In 1994, the Hutu majority in Rwanda rose and, in a premeditated act of genocide, set about exterminating as large a proportion of the country’s Tutsi minority as it could lay its hands on. And the world stood by and did nothing. The genocide did not occur in a day. Nor did it come as a surprise. The UN warned the Security Council of the impending catastrophe. The Council sanctioned the raising of an additional UN security force to prevent it. The UN went to 21 countries, asking their governments to provide a mere 3,000 troops for the operation. All 21 refused. The genocide that followed lasted a hundred days and took the lives of 800,000 Tutsi and their sympathisers.
The inaction by their governments unleashed a spate of self-recrimination in the West. “Never again” became the motto of a remorseful public. In the years that followed, the protection of human rights, if necessary against their own tyrannical governments, became an article of faith with liberals in Europe and the US. At the UN’s Millennium Summit, Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed a commission co-chaired by Gareth Evans of Australia and Mohammed Sahnoun from Algeria, to frame a set of guidelines to help determine when the international community could legitimately infringe upon the sovereignty of another country in order to protect the human rights of its subjects. This report became the basis of a new doctrine of pre-emptive intervention — The Responsibility to Protect.
Today, a potentially much larger, and immensely more brutal, genocide has begun in Iraq. For two weeks, day after day, hundreds of pick-up trucks have been streaming across the Syrian border into Iraq carrying thousands of murderous men who claim to be an army of Allah, dedicated to spreading his word across the entire Muslim world, if not as yet the entire globe. As they advance they kill, and they kill without compunction.
They kill soldiers who have surrendered without firing a shot; they kill government officials who have never held a gun; they torture, they crucify, they line up their prisoners and shoot them so that they can fall into mass graves that they have themselves dug. And they delight in filming their prisoners as they pray for their lives and as they wait to die.
The last time anyone did this was in Nazi Germany. But even the Nazis did not show their movies to the public in cinema halls in pre-feature film newsreels. Today, the wheel of civilisation has been reversed and has turned back more than a full circle. We are back where we were in the 1930s and ’40s, but the “international community” that flayed itself over Rwanda, that invaded Kosovo, that invaded Iraq twice and bombed it for eleven months in 1998, that destroyed Libya and came within a hair’s breadth of bombing Syria last year to atone for its original sin in not protecting the Hutu, is once again doing nothing.
Obama’s first reaction to the videos of the endless line of pick-ups entering the Iraqi desert from Syria was a full-blooded negative — US troops shall not return to Iraq. When three Iraqi divisions fled or surrendered without firing a shot, his second reaction was equally negative — until Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reached out to the Sunnis whom he had totally estranged, and formed a government of national unity, the US would not intervene as any such intervention would be bound to fail.
In the following days, as the ISIS took Mosul and Tikrit, and besieged Iraq’s largest oil refinery at Baiji, Obama softened his negativism. He sent 275 combat troops to Baghdad to protect the American Embassy and followed it up with 300 advisers who would help the Iraqi army plan their counter attacks. He has made a tepid attempt to engage with Iran, but abandoned it at the first whiff of displeasure from the right-wing and pro-Israel lobbies in the US. And, as Secretary of State John Kerry admitted in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, on 24 June, he has been in touch with “the countries of the region, all of whom agree that the ISIS must be stopped”.
But all of this frantic sashaying has added up to a big, round, zero on the ground. The ISIS has continued its advance. It has overrun the Baiji refinery without destroying it, thereby ensuring for itself a steady revenue stream of billions of dollars. It is using videos in English to attract new recruits from Europe for its jihad. Its local military commanders are using BBC to boast that they will be in Baghdad within a month. And it is in this state of overweening jihadi confidence and collapsing government morale that Obama and Kerry are continuing to ask for political changes to precede military support.
These demands reached their naive climax on 24 June when Kerry openly suggested in an interview he gave to BBC in Erbil that if Maliki could not bring the Sunnis and Kurds into a truly representative national government, he should “make way for the formation of a national government that the Sunnis will support”. Who did Kerry think would join a government when it was losing a war, and the penalty for defeat is a slow and agonising death?
For people to join Maliki, they must first believe that he is capable of winning the war. Only a decisive US intervention on his government’s side can create this belief. Not understanding this has been the single greatest mistake that Obama has made in his five-and-a-half years as President of the US. Political accommodation must precede war. Its purpose is, and has always been, to avoid war by making it unnecessary. Once war begins, the room for a political solution ceases to exist. It has to be re-created all over again by gaining military ascendancy.
Despite the desertion of Iraq’s divisions, the US could have stopped the ISIS in its tracks by using its air power. The long lines of pick-ups are sitting ducks for they have no air cover. In a similar situation 43 years ago, the Indian Air Force destroyed a Pakistani armoured thrust across the Sindh desert into Rajasthan without losing a single aircraft or air force man. This was the battle of Longewala.
The ISIS has no air cover. It does not even have armoured personnel carriers, let alone tanks. Destroying its columns would have been, in the words of an Indian pilot at Longewala, a “turkey shoot”.
Before demanding political concessions from Maliki that would win the hearts and minds of the Sunnis and Kurds, Obama needed to stop the tide running in the ISIS’ favour, if not turn it back. For only a winning side, or one that has checked the advance of the adversary, can do that. When a losing side tries for political accommodation, it comes dangerously close to appeasement.
In fairness to Obama, the choices he faces are not easy ones. First, Iran has a vital interest in defeating the ISIS and has sent two battalions of its Quds force to Iraq. So attacking the ISIS militarily would put the US on the same page as the Iranian military. This is a turnaround that the American public has been conditioned not to understand and is, therefore, not ready for.
Second, if US air attacks succeed in crippling the ISIS, the remnants will head for the safe haven of Syria. Assad’s air force is capable of denying it that safe haven as Hezbollah has denied the jihadis and other rebels fighting Assad a safe haven in Lebanon. But that would put the US on the same side as a regime that it has vilified day in and day out, and done everything it could short of war, to destroy. Again, the volte face is one that Americans will find hard to understand.
Obama would not have been in this impossible position had it not been for the succession of foreign and military policy mistakes since the US’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. In an earlier era, governments could admit such mistakes to themselves and make sudden, drastic shifts of policy because they did not have to fear the media and the instant public opinion they can generate. Today, for a head of government to say “we were wrong” has become almost impossible.
Only a powerful moral purpose can make this possible. That is why the absence of a moral dimension in the calculations that team Obama is so frantically making is so disappointing. Rwanda has been used by the US and the eu to justify pre-emptive military attacks in all corners of the globe. But today, when its lessons need to be remembered, there is only silence.