If We Can Let Syria Burn, Have We Learned Anything at All from Rwanda?

The legacy of genocide and why humanitarian intervention still needs a president that's compelled to act.

When we think about Rwanda today, it is not the genocide that began 20 years ago that we are likely to recall, but the much more recent incidents of repression which President Paul Kagame is alleged to have perpetrated against opponents at home and abroad, and his exploitation of the chaos in next-door Congo. Kagame has undermined Rwanda's reputation, and its victim status.

We should not, however, allow Kagame's misdeeds to obscure the extraordinary achievement of the Rwandan people over the last two decades -- thanks in part to Kagame himself. At an event at Yale University commemorating the mass killing, I had a long conversation with Yvette Rugasaguhunga, a Rwandan diplomat who as a Tutsi teenager had survived the killings by hiding with a succession of Hutu families, almost all of whom were at the same time actively slaughtering her own people. Her father, her brother, and her grandparents were murdered.

Yvette described all this with great composure until the conversation turned to the accusations against Kagame, at which point she furiously interjected that in the months and years after the genocide she had been so full of hate that had anyone given her a weapon, she would have happily killed any Hutu she came across. She mastered her own vindictive rage, she said, only because Kagame demanded that Tutsis seek reconciliation, in part through the use of local gacaca courts which turned the whole country into a sort of truth and reconciliation commission.

Kagame has earned the right to continue drawing attention to his role in preventing reciprocal massacres, as he did in a recent interview in Foreign Affairs. The Rwandan atrocities were bigger and far more intensely personal than those in the Balkans; but Rwandans have moved past them much more effectively than Bosnians have. No doubt that has a good deal to do with the dominant position Tutsis now enjoy in Rwanda, and the enforced meekness of Hutus; but it would not have been possible without an ethos of reconciliation.

This is an essential part of the legacy of the genocide in Rwanda. What about the international legacy? Asked whether Rwanda could happen again, one of the panelists at the Yale event, Edward C. Luck, the former special advisor on atrocities to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, pointed out that the shame over the failure there, and the rise of norms like the "responsibility to protect," has made both the U.N. and states react much more quickly to incipient atrocities than they did 20 years ago. In the Central African Republic, to take one current example, a combination of French and African Union forces have so far prevented the mutual massacres of Muslims and Christians from dissolving into wholesale slaughter. That is a success, if a very tenuous one.

The world really is better at preventive action, if still not very good. Today, the U.N. peacekeeping department would probably not bury a desperate telegram warning of an imminent pogrom, as it did in the case of Rwanda. But the fact remains that "another Rwanda," if that expression refers not just to genocides but to coordinated programs of mass murder, is happening right now in Syria, and there is no reason to hope it will stop any time soon.

Rwanda is not the most useful analogy to help us think about the world's failure to respond to the atrocities in Syria. The Rwandan genocide might have been prevented by decisive action beforehand, but the killings happened so fast that, once they began, the world's hesitation doomed the Tutsi people. On the other hand, the mayhem in Bosnia, as in Syria, was carried out by a national army and paramilitaries as a matter of state policy, which made it harder to prevent. And both went on for years, and thus offered outsiders innumerable opportunities to intervene.

President Bill Clinton desperately did not want to intervene in Bosnia. He feared the political costs of a failed intervention in the aftermath of the "Black Hawk Down" fiasco in Somalia in 1993. And he had convinced himself that Balkan blood feuds were immemorial and incurable, and thus that any deeper American engagement was likely to fail. Clinton worked to bring about a negotiated solution, hoping all the while that Europe would act. Unwilling to make a credible threat of force, the administration "applied a combination of half-measures and bluster that didn't work," as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright writes in her memoirs.

President Barack Obama has also said repeatedly that the situation is Syria is hopelessly intractable. In a recent interview, Obama insisted that it's "a false notion that somehow we were in a position to, through a few selective strikes, prevent the kind of hardship that we've seen in Syria." Of course, no one has suggested that "a few selective strikes" would have toppled the Syrian regime. Rather, in 2012, several of his most senior advisors, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus, proposed a much more serious effort to arm Syria's moderate rebels. Obama declined to act, just as Bill Clinton did until the killings in Srebrenica finally forced his hand. Obama, too, has hoped for a negotiated solution which has never had a ghost of a chance of succeeding without the threat of force.

We can't know for sure what's going on inside the president's head. What we do know is that he delayed acting as long as he could after his own Srebrenica moment -- the chemical attacks which killed 1,200 Syrians and thus crossed his "red line" -- and then seized on a Russian offer to remove the regime's chemical weapons rather than launch airstrikes. Obama is convinced that a deeper American engagement will fail, and he knows that such a failure would have grave political costs. Put otherwise, his acute awareness of the costs has predisposed him to listen to advisors who say that intervention of any kind won't work. The number of the dead in Syria now exceeds 150,000, with the regime in Damascus rolling barrel bombs out of helicopters into civilian areas. Obama has chosen not to destroy those helicopters with airstrikes, or to equip rebels with the capacity to shoot them down.

And yet this is the president who has established an Atrocities Prevention Board and who has surrounded himself with leading advocates of the responsibility to protect, including Susan Rice and Samantha Power. Obama did, of course, agree, if reluctantly, to join the NATO coalition assembled to prevent the expected mass killings in Libya were Muammar al-Qaddafi to have taken Benghazi in 2011. Yet Syria has proved too hard, as Bosnia did for Clinton until Srebrenica.

What, then, is the legacy of Rwanda? First, that reconciliation is possible even after the most horrific violence. Second, that the world has now developed mechanisms, and diplomatic reflexes, that may be deployed to prevent violence from exploding into mass killing. Regional organizations like the African Union are now prepared in some cases to send troops to quell such violence. But when the killing can be curbed only by the kind of force the West can bring to bear, the world will look to the United States, which means, to the president. And a sad legacy of Rwanda that we witness now in Washington is a president that looks at his options much more skeptically than advocates of action, including those in the White House -- both because he is fully aware of the kinks and weak spots of every plan, and because he fears the costs of failure. He will act only when the probability of success is very high.

The price of failure will remain prohibitively high so long as voters feel little urgency about stopping atrocities abroad. If, on the other hand, broad publics, and not just newspaper columnists and political opponents, clamor for some kind of intervention, the president's political calculus will change. But no leader can wait for public opinion on so agonizing an issue to change by itself. We need a president brave enough to explain to Americans why it is profoundly in their own interest, as well as humanity's, to act in such dire settings.



Is Karzai Actually a Great Leader?

Don't be too quick to condemn Afghanistan's unpredictable president to history's dustbin.

Afghan presidents historically have never gone gently into the night -- they have been variously shot, poisoned, suffocated by pillows, castrated, and hanged. This has never been a job with a comfortable retirement plan.

Except this time, the very first in Afghan history, when President Hamid Karzai -- constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term -- will transfer power to an elected successor. That process is set to begin on April 5, when Afghans go to the polls to elect their first and only post-Taliban leader.

It's a process that could take weeks, and more likely, months if the election goes to a runoff. It will be messy. It will be difficult. It will certainly be dangerous. But it will happen, and nothing -- no amount of complaints, compromises, or Taliban attacks -- can take away the historic import of this ballot.

It's also a testimony to Karzai's survival skills in a country where competing ethnic interests, local powerbrokers, warlords, and foreign (U.S.) overlords need to be accommodated, mollified, and occasionally faced down -- without the delicate edifice crumbling into war, as it has done in the past.

"If Karzai does end his term without dying, that in itself will be historical in Afghan terms," said Graeme Smith, an author and senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Kabul. "He has survived the past decade by holding together a fractious coalition of powerbrokers, many of whom have fought with each other in previous decades. He has managed to keep them on side by cajoling, economic incentives, and all kinds of trickery."

The big question though, after all these years, is whether Karzai was, in the end, a great leader. Can he even hold a candle to the regional heroes he so publicly admires, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan?

Or was he more of a Shah Shujah, a fellow Durrani noble in the 19th century, who handed the famous Kohinoor diamond to Punjab's Maharajah Ranjit Singh, served as colonial Britain's puppet king, and did the craven alliance-appeasement thing until his assassination?

Was Karzai's big-tent approach of accommodating powerbrokers, for instance, simply not appreciated by his bossy foreign overlords (who are not known for their cultural intelligence or diplomatic delicacy)?

Or does Karzai's legacy lie somewhere in between?

Nearly 13 years ago, when he emerged on the world's stage resplendent in his striped chappan robe and signature karakul hat, Karzai bore the hopes of his war-weary people and a fretful international community on his stylishly encased shoulders with aplomb. Over the course of a decade though, the image transformed into that of a mercurial, emotionally-precarious leader isolated in the heavily guarded Arg, as the Afghan presidential palace is known.

"In the beginning, Karzai was viewed through rose-tinted glasses," said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network. "Now, there's a very negative view of him, particularly in the West -- and that's partly unfair. He's being blamed for things that are not just his fault -- like corruption and not dealing with strongmen. In that, he and the international community and international military have a shared responsibility."

One of the better known cases of shared international responsibility involved Karzai's late brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a prominent politician in his native Kandahar and a suspected player in Afghanistan's booming opium trade. In 2009 -- two years before his assassination -- the New York Times confirmed what many Afghans and experts suspected: the corrupt Kandahar powerbroker was getting regular payments by the CIA.

The case of Karzai's brother was just the tip of the iceberg. A report by the Center on International Cooperation at New York University found U.S. and NATO contingents had frequently hired private security providers linked to regional warlords. On the corruption front, the international disillusionment with the Afghan president was palpable in U.S. memos from Kabul to Washington published by WikiLeaks, which detailed at least one case of Karzai pardoning Afghan officials detained for their involvement in the opium trade.

But if the honeymoon between Karzai and the West was starting to sour in the second-half of the 2000s, it was the Afghan president's 2009 reelection bid that drove the couple to Splitsville.

A bitter post-electoral process marred by allegations of widespread fraud, recounts and investigations by the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) only ended when Karzai's main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew from a runoff citing lack of faith in the Karzai administration's ability to hold a fair election. "The 2009 election was seen by Karzai as an intentional humiliation of him by the West," van Bijlert said. "In the end, the way he interpreted it was that the U.S. wanted to weaken him. He took it very personally."

Nearly five years later, in his memoir, Duty, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that the 2009 poll was "ugly" and that Karzai was "tainted." But Gates also noted that "our hands were dirty as well" before accusing the United States of trying to manipulate the outcome in a "clumsy and failed putsch." The reaction in Kabul circles and among Karzai's advisors was immediate. "I've been emailed pages from Gates' book by different Afghan friends, sometimes with passages in all caps," Smith said. "Afghans were paying attention to that memoir. It confirmed their suspicions that the Americans were meddling."

"I'm sure [Karzai] felt vindicated by Gates' comments," van Bijlert said. "But the real problem was that the 2009 vote was really hugely fraudulent. There was fraud done on all sides, but it was strongest on the incumbent's side."

The rift, when it came, was accompanied by outbursts on both sides.

U.S. officials were withering about Karzai's overwrought encounters with them and proffered suggestions that the isolated leader in the Arg palace was abusing prescription drugs. Shortly before leaving his Kabul posting, former U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a crusty retired American army lieutenant general, had his own emotional moment when he slammed the "hurtful and inappropriate" comments by some Afghan "leaders" in a speech to hapless Afghan students.

Given how low the relationship had sunk, Karzai's subsequent refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would keep some U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the 2014 pullout should really have come as no surprise. But it did.

"Trying to psychoanalyze Karzai is not an easy game," Smith said. "Even those close to Karzai expected him to sign it."

Van Bijlert offers two possible explanations: "First, it is clear to him that the U.S. really wants the BSA and, in his view, if the U.S. really wants it, it can't be good for Afghanistan. Second, he wanted to the use the BSA negotiations to force the U.S. not to interfere with the [2014] election."

But "interference" means different things to different people. Indeed, few Afghans believe Karzai's promises that he plans to "move on" after his successor has been sworn in. In the lead-up to the April 5 poll, much attention has been focused on Karzai's new home situated just outside the Arg.

The post-presidential residence is close enough to the Arg to be covered by the tight security ring around the palace. Afghan leaders, in and out of office, need protection. Karzai need only recall former Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah, who was castrated and hung by the Taliban in 1996 after the Afghan military crumbled due to the withdrawal of Russian aid.

But still, Karzai's upcoming proximity to the palace he has inhabited for over a decade is too close for comfort for many Afghans and the international community.

Once the polls have closed on Election Day, the focus will shift to the results as Karzai's favored candidate, former foreign minister Zalmay Rassoul, battles it out against frontrunners Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani.

If none of the candidates get more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, a runoff must be held, ideally sometime in May. That's when many analysts believe Karzai may insert himself again, playing a role in negotiating an outcome using the age-old Afghan mechanisms of consensus building.

It's the sort of elder statesman, loya jirga, fiery-speech thing that Karzai loves and the international community hates. But, as they say in French, on verra -- we'll see what happens next.

As for the big legacy questions, the experts say we still have to wait and see.

"The jury is still out," Smith said. "The real test will be in 2015, 2016, 2017, when Afghanistan will start to see sharp declines in foreign aid. We don't know how the Afghan government will do in the struggle to control significant parts of the territory. If the state survives, Karzai can claim, quite rightly, to be the father of the nation and his place in history will be assured."

If it doesn't, you only have to look to history and shudder. And that's one thing Afghan presidents know very well. The international community may lose patience, fall out of love, divorce, and even cut the alimony to their former local partners. It will just move on. Problem is, moving on will be far more difficult for Afghanistan. But on verra -- this particular chapter in Afghan history is still being written.

David Goldman/Pool/Getty Images