President Obama and his supporters have defended U.S. military action in Libya by invoking America’s failure to respond to mass murder in Rwanda, Bosnia and even the Holocaust. Do those experiences indeed offer useful lessons for the current crisis?
In his national address on March 28, the president pointed out that “when people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians.” White House Middle East adviser Dennis Ross reportedly said at a briefing for foreign policy experts on March 23 that there was a danger in Libya of a “Srebrenica on steroids”—referring to the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by Serb militiamen.
National Security Council official Samantha Power, who reportedly played a major role in the U.S. decision to intervene in Libya, has described her unsuccessful attempt as a young journalist to alert the world about the imminent attack on Srebrenica as one of the formative events in her life.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen cited the Evian conference, in 1938, at which the United States and other countries refused to open their doors to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.
“Lives were clearly at stake [in Libya] and something had to be done,” Cohen wrote. “The world could not simply shove its hands in its pockets and stand by as some madman had his way with people in his grip—in spirit, a reprise of the Evian conference.”
“We learned a lot in the 1990s,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said in her comments on the Libya action, referring to the importance of not repeating the world’s slow response to the killings in Bosnia and Rwanda.
The people of Libya undoubtedly appreciate that they are the beneficiaries of the current administration’s effort to learn from America’s past mistakes. Of course, the people of Bahrain or Syria may be wondering what disqualifies them from U.S. military support.
Clinton’s explanation on “Face the Nation” that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, unlike Muammar Gadhafi, is “a reformer,” probably will not impress many of Assad’s victims. Chinese dissidents, for their part, have been questioning Clinton’s judgment ever since her assertion, during her February 2009 visit to China, that human rights issues “can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis” that she was discussing with Beijing’s leaders.
Still, there can be no denying the fact that America’s action in Libya constitutes a significant change from the policies of some previous presidents. It was not so long ago, after all, that another secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, was telling the president that “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern.” And Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was president during the years when Jews from the (Nazi-occupied) Soviet Union were indeed put into gas chambers, likewise thought it was not an American concern.
Today, by contrast, America’s president has declared that the United States has “responsibilities to our fellow human beings.” That “preventing genocide” is “important to us” and one of our “core principles.” And that “some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries, [but] the United States of America is different.”
The people of Libya are not comparable to the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust. Neither are the people of Syria or Bahrain. There is no danger of genocide in those countries. On the other hand, based on the historical record in that part of the world, we know the possibility of a dictator massacring thousands of his own citizens is very real.
The fact that America’s current leaders recognize a role for historical lessons in shaping policy decisions is certainly a welcome change from the attitudes of some of their predecessors.
(Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. His most recent book, co-authored with David Golinkin, is “The Student Struggle Against the Holocaust.”)