photo of lakeGhosts of Rwanda
anthony lake

Currently a professor at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, he was President Clinton's national security adviser from 1993 to 1997. In this interview, he discusses the "narrow calculations of national interest" that explain America's failure to halt the genocide and how it was that Rwanda never got top-level attention in the Clinton administration. "It is wrong to say nobody had any idea hell was breaking loose in Rwanda. Of course they did. But at the same time, there was very little attention to what the problem was and how to fix it politically through the U.N., etc. At least at my level. I should have reached out and said, 'Tell me more.' And I didn't, concentrating mostly at the time on Bosnia and Haiti, and various other issues." This interview was conducted on Dec. 15, 2003.

Ten years on, where does Rwanda sit, personally, for you?

It sits as the saddest moment, in retrospect, of my time in the Clinton administration. I spent my early years working out of Vietnam, so it's not the saddest point, I suppose, altogether in my career. But it certainly is one here, and the question is what you learn from it, [and not] merely wallow in guilt or try to suppress it.

What can you learn from it?

I think the problem here for me, for the president, for most of us at senior levels, was that [Rwanda] never became a serious issue. We were focusing on the edges of the problem.

I think you can learn personal lessons, and you can learn, more importantly, professional lessons. I think the personal lessons -- and I've always to believe this, and this was a failure to do so -- is to remember that the substance of foreign policy is not only abstract national interest, but in the end, the reality of what you are working with is human lives. And this was a disaster in those terms.

Did Rwanda become an abstraction for you when you were in office?

I wish I could say it had even become an abstraction. I think the problem here for me, for the president, for most of us at senior levels, was that it never became a serious issue. We were focusing on the edges of the problem. We were focusing on what we could do, for example, in putting on the radio the names of some of those who were responsible for the killings in an effort to diminish it. We were concentrating on getting a peace process going, which became, in my view, a diversion from dealing with the underlying problems. We were focusing on and made a proposal on how to deal with some of the refugees and those most at risk.

But we never came to grips with what in retrospect should have been a central issue -- do we do much more to insist that the international community intervene and go out and find the troops that are necessary, or even contemplate an American intervention itself? That issue just never arose.

We'll get into the specifics. But just in general, why did it not arise?

I think it didn't arise for us because it was almost literally inconceivable that American troops would go to Rwanda. Our sin, I believe, was not the error of commission, or taking a look at this issue and then saying no. It was an error of omission -- of never considering that issue. I would think, especially in the wake of Somalia, that there was no chance that the Congress would ever have authorized funds to send American troops into Rwanda. Indeed, we were struggling to get the funds for our relief operations.

There was no appetite in the international community for such an effort. I might add, not just among other governments -- and of course, some of the governments that had troops there were extremely anxious to get out and stay out -- but in the whole international community -- editorial writers, legislatures, other African governments, even NGOs. …

Just on a very basic level, why does Rwanda matter?

If you visited Rwanda, as I did in December [1994] and see the bodies, it matters. One Rwandan life is exactly equal to one European life -- no more and no less in terms of the life itself. So that's one reason.

But there are other reasons to think about Rwanda, not just in itself, horrible as it was, but as, again, a lesson or even a symbol of the larger issue of, when do we conduct humanitarian interventions? And, I believe, just as important, how do you make sure that when you do intervene, you do it effectively? Because if you are simply wringing your hands and if you are simply saying, "We've got to fix all these problems everywhere around the world," which is beyond the capacity of the U.N. and certainly beyond the political will, even writ large of its member governments, then this is rhetoric, self-indulgent rhetoric, rather than coming to serious grips with a very, very serious problem.

We looked at President Clinton's speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September [1993], where the catchphrase was that "The U.N. should learn to say 'No,'" that this was part of the development of what became PDD 25 [Presidential Decision Directive 25]. Mogadishu hadn't happened yet.

But that's what's interesting about President Clinton's speech at the General Assembly in 1993 is that it clearly shows that we were thinking about these issues before Black Hawk Down [in Somalia]. I continue to believe that one of the lessons of Rwanda is not to stop thinking about these practical questions.

In that speech, the president began by calling for stronger peacekeeping operations by the U.N. -- not say no, but learning how more effectively to say yes; to establish good intelligence, which is a very controversial issue in our own intelligence community and in others around the world; to establish an operations center, which we've made progress on since, so that peacekeepers can call into the U.N. now 24 hours a day and get responses. They couldn't then, back in 1993. In other words, to make the U.N. more effective in all this, but at the same time, to recognize that you have to make choices, that the U.N. cannot do everything. If you think about it, if the U.N. were to intervene in every country which has internal armed conflicts, either large scale or small scale, and takes them over, the U.N. is going to become the greatest colonial power in history, which is hardly its mandate.

So you have to make choices. The choices have to be based on the degree of need, on the one hand, and our ability, or the UN's ability, to act practically on the other. That became the purpose of PDD 25 -- not to provide answers to those questions, but to ask the questions. That leads to, in my view, good policy.

While some argue that PDD 25 said stay out of Rwanda, the problem in Rwanda, I think largely was that we never had a coherent discussion based on PDD 25 of whether we needed to go in our not.

So that Clinton speech came out of an explosion of peacekeeping missions?

Yes, absolutely.

Describe that.

Well, in fact, our predecessor -- and I'm not criticizing this, because I believe in humanitarian interventions -- but under President Bush the elder, there had been more peacekeeping operations, as I recall, than during any previous administration -- and rightly so. This is a reflection of the realities of the world. …

I just want to ask you a bit about Mogadishu, Somalia. Everyone we talk to, from Dallaire, Annan, people in the U.S. government -- they talk about the way policy was shaped during Rwanda. Mogadishu just always comes up as a searing experience. You were right in the middle.

Of course I was, and it forced us to withdraw our forces from Somalia. If I can correct one historical inaccuracy, the cliche is that Black Hawk goes down, and President Clinton immediately orders our withdrawal. In fact, we did not want to leave immediately. We had a very difficult negotiation with the Congress, and got an extension of the period over which we had to leave through those negotiations with the Congress. I personally wish that we had gotten still longer extension in Somalia, because leaving immediately puts a bull's-eye on every American and every U.N. peacekeeper around the world. So in my memory, there is no linear logic [in] saying, "Somalia, therefore no Rwanda."

I think what happened is Somalia helped to reinforce our view that the president had been stating previously -- that we need to be more coherent, and that for the sake of peacekeeping itself, we had to be able to demonstrate that we were doing it in a careful, effective, practical way. That's what PDD 25 was about.

You then have Rwanda. This can be argued, but I know overwhelmingly within our government, the view was that the requests for a build-up again of the U.N. forces in Rwanda did not meet those criteria, because they would only deal with the situation in Kigali, not in the whole country, and we had no idea where the troops might come from. So they didn't meet the criteria.

In any case, given the broader context, it was seen as impossible to contemplate American intervention, because nobody was for it. My great regret is, again, that we and I did not say, "Let's test the limits of this possibility. Too many people are dying. We cannot accept that this is inconceivable. I want to see a more rigorous analysis of the answers to the questions in PDD 25." I was in more of a position to do it, but I didn't do it, any more than editorial writers and NGOs, other governments, the U.N. Secretariat, anybody.

And you had a background; you cared, you knew about Africa.

Relative to most senior officials, I knew about Africa. I'm hardly an African expert, and I did not know a whole lot about what was going on in Rwanda. I should have insisted that I knew.

I went over to the Pentagon to meet with the people who could be planning an intervention staged out of Burundi to rescue the Americans there in early April. I've forgotten the date now. After a discussion of whether to have the [U.S.] ambassador bring them out on his own through a convoy, which was his recommendation and proved to be the right one, or to go in with enough forces simply to get the Americans out, [at the end of] the meeting, I asked some of the people from the Defense Intelligence Agency, "So what's going on? Who's killing who? I haven't seen much about this." Maybe I'd seen something, but hadn't certainly focused on it. And they couldn't tell me.

So it is wrong to say nobody had any idea hell was breaking loose in Rwanda. Of course they did. But at the same time, there was very little attention to what the problem was and how to fix it politically through the U.N., etc., at least at my level. I should have reached out and said, "Tell me more." And I didn't; concentrating mostly at the time on Bosnia and Haiti and various other issues, as were many others. …

It was a very intense time for you [in terms of] foreign policy -- Yugoslavia, Bosnia.

Intense is a nice word for unpleasant, yes.

Why? What was going on?

Well, in Bosnia, we had just succeeded in getting the Europeans to agree with the so-called Sarajevo ultimatum at the beginning of the year, which had gotten the Bosnian Serbs to pull back their mortar and artillery from around Sarajevo and the worst of that. But there was still the very bad situation in Bosnia.

In Haiti, we had large refugee flows out of Haiti. Terrible situation within, people having their faces cut with machetes if they dared speak about democracy. A policy that I was arguing against of increasing sanctions on Haiti rather than -- as in my view, and as we did later -- an invasion being the only solution. The situation was worse in Rwanda than in Haiti. I was pushing for the invasion of Haiti, which was getting a lot more attention here in the United States. …

The impact of the Belgian peacekeepers being killed -- do you remember that evoking Somalia for you?

No, not especially. Again, let me emphasize -- and this may be an inaccurate memory -- but I do not recall ever saying to myself, "We must not go into Rwanda because of Somalia," although I had been for staying in Somalia for longer. So I wouldn't react that way, I think, in any case. No, this was simply, again, a case of failing to think the unthinkable.

I want to ask you about the instructions to the U.N. over withdrawing the UNAMIR. That was on April 15, an instruction sent from [Secretary of State Warren] Christopher. Do you want to describe how you came to be aware of that, as best as you can recall, and the process within the NSC of how peacekeeping issues were being dealt with?

Let me emphasize I was rather hands-on, as I think my staff folks would tell you, sometimes with an edge to their voice. I was very hands-on on Bosnia and Haiti, on so many issues. In this case, I may have cleared that instruction, but I have no memory of doing so.

I do know, because I've gone through my papers, that a few days later, I got an information memo saying that this had happened, that they were being drawn down, and emphasizing that, at the United Nations, we were fighting on the Security Council to include provisions that would make sure that the U.N. was retaining the capacity to take care of the Rwandans under their protection, including, as I recall, a group of them in the stadium. So that was the focus, rather than on the larger issue of how come we were drawing UNAMIR down.

Now of course, it was not the United States that was pushing for this to happen. It was those that had troops there, and the United States was simply supporting those governments, as I understand it. But I have A) a bad memory, but B) absolutely no memory of being involved in that decision, and stand to be corrected.

But the fact that it was an information memo that was sent to you, for the layman, what does that mean? What do you take from that?

There's two kinds of memos. Action memos say "You've got to make a decision about this," or the president does. Let's take a look at this through the usual process, and have the meetings, get people's views. I make a recommendation. It goes to the president, or I'll sign off it myself, if I'm pretty sure I know the president's mind.

An information memo is simply saying, "Here's what's going on." You tend to put it aside on the pile and get to it as soon as you can. You read it and you say, huh, OK.

Now I should have read it, and because the memo did say there were a lot of casualties, I should have said, "Wait a minute. This shouldn't be an information memo. Let's take a look at what we're doing." But the memo said we are doing things, and so I have no memory of reading it at the time. But I'm sure I said to myself, "That's good. Let's try to save those lives," even if it was a very small number of lives rather than a country that was about to go into an absolute nightmare. …

Do you have any recollection of when it began to dawn on you that this was more than just a humanitarian crisis, this was something much more? Did it come through media reports?

… [M]y consciousness of it certainly grew, I'd say primarily from press reports, by May, although I knew bad things were happening there. There were news stories about bodies washing down rivers, etc., that were gaining our attention.

But I guess it was not until June, maybe late May, early June, that it really got to be and I saw it as a serious problem. I obviously knew enough that it was a serious problem, that in later June when I gave a talk at the White House conference on Africa, I used the word "genocide" -- even though I knew we weren't supposed to -- because it looked like genocide to me. So that's at one level.

The other level is, at what point did I start saying to myself, "We should have done more?" We share not just part of the blame, but a lot of the blame, because while this was systemic -- it was at the Security Council, it was in the Secretariat, it was editorial writers, it was NGOs, etc. -- we in the White House had an opportunity to do more about it than almost any of them, if we had, again, thought the unthinkable.

When did that start coming to me? Honestly, it didn't start happening probably until I went to Rwanda in late 1994, saw the bodies. It was worse than anything I had seen in Vietnam. After that, I began understanding, or at least asking myself, whether we couldn't have done more. And that's not because I'm incapable of feelings of guilt -- I'm from New England.

But I think none of us really were focusing on this question, or very few of us -- of should we not have been thinking harder and working harder on doing something -- that I still believe, in the end, would have failed. I don't think Congress would have ever gone along. I'm not sure you could have designed a serious peacekeeping mission that could have fixed it. But we sure as hell should have explored it a lot harder.

To go back for a moment, I took over, which is unusual for a national security adviser, the management of the Goma relief operation with John Deutsch, who was then the deputy secretary of defense, Brian Atwood, who was the head of [USAID], and General Shalikashvili -- which, [for] most relief operations, that's more four stars and senior officials than they usually get -- because there was a very serious problem there. Again, I don't want to do pop psychology. But I don't think any of us were doing that out of a sense that we were primarily responsible for all of this, but more out of a sense of there was a real problem there, and we needed to fix it.

Just on Goma -- people who were there and had been in Rwanda during the genocide were struck by the efficiency and scale of the U.S. response. You know, when a decision was made to act, it was extraordinary. "Awesome," I think was the word that Dallaire used.

Good, I'm glad. We worked hard on that.

Also there was concern that people who were been helped in a lot of cases were [Hutu] killers, and there was a real moral ambiguity. What's your sense of that?

Well, I think that's not necessarily the case. I think a lot of the folks who got out through the French operation, as I recall, were not in the exact area around Goma that we were trying to assist. I think we're making the same mistake again in assuming that every Hutu was a killer of Tutsis. The genocidaires there, who were, for the most part, deeper into the eastern Congo as I recall, were undoubtedly mixed in among these people. They were running many of the camps, which offered a particular difficulty, especially as time went by and they strengthened their hold on the camps.

But I don't think you say because Hutus had killed Tutsis, therefore you deny assistance to people who are starving; most of whom I believe, or choose to believe, had very little to do with the killing of their Tutsi neighbors. If you had done that, then you were simply going to ensure the wheel turning again. The point was to work, and we were explicitly doing so, to create conditions in which you could bring them back then into Rwanda and try to begin to heal the society, which, with all the bumps in the road and the problems, each side has done reasonably well.

Our focus then -- and here there was a direct linear effect of Rwanda on another issue -- then became Burundi and how to try to keep Burundi, which was, Lord knows, godawful enough, from becoming another Rwanda. I became very involved in that, talking to their new leader Buyoya every few weeks on the telephone as I recall, who I had met before. Then I made a special and quiet mission out to Burundi in 1996 to meet with the moderates among both the Hutus and the Tutsis, to remind them that they were in one boat together, and shared a common future against the radicals on each side. I gave a talk at a dinner, etc., and then flew quietly back to Washington.

And that was out of a sense that you didn't want the same thing to happen?

Yes, and we began planning with the Pentagon fairly early on in 1996, I suspect, maybe late 1995 -- I can't remember the dates -- on planning that we were then taking to the U.N. on what you would do if it did explode, and how you could create safe areas within Burundi, but along the borders that were militarily feasible to try to prevent another genocide.

Let's just go back to April 1994. We talked before about the emphasis on the peace process, and that was the message coming out of the U.S. government, and the U.N. as well. Clearly the peace had broken down. Why the emphasis to go back to [the Arusha accords] and go back to the peace process?

Peace processes are great. Peace processes sometimes bring peace, and that's wonderful. But peace processes, especially at the U.N. and especially within the State Department, can also be a way of saying we're doing something even when you had, at a minimum, a nagging voice telling you that maybe this ain't working and you have harder decisions to make.

So it was certainly good news when we would get information memos saying there was a peace process, although the information memos that I recall getting -- and again, I looked at my documents more recently -- were saying they weren't going very well, and therefore we need to be doing some of the marginal things that we were doing.

But even once the genocide began?

It's a nice way of feeling that you're doing something, I suppose. I can't remember whether it was at the time or subsequently. But I do remember having the incorrect thought that, in fact if you had gotten the U.N. more marginally involved around Kigali and elsewhere behind a peace process, that you could have, in that process, adopted a neutral position. Peace processes try to pretend to be -- or are -- neutral, which could have inhibited then the [Rwandan] Patriotic Front from proceeding militarily. In fact, the fastest [end] to the genocide probably was the victory of the Tutsi forces. We'll never know, but it's a thought worth thinking, because it is not automatic that a peace process necessarily contributes to peace.

Why did you call it an incorrect thought?

Because you're always supposed to be for a peace process, and you're always supposed to believe they will succeed. In fact, they seldom succeed, if they're not backed up by the realities on the ground and by the threat or the use of power.

Because within a couple of days after the plane went down, Kagame was telling General Dallaire that the RPF would oppose by force, if necessary, an intervention force that was designed to go back to Arusha.

Interesting. I either didn't know or had forgotten that. So the U.N. force would have ended up battling the forces of the victims of genocide. That's another attractive picture.

Unless the force came in just to take care of the victims and try to--

But you can't take care of the victims without [the] security that comes from a very large force. Again, to extend the thought, if the U.N. mission had come in with sufficient forces to halt the RPF offensive so that it could deal with the humanitarian consequences, then you were perpetuating the genocidiares' power in effect, and you were ending up opposing the forces that were trying to protect the victims of genocide. It's not easy. But again, even if it wouldn't have worked for that and other reasons, we should have looked at it more carefully and more systematically at the top of the American government, the top of other governments, the Security Council, on editorial pages, and in NGOs.

Let me recall when [Monique Mujawamariya] visited. I met with them and was moved and terrified for her by her story of barely escaping -- hiding in the attic for a while, and then getting out. I remember at the end, saying, "We want to do what we can do to protect those under U.N. protection, and what we can do more generally. What can we do?" As I recall, they did not say, "You need to look at intervention. You need to get the U.N. forces in there." Of course, human rights activists [did] not necessarily automatically think, in those days, in terms of military interventions. But what they said, I remember clearly, "Publish the names, or broadcast the names of the people who are responsible for this, and it may deter them." I asked for the names, and it was on the airwaves very quickly.

There's also a line that came out, that they both mentioned that you said to them, "You need to make more noise." Do you remember saying that?

Oh, I think so, yes, certainly.

What did you mean by that?

I meant they should be out there trying to create more noise about this situation, which would help us, inside, who had any concern about this issue.

What does that mean to the layman who's never sat in your position? What [does] "noise" means?

Noise means television interviews. Noise means newspaper articles. Noise can even mean peaceful demonstrations, etc. …

For an issue like this to get traction within a bureaucracy, does it require somebody of your level, or the president, to make it their own?

An issue like this, where you are swimming uphill, upstream, and where, if you're thinking about an intervention in a Rwanda, you were really going against the conventional wisdom in the context and you had no allies on the outside -- it would take a president or a national security adviser to push it through. I mean, it took a lot of push to get the Haiti invasion going, which was a lot more obvious; our interests were a lot more involved. It took a lot of push to get NATO enlargement through, out of the White House. In both cases, neither the Defense Department or the State Department were enthusiastic.

So on something like this, yes, it would have taken quite a push. There's no question in my mind that, in the end, the president would have had to push it. But everything I've said about my role -- about wishing I'd become more engaged and I should have been reaching out and saying "Tell me more," but not being the focus of much in the way of push from below -- applies all the more with the president. I know, in retrospect, he wishes he had done so.

Let me emphasize again, we'd have failed, almost certainly. Congress never would have done this if you look at where we were somewhat on Somalia, much more on Bosnia. But you never know; Don Quixote maybe would have succeeded one out of a thousand times. …

Just looking forward and the lessons that we can take -- a question of national interest versus humanitarian intervention. ... How do we grapple with issues like this in the future that come completely unexpectedly?

I think there are a number of different arguments as to why we need to move beyond narrow calculations of national interest in dealing with these problems. One of them is simply human. It comes as a revelation to my students that government officials are actually human beings rather than interest-calculating machines. But if you are a human being -- I'm not talking about moral obligation there, because that's presumptuous. But if you are a human being and you are blinding yourself to the fact that hundreds of thousands, millions of people are dying around the world, then you are blinding yourself to an important reality. That's a part of it.

Another part of it is that when states collapse, they do become breeding grounds for terrorism, etc. So it impacts on national interest.

But another argument is the CNN effect, and whether that plays into our politics. In fact, the CNN effect certainly has a profound effect on our public. I'm not sure it translates yet politically, as we saw in 2000, where President Bush was saying we're not going to do this kind of stuff anymore. But let's suppose in the real world -- and I think this is the case -- that when you're looking at interventions, in a Kosovo, in a Rwanda or in a Sudan, or in Bosnia, wherever -- some we did, some we didn't -- you're weighing national interest and humanitarian obligation under international law, and these other reasons against each other.

I would argue that if you compare, for example, Kosovo and the southern Sudan over the past eight years, that in Kosovo we have more of a national interest than we do in southern Sudan. Let's say it's 10 times as big. Then look at the humanitarian implications; that in Kosovo something like, as I recall, 15,000 to 20,000 people died, and in southern Sudan, 2 million people have died. So even if the national interest gets more weight than the humanitarian obligation, when you look at the scope of each, we ought to be paying a lot more attention to southern Sudan than we have been.

The Bush administration has done a pretty good job, over the last year, I think, in pushing along the diplomatic process. Or the situation in eastern Congo today, where a lot of people are dying and being raped, and the U.N. is trying to do something. But we still, in my view, have not seriously come to grips with it as an international community.

Rwanda, if it happened again, that kind of thing, somewhere else next week--

Would we act? I think the chances are better than they were back then. The context has shifted, and maybe all the people who died didn't die absolutely in vain if their deaths had enough of an impact on the collective conscience that maybe we'll do better in the future.

Just one last question. "Never again" happened on your watch, to put it one way. [After] the Holocaust, people were saying "Never again, never ever." Then it happened, and you happened to be in office at the time. … You call it the saddest moment of your time in the White House.

In retrospect.

In retrospect, yes. How does that sit for you?

It sits badly, and I can't begin to give you a psychological response to that. It sits badly. But if you want to work on these issues, you cannot wallow. If you wallow in it, you stop working on things, and you mustn't do that. I spent the first 10 years of my career working in Vietnam, and that sits extremely badly with me also.

What you do then is that you take those feelings -- which in some people are intense, in others they are less so -- you learn from them, and you apply them to the next go-round, whether you're in government or simply writing or talking to people like you. Otherwise, what's the point?

Yes, that is the point.

But address it, as I was saying at the beginning, or you're a coward.

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posted april 1, 2004

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