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Preventing Slaughter When Possible
by Ralph Seliger
From the Spring 2015 issue of Jewish Currents
MY PARENTS, Polish-Jewish refugees, made their way to the United States, almost miraculously, in June, 1941. My father’s widowed mother, two sisters, a brother, and all their children were murdered as Nazi forces advanced into Soviet-occupied Galicia. We have evidence that my mother’s parents, from the same shtetl as my father’s family, survived heroically for another year or so, hiding within a deserted ghetto until captured by Ukrainian militiamen.
This personal history gave me an awareness of the vital need for countries to be willing to go to war to avert or end man-made humanitarian catastrophes. It should be clear to all of us that a willingness to confront Nazi Germany militarily any number of times in the 1930s — e.g., during the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, or the Spanish Civil War, or the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia at Munich — could have prevented both World War II and the Holocaust.
Yet in affirming the necessity for the occasional, prudent use of military force, I do not advocate a militaristic foreign policy on the part of the U.S. Rather, I favor collective action by an alliance of nations dedicated to the basic principles of the United Nations Charter.
As members of a small, vulnerable people who have suffered persecution and worse, Jews should be invested in a world order safeguarded by humanitarian international law. It’s not by accident that Raphael Lemkin, an international lawyer who was personally devastated by the Holocaust, would invent the word “genocide” and dedicate his life to making it a crime. At the same time, Jews, of all people, should know that victims of crimes against humanity cannot rely on international law alone to protect them at the moment of assault. People under attack need to be defended by armed force.
I WAS APPALLED by the world’s abandonment of the victims of genocide in Rwanda, and the almost simultaneous inaction in the face of what became known as “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia. NATO airstrikes belatedly brought the Balkan atrocities to an end, but there was no outside help for the 800,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsi civilians, who were butchered in full sight of global news media during three terrible months in 1994. The pleas of the UN’s commander on the ground, Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, were blatantly ignored; he has testified that a show of force by a few thousand well-armed and determined professional soldiers would likely have nipped that catastrophe in the bud.
I was relieved when French aircraft began to bomb Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, who were on the verge of inflicting a bloodbath on the rebels in Benghazi. Obviously, Libya has not been a paragon of peace and stability since, but many lives were saved.
What to do next in such situations is not often clear. Force alone is not a cure-all. There’s always a need for smart diplomacy; U.S. foreign policy has long suffered from a paucity of post-war diplomatic engagement. Still, I’m against an absolute rejection of military power as an instrument of foreign policy, even as I acknowledge its limitations.
For example, while Rwanda’s small size and the relative weakness of the genocidal regime’s army and militias (the latter armed mainly with clubs and machetes) would likely have made it a ripe target for effective life-saving operations, the civil war in the massive eastern Congo (formerly Zaire), which is said to have cost over five million lives since the mid-1990s, is probably too multi-layered to be quelled by an intervention. The numerous campaigns of ethnic cleansing that have beset the Sudan since the 1980s have also resisted intervention, in that case by African Union soldiers who have been barely useful at protecting refugees from the conflict zone of Darfur. Similarly, the chaos in Somalia has defied resolution since the early 1990s (although a central government may finally be taking hold).
UNILATERAL USES OF FORCE that go against a wide international consensus are of questionable moral stature, which is why I was dubious about the 2003 invasion of Iraq after the UN Security Council had voted against it. My initial inclination to support that invasion was not due to the bogus claim of weapons of mass destruction, but because Saddam Hussein was a serial aggressor — against Iran (in the 1980s), Kuwait (1990), and Israel (1991) — and a mass murderer of his own citizens.
Using force when the risks to international security are obvious is also highly questionable — which is why there can be no direct intervention when Russia commits atrocities in Chechnya and invades Georgia and Ukraine. It is not unreasonable to provide aid to Ukraine, threatened as it is with wholesale dismemberment, but Western countries must proceed cautiously vis-à-vis a major nuclear and conventional military power such as Russia.
It is a collective responsibility of the world community to act militarily when circumstances demand it. When countries other than the U.S. take on the role, this is all to the good. The United States has neither the right nor the obligation to be the world’s police force. But when no one acts in dire humanitarian situations, we must raise the alarm and, in the pinch, act, after a sober assessment of the risks. War has unforseen consequences, and they are often enduring and devastating. But inaction in the face of violence and injustice has consequences, too.
In his recent book, Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta argues correctly that President Obama should have done a lot more, much earlier, to deal with Bashar al-Assad in Syria, first by arming the Free Syrian Army and then by bombing the Syrian air force, which has been using barrel bombs and other means, aside from poison gas, to kill many tens of thousands of noncombatants. U.S. inaction has created a vacuum that has sucked many anti-Assad fighters into the waiting arms of Islamist extremist groups.
Obama should also have worked harder politically to lean on former Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki to deal decently with Iraq’s Sunnis. The failure to do so on the part of the Obama administration was documented in a 2014 PBS Frontline documentary on the rise of ISIS. As a result of that failure, it is today necessary for the U.S. to continue to lead an international coalition against ISIS, as well as to support regional allies on the ground, primarily Kurdish and Iraqi forces, and including moderate Syrian rebels, to defeat this newest Middle Eastern scourge.
Why our country? Only because it is the most capable of doing so. Hopefully, over time, the fight against ISIS will become more of an indigenous effort, and there will be no major insertion of American “boots on the ground,” other than the possible limited use of special forces.
In the final analysis, allow me to appropriate the syntax from Polonius’s exhortation to Laertes, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” in Hamlet: Neither a Neocon nor a pacifist be. As with the prince of Denmark, deciding on appropriate action can be tricky. But we must try harder not to stand by in the face of slaughter.
Ralph Seliger is a a long-time editor and writer, mostly on Israeli and Jewish political and cultural issues, from a left-Zionist perspective. He is administrator of the Partners for Progressive Israel blog and an online columnist for The Jewish Week.