Blogs > Cliopatria > Rwanda, Clinton, and Responsibility

Mar 31, 2004 8:55 pm

Rwanda, Clinton, and Responsibility

An article in today’s Mail and Guardian reveals how the Clinton Administration knew about, but did not choose to address, the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Based on classified documents newly available, the report indicates that it was clear that the Administration knew more than it purported to know before and during the genocide.

These documents are worth seeing, the information is vital knowledge, but this is better categorized as confirmation of what we knew and suspected rather than as being truly new information. Indeed, in both Philip Gourevitch's masterful reportage"We Regret to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families," and to a lesser degree in Bill Berkeley's"The Graves Are Not Yet Full" Clinton complicity rings out loud and clear. The same is true in many other academic and scholarly sources.

Equally important is what this information tells us about the foreign policy that we ought to pursue. Since 1994 I have long argued that we failed egregiously in not intervening in Rwanda. It is, to my mind, the largest failure of the Clinton Presidency. Of course had Clinton attempted to engage in Rwanda, to commit the relatively few resources it would have taken to prevent the death of nearly a million civilians, many Republicans would have fought him, brandishing him an idealist and sneeringly deriding a"human rights approach" to foreign policy. So neither party should take these new revelations as affirmation of their virtue and the other side's vice.

What does this mean for us in the here and now? Well, it makes me ask of those who would deny our right to engage in either preemptive or unilateral foreign policy if Rwanda forces them to reconsider. Any engagement in Rwanda in 1993-1994 would have been preemptive. There is not much doubt about that. Further, long before worrying about a coalition, Clinton should have been planning to act. If other nations went along, great. If not, well, we had a responsibility that transcended getting the permission of Saudi Arabia, Iran, France, Russia, or even Australia and the British.

In other words, take away the increasingly obnoxious responses of the Bush Administration and the perceived arrogance of their conduct, and do all of the critics of the war really oppose preemption and unilateralism? Would they not have been willing to intervene and go it alone to prevent the murders of hundreds of thousands?

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Ophelia Benson - 4/2/2004

Yes, the discussion of Albright's work as UN ambassadoragainst doing anything about Rwanda in Gourevitch's book was something that shocked me profoundly. I can understand (disagree with, but understand) why the administration wasn't eager to get involved in Rwanda, after the mess in Somalia. But feverishly working to prevent other people from intervening? To - what? Save face? Now that is disgusting.

Derek Charles Catsam - 4/1/2004

Certainly the Clinton administration was more than merely inactive. This is whay i said it is the most shameful foreign policy moment, and indeed, policy moment, in his Presidency. And I agree the politics were huge. But I wish Presidents would sometimes lead more and follow politics less -- it isn't as if by trying to be politically savvy the guys on the other side of the aisle are going to cut you and our party slack when the next election rolls around.

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/1/2004

In a sense, the Clinton Administration did choose to address the Rwandan genocide, rather than do nothing. It chose to throw its weight behind the withdrawal of all UN forces, and positively worked against sending troops. It had the State Dept insist that the Genocide Treaty was not implicated because what we had were only individual cases of genocide -- whatever that is. The Republicans, to their shame, did not do anything positive either. I believe that Clinton later as much as admitted that his failure in Somalia made it "politically impossible" to do anything. That the US prevented action is outlined here:

Derek Charles Catsam - 4/1/2004

I guess my larger point is that there are some issues that are so important that we don't worry about whether or not France would veto (I doubt highly that they would have with Rwanda, though they may have wanted to have a large say in ops on the ground) and of course the UN was in Rwanda, helplessly watching much of the slaughter. My larger point is that Rwanda is a clear example of a case where I wouod not have cared if we acted unilaterally. I would not care if we had been preemptive. Indeed, on the latter I wish we had -- indeed there would have no other action but a preemptive one -- and on the former we could have. This gist of my argument is that for all of the wringing of hands, would critics of the war argue that we should not have gone into Rwanda premptively and alone if needed to have stopped genocide. I want to see if their oh-so-vital principles are borachable, or if in fact they stand by those principles to the tune of 900,000+ deaths. In other words, I am trying to establish the old "We now know what you are, the question is how much you cost" factor here.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/1/2004

France would be the obvious choice for a veto, because it has a colonial connection to Rwanda which (Derek can clarify this if I'm getting it wrong) has traditionally meant a sense on the part of France that large portions of Africa remain their bailiwick.

Usually a super-majority is 2/3rds, or 3/4ths. There are fifteen members, I think, including the five permanent members.

It's increasingly clear to me that the Security Council system isn't working all that well, but I've put very little energy into thinking about alternatives. The cynical side of me says that it matters very little unless we have leaders that are committed to internationalism which means something beyond free capital flows.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/31/2004

Jonathan, I'm not sure about the latter part of your comment. Only five powers have a Security Council veto now. I doubt, somehow, that any of them would have exercised a veto in the case of Rwanda because it should have been fairly obvious to all five powers that the United States had no imperial ambitions in Rwanda. I don't know what a super-majority in the case of the Security Council would be.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/31/2004

I would agree that preemption is not prima facie bad, but I would suggest that the standards which would need to be met for preemptive use of force would have to be very, very high.

I would agree that unilateralism is also not prima facie bad: there are plenty of cases where unilateral action could produce very good results, and independent states have the right to act unilaterally within the context of national and international law.

My problem really comes when you combine the two: unilateral preemption may be justified and reasonable in some cases, but only after very, very high standards of proof are met, clearly iminent risk is at stake, and real effort at multi-lateral solutions have failed. In otherwords, I think that unilateral preemption IS a bad thing, most of the time.

In the case of Rwanda the first two conditions were clearly present; the lack of the third was where we failed, because we didn't try. In the case of Iraq, none of those conditions were met to any significant degree (except perhaps the third, ironically).

I don't think that "multi-lateral" means "unanimous": this is why the UN Security Council so often fails to produce the results we think it should. I think the single-veto system is a holdover from the Cold War and should be replaced by super-majority rules, or perhaps a system in which more than one veto vote would be required to cancel out the will of the majority.

Derek Charles Catsam - 3/31/2004

Jonathan --
But what I am also arguing is that it should not have mattered in the Rwanda case whether or not the rest of the world was prepared to go in with us. We should have gone in, alone if necessary.
Yes, the window of opportunity was closing quickly, but the number of troops it would have taken is almost embarassingly small. If someone tells a president today that genocide is going to happen in Rwanda within days maybe months, it seems worth it to act fast. It is becoming more ad more clear that this was the case.
My larger point is this: The very concepts of preemption and unilateralism are not ptima facie bad, and I want to hear soemone say that without France's support they would not have gone into Rwanda. In other words, people are striking an argument of convenience today about a course of action they do not like when in other circumstances they may well be willing to engage in the same action when it suits their purpose. I agree with most of what you are saying. I maintain that partisanship as much as high ideals are behind much of the criticism of "the other side" in modern politics. I know I do it lamentably too often.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/31/2004

I agree that we had an opportunity and responsibility that we missed (, as we have so many other times. I disagree that "preemption and unilateralism" is the only alternative to inaction.

I would argue that a truly multi-lateral foreign policy would include mechanisms by which action could be taken quickly by a single nation with consultation and consent. Something like the UN Security council, perhaps..... Perhaps not. This seems like the kind of thing that the OAU was designed to do.

But, as you point out, preventive actions could have been taken before killings became genocide (I remember things as unfolding pretty quickly, but I haven't gone back over that history in a while): there was a window there where a resolved leader (who hadn't burned his bridges with the rest of the world) could have mustered support for immediate unilateral action to be followed by multilateral support.

In short, what you're arguing for is a utilitarian results-oriented foreign policy. I would argue that an ethical system-oriented foreign policy, pursued consistently, could produce similar results.

If, however, we're going to argue about preemptive and unilateral action, we need to both think about other examples (Yugoslavia, for example, where NATO intervention effectively raised the level of genocidal violence before producing any positive results) and talk about principles which should guide those actions. For example: the reasons for taking action should be clearly laid out and substantiable.

Subscribe to our mailing list