Bystanders to Genocide (& Why some wars get more attention than others)

October 05, 2016

Above, an 18-year-old girl starving to death in Yemen (from the British paper, The Sun.)


A Yemeni baby of the brink of death



[Note by Tom Gross]

The first article below concerns the largely forgotten war in Yemen, where people are starving and hospitals and aid delivery routes are being bombed.

The Obama administration has approved a colossal $100 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia to help continue what the article describes as its “relentless war in Yemen”.

As the authors write:

“Some in the Obama administration are unsettled by its position on Yemen. In August, after Saudi jets bombed a bridge that brought nearly all UN aid to Sanaa, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power tweeted out a picture of the rubble, and wrote ‘Strikes on hospital/school/infrastructure in #Yemen devastating for ppl already facing unbearable suffering&must end.’

“According to U.S. officials, the Pentagon had put the bridge on a no-strike list, reflecting its importance to the humanitarian response there, only to be ignored. Their plight worsened by a suffocating Saudi blockade, more than 21 million Yemenis are in need of some kind of humanitarian assistance and people in many areas are verging on starvation, as the BBC has shown.

“A few days after the bridge strike, a spokesperson for CENTCOM said that the United States continued to refuel Saudi jets like the ones that hit the bridge. If the Saudis decided on more bombing missions, the spokesperson said, they would refuel more.”

(Tom Gross adds:: Of course, the Saudi regime might consider using some of the billions they spend on arms to instead help house or feed fellow Sunni Arab Syrian refugees.

Or they might not allow one of their princesses to organize the brutal torture of a French painter and decorator at her home in Paris, as they did this week, the French authorities then giving her diplomatic immunity.)



The second article below, a Wall Street Journal editorial titled “Bystanders to Genocide,” calls on Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, to stand by her previous withering criticism of Bill Clinton’s failure to try and stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which as many as 800,000 Tutsis were killed – she titled her 2011 essay on the Clinton administration “Bystanders to Genocide” – and says the “honorable decision” for her regarding the Obama administration’s role in enabling the “the five-year Guernica that is Syria… would be to resign.”



The third article below, by Senator John McCain in today’s Wall Street Journal (titled “Stop Assad now – or expect years of war”) again calls on the Obama administration to take the lead with western allies and create a no fly zone so that civilians have a safe zone within Syria where they can survive.

(As I have also written on many occasions during the past five years, the longer the West fails to take decisive action against Assad, the more he and his Iranian backers will be able to continue cleansing Syria of it majority Sunni population, and millions more people will likely flee into Europe.)


The fourth article below is a “news analysis” from the New York Times exploring “Why some wars (like Syria’s) get more attention than others (like Yemen’s)”.

-- Tom Gross


1. “Yemen: The Graveyard of the Obama Doctrine” (By Samuel Oakford and Peter Salisbury, The Atlantic, Sept. 23, 2016)
2. “Bystanders to Genocide” (Editorial, Wall St Journal, Sept. 30, 2016)
3. Stop Assad now – or expect years of war” (By John McCain, Wall St Journal, Oct. 5, 2016)
4. “Why some wars (like Syria’s) get more attention than others (like Yemen’s)” (By Amanda Taub, New York Times, Oct. 2, 2016)



Yemen: The Graveyard of the Obama Doctrine
By Samuel Oakford and Peter Salisbury
The Atlantic
Sept. 23, 2016

This past Tuesday, President Barack Obama delivered his final speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Though he tried to sound optimistic, he couldn’t help but strike a rueful tone. Gone was the global media darling who electrified world leaders in 2009 – that Obama was “determined to act boldly and collectively on behalf of justice and prosperity at home and abroad.”

The graying, deliberate Obama of 2016 could offer only limited aspirations of a “course correction” in world politics, while pondering why cycles of conflict and suffering persisted. Though the president advocated for the “hard work of diplomacy” in places like Syria, he also elaborated on one of his recent, common refrains, cautioning that in the Middle East “no external power is going to be able to force different religious communities or ethnic communities to co-exist for long.” Across the region, “we have to insist that all parties recognize a common humanity and that nations end proxy wars that fuel disorder,” Obama said.

A day later, the U.S. Senate held a rare debate on the sale of arms destined for another war in the Middle East. The deal, for $1.15 billion in weaponry to Saudi Arabia, including over 150 Abrams tanks, is a drop in a bucket: more than $100 billion in arms sales to the kingdom have already been approved by the Obama administration. But a year and a half into the kingdom’s relentless war in Yemen, opponents of the new sale see it as an outright affirmation of Washington’s involvement in a deadly, strategically incoherent war that the White House has kept largely quiet about. What’s more, it is at odds with Obama’s apparent distaste for regional proxy wars.

Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has targeted Yemen’s Shia Houthi militias and their allies, loyalists of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who two years ago seized the Yemeni capital Sanaa by force. Several months later, they drove the Saudi-backed President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile. When Saudi King Salman announced the intervention in Yemen – an intervention the kingdom has painted as a proxy war with Iran, its regional foe – the White House immediately authorized a support package that included intelligence-sharing and logistical support for military operations. That package has seen the United States deliver more than 40 million pounds of fuel to Saudi jets over the past 18 months, according to U.S. Central Command. The Saudis would be crippled without direct U.S. military assistance, particularly aerial refueling, which continues unabated.

Supporters of the new arms package portrayed it as necessary support after the Obama administration’s landmark nuclear deal with Iran. To them, Yemen is a proxy war, and the United States must side with the Gulf – mind the absence of direct evidence of wide-scale Iranian meddling in the Houthi rebellion. “Blocking this sale of tanks will be interpreted by our Gulf partners, not just Saudi Arabia, as another sign that the United States of America is abandoning our commitment in the region and is an unreliable security partner,” Arizona Senator John McCain said, depicting the very dynamic Obama appeared to warn against the day before. “That’s what this vote is all about.”

Those opposing the deal, including Republicans like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Democrats like Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, urged their colleagues to reconsider the costs of enmeshing the United States in another war. “Let’s ask ourselves whether we are comfortable with the United States getting slowly, predictably, and all too quietly dragged into yet another war in the Middle East,” Murphy said from the floor. Ultimately, the Senate voted to table the resolution opposing the deal. But 27 senators voted against the motion to table – coming out against the arms deal in a considerable, if symbolic, rebuke to the Saudis, the Obama administration, and their largely Republican backers.

Earlier this year, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg published “The Obama Doctrine,” in which the president described a Middle East populated by unreliable “free-rider” allies constantly drawing the United States into their petty rivalries, fueled by avarice, tribalism, and sectarianism. Key among those free riders were the Sunni Arab states of the Gulf, Goldberg wrote. The Saudis, along with the Iranians, Obama said, “need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood.” Yet despite the Obama White House’s misgivings about Saudi Arabia, it backed its campaign in Yemen, enabling perhaps the chief free-rider’s war.

At times, the Obama administration’s support for the Saudis has thrown diplomatic efforts to end the war into confusion. In August, Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Jeddah to meet with officials from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Britain, and the United Nations. Some Yemenis were cautiously optimistic that Kerry – who says the war in Yemen does not have a military solution – would use his leverage with Riyadh to push for an easing of airstrikes. Instead, he left them with a vague “roadmap” for peace that offered the Houthis certain concessions, angering some in Riyadh, but did little to pressure the Saudis to implement the plan. Within 24 hours, the Saudi-led coalition had intensified its aerial campaign, while its allies on the ground launched a renewed offensive on the Houthi-controlled northwest of the country. The Houthis responded by escalating their own attacks over the border into the kingdom.

Farea al-Muslimi, a Beirut-based Yemeni political analyst and cofounder of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, said underwhelming diplomatic efforts by the United States like this have left Yemenis feeling like a beleaguered afterthought. “It is quite disappointing, especially because Yemen is easily solved compared to Syria,” where a political revolution morphed disastrously into sectarian cleansing, he said. Yemen’s war, by contrast, is still largely a matter of local rivalries. “But there is simply no interest or concern” from the United States, al-Muslimi said.

In Yemen, where Washington has outsized influence due to its political and military relationship with Gulf nations, the White House is unlikely to take the kind of gamble Kerry recently took on Syria: a ceasefire between the Russian and Iranian-backed Bashar al-Assad and the rebels supported by the United States and its regional allies. That deal now lies in tatters, in the wake of the U.S. bombing of Assad’s forces and a apparent Russian air strikes against a UN-coordinated aid convoy. It has severely diminished hopes for any similar attempt to end the conflict in Yemen.

Even if Yemen cannot be solved via diplomatic miracle, it is puzzling that Obama’s apparent distaste for the kingdom has had remarkably little influence. Acritic of the U.S.-Saudi alliance as a senator, the president’s White House has had a troubled relationship with the absolute monarchy since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 – which saw a number of Saudi allies, including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, ousted from power – and more so since the Iranian nuclear deal. The once-improbable now seems imminent: unless the Obama administration ends refueling and logistical support for the Saudis, it appears all but certain to hand off the war in Yemen to his successor.

The Pentagon’s view of the Saudi war in Yemen is mixed. Some officials have been openly enthusiastic: For the first time, a regional ally is taking the lead in a military campaign, a scenario one senior Pentagon official described as “something we’ve dreamed of.” But among the top brass, there’s uncertainty as to what, exactly, is at stake in Yemen. Shortly after the United States announced its support for the Saudis, Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Gulf, told lawmakers that he didn’t “know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign.”

Realism, or Obama’s version of it, perhaps still wins the day. Stephen Seche is the executive vice president of Washington’s Arab Gulf States Institute and a veteran U.S. diplomat who worked on the Gulf states. He served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2007 to 2010. “I don’t think we went into this enthusiastically at all, but Saudis were in such a lather,” over the Iran deal, Seche said.

The Saudis’ long-term plan for Yemen also remains unclear. Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, officials from both the State and Defense Departments questioned how well the Saudis had thought through their war in Yemen, and how skilled they were at executing airstrikes while avoiding unnecessary collateral damage. According to the UN, more than 2,200 civilians have been killed by coalition airstrikes since the beginning of their war in Yemen. Bombs dropped by Saudi coalition planes have hit schools, markets, factories, and hospitals. A CENTCOM spokesperson said that U.S. tankers offload fuel regardless of what a jet’s target is, or whether the mission has been preplanned and extensively vetted. A recent project to track all Saudi airstrikes since the war began estimated that a full third have hit civilian sites. Accused of violating international law in Yemen, the Saudis have blocked effortsat the UN to establish an independent human-rights investigation. When they were listed on a UN annex for killing children in airstrikes, Riyadh threatened to cut funding to the UN.

Some in the Obama administration are unsettled by its position on Yemen. In August, after Saudi jets bombed a bridge that brought nearly all UN aid to Sanaa, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power tweeted out a picture of the rubble, and wrote “Strikes on hospital/school/infrastructure in #Yemen devastating for ppl already facing unbearable suffering&must end.” According to U.S. officials, the Pentagon had put the bridge on a no-strike list, reflecting its importance to the humanitarian response there, only to be ignored. Their plight worsened by a suffocating Saudi blockade, more than 21 million Yemenis are in need of some kind of humanitarian assistance and people in many areas are verging on starvation, as the BBC has shown. A few days after the bridge strike, a spokesperson for CENTCOM said that the United States continued to refuel Saudi jets like the ones that hit the bridge. If the Saudis decided on more bombing missions, the spokesperson said, they would refuel more.

Obama has said little about the war in Yemen. With mere months left in his presidency, there is scarce indication that he will.

And yet at the UN, Power has had to publicly stand behind an unrealistic and one-sided resolution drafted by the Saudis, introduced by the British and passed last April with U.S. support. The text calls for the Houthis to essentially retreat and lay down their arms – a non-starter, but one that the administration still considers the basis for negotiations.

Obama has said little about the war in Yemen. With mere months left in his presidency, there is scarce indication that he will. Increasingly skeptical of America’s ability to shape events on the ground in the Middle East, Obama sees little incentive to overturn the status quo, even if that means supporting the apparently reckless military forays of a government he disdains.

A U.S. official who briefs the White House on regional national security matters summed up the Obama administration’s prevailing attitude. Yemen was already a “complete shit show” before the war, he argued, echoing Obama’s use of a phrase he is said to use privately to describe Libya. The Houthis are a nasty militia who deserve no favors and Yemen would be a “shit show” whatever the United States does. So why further degrade a sometimes-unpleasant, but necessary relationship with the Saudis to produce the same end result?

After a joint U.S.-Russian press conference held in Geneva to announce the abortive Syria ceasefire this month, journalists were served vodka from the Russians and pizza courtesy of the Americans. Yemen wasn’t even worth the takeout order, al-Muslimi said: “There is no pizza or vodka when it comes to Yemen. Only cluster bombs and arms deals.”

(Samuel Oakford is a journalist based in New York. He is the former United Nations bureau chief for Vice News. Peter Salisbury is a freelance journalist and an associate fellow with Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program. He is the former energy editor of MEED.)



Bystanders to Genocide
Samantha Power and the responsibility for ‘barbarism’ in Syria.
Editorial, Wall Street Journal
Sept. 30, 2016

Russian and Syrian government forces continue to press their offensive in Aleppo, killing hundreds of civilians with incendiary and bunker-busting bombs. Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, has denounced the assault as “barbarism” and called out Russia at the Security Council for its chronic mendacity and refusal to take responsibility for its participation in the slaughter.

Ms. Power knows something about barbarism and responsibility. In 2001 she published a searing account in the Atlantic about the Clinton Administration’s failure to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which as many as 800,000 Tutsis were killed over three months by their Hutu neighbors.

Ms. Power spared no one in her depiction of the Administration’s “almost willful delusion” about the killing, its diplomatic prevarications to avoid using the word “genocide,” and its concern with how U.S. intervention would play in the midterm elections. She was particularly tough on U.S. officials who “were firmly convinced that they were doing all they could – and, most important, all they should – in light of competing American interests and a highly circumscribed understanding of what was ‘possible’ for the United States to do.”

The essay was titled “Bystanders to Genocide.” Ms. Power later expanded the article into a book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” for which she was widely praised. Barack Obama read the book and promoted her rise in government.

Fast forward to the present, and Ms. Power can sound like those officials she once scolded for thinking they were doing everything they could given the complexities of the situation.

“Well, Syria is a very complex picture,” Ms. Power told CBS CBS 0.31 % earlier this month. “There are thousands of armed groups. The question again of what military intervention would achieve, where you would do it, how you would do it in a way where the terrorists wouldn’t be the ones to take advantage of it – this has been extremely challenging. But the idea that we have not been doing quote anything in Syria seems absurd. We’ve done everything short of waging war against the Assad regime and we are, I should note, having significant success against ISIL on the ground.”

Ms. Power’s list of achievements in Syria might seem grimly funny to the more than 10 million Syrians driven from their homes in the civil war and the families of its 400,000 dead, most killed by the Assad regime. The starving residents of Aleppo and other besieged Syrian cities also know that until last week the Obama Administration was eager to team up with the Russians – going so far as to share critical battlefield intelligence – so they could jointly attack Islamic State targets, thereby further freeing the Assad regime to do its dirty work. Another stab at U.S.-Russian cooperation hasn’t been ruled out.

President Obama bears ultimate responsibility for doing so little to stop the five-year Guernica that is Syria, and we don’t know what Ms. Power’s private policy advice has been. But in public she has become an echo of the officials she once denounced for justifying American inaction in the face of mass slaughter. The honorable decision would be to resign.



Stop Assad Now – Or Expect Years of War
Ground the regime’s air force, create safe zones for Syrian civilians, and arm the opposition.
By John McCain
Wall Street Journal
Oct. 5, 2016

“They make a desert and call it peace,” wrote the Roman historian Tacitus, quoting an enemy of Rome about its brutal conquests. The same could be said today of Bashar Assad and his ally Russian President Vladimir Putin in Syria.

At this moment, Syrian and Russian forces, together with Iranian and Hezbollah militia fighters, are preparing to finish their siege of Aleppo. The 275,000 people who reportedly remain in the city are being told to flee. Thousands will do so, choosing to become refugees. The poor souls who remain in Aleppo will suffer a surge in relentless, indiscriminate bombing. And when Mr. Assad, Mr. Putin and their allies have slaughtered all that stand in their way, they will proclaim peace in the bloody sands of the Syrian desert.

The collapse of the most recent cessation of hostilities is not surprising. It failed, as did the Obama administration’s previous efforts to work with Russia in Syria, because as former Secretary of State George Shultz once said, “diplomacy not backed by strength will always be ineffectual at best, dangerous at worst.”

America’s intrepid secretary of state has now taken the meaningless step of suspending talks with Russia over Syria. Meanwhile, Mr. Assad and Mr. Putin are creating military facts on the ground in Syria that will enable them to dictate the terms of a peace secured by carnage. They have decimated coalition-backed Syrian groups, slaughtered countless civilians, consolidated the Syrian regime’s hold on power, and even struck a United Nations humanitarian-aid convoy. And they have done all of this with no consequences. Thus the war grinds on.

While the U.S.-led coalition is making progress in the fight against Islamic State, we cannot forget this terrorist organization is a symptom of the Syrian civil war. The future of that conflict will have significant strategic impact on U.S. national security.

The war in Syria has claimed more than 400,000 lives, displaced half the country’s population, and inflamed sectarian tensions across the Middle East. But as bad as this conflict is now, it can get much worse – and likely will. It will produce millions more refugees, undermining regional stability and straining the social fabric of Western nations. It will strengthen an anti-American alliance of Russia and Iran. U.S. credibility with our closest security partners in the Middle East will further erode. And it will provide ISIS, or its successor groups, fertile ground to radicalize Muslims, recruit and inspire them to fight, and provide them with dangerous battlefield experience.

This is where the conflict in Syria is headed, and the administration still has no strategy to do anything about it. Its diplomacy is toothless. And there appears to be no Plan B.

An alternative plan would not come without costs and uncertainties. The administration likes to pretend that Congress is not prepared to support a more forceful approach because of its lack of support for military action to enforce President Obama’s red line in 2013. This is a myth. What many in Congress opposed was granting a reluctant president authority to conduct what Secretary of State John Kerry promised would be “unbelievably small” airstrikes in the absence of a broader strategy to achieve U.S. national interests in Syria. The U.S. needs that broader strategy now.

Any alternative approach must begin with grounding Mr. Assad’s air power. It is a strategic advantage that enables the Assad regime to perpetuate the conflict through the wanton slaughter of innocent Syrians. The U.S. and its coalition partners must issue an ultimatum to Mr. Assad – stop flying or lose your aircraft – and be prepared to follow through. If Russia continues its indiscriminate bombing, we should make clear that we will take steps to hold its aircraft at greater risk. And we must create safe zones for Syrian civilians and do what is necessary to protect them against violations by Mr. Assad, Mr. Putin and extremist forces.

At the same time, we must provide more robust military assistance to the vetted Syrian opposition groups that are fighting the regime. The only way to isolate and target extremists on the battlefield is to make moderate groups more capable of fighting successfully on their own.

The Obama administration’s approach to Syria has failed miserably. Now is the time for a new strategy – including the necessary military component – that can achieve this more realistic objective. This will undoubtedly entail greater costs. But the alternative is far from cost-free: It is the continuation, for years and years, of terror, tragedy, slaughter, refugees, and a war in the heart of the Middle East that will continue to threaten the U.S. and destabilize the world.

(Mr. McCain, a Republican from Arizona, is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.)



Why Some Wars (Like Syria’s) Get More Attention Than Others (Like Yemen’s)
By Amanda Taub
New York Times
Oct. 2, 2016

It is a truth universally acknowledged by every war correspondent, humanitarian aid worker and Western diplomat: Some wars, like Syria’s, receive tremendous public attention, which can translate into pressure for resolution. But many others, like Yemen’s still raging but much ignored conflict, do not.

Some of the reasons are obvious; the scale of Syria’s war is catastrophic and much worse than Yemen’s. But attention is about more than numbers. The conflict in eastern Congo, for instance, killed millions of people and displaced millions more, but received little global attention.

Every country in the world has its own version of that dynamic, but it is uniquely significant in the United States.

The United States is the world’s sole remaining superpower, but Americans often seem so inward-looking as to be almost provincial. Foreigners often express wonder that American television news, for instance, spends fewer minutes covering the rest of the world than the rest of the world’s news shows spend covering America.

A result is that American attention seems both vitally important and frustratingly elusive.

But when the world asks why America has forgotten Yemen and other conflicts like its, that has the situation backward. The truth is that inattention is the default, not the exception.

Conflicts gain sustained American attention only when they provide a compelling story line that appeals to both the public and political actors, and for reasons beyond the human toll. That often requires some combination of immediate relevance to American interests, resonance with American political debates or cultural issues, and, perhaps most of all, an emotionally engaging frame of clearly identifiable good guys and bad guys.

Most wars – including those in South Sudan, Sri Lanka and, yes, Yemen – do not, and so go ignored. Syria is a rare exception, and for reasons beyond its severity

The war is now putting United States’ interests at risk, including the lives of its citizens, giving Americans a direct stake in it. The Islamic State has murdered American hostages and committed terrorist attacks in the West.

And the war offers a compelling tale of innocent victims and dastardly villains. The Islamic State is a terrorist organization with a penchant for crucifixions and beheadings. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his patrons in Iran are hostile to the United States and responsible for terrible atrocities. And now Russia, which is at best America’s frenemy, is fighting on their side as well.

The Obama administration’s refusal to bomb Syria in 2013, and subsequently to intervene more fully, has also made this a domestic political dispute, giving politicians on both sides an incentive to dig in. This provided an appealing focal point for election-year political debates over Mr. Obama’s foreign policy and for how to assign blame for the Middle East’s collapse. Those debates have sharpened and sustained domestic attention on Syria, giving both the public and politicians reason to emphasize the war’s importance.

But it is rare for so many stars to align.

Yemen’s death toll is lower than Syria’s, and although Al Qaeda does operate there, Yemen’s conflict has not had the kind of impact on American and European interests that Syria’s has. There is no obvious good-versus-evil story to tell there: The country is being torn apart by a variety of warring factions on the ground and pummeled from the air by Saudi Arabia, an American ally. There is no camera-ready villain for Americans to root against.

The war’s narrative is less appealing to American political interests. Yemen’s Houthi rebels pose little direct threat that American politicians might rally against. On the other side of the conflict are Saudi airstrikes that are killing civilians and targeting hospitals and aid workers, at times with United States support.

No American politician has much incentive to call attention to this war, which would require either criticizing the United States and an American ally, or else playing up the threat from an obscure Yemeni rebel group. It is little wonder that, when several senators recently tried to push a bill to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia over its conduct in Yemen, they found only a few sponsors and the motion was tabled in a 71-to-27 vote.

It is rare but not impossible for far-off wars to cross the threshold to gain national attention. The crisis in Darfur, Sudan, for instance, became a national cause célèbre in the early 2000s even though it had little direct effect on American interests.

But Darfur offered a simple and compelling story: that the dictator Omar al-Bashir and his henchmen were committing genocide against innocent civilians, and that America could stop them. That seemed to offer a way for Americans to atone for their failure to stop the Rwandan genocide a decade before, and to prove that they had learned the right lesson from that horrifying atrocity. That made for an appealing narrative and an appealing cause.

The conflict also fit the domestic political debate at the time. The slogan “Out of Iraq, Into Darfur” presented intervention in Darfur as an alternative to President George W. Bush’s pre-emptive war in Iraq, and was a frequent feature on signs at anti-Iraq-war protests. “Saving” Darfur came to symbolize an alternative vision of American power that appealed to those who did not agree with Mr. Bush’s policies but also did not want the United States to withdraw into isolation.

But Darfur, like Syria, has proved to be the exception rather than the rule.

Consider the conflict in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. As in Darfur and Syria, that war was devastating for civilians: By some estimates, millions died of violence, starvation and disease. Millions more were displaced. Rebels used rape as a weapon of war and conscripted child soldiers. Many of the same activists who had formed the Save Darfur movement tried to raise awareness for eastern Congo as well.

But Congo’s war defied simple narratives. There was no obvious “bad guy,” as in the Darfur campaign. Instead, there were multiple shifting groups of fighters, nearly all accused of atrocities.

The war’s relevance to American interests was attenuated. Eastern Congo is an important source of minerals used in electronic devices like smartphones, but most people in the United States had even heard of tantalum, much less considered where it originated.

And so, despite sustained celebrity-laden advocacy campaigns and considerable coverage from columnists like my New York Times colleague Nicholas Kristof, eastern Congo received sustained attention from American policy makers or the American public.

Other wars have enjoyed brief moments in the spotlight but then faded away. When Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls in northern Nigeria in April 2014, Americans responded with outrage, spreading #BringBackOurGirls on Twitter and demanding that something be done. But as the months wore on and the Nigerian government failed to rescue the children, attention waned.

Two years before that, the “Kony 2012” video by the advocacy group Invisible Children brought wide attention to the Lord’s Resistance Army, rebels who had for years rained terror across northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, but it faded away just as quickly.

Today there is little awareness of South Sudan’s continuing catastrophic collapse or the Central African Republic’s civil war. The civil war in Somalia simmers into its third decade, barely noticed.

Most conflicts are Yemens, not Syrias or Darfurs.


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