"The ghosts of 800,000 Tutsis were in that room"
by David Atkins
If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend Michael Lewis' transfixing profile of President Obama. Love him or hate him, the profile provides a very personal, nuanced view of an imperfect but thoughtful man in the crucible of some very difficult decisions. This bit on the decision to save the city of Benghazi from Qaddafi was particularly engrossing:
By March 13, Qaddafi appeared to be roughly two weeks from getting to Benghazi. On that day the French announced they were planning to introduce a resolution in the United Nations to use U.N. forces to secure the skies over Libya in order to prevent Libyan planes from flying. A “no-fly zone” this was called, and it forced Obama’s hand. The president had to decide whether to support the no-fly-zone resolution or not. At 4:10 p.m. on March 15 the White House held a meeting to discuss the issue. “Here is what we knew,” recalls Obama, by which he means here is what I knew. “We knew that Qaddafi was moving on Benghazi, and that his history was such that he could carry out a threat to kill tens of thousands of people. We knew we didn’t have a lot of time—somewhere between two days and two weeks. We knew they were moving faster than we originally anticipated. We knew that Europe was proposing a no-fly zone.”Lewis then describes how the President held a meeting of the principals in the military, intelligence and diplomatic communities to decide how to proceed. He was basically given two options: do nothing, or agree to a face-saving but ultimately pointless no-fly zone. Unsatisfied, he turned to his junior advisers. What happened next sends a chill of generational pride up my spine, as the President's younger advisers took a more progressive stand that their realpolitik elders, apparently more concerned with comparative lack of "national interests" (read, oil) in Libya, or the damage intervention might do to the President politically:
That much had been in the news. One crucial piece of information had not. “We knew that a no-fly zone would not save the people of Benghazi,” says Obama. “The no-fly zone was an expression of concern that didn’t really do anything.” European leaders wanted to create a no-fly zone to stop Qaddafi, but Qaddafi wasn’t flying. His army was racing across the North African desert in jeeps and tanks. Obama had to have wondered just how aware of this were these foreign leaders supposedly interested in the fate of these Libyan civilians. He didn’t know if they knew that a no-fly zone was pointless, but if they’d talked to any military leader for five minutes they would have. And that was not all. “The last thing we knew,” he adds, “is that if you announced a no-fly zone and if it appeared feckless, there would be additional pressure for us to go further. As enthusiastic as France and Britain were about the no-fly zone, there was a danger that if we participated the U.S. would own the operation. Because we had the capacity.”
“The funny thing is the system worked,” says one person who witnessed the meeting. “Everyone was doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing. Gates was right to insist that we had no core national-security issue. Biden was right to say it was politically stupid. He’d be putting his presidency on the line.”And two hours later, the generals came back with an option of stopping Qaddafi's imvading force from the air. But the President only wanted to do it if it could be done 1) multilaterally with a U.N. resolution; 2) with the understanding that Europe would be mostly on the hook for cleaning up the aftermath; and 3) there would be a minimum danger of American casualties. Most of his advisers disagreed with the plan; Secretary Clinton would probably have decided on a simple no-fly zone, leaving the people of Benghazi to their fate.
Public opinion at the fringes of the room, as it turned out, was different. Several people sitting there had been deeply affected by the genocide in Rwanda. (“The ghosts of 800,000 Tutsis were in that room,” as one puts it.) Several of these people had been with Obama since before he was president—people who, had it not been for him, would have been unlikely ever to have found themselves in such a meeting. They aren’t political people so much as Obama people. One was Samantha Power, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her book A Problem from Hell, about the moral and political costs the U.S. has paid for largely ignoring modern genocides. Another was Ben Rhodes, who had been a struggling novelist when he went to work as a speechwriter back in 2007 on the first Obama campaign. Whatever Obama decided, Rhodes would have to write the speech explaining the decision, and he said in the meeting that he preferred to explain why the United States had prevented a massacre over why it hadn’t. An N.S.C. staffer named Denis McDonough came out for intervention, as did Antony Blinken, who had been on Bill Clinton’s National Security Council during the Rwandan genocide, but now, awkwardly, worked for Joe Biden. “I have to disagree with my boss on this one,” said Blinken. As a group, the junior staff made the case for saving the Benghazis. But how?
The president may not have been surprised that the Pentagon hadn’t sought to answer that question. He was nevertheless visibly annoyed. “I don’t know why we are even having this meeting,” he said, or words to that effect. “You’re telling me a no-fly zone doesn’t solve the problem, but the only option you’re giving me is a no-fly zone.” He gave his generals two hours to come up with another solution for him to consider, then left to attend the next event on his schedule, a ceremonial White House dinner.
But the hard and narrow third path won the day and was ultimately more or less successful.
Many progressives will disagree, emphasizing the idea that nation-state territorial integrity trumps all other moral concerns in the name of a misguided understanding of anti-imperialism.
But I think that difference in perception is often a generational one. Those of us who had politically interested yearnings as children and teenagers at the time were usually shocked to the core by the Rwandan massacre. I cannot begin to describe the impact it had on my worldview at the time. We didn't grow up in the shadow of Vietnam and Grenada, but in the shadow of Rwanda. Having learned about the Holocaust and having heard the phrase "Never again" repeated, to know that it had in fact happened again and that the world had stood by even as nearly a million people were indiscriminately slaughtered often with little more than machetes and farm implements, was a deeply disturbing and traumatic experience. And I was deeply ashamed that President Clinton, a man whom I had largely admired to that point, had not led the world to act.
And while many liberals take a firm stance against the invasion of Iraq and intervention in Libya for purportedly the same reasons, many of my generation see the failure to stop the Rwandan genocide as a foreign policy failure on equal footing with the disastrous, illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq resulting in at least 100,000 deaths in its own right.
Either way, Lewis paints a picture of a president who was faced with a very difficult dilemma with potentially hundreds of thousands of lives in the balance. A decision that only the sturdiest souls should ever have to consider. And it's my opinion that he made the right call. I am glad that I won't have to explain to my own children why the world stood aside, its decision allayed by an American President whom I supported, and allowed a mass genocidal massacre for the second time in almost as many decades.