ONE OF THE most horrific orgies of violence in modern history broke out 25 years ago this month in Rwanda. Nearly a million men, women, and children were clubbed or hacked to death, many by their own neighbors, in the space of three months. World leaders turned away.
Since then, this tragedy has been repeatedly invoked to justify American intervention in foreign conflicts. Those who push the United States toward invading, occupying, or bombing faraway lands like to warn that the alternative could be “another Rwanda.” This is a perverse twisting of history. The world failed Rwanda through acts of cold political calculation, not by refusing to deploy armies.
Key members of the Clinton administration have said they regret not acting to stop the 1994 genocide. Some of them, along with other advocates of “humanitarian intervention,” decided that the best way to expiate their guilt would be to promote the quicker use of American military power.
An account of President Obama’s disastrous decision to join the 2011 bombing of Libya, published by Foreign Policy, found that “Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, Susan Rice, the US permanent representative to the UN, and Samantha Power, [National Security Council] senior director for multilateral affairs, led the charge to war specifically to avoid ‘another Rwanda.’” Rice later said that after the Rwanda trauma, “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action.”
The phrase “another Rwanda” has also been used in calls for deeper American intervention in Kosovo, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan. Most recently, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States was asked about the wisdom of intervention in Venezuela and replied, “If you would have stopped the genocide in Rwanda after 100 people were killed, we wouldn’t be talking about the genocide.”
This misuse of history is magnificently convenient for those who believe the United States can save masses of lives by intervening wherever in the world it decides that bad people are doing bad things. It allows them to soothe their consciences while continuing to promote the aggressive projection of American power — and ignoring deeper truths behind the world’s failure to act in Rwanda.
No faction in Rwanda ever asked for direct American intervention there, nor was it ever discussed in Washington. If the US shares guilt for the Rwandan genocide, it lies not in our refusal to invade. It is to be found in the way ambition and politics came to obscure humanity, both in Washington and at the United Nations.
FOR MONTHS BEFORE the killing began in Rwanda, the commander of the small UN peacekeeping force there, General Romeo Dallaire, appealed frantically for reinforcements. He asked his boss, Kofi Annan, head of UN peacekeeping operations, for permission to raid depots where the regime was stockpiling weapons for genocide. Annan refused.
He later said he made this choice because “when you’re operating in that sort of context with limited troops and facilities, you have to be careful what sort of risks they take.” Annan was also, however, eager to reach the top UN job, secretary-general. That required support from France, which was supporting the genocidal regime in Rwanda. Annan had to know that if he approved Dallaire’s proposed raid on arms depots, he would alienate France and ruin his chance of winning the job he coveted.
Annan’s office told Dallaire that the raid “clearly goes beyond the mandate” and could lead to “unanticipated repercussions.” The thousands of Chinese-made machetes that Dallaire was not allowed to seize in January 1994 were used to spill fratricidal blood in the rampage that began 10 weeks later.
A parallel drama unfolded in Washington. Peacekeeping operations had become unpopular in the United States following the death of American soldiers in Somalia. Midterm elections were approaching. President Clinton wanted to be seen as anti-peacekeeping. That led Clinton’s national security adviser Richard Clarke to suggest, according to an internal memo, ‘that Rwanda may be the case the NSC is looking for to prove that the US can say ‘No’ to a peacekeeping operation.’”
Clinton’s ambassador at the UN, Madeleine Albright, enthusiastically promoted that agenda. She was ambitious for the top job in her world, secretary of state.
If Albright had confronted Clinton and demanded that he support a reinforced peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, she probably would have irritated him. Instead she did as he wished. In mid-April, as genocide in Rwanda was reaching full fury, she told the Security Council that the United States not only opposed giving General Dallaire the reinforcements he needed, but wanted his force cut to a “skeletal” level. The Security Council agreed. This was, in the words of an African diplomat who reviewed the episode years later, the “disastrous decision” that gave the “green light” for genocide. It also secured bright futures for Annan and Albright. By remaining silent, they pleased their masters. Both ultimately won the top jobs they wanted.
America’s contribution to genocide in Rwanda was not refusal to deploy the 82nd Airborne. A few thousand blue-helmeted peacekeepers from countries that had already volunteered — Ghana, Tunisia and Bangladesh — would have been enough. The lesson is clear: General Dallaire’s peacekeeping force should have been expanded, not cut.
Some in Washington, however, have taken a dangerously different lesson. Militarists who believe the United States should intervene in conflicts around the world now reflexively warn that restraint anywhere might produce “another Rwanda.” That argument insults the memory of Rwandan victims by using them as tools to justify war. Nonetheless it is effective.
In the quarter-century since the Rwandan genocide, more people may have died in wars waged to prevent “another Rwanda” than died in the genocide itself.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.