President Barack Obama, in a January New Republic interview, was asked bluntly if the United States should actively intervene in Syria’s civil war. He thoughtfully explained his reservations. Several concerned Syria, but the last one pointed to larger ethical issues. “And how do I weigh,” Obama asked, “tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”
With this comment, Obama cut to the heart of an age-old dilemma about humanitarian military intervention — whether it is worth addressing some conflicts when you know that others continue to simmer, or boil over, at the same time?
This was the case in the 1970s when wars in the Horn of Africa, Uganda, Cambodia and elsewhere killed many hundreds of thousands. It was true in the 1980s when conflict intensified in places like Afghanistan, Angola and Central America. And in the 1990s when the Balkans and Rwanda and parts of West Africa blew up, while Sudan, Somalia and other wars continued.
But for all the terrible headlines today, Obama enjoys advantages that leaders in previous eras did not have. There are fewer wars in the world; more international consensus on what to do about them, and more capable U.S. forces that can help in the task even as other nations generally provide many of the peacekeeping troops. These conditions free Obama to make decisions about the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as Syria, on their respective merits — rather than remain paralyzed by broader philosophical conundrums.
While neither decision should be made lightly, there is a case for more assertive U.S. action in both Congo and Syria. These are now probably the world’s two worst wars that Washington is doing little to address.