In 1994, I was a young journalist in the information graphics department at The Detroit News, just two years out of college.
In April of that year, the Rwandan genocide — a war of ethnic tensions — erupted, resulting in 100 days of unspeakable carnage.
The United States, still stinging from its failed peacekeeping mission in Somalia the year before, refused to fully intervene. I saw it as an unconscionable abdication of moral leadership. I felt angry and helpless. It seemed to me that no one really cared.
When the fighting ended in Rwanda, 800,000 people — one-tenth of the population — were dead, many of them hacked to death with machetes.
While the United States didn’t intervene to stop the genocide, it paid in dollars as its penance. As The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance put it in 1997:
“While it failed miserably to do anything about the genocide, the U.S. donated generously to the emergency relief effort. Assistance amounted to about $370 million during 1994, including $106 million for Operation Restore Hope.”
In 2009, The Christian Science Monitor interviewed Ted Dagne, an Africa specialist at the Congressional Research Service. The Monitor reported: “If there is a lesson learned from Rwanda, Dagne says, it is that the international community needs to avoid giving the impression that it is willing or capable of rescuing civilians in a conflict. ‘It’s important to build the capacity of people to do the job themselves (of protecting themselves),’ Dagne says. ‘We must not give the expectation that people will be saved.’ ”
But that wasn’t entirely true.
Four years after Rwanda, the Kosovo war erupted. More than 1 million people were displaced, and more than 13,000 were killed.
As Paul Starr wrote in The American Prospect in 1999, more than a year after the fighting began, “No obvious strategic or economic interest, in the usual sense, compelled the United States and NATO to intervene.” As he put it: “The issue for the United States and NATO was fundamentally moral: Was the Serbian ‘ethnic cleansing’ so deeply offensive to our values that we ought to go to war over it? Was it so abhorrent that, if left unanswered, it would threaten the moral basis of the international order?”
The year before, President Bill Clinton (who, by the way, had also been president during the Rwandan genocide) had responded to the moral question but stretched his rationale impossibly thin, suggesting that America had a compelling strategic interest in the region and therefore had every reason to intervene.
In June of 1998, Mr. Clinton declared a national emergency under the pretense that the governments of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Republic of Serbia, with respect to Kosovo, were threatening to “destabilize countries of the region and to disrupt progress in Bosnia and Herzegovina in implementing the Dayton peace agreement, and therefore constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
NATO intervened, ended the war and brought an end to most of the immediate suffering.
This poses the question: When does America have a moral obligation to intervene — particularly for humanitarian reasons — in conflict? And which factors contribute to the choices we make?
America and NATO have a clear geopolitical interest in Ukraine: President Vladimir Putin of Russia cannot be allowed to get away with such unprovoked, naked aggression. What kind of precedent would that set? And who’s to say that he would stop there?
But when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke via video to Congress on Wednesday, part of the appeal he was making was a moral one, an appeal to the American belief in and commitment to the very idea of democracy.
"Peace in your country does not depend anymore only on you and your people. It depends on those next to you, on those who are strong. Strong does not mean big. Strong is brave and ready to fight for the life of his citizens and citizens of the world. For human rights, for freedom, for the right to live decently and to die when your time comes, not when it is wanted by someone else, by your neighbor. Today the Ukrainian people are defending not only Ukraine, we are fighting for the values of Europe and the world, sacrificing our lives in the name of the future."
The question is: How far is America compelled to go? President Joe Biden signed off on $13.6 billion in aid Friday and announced Wednesday that $800 million in military assistance would be sent to Ukraine as part of that funding. These are not trivial amounts. Furthermore, America and its allies have imposed stiff economic sanctions on Russia. The sanctions could contribute to inflation, which means that Americans may pay even more than what the administration is pledging in direct assistance.
I say that the United States must supply military aid and should supply humanitarian aid. But I also say that we must be more consistent in determining who deserves outpourings of our humanitarian impulses.
Human suffering is human suffering. It has been a constant in the story of mankind. Sometimes it overlaps with our national interests, and sometimes it does not. But our sense of morality must remain constant, and in it we must find a place for equity.
Charles M. Blow (Twitter: @CharlesMBlow) is a columnist for The New York Times, where this piece originally appeared.