When I visited Rwanda last month, I was preceded by President Clinton who arrived the day before. Clinton is a regular visitor to Rwanda and his Clinton Global Initiative does excellent humanitarian work in the central African nation. There is a reason the former President cares so deeply and sincerely about the Rwandan people. When he was President in 1994 he refused to even meet with his senior staff to discuss the genocide that broke out on April 6th and for the next three months would become the fastest slaughter of human life in recorded history, with one million dying in just three months. Four years later, he returned as President to offer an apology: ‘The international community, together with nations in Africa, must bear its share of the responsibility for this tragedy . . . We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become safe havens for the killers. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide.’ The genocide was all coordinated from a single radio station. A single bombing run against the RTLM Hutu Power radio transmitting antenna would have made it impossible for the Hutus to coordinate their genocide. But on the very same day, as Phillip Gourevitch explains in his definitive account of the Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We will Be Killed with Our Families, the Security Council, with the Clinton Administration’s blessing, ordered the UN force under Dallaire reduced by ninety percent to a skeleton staff of 270 troops who would powerlessly witness the slaughter to come. The United States was asked to fire a single missile that would have destroyed the transmitter. The Clinton Administration refused because it was spooked by the events of Black Hawk down that had transpired a few months earlier in October, 1993. But that one missile could have largely prevented a mass atrocity that claimed the lives of nearly one million people.
In two weeks time – on 29 September during UN week – our organization, This World: The Jewish Values Network, will host a public discussion between President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Professor Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Laureate, on the subject of genocide, sponsored by Sheldon Adelson and Michael Steinhardt. It’s a timely conversation not only because of the impending twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide but especially because of the international community’s failure to punish Bashar Assad for slaughtering children in Syria. Despite the eight genocides perpetrated in the twentieth century and the universal cries of ‘Never Again,’ it seems that the world can still not summon the resolve to bring massive retaliation against those who gas innocent civilians.
From the outset of the Syrian civil war, when Bashar Assad turned on his people and started murdering them in their tens of thousands, President Obama had a moral obligation to travel to the UN and announce that the United States would seek an indictment against President Assad as a war criminal, guilty of crimes against humanity. Instead, two years of atrocities were accompanied by little American condemnation. Finally, when Assad gassed his people, including 400 children, President Obama showed courage and fortitude in demanding that Assad be held accountable for this abomination. I was inspired by his seemingly unshakable determination to hold this killer accountable for his crimes.
It’s been downhill ever since.
Rather than striking at Assad’s air force and air fields – not to mention his presidential palaces – so that the slaughter could be minimized and Assad personally punished, President Obama announced that he was going to Congress for approval. Where was the urgency? Kids were being killed. Wasn’t there a danger that Assad would gas his people further, or even just continue to slaughter them with more conventional weapons? The delay allowed Assad to go on TV with Charlie Rose and come across as calm, measured, and reasonable, thereby further undermining the urgency of an attack and sowing more doubts in the minds of the public as to whether this monster deserved to be hit.
Next, Obama’s hesitations brought Russia into the mix. Putin has vetoed every Security Council measure intended to hold Assad accountable and is the principle reason why Assad has not had criminal charges brought against him at the International Court of Justice at the Hague. Next we had Putin lecturing Americans about values in The New York Times and how American belief in its own exceptionalism was elitist and dangerous. Little did the Russian dictator understand that it’s not Americans who are exceptional but their values. We value life, we hate autocracy, we are sickened by mass murder, and we dedicate our national strength toward protecting the weak. If Putin were to embrace, rather than trample, on these values, then he too would be exceptional.
So now we have Russia and the UN serving as guarantors that Syria will somehow declare and destroy its chemical weapons arsenal. But how will we know we’ve found them all? And how long will the process take? Does Assad get to continue killing people with conventional weapons while this process drags on for months? And what are the consequences for Assad if he does not follow through on his commitments?
America, the world’s guarantor of freedom and human rights, now comes across as weak and befuddled in the face of clear violations of every humane law of civility. If the world’s most powerful nation can’t make up its mind to strike at someone who slaughters children, then what hope is there for the words “Never Again” to actually have teeth? If a man shoots up a school here in the United States, but subsequently agrees to have law enforcement confiscate all his weapons, is he then not punished? Will noone pay a price for the children who were murdered in Damascus?
Syria was President Obama’s moment to prove once and for all that he is serious about human rights and the infinite value of human life. He did an admirable job helping to get rid of the butcher in Libya, Kaddafi. He was outstanding in taking the decision – without any Congressional approval – to strike deep in the heart of Pakistan against arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden.
How sad that President Obama is so muddying his legacy by showing irresolution in the face of so clear a moral imperative.
Mr. President. Stop dithering. Children are dying. The ancient Rabbis said that ‘in a place where there are no men stand up and become one.’ Britain won’t punish Assad and Russia is out to protect him. It’s time for you to stand up and lead. The world is watching.
About the Author: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 29 books, including The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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