Should critics of Syria intervention be reminded of Rwanda?

Opinion

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Syrian refugees fetch water in the Za’atari refugee camp on February 1, 2013 in Za'atari, Jordan. Record numbers of refugees are fleeing the violence and bombings in Syria to cross the borders to safety in northern Jordan and overwhelming the Za'atari camp. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Syrian refugees fetch water in the Za’atari refugee camp on February 1, 2013 in Za'atari, Jordan. Record numbers of refugees are fleeing the violence and bombings in Syria to cross the borders to safety in northern Jordan and overwhelming the Za'atari camp. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The United Nations has said the current Syrian refugee crisis is the worst since Rwanda.

Nearly 2 million Syrian refugees have registered with the U.N. and fled their country across the borders into Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

African-Americans were very outspoken in criticizing the United States for not intervening in Rwanda, but the current humanitarian crisis is not inducing that same support.

Poll after poll shows that a majority of Americans oppose Syrian intervention. African-Americans, like most Americans, strongly oppose intervention in Syria. Some have even expressed sympathy for Assad, but some of those same black Americans — including members of the Congressional Black Caucus — decried our nation’s lack of action during the Rwandan crisis of the mid-1990s.

There is no doubt that there is a humanitarian crisis in Syria. The question is whether military strikes are the appropriate way to respond and if so, whether Americans will support that action, in light of the past decade of wars in the middle east.

African-Americans may be more reluctant to support action in Syria after the past decade, and because the United States didn’t get involved in Rwanda where nearly a million innocent civilians perished.  President Clinton later expressed remorse for not doing enough to help prevent the Rwandan genocide, but our lack of response and the tragic deaths just don’t seem to hit as close to home as the myriad crises right here in Chicago and Philadelphia, as African-American children are dying and unable to get adequate educations.

Many Americans care about tragedies abroad, but do not want the United States to use our money and resources abroad, while our country is still in sequestration and congressional ineptitude doesn’t allow action on jobs and infrastructure.  It’s like trying to put out the fire at your neighbor’s house when your house is still on fire.

The fact that there are so many domestic issues that have gone unaddressed make it much more difficult for Americans to support, particularly African-Americans who have heard repeatedly that America is “broke” and yet has plenty of money to drop bombs in the middle east.

The comparison to Rwanda is effective and one that President Obama has yet to make.  Instead of framing our response to Syria as an obligation because the president uttered the words “red line,” and the media claims that since it was crossed he must act, perhaps the story about Syria should focus on the suffering of the women and children.

When the focus is on Bashar al-Assad, the entire public relations campaign to win over public and congressional support for action sounds like Iraq 2.0 with a new boogie man for Americans to fear.  Comparing this current crisis to Iraq is important, because our lack of thoughtfulness in entering that conflict was paid for with lives, limbs, and trillions.  But this comparison also helps to make the case for doing nothing in Syria.

The situation in Syria is both like Rwanda and like Iraq.  Both should inform our decision-making process and considering them could help persuade those who have no idea why anti-war President Barack Obama is asking the American people to support intervention.  Many Americans don’t know why the use of chemical weapons requires swift action from the international community.  Many Americans don’t know that the United States is bound by the Genocide Convention of 1948 to respond if there is a genocide taking place.

And many Americans don’t understand why the rest of the international community can choose to not intervene in Syria, leaving American intervention as the only option.  Without framing this as the United States helping to curb a humanitarian disaster, Americans and particularly African-Americans may not support the president’s actions.

Once it’s framed properly as the United States being the global humanitarian, the next step is to convince Americans that a military strike that drops bombs and not food is actually going to help end this humanitarian disaster.