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How America Did Nothing to Stop a Genocide

America’s reluctance to prevent the Rwandan genocide was a policy failure on numerous fronts.

In April 1994, ethnic Hutus began the systematic killing of their fellow countrymen, the Tutsis, in the sub-Saharan African country of Rwanda. Over the next few months, approximately 11% of the country’s population, around 800,000, were murdered in arguably the largest act of genocide since the horrors of World War II. Years of oppression under the colonial rule by Germany and Belgium, both of whom treated the Tutsis as the superior ethnic group, had fermented resentment within the Hutus, who reviled the Tutsis’ elevated socioeconomic status. In 1973, Juvenal Habyarimana — a Hutu — became president. Similar to how the Germans dehumanized the Jews of Europe, the Hutus (who are mostly farmers) began using state-controlled media to denigrate the Tutsis (mostly ranchers), referring to them as cockroaches and treating them with open contempt.

This behavior was exacerbated in the early 1990s as Rwanda suffered through economic depression caused by severe inclement weather, which negatively affected agriculture yields, and falling global prices for coffee, Rwanda’s largest export. After President Habyarimana was killed when his plane was mysteriously shot down on April 6, 1994, the Hutus began to systematically murder the Tutsis and other Hutus who were friendly with them.

As the genocide was being carried out over the next few months, the United States did practically nothing. Although it is difficult to conceive that key leaders in the US foreign policy apparatus did not understand the gravity of this humanitarian crisis, the United States decided not to get involved because the decision-makers within the Clinton administration believed what was happening in Rwanda did not affect US national interests. No national leader called for US intervention, apparently believing that although atrocities were taking place in Rwanda, deploying the military to attempt to stop the slaughter was not in America’s vital interest.

These leaders were simultaneously updating the National Security Strategy (NSS) and dealing with continued domestic ire over the recent deaths of US soldiers in Somalia the previous year. There was an abject failure among senior officials to take an active role in advocating US involvement and lethargy among the US governmental bureaucracies was prevalent. While critics may debate the merits of these explanations, the fact remains the US and the international community did little to stop the genocide. This happened merely a few decades after a Jewish Holocaust survivor accurately predicted that genocide would again take place in the world, regardless of the United Nations’ 1948 Convention on Genocide.

No Vital National Interests

President Bill Clinton was elected to office in the fall of 1992 to focus on domestic issues. His campaign mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid,” resonated with an electorate who wanted to see substantial job growth and was enthusiastic about the end of the Cold War. The Clinton administration was grappling with the new unipolar world and was in the process of changing the NSS to reflect its own ideology. By the time the conflict started in Rwanda in April 1994, the new administration had not yet published its own NSS and was still working off the previous Bush administration’s 1993 version. This sent mixed messages to the federal bureaucracies who were continuing foreign policy formulation from the 1993 NSS, while their relatively new departmental leadership secretaries were operating with a different political ideology.

The 1993 NSS articulated the American national interests as maintaining global and regional stability, sustaining open democratic and representative political systems globally, encouraging an open international economic system, and promoting an enduring global faith in America. Although the 1993 NSS touched on humanitarian assistance, it did so in brief, given the unexpected and rapid demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the fact that the US was still trying to define its role in the new world. America’s military was still structured to fight the USSR, and there was debate on how to use it to advance US interests after the Cold War. President George H.W. Bush attempted to grapple with this newly found role as the globe’s sole superpower by emphasizing three interconnected elements in his foreign policy strategy: democratization, economic globalization and multilateral cooperation. These three elements were the foundation of his 1993 NSS.

President Clinton’s view on the world was similar to that of President Bush. They both agreed on multilateralism and subscribed to the liberalism school of thought of international relations theory. After losing the 1992 election to Clinton, Bush asked for and received Clinton’s political support in sending US troops to Somalia in December 1992 to assist the UN in providing humanitarian assistance. This mission was expanded in 1993, when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), US Army General Colin Powell, asked President Clinton to approve using US Forces to capture Somalian warlord Mohamed Aideed. Clinton’s decision would become important the following year.

Although General Powell retired in 1993, his eponymous doctrine appears to have played a significant role in shaping the 1994 Clinton NSS. Practiced in Desert Storm, and originally attributed to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, it became famous because of a 1992 editorial Powell wrote in The New York Times. In it, Powell advocated for a full exhaustion of all other US government resources prior to involving the US military in any conflict, and even then only if it was in the US’ vital national interest and there was a clear political objective and an exit strategy.

A New National Security Strategy

Although the new Clinton administration’s NSS was not published until July 1994 — after the atrocities in Rwanda had occurred — it had significant differences compared to the 1993 NSS. The new NSS listed four major steps to be considered prior to deploying US forces, all related to the Powell Doctrine: a) the national interests, which remained essentially the same, would dictate the “pace and extent” of military deployments; b) the US would work through multilateral institutions prior to becoming involved; c) the US would consider the support of the American people and ensure there was an exit strategy; and d) any engagements would meet “reasonable costs and feasibility” thresholds.

While drafting the 1994 NSS, the National Security Council (NSC) was also grappling with a formal US peacekeeping doctrine. Presidential Decision Directive 25 (PDD 25), US policy on multinational peace operations, was published on May 3, 1994, at the height of the Rwandan genocide. Heavy on bureaucratic procedures, PDD 25 listed 16 factors in two annexes for policy makers to consider prior to deploying US troops on multilateral peacekeeping operations, suggesting there was only a small chance the US would become involved in peacekeeping operations in the future. This was despite the fact that President Clinton saw the need to participate multilaterally when he was elected in 1992.

The major difference between his initial vision for America’s global role and the restrictive changes in the 1994 NSS and PDD 25 came as a result of a disastrous military mission in Somalia in 1993. The reluctance thereafter to deploy US troops on international peacekeeping missions became known as the “Somalia Syndrome.”

Although the Somalia intervention began under the Bush administration, it was Powell who originally requested that Clinton expand the role of the US military beyond the humanitarian purposes originally mandated by Bush. This concluded with an attempt to capture Mohamed Aideed. The US ambassador to the United Nations, Madeline Albright, may have influenced Powell in making this request. Albright spoke frequently with the UN’s Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali who wanted Aideed removed from power.

This mission turned catastrophic in early October 1993 when two American helicopters were shot down, with 18 US soldiers killed, 78 others wounded and several hundred Somalis killed during the ensuing two-day battle. President Clinton, who was already under fire for his lack of service during the Vietnam War and a wide misconception that the US forces in Somalia were under UN control, withdrew all US forces within the next few months. His secretary of defense, Les Aspin, resigned by the end of the year.

It appears this dramatic turn of events changed the way Clinton thought about the future use of the US military. This change was reflected in the more restrictive measures for US military engagement later exhibited in PDD 25 and the 1994 NSS. In his first major foreign policy speech given in December 1991 as a presidential candidate, Clinton had called for the expanded use of the UN’s Rapid Deployment Force, ostensibly to “prevent attacks on civilians, provide humanitarian relief, and combat terrorism and drug-trafficking.” It seems that after his first foray into these types of missions ended in disaster, any potential desire he might have had to do this again was significantly reduced. Clinton’s foreign policy disapproval rating rose quickly following the Somali incident, from 32% to 52%. As a president who was elected while running on a domestic reform platform, he probably felt obligated to refocus on the internal issues that got him elected, primarily the economy.

Although President Clinton still had Democratic control of Congress, with Democrat Tom Foley as the speaker of the House and Democrat George Mitchell as the senate majority leader, congressional support for the deployment of US Forces under UN mandate quickly melted away. This sudden phenomenon seemed to have influenced American political leaders to become hesitant to use US forces abroad. These politicians are accountable to the American public. Americans, approximately 85% of whom are “neither well-informed nor interested in most foreign policy decisions,” simply would not support the loss of American service personnel in places they could barely locate on a map.

Lack of Leadership

President Clinton, as the leader of the free world, is ultimately responsible for the lack of US involvement in Rwanda. Although he has since shifted some blame to Congress and his focus, during that era, on Bosnia and North Korea, he also admits that failing to get US resources involved is one of his greatest regrets of his time in office. He asserts that his lack of understanding of the extent of the problems in Rwanda caught him off guard. This seems dubious given his legendary grasp of policy of all types. Most analysts assign the bulk of responsibility to him. However, given the massive size of the US and its enormous influence around the world, it is imperative to understand the perspectives of his closest staff who had the capacity to influence this decision as well. These were members of his National Security Council (NSC), including his national security advisor, Anthony Lake, as well as Madeline Albright, the Secretary of Defense William Perry, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) James Woolsey and the CJCS General John Shalikashvili.

The NSC was established by the National Security Act of 1947 to “provide a comprehensive program for the … security of the United States.” It is the “principal forum for consideration of national security policy issues requiring presidential determination.” This forum is the primary channel for the most influential members of the executive branch to give foreign policy advice to the president. President Clinton issued PDD 2 — Organization of the National Security Council — in January 1993. Following the guidance of the original 1947 law, he directed that the principal members of the NSC would be the secretaries of state and defense. However, he additionally mandated that the head of the CIA and the CJCS would also attend NSC meetings.

President Clinton never convened his NSC during the three months of the genocide to specifically discuss Rwanda. While there were other issues being discussed at the time, including Haiti, Bosnia and North Korea, the fact that Rwanda did not merit its own meeting is peculiar. Due to the nature of his professional and personal relationship with Clinton, Anthony Lake had the power and influence to convene a meeting or at least broach the subject.

The genocide was being reported heavily by mid-April 1994 by leading newspapers and news organizations around the world. Lake retrospectively defended himself from criticism by saying he had been focused on other global security issues. Like all who were involved in this collective lack of decision-making, he assigned the blame to others. He explained: “When I wake up every morning and look at the headlines … I want to work to end every conflict … to save every child … but neither we, nor the international community, have either the mandate, nor the resources, nor the possibility of resolving every conflict of this kind.” This type of obfuscation was prevalent amongst key US policymakers, who must have known that genocide differs greatly from routine conflict.

The late Warren Christopher penned a 566-page book four years after the genocide, In the Stream of History. In it, he barely mentions Rwanda, only briefly touching on the humanitarian assistance the US provided the area following the end of the genocide, in July 1994, when the international community was dealing with the hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees. This is bizarre because his book is written in a chronological order, yet inexplicably skips from March 1994 to the end of May 1994.

Christopher actually made things worse for the victims in Rwanda in two ways. First, after the small UN peacekeeping force that was in Rwanda was attacked and 10 Belgian soldiers were killed, he supported the removal of all the UN forces from Rwanda in late April. These soldiers were on a UN peacekeeping mission, the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). They were under the command of Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, who was pleading with the UN for more soldiers to stop the atrocities. Because the Hutus were armed with simple tools such as machetes, sharpened shovels and picks, Dallaire thought even a relatively small quantity of around 5,000 soldiers could make a difference in preventing further killings. After the murder of the Belgian soldiers, and within two weeks of the start of the genocide, the international community became hesitant to get involved. Christopher’s call for a UN withdrawal appears to have reinforced this reluctance, probably contributing to even more deaths.

Second, Christopher simply refused to acknowledge the word “genocide” in numerous instances during the first two months of the mass killings. It was not until May 21, 1994, that he gave permission to US State Department officials to use the term “acts of genocide.” This diplomatic dance was simply done to avoid committing the US to action. Warren Christopher’s refusal to admit that the violence taking place within Rwanda was indeed genocide gave the US sufficient diplomatic cover to avoid becoming involved. The international community followed America’s lead, and the Hutus continued their ethnic cleansing through June 1994.

Madeline Albright, an early advocate for deploying US troops to stop ethnic fighting at the outset of the Clinton administration, was then the US ambassador to the UN. She is well known for her contrasting views regarding Powell’s reluctance to deploy the military without a clear political objective. In 1993 she famously asked Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about, if we can’t use it?” in response to his advocacy for clear political objectives and an exit strategy. Only a few days before the Somalia debacle, Albright spoke to the National War College and “reaffirmed the US commitment” in areas of “greatest humanitarian concern.” It appears the Somalia Syndrome affected her perspective as well. She admitted in her 2003 biography that her experience in Somalia made her “defensive and cautious about UN peacekeeping.”

Albright also acknowledged that during the last few days of April 1994, she realized Rwanda was not just a civil war but indeed a genocide. She claimed she received instruction to support a full UN withdrawal of the UNAMIR mission in late April 1994. These instructions, although not explicitly stated, had to come from President Clinton, and appear synchronized with Christopher’s call for a full UN withdrawal.

Albright also tied together several other key pieces to this lack-of-action puzzle. In early May, the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted similar measures as the highly restrictive ones in the United States’ PDD – 25, and staff from the US and UNSC engaged in extensive debates over tactics and strategy for resolving the crisis. These negotiations concluded with the UNSC finally issuing a weak statement that simply blamed the interim Rwandan government. Albright also wrote that the Pentagon did not think the UN could rally support for a multinational peacekeeping force for a humanitarian operation while the atrocities were still occurring. Six weeks after the start of the killings, she was finally able to get the UN to agree to a resolution to establish safe havens for refugees “where feasible.” Sadly, this may have contributed to even more deaths as many Tutsis were allegedly killed trying to travel to these safe havens.

However, getting nations, including the US, to sign up for the peacekeeping duties in the middle of this dangerous situation was a non-starter. Somewhere between 1993 and 1994, Ambassador Albright lost her zeal for intervention.

Other Worries

Less influential was the new secretary of defense, William Perry. Perry had been in his position less than two months when the genocide began, replacing Les Aspin who had resigned following the Somalia fiasco. The Pentagon was dealing not only with budgetary constraints from Congress following the end of the Cold War, but it was also working on other geo-political hot spots during this time frame, including North Korea and Haiti. Perry was an inexperienced cabinet member who had been a career civil servant, primarily a mathematician and budget specialist, prior to his appointment as defense secretary, and it is possible that he lacked motivation to get involved in another unpopular conflict after seeing his former boss lose his job over Somalia. He reflected recently that without the Somalia disaster, the US probably would have gotten involved in Rwanda. Perry also shifted the blame for an absence of US action on a lack of comprehensive situational understanding by himself onto President Clinton.

Although the PDD 2 called for the inclusion of the CIA director in its meetings, the relationship between James Woolsey and President Clinton was virtually non-existent; he is not even mentioned in Clinton’s biography. However, no one has accused the CIA of withholding intelligence about Rwanda from the NSC. In CIA reporting leading up to the genocide, Woolsey’s agency predicted that between 300,000 and 500,000 Rwandans could be killed if their ethnic tensions were not resolved. This report was submitted less than three weeks before the plane crash that killed President Habyarimana. Although Woolsey did nothing to initiate action, it appears he at least ensured the president knew the potential ramifications for inaction.

Given Perry’s inexperience Shalikashvili, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arguably had a larger influence in the NSC than normal. A disciple of the Powell Doctrine, Shalikashvili was primarily concerned with protecting US forces. As sarcastically noted by Dallaire, “The great humanitarians in the US government wanted no part of anything inside Rwanda that could lead to US casualties.” Shalikashvili was likely in that group, as at this time he was focused on threats on the Korean peninsula and downsizing the post-Cold War US military. Seeing no interest displayed from the other principal members of the NSC, he likely had no interest in recommending the US getting involved in Rwanda. This left most of those in government who wanted to get involved further down the chain of command in the vast bureaucracies of the US government.

In retrospect, it seems that several lower-ranking government employees attempted to encourage action to no avail. According to Jared Cohen, a former Rhodes Scholar, founder of Google Ideas and current senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, “Rwanda never stood a chance in American bureaucracy.” The bureaucratic system of the US is famous for its inefficiencies. Large, lethargic and slow to change, US federal government agencies normally use an organizational process model that is supposed to be responsive to a broad spectrum of problems, but it is frequently inept. Awaiting a new NSS and witnessing the political fallout over Somalia, career bureaucrats could see no positive reasons to champion the cause of intervention. With the departmental heads showing no initiative, it is no surprise their subordinates did not either. While some in the Department of State, such as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Prudence Bushnell and Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck attempted to raise the issue in inter-agency meetings, it got little traction. For every bureaucrat who sought to raise the issue, there were others, like PDD 25 chief architect Richard Clarke, who would squash it by burying it in endless debate and bureaucratic wrangling. In the end, the lack of leadership of the president, mirrored by his key advisors, led to no action from the US.

Hindsight is nearly always perfect. It is relatively easy criticize the lack of US involvement in Rwanda two decades on. The deaths of US Soldiers in Somalia that appear to have contributed heavily to the Clinton administration’s decision process seem to pale when compared to the casualty rates of the wars the US is fighting today. However, it appears that President Clinton evaluated the nation’s priorities and decided military engagement was not politically viable to the American public.

In the years since, competing national interests continue to drive US response to contemporary issues throughout the world. The international community has made some positive changes for earlier intervention and became stronger on human rights with the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) adaptation at the UN and the strengthening of the International Criminal Court. However, genocide can still take place as more recently observed first in Darfur and now Myanmar.

A congressional hearing in 2004 that looked back on the lack of US intervention has not changed things much. Until Americans elect a president who changes its priorities regarding the enduring national interests, this may happen again. In the end, no one may ever know what went on in President Clinton’s mind regarding Rwanda. Given the enormous issues that US presidents must deal with daily, perhaps it is better to leave that to their own conscience. Ironically, the fiercest critic of America’s lack of involvement in Rwanda, Samantha Power, and most recently the US ambassador to the UN, now finds herself under similar scrutiny for America’s recent lack of response to counter human rights atrocities in Syria. As the poet Walter Foss reminds us, it is easier to “sit in the scorner’s seat and hurl the cynic’s ban” than to be the decision-maker.

*[Note: The original version of this article mistakenly stated that the media was reporting the genocide by mid-April 1993, instead of the correct 1994.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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