The Reverse Domino Theory

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April 24 1999 3:30 AM

The Reverse Domino Theory

We can't stop every genocide in the world? Why on earth not?

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Click here for Slate's complete Kosovo coverage.

During the Cold War, enthusiasts for American military action abroad invoked the domino theory: If one country was allowed to fall to communism, many others would follow. In the debate over Kosovo, opponents of American military action (including many of those former enthusiasts) invoke a sort of reverse domino theory: If we save anyone from mass murder or humanitarian disaster, we'll find ourselves doing it again and again. Moral consistency requires us to do nothing in Kosovo because we can't intervene every time a thug like Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic decides to start slaughtering his own citizens.

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That's not the only argument against the Kosovo intervention. But is it true? Would it really be an impossible burden to stop every moral outrage on the level of Kosovo? Isolationist pundits give the impression that the world outside the United States is a boiling cauldron of centuries-old ethnic rivalries, in which mass slaughters are everyday occurrences. In fact, attempts at genocide are fairly rare.

The term "genocide" is often invoked rather wildly. Russian newspapers love to talk about the "genocide" against Russian-speakers in the Baltic states, for example, while European intellectuals like to accuse Hollywood of committing "cultural genocide." But genocide has a precise and universally accepted definition: "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group," according to the 1951 Genocide Convention.

The United States has been using the term genocide cynically. Washington studiously avoided the "G word" in describing the killings in Rwanda, where it clearly applied. By contrast, State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin has been tossing it around liberally in the last few weeks, even though human rights groups say they haven't yet been able to document that genocide is underway in Kosovo.

Suppose the United States, along with its allies, put the horse before the cart again and committed itself to stopping genocide wherever it occurred. How many military actions would that have required in, say, the past 10 years (before Kosovo)? Answer: three definites and one maybe. The definites are Bosnia, Rwanda, and Iraq, while the maybe is Somalia.

In Bosnia, genocide was arguably underway as early as the summer of 1992, but the United States did not take military action until 1995. In the interim, thousands of lightly armed troops from NATO countries stumbled around Bosnia in their U.N. blue helmets, trying to feed victims and stay out of harm's way. This was a gruesome farce, and the United States should have acted much earlier, with substantial firepower, to overwhelm the Bosnian Serb leadership.

Unfortunately, the media have tended to explain genocides as the spontaneous action of one group motivated by insatiable hatred of another. But that's not how genocides work. Yes, ethnic hatred runs deep in the Balkans, but Milosevic had to deliberately fan it in order to start the war, and the genocide, like all genocides, was planned and executed by a relatively small group of extremely evil people.

Rwanda is an even more salient example of this. Perhaps because Western journalists knew so little about the country, their reporting suggested that the Hutu-Tutsi conflict was so deeply rooted, it was unstoppable. One hears it endlessly from "experts" on TV talk shows: "These people have been killing each other for hundreds of years, and there's nothing we can do about it." (Even if you know nothing about Hutu and Tutsi, this argument has no logic. The point is that the two ethnic groups have been living in peace for a long period, and something happened to destabilize that peace. That's why it's in the news, and that's why you, you ignorant windbag, have been invited on television to discuss it.)

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

In fact, a relatively small group of Hutu planned and executed the Rwandan genocide. They had to coerce and intimidate many of their fellow Hutu to go along with them--thousands of Hutu were also slaughtered in the genocide for failing to join in. They used the mass media, especially radio, to broadcast their bloody exhortations. And they used the silence of the outside world--especially France, Belgium, the United States, and the United Nations--to justify their actions.

Saddam Hussein's gassing of the Kurdish population in 1988 falls outside the arbitrary 10-year rule. From March to September 1988, the Iraqi army seized every Kurd in a vast "prohibited area" and carted off nearly 100,000 civilians for execution; it also used chemical weapons against the Kurdish population. The outside world did not know the full extent of the killing until reports after the fact. But those reports established Baghdad as a genocidal regime. So, when the Kurds came under Iraqi attack again, in 1991, there was good reason to fear that another genocide was in the offing (although President Bush's real motivation was defending the stability of Turkey, where the Kurds were fleeing).

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