The Design of Absent Crisis: The Clinton Administration on the 1994 Rwandan Genocide

By Lauren Young
2010, Vol. 2 No. 04 | pg. 2/3 |

Amidst the healthcare debate raging in Washington, and Clinton’s struggle to achieve credibility over earlier international relations conflicts, Clinton’s issuance of the directive had been his way to save face. In the absence of being able to look effective in the face of earlier diplomatic crises, the President would at least be able to appear as if he was taking a step toward responsible action on the part of the United States. Such a decision, as many critics of Clinton would point out, had much to do with the attitude of the America people at the time, whose strong reaction, in particular to the events in Somalia that occurred surrounding “Black Hawk Down,” Clinton had to take into account, given that the 1994 midterm Congressional elections were nearly a mere six months away. “We were so preoccupied with Bosnia, with the memory of Somalia just six months old and with opposition in Congress the military deployment in faraway places not vital to our national interests [it was not possible to adequately focus on putting a stop to the slaughter]”(Clinton, 2004, 592).

On April 7, shortly after the plane crash killing President Habyarimana, the greatest involvement President Clinton would take in the Rwandan conflict for much of its duration was implemented and the evacuation of all American citizens on the ground in the country was ordered. (“I ordered the evacuation of all Americans and sent troops to guarantee [their] safety”) (Clinton 2004, 593). The United States had to be careful to protect its own people and could not afford the risk, or the appearance of, risking more American lives. This incident, famously immortalized in such films as director Terry George’s 2004, Hotel Rwanda has, in the wake of the genocide’s impact, become a policy used to illustrate the west’s indifference toward both conflict toward the Rwandan people. Those whom without foreign citizenship, were left to die as hundreds of mostly American and European citizens boarded United Nations planes to take them to safety.

However, the justification for such criticism must be examined. There can be no argument the United States possessed a worthy interest in the well being of those Americans stationed there, or in the safety of its ambassador to Rwanda, David Rowson. As the genocide progressed it became clear to those who stayed behind, by force or by choice, that the presence of foreigners---even as few as a dozen United Nations peacekeepers--- could protect dozens, even hundreds of more lives; the Hutu militias and police officials participating in the killings were hesitant to participate in the slaughter of men, women, and children, often entire families, in front of foreigners (Wilkins, Filmed Interview, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2009).

Yet, there is absolutely no way the United States could have known or assumed those who made up the mobs, intoxicated, and often high on a variety of stimulants, would have been deterred by the mere presence of a westerner, particularly one who was Caucasian. The evacuations also drastically decreased the personnel on the ground, leaving only Commander Dallaire with his two thousand- six hundred UNAMIR peacekeeping forces.

The evacuation of Americans from Rwanda, while perhaps prudent of Clinton from a domestic political perspective in the wake of the coming midterm elections, did not help to give the United States any more sense of its foreign policy goals than their choice to apply an old framework of circumstances in international relations ultimately would. Before the genocide had occurred, the United States had been threatening to “yank” the United Nations Peacekeepers for their failure to implement the Arusha Accords. For some of those in the administration actually following the genocide withdrawal of the Peacekeepers seemed a favorable idea, so great was the fear of incurring any more casualties that could be attributed to the American side. However, as one Senior American official characterized the policy, “…that is like believing that when children are misbehaving, the proper response is ‘Let’s send the babysitter home’” (Power, 2001, 9).

Nevertheless, the United States pushed for a decline in the presence of UNAMIR forces. The UNAMIR forces had already endured substantial shortages in their funding and supplies yet saw no hope in any renewal of funds from the United States. Although the Clinton administration had entered office better disposed toward peacekeeping than any other Administration in United States history, “it felt the Department of Peacekeeping Operations needed fixing and demanded that the United Nations “learn to say no” to chancy or costly missions” (Weiner, 1998, 1). Undoubtedly such attitude was partly due to the economic situation faced by the United States as Clinton entered his first term of office. During his first term as President, Clinton spent much of his time attempting to shift the attention of the public away from his foreign policy failures in Bosnia and Haiti, as well as from the Whitewater scandal and the healthcare debate that would engulf the first years of his administration. In doing this, Clinton attempted to shift more focus on the economy, his goal to reduce America’s large deficit, lower the debt, and once again “make [the United States’] economy thrive again” (Clinton’s State of the Union Address, 1993). Such plans did not leave room for distractions in the form of the United States assuming its obligatory cost of one-third of a United Nations mission, which once again had no demonstrable American interest (Power, 2001, 5).

American patience with peacekeeping was weaning, and had begun to slowly evaporate over time. This was particularly true in regions such as Africa, where repeated attempts at intervention s had proved fruitless. No matter what the efforts put forth by the United States and the international community it seemed various populations in different nations were intent upon killing one another, sometimes for thousand -year old tribal conflicts. A certain “blindness manifested by familiarity” (Power, 2001, 10) had begun to manifest itself among the Unites States and other Western Powers. Africa as a whole was an unsolvable issue, and unlike the Middle East did not garner nearly enough press coverage to warrant it sufficient attention in the minds of the Clinton administration, or those looking toward its legacy. Upon his appointment as Deputy Secretary for African Affairs at the Department of Defense, James Woods was asked to provide of potential serious crises the new Clinton administration might face. While Rwanda was on his initial list, according to Woods, it was promptly taken off. Woods, receiving guidance from “higher authorities” was told,

"Look, if something happens in Rwanda…we don’t care…U.S. national interest is not involved and we can’t put all these silly humanitarian issues on lists, like important problems like the Middle East, North Korea and so on. Just make it go away" (Glanville, 2006, 190).

In addition to Rwanda’s location in a region marked by instability throughout much of the latter part of the twentieth century; in the aftermath of the Arusha Accords, many in the international community assumed the unrest taking place in the early days of April 1994 to be a reaction to sanctions imposed under the accords. President Habyarimana’s death was not seen so much as a catalyst in this outlook as it was simply the event which has allowed for what was initially perceived to be a civil war to occur. Despite warnings coming from the few, like Bushnell, who understood something of Rwandan history and conflict trends, it took many in the international community far too long to realize just what was occurring in Rwanda. It was not until the last week of April, as Madeline Albright, the United States’ representative to the United Nations at the time, recounts she “…Realized along with most of the world that what was occurring [in Rwanda] was not just terrible violence but genocide” (Albright, 2003, 190).

As details of the attacks emerged, with greater circulation of events unfolding in the media, the Clinton administration still neglected to address the crisis in any way. Logic would suggest this could be attributed to the administration’s desire to take a firm stance on Presidential Decision Directive Twenty Five, its newest foreign policy edict. However, Regardless of the directive Clinton issued, Rwanda was not on the administration’s agenda. “I was obsessed with Haiti and Bosnia during that period…Rwanda was…a ‘sideshow’…not even a sideshow---a no-show… Our sin…was an error of omission—of never considering that issue” (Harris, 2005, 127). Said Tony Lake, Clinton’s National Security Advisor from 1993-1997, whom surely would have been one of the key figures to bring the crisis to Clinton’s attention had higher authorities felt it merited his full attention.

While the Clinton administration preferred to “omit” Rwanda from its agenda, the media was pushing it toward the public eye more than ever. As early as April 10, The New York Times had “quoted the Red Cross claim that ‘tens of thousands’ were dead, eight thousand in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali alone” (Power, 2001, 13). As descriptions of “piles of corpses six feet high” (The Washington Post, 1994) and accounts emerged detailing scenes such as did one reporter for The Washington Post in a 1994 article, “the heads and limbs of victims were sorted and piled neatly, a bone chilling order in the midst of the chaos that harked back to the Holocaust” (Power, 2001, 13) the term genocide became more and more difficult to suppress. On April 19, the Human Rights Watch organization officially estimated the dead in Rwanda to be at least one hundred thousand, and called for official use of the term “genocide.”

As such reports emerged, the administration’s main directive became trying to deny that the situation in Rwanda was in fact genocide. As early as April 17, Commander Romeo Dallaire, still on the ground with his peacekeeping forces, continuously sent cables to the United Nation’s New York headquarters, “…The militia…groups controlling important arteries and areas of the city…are a very large, dangerous and totally irrational group of people [.]” Dallaire would continue his description in another, more detailed message,

"Behind RGF [Rwandan Government Forces] lines, the massacre of Tutsis and moderate Hutus... is taking place. Bodies litter the streets and pose a significant health hazard. RTLM radiobroadcasts inflammatory speeches and songs exhorting the population to destroy all Tutsis… In Kigali frequent roadblocks are established, ID cards checked and Tutsis executed on thee spot…The militia have displayed drunkenness, drug abuse, and sadistic brutality. They do not respect the UN flag, the Red Cross or any other human symbol…" (Melvern, 2004, 164)

Despite such reports of such nightmarish conditions as the information made its way to the White House from the United Nations, those like Commander Dallaire in Rwanda were continually met with indifference from sources of power. On May 3, 1994, the White House released the United States’ new policy toward U.N. peace operations, based on PDD-25 (Albright, 2003,191). During a news conference on that same day a Ugandan journalist asked Clinton if the United States and the United Nations “might save lives in Rwanda.” Clinton replied, “Well perhaps” noting that the conscience of the world had grieved over events, but adding that the American experience in Somalia showed, “there is a political and military element to this’ that cannot be easily addressed by outsiders” (Harris, 2005, 128).

For the sake of American interests, or rather lack of interest, intervening in a conflict where no visible national interests were present depended upon the United States policy of non-recognition of the genocide in Rwanda.

Rwanda’s status as one of Africa’s poorest nations rendered supplying Dallaire’s UNAMIR troops very expensive. The United States had grown weary of the financial contribution it was required to assume for such missions.

More importantly to Clinton and his administration, such a venture could be spun by Republicans as more needless missions into international conflicts in which the United States had not real interest, and detract from Clinton’s overarching focus on the economy. The Presidential Decision Directive provided Clinton with a clear means by which he could avoid discussion about Rwanda, as he now had legal reason against intervening in a conflict in which it did not solicit any obvious American involvement.

Prior to the resolution expanding the United Nations mission, the United States had firmly vetoed a proposal by United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, essentially eliminating all possibility of the United Nations’ leader’s plan coming to fruition. While perhaps this may have been due to the hostility between Clinton and Boutros-Ghali whom Clinton blamed for his initial entry into Somalia, and who as Egyptian Foreign Minister had negotiated millions of dollars of arms sales with Rwanda between 1990 and 1992 (Melvern, 2004, 65-66). Frequently, the United States has found itself in an awkward position where the powers of the United Nations are concerned. As the world’s sole superpower, the United States carries a certain degree of implied knowledge and a level of influence the United Nation at times struggles to achieve.

Where other countries look to the United Nations as a source by which they may enforce their authority abroad, or collaborate with foreign powers, the United States is often sought as a co-equal ally to the massive body of nations. Where the United States, as the most powerful army in the world may wield its military influence, to the point where the entirety of the international community looks to it for guidance; the United Nations Peacekeepers may not even fire their guns unless as a measure of self defense.

Earlier, in the wake of the May announcement of the United States’ new United Nations intervention program following Presidential Decision Directive Twenty Five, experts for the United Nations and the Pentagon experts had begun research on whether or not it was wise to deploy a peacekeeping troop to Rwanda. Both sides were unable to reach a decision. United Nations officials wanted a force based in Kigali that would somehow “ensure safe conditions,” while using force only in self-defense but without waiting for a cease-fire. The Pentagon did not think the United Nations could get countries to participate in such a plan, in the midst of a still raging civil war (Albright, 2003, 192).

Rather, the United States proposed the creation of a secure “safe zone” just inside the Rwandan border with Uganda in an attempt to protect endangered civilian populations, and provide a more secure setting for the delivery of food supplies and medical aid. Rwandan experts did not greet such a proposition warmly; it would prove nearly impossible for the majority of civilians to reach the secured area, many may not even attempt it for fear of being killed along the way. Finally, on May 17, the United Nations and the United States adopted a resolution providing for an expanded United Nations mission “with a mandate to create secure humanitarian areas ‘where feasible” (Albright, 2003,192). The great majority of these areas, where the safety of aid workers could be completely secured, were by and large, far removed from the killings, centered far from many populated areas, and situated along the borders of neighboring countries.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

More than half a century ago, famed philosopher George Santayana observed, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In the 20th century alone, the world bore witness to the Holocaust in Europe, as well as genocide in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and most recently, Darfur. In terms of history, these events occurred within a relatively short span of time, leading one to believe that remembrance alone is not the... MORE»
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“The genocide was a collective act. What made it possible, what made that final political crime possible was the absence, the erasure of seeing the other, of knowing, of feeling, of being with the other. And when that's removed, then politics can become genocidal.”  – James Orbinski on Rwanda... MORE»
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