Obama aides find moral clarity in Libya's foggy war

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"I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again," Susan Rice said about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, "I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required."


Now that Rice is U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and played a leading role in the Obama administration's decision to attack Libya, this passage from a 2001 Atlantic Monthly article is striking -- all the more so because the author was Samantha Power, now a special assistant to the president at the National Security Council.

Power's article provides insight on why the administration went to war in Libya -- showing how old emotions swayed Rice and revealing the stark black-and-white terms in which Power views ethnic and political violence.

Rice's quote about Rwanda explains her story line well enough. For her, the Clinton administration's refusal to intervene in the 1994 slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis by the majority Hutus who controlled the government was a grave sin of omission. Launching U.S. Tomahawk missiles and F-15s at Moammar Gadhafi's forces is her act of penance.

But Power's essay also reveals her own thinking. Specifically, it suggests a tendency to gloss over nuance and paint simplistic pictures of bad guys vs. victims -- a picture that could be dangerously false in Libya, a known hot spot of al Qaeda recruiting.

U.S. officials' misguided effort in 1994 to appear even-handed in Rwanda -- they often described genocide with the neutral term "ethnic violence" -- seems to have given Power an aversion to striking a balance when the moral scales clearly tilt one way or another. Her Atlantic article rightly criticizes the fact that "American criticisms were deliberately and steadfastly leveled at 'both sides,' though Hutu government and militia forces were usually responsible." She writes, "the crisis was treated as a civil war requiring a cease-fire or as a 'peacekeeping problem'. "

These critiques are apt, but in her article Power takes them to the extreme. For instance, she steadfastly refers to the event triggering the genocide as a "plane crash" killing Rwanda's Hutu president. But the plane didn't just crash -- it was shot down. The only investigation into the incident, conducted by the French, concluded that Tutsi leaders were responsible. So, it seems an assassination by the Tutsi minority triggered a vile genocide by the Hutu majority. But that nuance doesn't appear in Power's writing.

Her simplified narrative of the ethnic violence carries over into Burundi where she refers to "Hutu-Tutsi violence in October of 1993," glossing over the crux of this violence: the Oct. 21 assassination of the Hutu president by Tutsi extremists.

Power is correct to worry about the trap of blaming "both sides" in scenarios where one side is clearly the bad guy -- as was the case in Rwanda once the killing started. But it's also dangerous to peg as "slaughter" what could be closer to a civil war. In reality, there is a murky continuum from state mass-murder to civil war -- with the Holocaust and the American Civil War at the extremes, and many other domestic conflicts somewhere in the middle.

Which brings us to Libya. As in any revolution or civil war, we are not facing a simple fight between forces of darkness and forces of light. The evil oppression of Gadhafi is unquestionable. The existence of liberal and democratic aspirations on the side of the rebels is also undeniable. But history teaches us that every revolution has its Khomeinis, and Democratic uprisings in the Arab world can give us Hamas and Hezbollah.

In Benghazi, where U.S. cruise missiles and fighter jets have provided the Libyan rebels firm control, Western reporters found disturbing signs. Prisoners suspected of being Gadhafi loyalists are held in dank, filthy prisons. One prisoner told a reporter that rebels raped his wife. Many of the detained suspects insist they are merely construction workers. But an opposition leader replied to the Los Angeles Times, "We know who they are ... enemies of the revolution."

The racial element is particularly worrisome. Many of Gadhafi's mercenaries are blacks from sub-Saharan Africa. The history of civil wars and rebellions against dictators should make anyone worry about the fate of any blacks who remain in Libya as the U.S. clears out Gadhafi's army.

And al Qaeda's North African wing announced last month "it will do whatever we can to help" the rebels, CNN reported. So these guys are on "our side" in this fight, too.

Power and Rice are right to seek moral clarity amid murder and chaos. And they are right to learn lessons from Rwanda. But as we learn more about the Libyan rebels in weeks to come, let's hope the Obama administration isn't stuck fighting the last war.

Timothy P. Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on

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