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

By Lauren Young
2010, Vol. 2 No. 04 | pg. 1/3 |

The year 1993 was not a good one for Bill Clinton. An exception, perhaps, being the morning of January 20th when he stood at the west front of the United States Capitol building and took the Oath of Office to become the forty- second President of the United States, the first Democrat in over a decade to do so. It would seem luck had utterly abandoned Clinton somewhere between his pledge to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” and the removal of his left hand from the Bible. “So help me, God” Clinton said at his oath’s conclusion before a crowd of hundreds of thousands. “So help me, God.” There is only speculation of what truly goes through the mind of any individual upon the assumption of such awesome power and responsibility as contained within the Presidency of the United States, but perhaps were Clinton at all able to anticipate the year that lay ahead, he would have paused over those words for a spare few seconds more.

Map of RwandaAs the bubble of the Presidency began to set in, it is unlikely the skilled American policy expert from Arkansas gave much thought to the audience around the world who tuned in to his Inauguration that Day. Even more unlikely is it he gave his attention to those assembled in the hills of a country halfway around the world, who likely had no television sets in their homes that day, nor radios broadcasting his booming, raspy, Southern drawl.

Had Clinton been able to see what lay ahead for him within the coming year, it is doubtful history would have been different. Surely he would have concluded, in the wake of the international relations crises caused by Somalia and Haiti that he could not afford to bungle more foreign policy than he already had. No, Clinton and his administration would have surmised that 1994 would have to be a different year. Thus, eight hundred thousand would still be condemned to die.

“I found myself walking through villages where the only sign of life was a goat, or a chicken, or a songbird, as all the people were dead, their bodies being eaten by voracious packs of wild dogs.” - General Romeo Dallaire, UNAMIR Force Commander, 1994

Rwanda is a relatively small country situated in Central Africa, occupying an area slightly smaller than the state of Maryland (Encyclopedia of the Nations). It is bordered to the north by Uganda, to the south, its largest border, by Burundi, to the west by Tanzania, and to the east by the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Similarly to the United States, Rwanda has a series of “great” or main lakes, the largest, Lake Kivu, stretches along the Congolese border, covering a total area of 1,040 square miles (2,700 km2). The “Land of a Thousand Hills,” Rwanda is well known for its rolling grassy terrain, and with ten million inhabitants, is the most densely populated country on the African continent. Originally inhabited by the Twa, a hunting and gathering pygmy populace, (Sebarenzi, 2009, 11) which currently accounts for about one percent of the Rwandan population (Fisher, 1999) it remains unclear when the nation’s two dominant ethnic groups, Hutu and Tutsi, emerged. The Hutus and the Tutsi have a complex pattern of coexistence and violence intertwined with their people’s and Rwanda’s history.

The Tutsi, the far less populous, but firmly entrenched aristocracy of Rwanda’s two primary ethnic groups1, enjoyed the majority of the share of power in Rwanda until the arrival of the Germans in 1894, who had acquired Rwanda through the Berlin Conference of 1885. The Germans arrival would also bring that of Catholic priests, whose conversion efforts found an abundance of success among the larger population of the Hutu, and who rewarded their followers with food, property, land and livestock taken from less powerful Tutsis. The new religious conflict added to the tension between the groups that had existed since the centuries old monarchy itself.

Upon Germany’s defeat in World War I Rwanda was taken over by Belgium in 1918. For many years the European continent had been fascinated by “race science” and upon their arrival in the country, Belgians brought with them “scientific proof” of the differences between the two that transcended the barriers of class. The Belgians instituted a stringent system of classification for the Hutus and Tutsis, conducting a nationwide census in 1933-1934. Belgian scientists were dispatched to Rwanda to test the hypothesis that the Tutsi people were superior in their make up to the “coarse and bestial” Hutus (Gourevitch, 1998, 57). The Belgian’s hypothesis was confirmed. The Tutsi’s bearing was “more aristocratic;” unsurprisingly, the source for this noble bearing found much of its merit in the fact that Tutsis were generally more similar to Europeans, their skin tended to be lighter, their build more slender and their overall features more similar to the European ideal.2

In accordance with their findings, the Belgian colonizers issued identification cards and papers, much like those Adolf Hitler’s government would issue to Germans during the same period. This identity class system would far outlast the Belgians’ rule, infiltrating almost every facet of Rwandan life, from which marketplaces one could shop at, to what prefectures Hutus or Tutsis could reside in. Until the genocide in 1994, the far -reaching impact of the Belgian system of identity cards rendered Rwanda the most controlled state in the word among non- communist countries (Melvern, 2000, 3). Belgian Rule would cease in Rwanda in 1962 following a resistance movement started by the Hutu in 1957 upon the publication of the “Hutu Manifesto.” The fuel of the Hutus revolution lay in their discontent for the class system that had existed for centuries and in 1960 the Hutus were able to stage a coup and oust the Tutsi monarchy. Following the first democratic municipal elections ever held in Rwanda, the Hutus, comprising eighty five percent of the Rwandan population, were finally able to state their majority and elect an exclusively Hutu government.

In 1993 Rwanda saw the signing of the Arusha Accords, which put an end to the latest “official” civil war that had plagued the country since 1990. The war had been fought between the government of Rwanda and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), composed primarily of Tutsi refugees who had abandoned their posts in the Ugandan army3 to invade their homeland three years earlier. The United States along with France, Rwanda’s Chief diplomatic and military patron) (Power, 2001, 8) and the Organization for African Unity served as the chief organizers of the talks beginning in Arusha, Tanzania, during the year it took for both sides to reach an agreement. Under the terms of the Arusha Accords the Rwandan government agreed to share power with Hutu opposition parties and the Tutsi minority. United Nations peacekeepers would be deployed to patrol a ceasefire and assist in demilitarization and demobilization as well as to help provide a secure environment so that exiled Tutsis could return to the country (Power, 2001, 4).

Rwanda’s history of conflict was known to the two international powers that aided its cease-fire agreement. However, other than this piece of information, the international community as a whole had limited understanding of Rwanda and the propensity for conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsis. This limited knowledge substantially influence the way in the United States, France and the international community viewed the massive violence that broke out in Rwanda following April 6, 1994 when the private plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down killing the president and the others onboard, including Cyprien Nitaryamira, President of Burundi.

Today, it is widely accepted that the perpetrators of the attack were Hutu extremists, who saw the assassination of the most prominent member of their ethnic group as a means to ensure all Hutus would rally for the cause of exterminating the Tutsi “cockroaches.” The plan of the extremists worked and Tutsi were blamed for the death of the president. In his autobiography, Joseph Sebarenzi, a former member of Rwandan parliament, and a Tutsi, writes, “Checkpoints blocked every road. Radio Mille Collines, the radio station of Hutu extremists, began calling for the death of all Tutsis [and sympathetic Hutus]. Killings began immediately” (Sebarenzi, 2009, 69).

“The administration cannot afford to begin with either an international disaster or a quagmire” were the words of future United States Ambassador Dick Holbrooke in a memo to National Security Advisor Anthony Lake and Secretary of State Warren Christopher. The memo detailed the actions the Clinton administration would take in the wake of the 1993 crisis that erupted in Somalia-----a point of contention within his administration for the next two years. Despite Holbrooke’s warning, Clinton’s involvement in Somalia would prove to be only the beginning of the international crises from abroad that would plague him during his first year in office. Upon assuming the Presidency, Clinton had decided to, temporarily, keep the policy the George H.W. Bush administration had enforced with regard to refugees attempting to cross into the United States from Haiti, in the midst of an extremely violent government coup. The policy allowed the United States Coast Guard saw to send back the refugees they spotted in the water, most of whom sailed on metal vessels that had once served as the roofs of their homes. Upon returning to Haiti many faced certain death. While the notion of intervention in Haiti was wildly unpopular with the American people, Clinton felt a moral obligation to intervene.

Later that year, after a series of bloody attacks on United Nations peacekeepers, Clinton launched a new mission: in August of 1993 he sent a force of Rangers and Special Forces units to Somalia to capture the brutal warlord Mahmmod Farrah Adidd (Bee, The Wall Street Journal, 2002). The result of this was another loose end left untended by the previous Bush administration. Weeks before leaving office, Bush has sent American soldiers to Somalia, to guard much needed food and aid supplies in the war torn nation. When the battle of Mogadishu ensued in October 1993, resulting in the tragic events of “Black Hawk Down” during Operation Gothic Serpent. After having seen footage of the body of an American solider, a victim of the militia fire that had shot down the helicopter, splashed across television screens as he was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, the American people, and Congress, were in no mood to send more of their troops overseas.

Within these three events of international relations that occupied a substantial part of the beginning of Clinton’s first term, there is a stark trend that emerges; in none of these conflicts did the United States have an interest4 at stake. Rather, American involvement in these disputes resulted from the moral imperative of America as the world’s wealthiest superpower to use its high position to do good within the international community. However, following the humiliating crisis in Somalia, Clinton, who had already harbored doubts about the effectiveness of the United Nations, launched a major policy review on peacekeeping that would lead to “more nos and fewer yeses when it came to American intervention” (Harris, 2005, 126).

The result of this endeavor by Clinton and his staff was Presidential Decision Directive Twenty Five (PDD 25). The policy contained several “tests” on future peacekeeping operations, reflecting the United States desire to “[make] disciplined and coherent choices about which peace operations to support [.]” (The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 1994). The United Nations Peacekeepers needed to have consent of the warring parties, a ceasefire had to already be in place, as well a definitive exit date for the peacekeeping troops (Harris, 2005, 126). Most prominently though, the conflict had to involve American interests. “If we were going to turn to UN peacekeeping more often, we needed to make it work better” (Albright, 2003, 184) said Madeline Albright, United States Ambassador to the United Nations at the time of the announcement of Presidential Decision Directive 25. While this policy did not officially take effect in the administration until its signing by Clinton on May 3, 1994, it bore itself into the psychology of the administration long before (Harris, 2005, 126), when amidst the chaos of Haiti and Somalia, details of the reaction to the death of Rwanda’s president began to emerge before the administration.

A single warning emerged in Washington in the first hours after the plane crash killing Rwanda’s president. Prudence Bushnell, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, had been notified by the Rwandan desk officer, Kevin Aiston of what had happened in Rwanda hours before. Following a confirmation of the events from Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian General serving as the commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda, Bushnell sent Secretary of State Warren Christopher a memo reading,

"Both presidents have been killed, there is a strong likelihood that widespread violence could break out…particularly if it is confirmed the plane was shot down. Our strategy is to appeal for calm in both [Rwanda and Burundi]…through public statements and in other ways" (Power, 2001, 6).

When this calm never came and the widespread violence Bushnell had predicted began to occur, the Clinton administration was still in the midst of coping with the after affects of the crises in Somalia and Haiti. No, they couldn’t see about Rwanda, and the Presidential Decision Direction only served to enforce this, even as a number of government officials were killed in the hours after the Rwandan president’s plane went down.

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