I was thinking of this (relatively) recent incident lately as I have been boning up on the history of genocide for my course this term. Indeed, there is a problematic pattern of Western/Christian/European powers decrying behaviors on the part of Arabs/Muslims/other “Orientals” as being uncivilized/morally outrageous and demanding that such activities cease forthwith. The condemning powers then proceed to wrestle with what to do about such evils but rarely actually step up to their (our?) Modern/Western/Christian morals.
This pattern began in the 19C with the British wringing their hands over the “Bulgarian horrors” in the 1870s in which the Ottoman Empire brutally suppressed an effort by Bulgarian Christians to break away. One result was a set of treaty provisions under which certain Christian communities within the Ottoman Empire were placed under the “protection” of various (Christian) European powers (i.e., Britain, France, and Russia). This included the Armenians, one of the largest such groups whose members were scattered across Anatolia (present-day Turkey).
For a variety of reasons, these Armenian communities continued to be oppressed by Ottoman authorities, despite nominal protests from the Christian powers, culminating in a set of massacres in the mid-1890s and again in 1915 (what is generally seen as the “Armenian Genocide”).
We can see a parallel situation in Europe as Nazi Germany dramatically enhanced endemic antisemitism in the 1930s, pressuring Jews (in particular) to leave the Reich. With limited exceptions, these same modern/Western/Christian powers (e.g., Britain, France, Switzerland, the US) refused to accept Jewish refugees and found all sorts of excuses for not fully engaging with Germany on this issue.
One could say much the same about subsequent 20C genocides (e.g., Bosnia, Rwanda).
In considering this string of events, I have been pondering the role of guilt. That of the perpetrators seems clear enough, as does the hypocrisy of the West. Still, I wonder whether the guilt of the Western powers plays a role in subsequent incidents. After all, as we all know from personal experience, it is much easier to blame the “other” (even with good substantive reason) than to pay close attention to our own role/responsibility/culpability and spend time figuring out how to clean up our own ‘act.’
In particular, could the intransigence of Western powers towards the Turkish denial of its genocide against the Armenians (going on over a century later) stem in part from its (our?) continued preference to focus on a clearly guilty perpetrator and not acknowledge that Western intervention in the Ottoman Empire in the late 19C could have stimulated Turkish resentment and contributed to the genocidal atmosphere which demonstrated the hollowness of the Western powers’ “protection” of Christian minority communities within the Ottoman Empire?
Similarly, the obvious and horrific actions of Nazi Germany often seem like a “black hole” in terms of historical analysis, distorting and diminishing the roles and responsibilities of others in the process. The awfulness of the Holocaust makes it especially easy to downplay the lack of moral action on the part of the Western powers (and easier to forget the various brutalities on the part of European and American colonial/imperial powers over the centuries).
A raft of questions arises from these concerns, e.g.:
* How much of the founding of Israel was due to Western guilt over the Holocaust?
* Did the history of British (in particular) inaction over Christian communities in the Ottoman Empire affect how the subsequent Turkish actions have been portrayed? (i.e., are the Turks “worse” so that our failures seem less dire?)
* How did the European stumbling over the “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s affect how the Western powers approached the incipient massacres in Rwanda just a year later?
* How much did the Bush43 debacle in Iraq in the early 2000s deter Obama from a similar intervention in Syria a few years later?
There’s also an interesting question as to whether this whole set of questions in unique to liberal democracies. Our Modern priority on liberty and the rights/lives of individuals makes us especially sensitive to apparent oppression and brutality (Turkish/German/Serbian/Rwandan Hutus). At the same time, such countries have some degree of democratic control over whether and how to act internationally, usually colored by their relative wealth and history of international/imperial power. Stated differently, no one is concerned with Danish intervention and popular sentiment (either moral or isolationist) doesn’t have much impact on the foreign policy of authoritarian countries.
Even if there is moral clarity and a determination to intervene, there are real and significant limitations on the ability of even the most powerful countries to effect change in distant lands. Taking a moral stance without the power and will to follow up may (as perhaps was the case in the Armenian situation) aggravate the situation. Anguish and hand-wringing may be all that is practically possible. Then, there’s a whole set of economic and social trade-offs to consider. And, perhaps, there is some basis for caution in (self-righteous?) moral prescription on the part of Western powers whose own record is more than a little problematic. Overall, this is indeed, as Samantha Power said in her book (2002): “A Problem From Hell.”
So, even if I think Obama’s unfulfilled “red line” was a mistake with real consequences (e.g., Afghanistan, Ukraine), I can sympathize with the desire to do something…anything. But, at least when global politics is concerned, it may be better to decry, but not threaten; and any active intervention needs to be really well-planned and executed, because saber-rattling or failed intervention can easily have awful and long-lasting consequences.