“Take Sides”

On September 20, 2005, Simon Wiesenthal died in Vienna at the age of 96. Wiesenthal, a Nazi death camp survivor who lost his entire family in the Holocaust, helped to track down 1,100 Nazi war criminals after World War II, including Adolf Eichmann, the SS leader who had a decisive role in organizing the “Final Solution”.

Wiesenthal will long be honored because he devoted his life after his liberation in May 1945 to bringing Nazi criminals to justice, but especially because he taught us to remember the Jewish experience as a lesson to humanity.

In this connection, the words of another Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, have a special poignancy. In 1986, on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Wiesel said: “Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Unfortunately, the world has not always heeded Wiesel’s words nor has it always remembered the bitter lesson that the Nazi killers taught. In Bosnia, from 1992 until 1995, we allowed Serbs to murder thousands of Bosnians because they were Muslims, not Eastern Orthodox Christians like the Serbs. In Rwanda in 1994 we allowed Hutus to murder hundreds of thousands of Tutsis, even though the United Nations had peacekeepers in Rwanda. They did nothing, refusing to “take sides.” In Darfur in western Sudan, similar killings went on in 2004 and 2005 with only limited efforts from outside to stop it.

After European nations had failed to stop the murders in Bosnia, the United States at last took decisive action when a Serbian bomb killed 37 and wounded 85 people in a Sarajevo marketplace on August 28, 1995. But the world never took action to stop the genocide in Rwanda. The peacekeeping forces (United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda) stood by while the slaughter went on. They were forbidden to intervene, they said, as this would breach their “monitoring” mandate. At last France and Belgium sent troops to rescue their own citizens, while American civilians also were airlifted out. But no Rwandans were rescued, not even those employed by Western governments in their embassies.

Perhaps the most telling evidence of American unwillingness to do anything about the genocide in Rwanda is this comment from Anthony Lake, President Clinton’s national security adviser, on May 5, 1994:

“When I wake up every morning and look at the headlines and the stories and the images on television of these conflicts, I want to work to end every conflict. I want to work to save every child out there. And I know the president does, and I know the American people do. But neither we nor the international community have the resources nor the mandate to do so. So we have to make distinctions. We have to ask the hard questions about where and when we can intervene. And the reality is that we cannot often solve other people's problems; we can never build their nations for them ...”

It’s clear in retrospect that we should have done something about Bosnia in 1992, not in 1995, and we should have done something to end the slaughter in Rwanda shortly after it started. We did not go into Bosnia until 1995 because the Western European countries ostensibly were handling the crisis. The same logic applied to Rwanda. UN (Belgian and French) forces were present in the country when the killings started.

We should have learned a sober lesson from these two catastrophes: in crises when other countries do not face imminent danger, they are going to do nothing unless and until the United States acts. This raises a severe moral issue for us. When monstrous events occur, are we obligated to intervene? And if we intervene in one place, are we then compelled to intervene in the next place an atrocity occurs?

There’s an old doctrine that supposedly answers this question: realpolitik, or the rule that a nation steps in only when its interests are at stake. In both the Bosnian and the Rwandan cases, using this yardstick, the U.S. should have stayed out. But there’s countervailing argument, endorsed by a number of Americans, that America must take up the role of world policeman and try to stop all atrocities, wherever they occur.

For most of our history, this moral dilemma weighed very lightly on our consciences. Until we entered World War I, we left broad solutions to moral questions outside our country to the other great powers to solve, if they were to be dealt with at all. Even in World War I the clear and present danger of Germany far overrode the “make-the-world-safe-for-democracy” multilateralist idealism of President Woodrow Wilson. We embarked on the task of destroying Nazi Germany and imperial Japan in 1941 only after we were attacked directly. And the entire story of the cold war can be written as a way of protecting vital American interests.

We entered a new world when the Soviet Union died in 1991. We were left as the only superpower, and, by implication, as the only moral arbiter.

Our leaders recoiled from this implication. George H.W. Bush’s administration followed the approach of General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.. The Powell Doctrine held that the United States should intervene only to protect interests vital to America or its allies. For Powell, such intervention should carry out a clearly defined political and military objective, should use decisive force, and should have a clear exit strategy.

The shibboleth of the Clinton administration was Wilsonian “multilateralism”—or the idea that well-meaning countries will work in concert to solve international problems. But the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991 and the killings that started almost at once showed this to be a sham. Multilateralism succeeds only when one powerful country takes the lead and brings along other states. Clinton was averse to any risk, and this paralyzed American action.

Europeans did little because they were wrapped up in their own affairs. They refused to undertake any dangerous, difficult, and expensive operations and risk the lives of their soldiers unless their own interests were directly involved. Thus they provided only humanitarian aid in the former Yugoslavia, and took no coercive action against Serbia.

The conclusion must be that only the United States will intervene when evil leaders begin killing people. No one else will do so. Yet it is impossible for us to intercede everywhere and in every horrible situation.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us focusing on our primary realpolitik job of looking after the essential interests of our nation. It tells us to step into nonessential regions only when we can do so. This puts us into an equivocal moral position. We choose some places to go into, ignore others. We are better ethically than the Europeans, but we by no means have adopted a universal resolve to stop beastly behavior everywhere on earth.

In other words, we cannot always “take sides.”

<< More Commentary by Bevin Alexander

<< Back to top