America to intervene unilaterally.

To provide a brief background: after a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down on April 6, 1994, a meticulously planned and brutally efficient mass-killing campaign was unleashed in the small central African country of Rwanda. Over the next three months, approximately 800,000 Rwandans, mostly ethnic Tutsis, would be murdered -- many by machete -- by their neighbors or vicious roaming militias, supported, directed and coordinated by the Rwandan army and government, both of which had been thoroughly infiltrated by Hutu extremists. Rwanda's President Juvenal Habyarimana, a moderate Hutu, was returning from Tanzania and planned to implement a peace deal to bring an end to a three-year conflict between the Rwandan government and the (Tutsi) Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Investigations later concluded that Hutu extremists in the Rwandan military were responsible for shooting down Habyarimana's plane. On April 7, immediately following the assassination, the genocide was launched. The killings would continue until the RPF defeated the Rwandan government forces and drove the Hutu extremists into the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, contributing to a simmering regional conflict that continues to this day.

In 2004, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who was head of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations at the time of the genocide, lamented, "The international community failed Rwanda and that must leave us all with a sense of bitter regret." Annan's statement is correct. In hindsight, what is particularly tragic about Rwanda is that it seems that even a small-scale intervention could have saved lives and made a real impact in stopping the violence. The international community failed, and as a member of that community, the United States may bear some culpability but the burden of the failure cannot be placed on the U.S. alone. While the Clinton administration's contortions about genocide only look worse nearly two decades later, the reality was that there was very little support for an intervention at the time within or outside the administration. The country was only months removed from the disaster of 18 dead American soldiers in the streets of Mogadishu, and another humanitarian mission in Africa had few advocates.

The second major difference, directly tied to the question of national interests, relates to U.S. capabilities. Clearly, the Middle East is a region of critical importance, and this ongoing civil war has become part of a larger intensifying rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional leadership. U.S. allies are on the front lines and should receive U.S. support. Tellingly Jordan, Turkey, and Israel support a negotiated diplomatic solution rather than U.S. intervention. Hezbollah is supporting the Assad regime while Jihadists affiliated with Al Qaeda are fighting for the opposition. Finally, Russia continues to support Assad, complicating matters in the United Nations. In short, there are many actors with divergent interests involved in the Syrian conflict and the United States cannot simply achieve desired outcomes and alter the existing realities of the region through force of will.

Having overseen the winding down of two wars, and focused on the task of economic recovery at home, there is sound reasoning for President Obama to proceed carefully and cautiously. The conflict in Syria is complex and the end state is unclear, but one need look no further than neighboring Lebanon and its fractious and violent history to see what the worst could look like. Similarly, one need only look east to Iraq to see the limitations of American power.

Professor Slaughter's advocacy for intervention in Syria clearly comes from a strong sense of U.S. values and a deep concern for the potential damage to America's image as a champion of human rights around the globe. It is true that the United States is not just another nation. At the same time, we cannot do everything or we risk eroding our position in the world and further limiting our capabilities to protect and maintain what is truly important. The ideals we share certainly influence how we interact with the world, but when key U.S. interests are at stake we should be prudent and, if necessary, cold and calculating in the commitment of American blood and treasure.

Since our founding, there has existed a fundamental tension at the heart of United States foreign policy between hard-headed concerns about national interest, and more idealistic, morally-shaped obligations to American values. In attempting to construct a policy that effectively addresses the conflict in Syria, the Obama administration must focus first on U.S. national interests and the likely impact and consequences of its actions on those interests.