Guilt, Inaction, and Trying to Pay it Backwards

There is a story we tell ourselves in New Mexico before funding risky ventures; I was first exposed to it during the debate over whether or not the state should spend $100 million tax revenue on a Spaceport.*  In order to convince ourselves that this was a good idea, we reminded ourselves about

…the specter of Bill Gates being turned down at an Albuquerque bank for the $2,000 loan he needed to keep his nascent brainchild of an enterprise afloat. Rejected by safe-thinkers here, he took his idea elsewhere and Microsoft made Seattle wealthy instead of Albuquerque.**

The editorial went on to justify the Spaceport, saying “there aren’t many places that get the chance to dream big even once. This could be our second chance.”  New Mexico then built this Spaceport, fueled largely out of hope for a second Microsoft-sized bonanza.  This would be fine, if the argument didn’t also imply that the ratios of cost to gain between the two projects were anything like similar.  Instead, out of guilt for the first missed opportunity, the argument was made that we undertake a project 50,000 times more expensive.  The Spaceport might ultimately prove itself worth it, but the facts on the ground are radically different, and the costs are orders of magnitude larger.

I bring this up because, much like how all large tech projects in New Mexico are judged against the loan that wasn’t, it seems that all interventions are judged against the failure of nonintervention in Rwanda, no matter how different the circumstances or greater the costs of action.

Rwanda featured an organized opposition that had already spent years fighting a civil war.  There were UN observers on the ground documenting the buildup, and UN peacekeeping troops were also present. Unlike that of many which have followed, it was a genocide perpetrated by mobs with machetes and fueled by alcohol.  With soldiers and the authorization of lethal force, those mobs would have been easily dispersed, and could be kept dispersed.  The genocide was ultimately stopped by the RPA invading and defeating the government; if instead [insert a dozen intervention-what-if’s here] had happened, odds are would have shortened the genocide, saved lives, & been better, all for a relatively low cost to those doing the intervening.

Or at least, this is what we tell ourselves, with hindsight and the comfortable remove of time.  We look at Rwanda, see actions not taken, and then there’s guilt and regret, and with those fresh in our minds we turn our attention elsewhere.  The perceived connection between inaction in 1994 in Rwanda and the decision to take action in 2011 in Libya was both implied beforehand and explicitly stated afterwards.  As the associated press reported in November:

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. told an audience in Rwanda on Wednesday that the U.S. had feared a killing spree in Libya was about to happen earlier this year along the lines of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

In the lead-up to Syria, we’re seeing the comparison made in efforts to urge intervention. By starting from a position where inaction is synonymous with failure, we are ignoring the great disparity between the conflicts.

The Rwandan genocide happened during a ceasefire in a long-running civil war, and was stopped by an already-organized and armed opposition successfully concluding that civil war.  In Libya, an opposition was cobbled together for the duration of Gaddafi’s ouster, but that unity seems to be falling apart in a way that makes the intervention look like less conclusive and more like the opening chapter in a longer conflict.  In Syria, the opposition itself remains divided after nearly a year, and instead of the weakened force in Rwanda, the Syrian military is well-equipped.  As Andrew Exum observes:

According to the 2011 Military Balance, Syria has:

  1. 4,950 main battle tanks.
  2. 2,450 BMPs.
  3. 1,500 more armored personnel carriers.
  4. 3,440+ pieces of artillery.
  5. 600,000 men under arms in the active and reserve forces.

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s say Syria can only field half of the above equipment and personnel due to maintenance issues and defections or whatever. We’re still talking about a ridiculous amount of advanced weaponry.

A Syrian intervention will involve a longer war against a much better armed opponent than most advocates of intervention are willing to acknowledge.  While the level of tragedy on the ground remains the same, all other relevant factors are radically different. Most importantly the cost of the conflict, in time committed, manpower needed, and hardware required is orders of magnitude greater than a Rwandan intervention could have been.

It is important to keep the facts of the situation in mind when contemplating these things.  As Diana Wueger points out:

If the actual decision about going to war is a determinant of our ideas about how that war will play out – and not, say, intelligence about an opponent’s military preparedness, or the potential negative consequences of war, or even the difficulty of executing the war – it’s crucial that we guard against overconfidence. And it’s not like we can’t fight against that inclination; it’s just that we often don’t.

It’s an understandable impulse to use future actions to try and make up for past inaction. But if you ignore the facts on the ground, and the limits of the analogy being used, it’s entirely possible to think that building a $100,000,000 Spaceport is an appropriate response for failing to authorize a $2,000 loan.***


*I maintain that Spaceports are awesome, but acknowledge that what I think is awesome is not necessarily the best guideline for policy.
** There is some confusion about the veracity of this claim. It might have instead been a weird mortgage that didn’t work out, and it might be that Bill Gates went to Washington for other reasons. Those details are less important than how the metaphor is used.
***I know, too far. I’m handing in my “extended metaphor license” as we speak.


About kdatherton

Unpaid thoughts
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