On Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson surprised the world by saying “steps are underway” to consider removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. Later Thursday night, President Donald Trump authorized a U.S. missile strike against a Syrian government target.
Assad is blamed for launching a Tuesday chemical attack on Syrian civilians in the city of Idlib in northwest Syria, near the Turkish border. Trump condemned the attack without hesitation as he spoke in the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday, with Jordanian King Abdullah II by his side.
“Yesterday’s chemical attack, a chemical attack that was so horrific in Syria against innocent people, including women, small children and even beautiful little babies, their deaths were an affront to humanity,” said Trump.
Trump said Assad’s chemical attack crossed many lines. In saying that, Trump used a metaphor similar to former President Barack Obama’s “red line” warning to Syria in 2013. It demonstrated Trump wasn’t afraid of being seen of drawing a line, but failing to act later.
But in acting, Trump has re-engaged the United States in a region where he has promised to prevent the nation from being drawn into another bloody quagmire. Trump has many long-term options, of course. He can lead a coalition of bombing attacks like the one that toppled Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. That brief series of coalition attacks required no U.S. ground troops and did achieve regime change. Or a coalition can more aggressively invade Syria, as the United States and partners did to Iraq in 2003.
In 1994, demoralized by a failure to change things after intervention in Somalia in late 1992, the United States stood down while genocide raged in Rwanda, in southeast Africa. In just 100 days, ethnic Hutu extremists slaughtered about 800,000 people in Rwanda, according to BBC. Canada and a few other nations wanted action. But nothing seemed to stir the U.N. or the U.S.
Part of the reason was U.S. politics and the hot 1994 elections, which gave the GOP the House for the first time since 1954. President Bill Clinton was worried about the Somali experience in 1993, in which U.S. soldiers were killed trying to intervene in that troubled African nation’s problems.
Clinton’s advisers also hesitated at calling the killings “genocide.” According to State Department officials, a young Clinton aide named Susan Rice expressed fear in a private meeting that “if we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?”
Rice has said she cannot recall the remark. She would later become President Obama’s national security adviser. Preventing the 100-day genocide is one of Clinton’s biggest regrets.
The Congo 1998 – ?
The Rwanda genocide resulted in massive problems for its western neighbor, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the nation formerly known as Zaire.
Beginning during the war of 1998-2002, conflict has taken more than 5.4 million lives since 1998. Most perished from disease and malnutrition, according to the International Rescue Committee. Despite the severe death toll, which far exceeds that of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, Clinton and former President George W. Bush never moved to substantially get involved.
The D.R. of Congo still has massive problems, according to the committee.
Cambodia 1975 – 1979
After reaching a peace agreement with North Vietnam and then abandoning South Vietnam in 1975 (by cutting off aid), the United States had no motivation to engage further against the bad guys in Southeast Asia. And as usual, the timing of genocidal maniacs was perfect. In this case, the dictator was Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, which ran Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.
During the Khmer Rouge reign, at least 1.5 million Cambodians died of starvation, execution, disease, or overwork, according to The History Channel. The U.S. and the U.N. stood back during the reign of terror.
In a twist, it was a then-recent U.S. enemy, Vietnam, which ended Pol Pot’s tenure by invading in 1979 and sending Pol Pot into the jungle, where he died in 1998.