In 1994, looking at the Rwandan genocide through this same lens of viability, national interest, and humanitarian concern, Clinton concluded that it did not meet the criteria for intervention. At the genocide's height, he released Presidential Decision Directive 25, which was, according to one administration official, "a kind of self-inflicted constraint against getting involved in too many places where we couldn't do what we set out to do." The small, central African country posed no discernible threat to American interests, unlike the crises in Bosnia and Haiti. Demonstrating the lack of perceived concern, Clinton remarked that few Americans cared about the bloodshed, because "CNN seldom showed pictures of the bodies on television." As a result, the administration refused to become involved militarily in Rwanda and even lobbied the UN Security Council to downsize the country's contingent of blue helmets from 2,500 to 270 personnel.
Unlike in Rwanda, widespread atrocities in South Sudan would bring public pressure to bear on the administration. The American evangelical community has longstanding connections with Sudan's Christian population, and Darfur advocacy groups have expanded their portfolios to include South Sudan. Key Obama administration officials have made clear they intend to take a harder line in support of intervention. Seven years after eschewing action in Rwanda, UN Ambassador Susan Rice vowed to "go down in flames" to stop future genocides. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed regret for not speaking up to her husband during the Rwandan genocide. Obama's lead advisor for multilateral affairs Samantha Power -- recently dubbed "Interventionista" in a cover story for The National Interest -- chastised what she saw as U.S. inaction toward 20th century genocides in her seminal book, A Problem from Hell.
The Obama administration and most of Congress believe that mass atrocities, by their humanitarian toll alone, threaten American interests -- albeit, non-vital interests. The State Department's recent Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, a formal statement of the department's plans and posture, posits that these crises "[fuel] state and regional instability ... and [entrench] murderous regimes that perpetuate other threats." The Senate unanimously passed a concurrent resolution in December 2010 affirming that "it is in the national interest ... to prevent and mitigate future genocides and mass atrocities." Both George W. Bush and Obama have invested significant diplomatic and financial capital in Sudan's peace agreement. An imploded South Sudan could also have spillover effects on the conflicts in Congo-Kinshasa and northern Uganda.
But despite perceived threats national interests and humanitarian concern, Obama would probably not intervene because such a military mission would lack viability. The U.S. military is stretched thin with the engagements in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.
Deploying troops to a fourth conflict would be a major political risk, especially as election season approaches. The risks aside, it is not clear that a U.S.-led force could in fact stop potential atrocities in South Sudan. A no-fly zone would have little effect on warring militias that typically use small arms. Putting boots on the ground is also problematic, given that perpetrators are hard to identify and that atrocities can metastasize without warning, potentially in very disparate locations. The International Crisis Group, which is not shy about calling for the use of force, warned that intervention in Abyei could be "both highly dangerous and uncertain to deliver results."
This lack of viability does not mean the United States would stand on the sidelines. In A Problem from Hell, Power argues that the Clinton administration could have stemmed the Rwandan genocide with a number of measures short of intervention. In her view, it should have made UN peacekeepers "a force to contend with", jammed belligerent radio broadcasts, and threatened to prosecute perpetrators. These suggestions may well serve as a blueprint for Obama's response if a similar scenario unfolds in South Sudan. Obama could push to extend the United Nation Mission in Sudan's mandate or create a follow-up mission with equally strong rules of engagement. He could also approve logistical support for the peacekeepers and implement non-lethal measures, such as communications jamming, if needed. Finally, as he did for Libya, Obama would likely seek International Criminal Court investigations for high-ranking perpetrators.
Would these measures be enough? They could reduce the killing but probably not stop it altogether. Even a major U.S.-led intervention might not succeed in quelling widespread atrocities. As the United States and its NATO partners are learning in Libya, military force is, after all, not a silver bullet for protecting civilians.