Bill Clinton He Thought The Rwandan Genocide Was Just One of These Things

1992-2000

“It is necessary that we invest in our infrastructure, stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us and use that money to rebuild our tunnels, roads, bridges and schools – and nobody can do that better than me.” 

—Donald Trump, June 16, 2015


When the Trump Transition Team was getting their boss ready not to be ready to take office, it sent a questionnaire to the State Department that is still a useful hint about what Trump’s foreign policy might look like. One of the questions was about PEPFAR, a program created by George W. Bush to buy AIDS drugs for people in developing countries, mostly in Africa. “Is PEPFAR,” Trump’s advisors asked, “becoming a massive, international entitlement program?” This is a question written by people unable to escape the 1980s stereotype of welfare queens living high on the hog off taxpayer money. In this rendering, living instead of dying from AIDS in Johannesburg is a luxury comparable to buying cigarettes with food stamps in Detroit.

If the “skinny” budget blueprint released two weeks ago is any indication, the Trump Administration is indeed inclined to cut foreign aid “entitlement programs” to the bone (though PEPFAR itself was singled out as safer than the rest). In the end, Congress probably won’t go along with the full gutting, but there will be cuts. And when they take effect, people will die. When it comes to American politics, some deaths are seen as more acceptable than others, and African deaths are the most acceptable of all. There is no other way to explain why Bill Clinton didn’t try to stop the genocide of at least 800,000 human beings in the span of 100 days in Rwanda in the spring and summer of 1994.

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You can barely see Rwanda. Look for Dem. Rep. of the Congo in yellow smack dab in the middle, squint, and then look right.

I get it. Rwanda was the quintessence of obscure, a tiny country most people had never heard of surrounded by other countries they’d never heard of, like the innermost doll in a Russian nesting set shoved in a box in the attic years ago. It is not surprising that a newbie president from Arkansas might not appreciate all the nuances of Hutu-Tutsi politics. But Bill Clinton was in charge of a phalanx of bureaucracies designed to learn what you and I don’t know about the world and report back to him, so he could do the right thing in places like Rwanda.

It’s not that he didn’t care. Clinton is one of the great empathizers in world history. He happened to have met a Rwandan human-rights activist four months before the genocide, and he obsessed over her well-being and hounded his staff to find out what had happened to her. The problem is that he couldn’t see the humanity in the abstraction of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans. Somehow, their suffering fell into a different, more cynical category for him, his advisors, and most of the world.

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Dead bodies washing up down river.

Our intellectual framework for genocide is the Holocaust. Therefore, our image of how it’s actually carried out is Auschwitz—that is, in specialized murder factories staffed by trained murder workers. The Rwandan genocide was propelled by a different strategy. The reactionary ruling faction of Hutus used propaganda, bribery, and threats to mobilize literally hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens to murder Tutsis and Hutu moderates wherever they might be with whatever weapons came to hand. The bodies were left to rot where they fell. From April and July, Rwandans were killed in this fashion at an average rate of one every 10 seconds.

The everydayness of the killing, the lack of secrecy shrouding it, helped Americans stick to the lazy and racist assumption that violence was simply Africa’s primordial inheritance. Whatever was happening in Rwanda belonged to the same savage family of behavior as the disaster in Somlia the year before, when militias dragged dead American soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu. Besides, the Hutu government and a Tutsi-led rebel army had been fighting a Civil War since 1990, so it was also easy to conclude that the genocide wasn’t genocide but just the blood-thirsty tit-for-tat of ongoing warfare.

Unless the world community can stop finding ways to dither in the face of this monstrous threat to humanity those words Never Again will persist in being one of the most abused phrases in the English language and one of the greatest lies of our time. Paul Rusesabagina (Hotel Rwanda guy)

The Clinton Administration, though, should have known otherwise. From the very beginning, it received credible reports of the highly organized erasure of Tutsi civilians. In January, almost three months before the killing started in earnest, Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian Commander of a UN Peacekeeping force of 2,500 soldiers (none American), reported what he’d heard from a government informant: they had been ordered to register Tutsis for the purpose of “exterminating” them, and the plan was to murder some Belgian peacekeepers as soon as possible to get Belgium to remove all of them. (Belgium, it should be noted, ruled the colony of Rwanda until 1962 and invented the use of ethnic identity cards distinguishing between Hutu and Tutsi.)

Now, who knows how many alarming warnings the UN was getting from all over the world, with no way of knowing ahead of time that Dallaire’s would turn out to be so accurate? And the Clinton Administration was already taking a beating for its intervention in Bosnia and Haiti and still reeling from Somalia. Maybe they get a pass for not foreseeing what was coming.

This short history is not bad. There's too much on the civil war and not enough on the genocide as a distinct thing, but it gives you nice background in a soothing English accent.

But starting on April 6, when an airplane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down, dire predictions started turning into observable facts. On April 7, 10 Belgian peacekeepers were sliced up with machetes. On April 9, Dallaire saw the scale of the killing firsthand. Inside a Catholic church he “found 150 people, dead mostly, though some were still groaning, who had been attacked the night before.” According to the Polish priests, “it had been incredibly well organized. The Rwandan army had cleared out the area, the gendarmerie had rounded up all the Tutsi, and the militia had hacked them to death.”

The next day, Dallaire asked the UN for an additional 2,500 troops and permission to stop the murder (since they were sent there to be peacekeepers in the context of the civil war, they were under strict orders not to appear to take sides). Instead, the Belgian government decided to withdraw its 400 peacekeepers, as the Hutu government predicted it would. Belgium didn’t want to abandon Rwanda all by itself, so the foreign minister asked the United States to back a request to pull Dallaire’s entire force out. Two weeks later, the UN security council voted to keep just 270 troops in Rwanda. According to the American ambassador to the UN, Madeline Albright, this “skeletal” force would “show the will of the international community.” It did.

We watched as the devil took control of paradise on earth and fed on the blood of the people we were supposed to protect. Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire

Throughout the crisis, President Clinton never called a meeting of his team about Rwanda. His national security advisor never gathered the cabinet-level members of the foreign policy team to figure out what to do. A month into the genocide, Clinton was asked about Rwanda and said, “Lesson number one is, don’t go into one of these things”—these things apparently being African things—“and say, as the U.S. said when we started in Somalia, ‘Maybe we’ll be done in a month because it’s a humanitarian crisis.’” This message of neglect and caution trickled down. When mid-level Rwanda experts suggested jamming the Rwandan radio station that broadcast the names of Tutsis to be killed, their mid-level colleagues at the Defense Department said no, in part because the jamming technology “costs approximately $8500 per flight hour.”

If the Clinton Administration spent time on Rwanda, it was devoted to a “depends on what the definition of is is”-style parsing of the word “genocide.” The reverse-engineered rationale for this exercise was that since genocide carried with it a legal and moral obligation to intervene, and we weren’t intervening, this couldn’t be genocide. “In order to actually attach the genocide label to actions which are going on,” said a state department spokesperson, “involves looking at several categories of actions.” Two months later, the same spokesperson was willing to say that “acts of genocide have occurred in Rwanda.” A reporter asked, “How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?” “That’s just not a question I’m in a position to answer,” was the answer.

Three generations of Clinton on Rwanda. On top, he's talking about the humanitarian effort in July 1994. Note just before 1:30, where, still not getting it, he emphasizes that we weren't going to be keeping any peace. The second is his formal apology in Rwanda in 1998. The money shot is just before 5:00. Finally, just a few years ago, in an interview. To me, it sounds like he still doesn't totally appreciate the magnitude of his failure.

On May 14, five weeks into the genocide, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa hand-delivered a letter to the White House requesting the United States give Dallaire the 5,000 peacekeepers he asked for. “Obviously there are risks involved,” they wrote, but it wasn’t an option “to sit idly by while this tragedy continues to unfold.” It took three weeks for Clinton to respond in the negative.

The genocide finally ended in July, when the rebel army led by the current Rwandan President Paul Kagame “won” the civil war and established a new government. On July 15, as the Hutu government was going into exile, Clinton finally closed its embassy in Washington, DC, saying that he could not “allow representatives of a regime that supports genocidal massacres to remain on our soil.” They had remained on our soil for more than three months, and President Clinton still couldn’t bring himself to say “genocide.”

There is a passage in Philip Gourevitch’s prize-winning book, written in the years immediately following the genocide, about the unknowability of what happens next: “[I]f you’re some kind of archaeologist who digs this book up in the distant future, five or fifty or five hundred years from now, there’s a chance that Rwanda will be a peaceful land of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Twenty years later, it isn’t yet. Liberty is a serious problem. Among other abuses, Paul Kagame amended the constitution so that he could stay in power after his term of office should have been over. But under Kagame, and with help from programs like PEPFAR supported by Presidents Bush and Obama, Rwanda is also making stunning progress toward life.

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The numbers are a little distracting. Just pay attention to the orange line. The trend you see in this chart has continued since 2010.

One measure of this success is the increasing likelihood that Rwandan children will receive the basic health care they need to survive to adulthood instead of dying of AIDS, diarrhea, malaria, measles, pneumonia, or other diseases like them. Babies born the year after the genocide had a 25 percent chance of dying by the time they turned 5. Babies born today have less than a 5 percent chance of dying. What percent chance do you think they’ll have when Donald Trump is through cutting their “entitlements?”

There’s a lot of excellent stuff to read on the genocide. Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families is a classic. He traveled to Rwanda as a journalist about a year after the genocide and chronicled what had happened and how Rwandans were trying to start over again. If you want a more policy-centered view from Washington–if you really want to understand Clinton’s failure–the chapter on Rwanda in Samantha Power’s A Problem From Hell is clear and convincing. There are two memoirs you might start with if you prefer. Romeo Dallaire, who suffered personally for his failure to get Clinton and his peers to act much more than Clinton has suffered for his failure to act, wrote Shake Hands With the Devil. Paul Rusesabagina, the Hotel Rwanda guy, wrote An Ordinary Man. Rusesabagina is controversial in Rwanda; some people think he added some things and left out some others to make himself look good. It’s still worth reading. As far as reading about the Clinton Presidency, it’s so recent that it’s mostly by journalists. The Survivor, by John F. Harris, the Washington Post reporter, is fun to read and illuminating about the man. Joe Klein’s The Natural came out right after Clinton left office, but it’s a nice, short read. The American Presidents Series entry on Clinton, by Michael Tomasky, just came out. It’s also pretty good. All three of the Clinton books I mention strike me as even-handed, which is hard to come by when it comes to Clinton. There’s a lot of more clearly pro and con stuff out there if you prefer. I couldn’t bring myself to read My Life, Clinton’s 1,056-page memoir.

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