White House national security adviser Susan Rice stood by the Obama administration's decision to not step fully into the Syria conflict, during a podcast interview, brushing off suggestions that inaction in Syria compared to that during the Rwanda genocide.
Rice was speaking with the hosts of BuzzFeed's Another Round podcast, when toward the end she was asked about a quote that she gave in the 1990s: "I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again like the Rwandan genocide, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that's what was required."
"What in your eyes would it have taken for Syria to become a Rwanda to the administration and actually follow through on the 'never again?'" co-host Tracy Clayton asked Rice.
"I'm not making excuses for the United States or for the international community; I saw firsthand the tragic results of our failure, collective failure, to act," Rice said. "But that was very different from what's happened in Syria."
What's happening in Syria is a civil war, rather than a genocide, she explained, and that the limited actions the US have taken have been to defend US interests.
"I think personally the judgment the president made that it is not in our national interest to become involved in another civil conflict in another Middle Eastern country with forces on the ground, or even an air campaign, made sense, and makes sense," she said.
"It was, I think, arguably in our interest to support the opposition that was fighting Assad but not to take that fight on ourselves," she said, calling Syria "the toughest policy issue I've ever seen. There are no easy answers."
You can read the transcript of the full exchange here:
Tracy Clayton: I know that we're running out of time and we cannot let you go, I'm sorry to tell you, without talking at least a little bit about Syria. And for this next question, I'm going to read a little bit, in the '90s, you said: "I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again like the Rwandan genocide, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that's what was required." But you've also said that Rwanda and Syria are two very different situations, and that the "dramatic" action wouldn't be appropriate in the case of Syria.
Susan Rice: Well, first of all, I think the equation needs to be dissected. Rwanda was a horrific, preplanned, premeditated genocide that occurred over 100 days. Up to 1 million people were killed, largely with machetes, house to house. It was shocking in its speed and its scope. Rwanda at the time was a country of maybe 7 million people, so imagine the toll that that took. The world wasn't focused, and the genocide snuck up on most people — not everybody, but most people — and happened with lightning speed. The international community was completely paralyzed in deciding how to respond.
The United States had just literally, seven days before the genocide occurred, removed the last of its American forces from Somalia. The last thing that was on the minds of members of Congress, the administration, the press corps, was a new intervention into a place even less known than Somalia to try to prevent a genocide that was happening literally house to house with machetes. I'm not making excuses for the United States or for the international community; I saw firsthand the tragic results of our collective failure to act. But that was very different from what's happened in Syria.
Syria is a civil war. Syria began as a popular uprising, just like the other experiences in the Arab Spring, with a repressive government that responded by basically killing the protesters. It's not a genocide, it's a war, and there's a difference. Genocide is a preplanned attack on people because of who they are. This is a interstate conflict.
TC: So the definition of genocide has nothing to do with the number of casualties?
SR: No, no, no. It's not about number, it's about intent and method. The question for the United States from the very beginning is "What can we do about it, in Syria?" Should we intervene in the middle of a civil war, post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan, in the Middle East? If we did, what would that involve? Would we try to put ground forces on the ground and separate folks? Would we fight Assad? Would we create a no-fly zone? I think personally the judgment the president made that it is not in our national interest to become involved in another civil conflict, in another Middle Eastern country with forces on the ground or even an air campaign, made sense, and makes sense.
What we have done is when the threat has been directed at the United States, i.e., the terrorist threat from ISIL or Al-Qaeda in Syria, is to go after them.
TC: So it would take a threat against the United States for us to get involved in Syria?
SR: Well, we have gotten involved in Syria to defend our interests —
TC: I'm sorry, let me — to respond with that sort of dramatic action.
SR: I think that was the right choice. I think for us to have gotten in the middle of the civil war, as brutal and painful and traumatic as it is, would have been a wrong choice. Now, history will debate that, there will be some people who say we should've done it. Maybe with the benefit of hindsight, folks will come to a different conclusion. My own strong personal view is that is was not in our interest to get involved in another complex civil conflict. It is in our interest to try to deal with the terrorist threat. It is in our interest to provide massive amounts of humanitarian assistance, and we're by far the largest contributor, $5.5 billion. It was, I think, arguably in our interest to support the opposition that was fighting Assad but not to take that fight on ourselves. I will say that this is, in my opinion, the toughest policy issue I've ever seen. There are no easy answers. I don't profess that we've gotten every decision point on every decision tree right. But in the broadest sense, I don't think that we should have intervened militarily against Assad.
Listen to the full Another Round episode here, and subscribe on iTunes for more.
Hayes Brown is a world news editor and reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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