The Right People at the Right Time to Save Syria


After the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, then National Security Council staffer, Susan Rice, swore a secret oath: if ever faced with such a crisis again, she would “come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.” In the years following the genocide, Samantha Power documented the countless missed opportunities by the U.S. government to intervene to save lives in Rwanda. On June 5th, President Barack Obama nominated Ms. Rice and Ms. Power as National Security Adviser and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., respectively. This move by President Obama institutes two “women of action” in high ranking cabinet position. Now many are asking, will this represent an about-face from the risk-averse inclinations of U.S. foreign policy? Will something, finally, be done to prevent another Rwanda, especially with regard to Syria’s on-going civil war?

Ms. Power’s 2001 report in The Atlantic, “Bystanders to Genocide,” revealed that the U.S. government knew enough about the Rwandan Genocide early on to save lives but passed up countless opportunities to intervene. In March of 1998, on a visit to Rwanda, President Bill Clinton issued what would later be known as the “Clinton apology”. He spoke to the crowd assembled on the tarmac at Kigali Airport: “We come here today partly in recognition of the fact that we in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred” in Rwanda. With the grace of one grown practiced at public remorse, the President gripped the lectern with both hands and looked across the dais at the Rwandan officials and survivors who surrounded him. Making eye contact and shaking his head, he explained, “It may seem strange to you here, especially the many of you who lost members of your family, but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate [pause]the depth [pause]and the speed [pause]with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.”

Just a few years later, in 2003, a man named Clint Borgen started a campaign to persuade the U.S. government to become more involved in eradicating poverty in the developing world after his time volunteering in a refugee camp during the Kosovo War and Genocide. His team just finished a round of visits to leaders on Capitol Hill to raise awareness to the issues of the developing world.

Last week Obama authorized his administration to provide arms to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after confirming that Damascus used chemical weapons. This signals a major policy shift towards reversing a long-standing policy that limited the U.S. to providing non-lethal support. On the same day, the U.N. reported that the number of deaths in the 27-month conflict has surpassed 90,000.

There are different players in the White House now who have learned lessons from that history. At the present, the people of Syria face a crucial time. The question is, will the current leadership work to put an end to the atrocities committed in Syria?

What do Rice, Power, Clinton, and Borgen have in common?: An understanding that we should never look the other way when faced with war-time brutalities.

– Maria Caluag

Sources: CNN, CGI, Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Atlantic
Photo: Wiki Media Commons


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