AS Congress puts foreign aid on the chopping block, I feel as though those of us who promote international human rights and humanitarian responses to overseas suffering are losing the battle for America's hearts and minds.
I recognize that the conventional wisdom holds that the United States role in Rwanda was a success and that the US role in Somalia was a failure. Yet I am haunted by our failures in Rwanda and feel good about our successes in Somalia.
Americans understandably feel proud of the job US military forces did in assisting Rwandan refugees by delivering food and water, and by stemming cholera and dysentery among those who flooded into Tanzania and Zaire. But I felt anger and revulsion as I traveled through the Rwandan countryside last year seeing mounds of hacked and bludgeoned bodies. Reflecting on the role of the US State Department, the architect of our abandonment of Rwandans during their most fateful hours of genocide, I can't help but feel that American pride in the relief effort was misplaced.
If a fraction of the US troops who eventually joined the assistance effort had been deployed in a protection effort before the genocide began, or if the United Nations forces that were already there had been quickly authorized to defend civilians instead of fleeing at the behest of the Security Council, led by the US, much of the mass murder could have been prevented, and no refugee flow would have occurred.
Critical delays at the UN
There were ample early warnings of an impending disaster, but the will was lacking to take preventive action. Although the US finally voted in the Security Council to send a UN force, US diplomats tarried, causing critical weeks of delay while they studied the situation to make sure the UN "does it right this time."
The skeleton in the closet causing political cowardice from the White House to Foggy Bottom was Somalia. For President Clinton, "doing it right this time" meant not putting himself in a position to be accused of repeating the "debacle" of Somalia. "Mission creep" entered the vernacular; "nation building" became a term of derision. Somalia became a short-hand warning to every politician to avoid fuzzy-headed, do-good adventurism in the bottomless pits of human misery overseas.
As in Rwanda, the response in Somalia was too slow. But the intervention in fact did stop the famine and saved thousands of lives. Once the emergency was brought under control, it was reasonable to address the need for conflict resolution. Indeed, it would have been wasteful and shortsighted to drop in food and then leave an essentially unchanged political situation to deteriorate again.
While there were many mistakes on the ground, the biggest mistake was largely a political one here in the US. A convincing case was not made to the American public that there was compelling reason for the US to intervene, or that humanitarian intervention could be worth risking the lives of American soldiers. In the public's minds, the costs, human and material, did not justify the benefits.
Making such a case was far easier during the cold war. If the Soviets backed Mengistu Haile-Mariam in Ethiopia, we would back Mohamed Siad Barre in Somalia. They had their pawns; we had ours. A strategic interest was axiomatic. The enemy was defined as the Soviet empire, or, more generically, as communism.
Now the enemy is more amorphous. Some have described it as "anarchy" or "chaos" - a Hobbesian environment in which the brutes with the biggest guns rise to the top. That is, however, a serious and real enemy - and perhaps an enemy that was lurking under the surface all along.
The consequences of inaction and isolationism not only are huge body counts and costly refugee exoduses, but the rearing of the ugly, undemocratic forces that our foreign policy has supposedly been dedicated to countering all along.
Nowhere is this clearer than in former Yugoslavia, where the international community today considers giving up even on the half measure of a UN peacekeeping force that, for lack of political will by the world's governments, was forced largely to stand silently as brutes raped, pillaged, and mocked the values of civilization itself.
As we later saw in Rwanda, the situation in Bosnia could have been prevented by a sufficient show of international resolve early on. Prevention failed because it was never seriously tried.
The new enemy is too serious to confront with humanitarian band aids. The need for a political framework for humanitarian intervention - with or without a military component - is as clear and compelling as the case for the Marshall Plan that invested heavily in "nation building" in the chaos left at the end of World War II.
In that effort, the US wasn't simply papering over the humanitarian needs of displaced persons - though millions of them did indeed need to be fed, clothed, and sheltered on an emergency basis before more far-reaching economic and political reconstruction could occur. Restoring Europe meant restoring civilization and its values, retrieving it from the Nazis and keeping other would-be totalitarians at bay. We said "never again" to the haters who would kill their brothers because of their skin color or religion. But now - in Bosnia and Rwanda - we have said, "Well, sometimes." When the groups being massacred really aren't so important to us, we can tolerate it as long as the problem doesn't spill across our borders.
But the world is not comprised of isolated islands. When we ignore our basic values abroad, they begin to erode at home. We become more tolerant of the bigots and xenophobes in our own society. We scapegoat minorities.
Define and defend our values
What do we need to do? First, we need to be clear about our values - the value of life, the value of each individual, of pluralism and of democratic tolerance. Second, we need the fortitude to defend those values when they are threatened.
The American people are prepared to support assistance to war victims, resettlement of refugees, food and medical care for the uprooted, but insist that the programs be effective and operated with integrity and efficiency. They can see that preventing humanitarian disasters is more sensible than trying to repair the damage.
Effective conflict prevention, serious promotion of the rights of common people, and generous responses to victims of war and persecution constitute core values that the American people would overwhelmingly support.
If our values are clear and our resources are channeled well, the public, as well as the Congress, may well embrace the worthiness of maintaining this country's pivotal role in assisting uprooted people today and preventing others from being victimized tomorrow.