photo of mooseGhosts of Rwanda
george moose

He was U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs and his interview offers insight into how America had a crucial role in blocking an effective response by the world to the genocide. He discusses the U.S. decision to support a drastic reduction of U.N. peacekeeping forces and to evacuate Kigali. He also explains the rationale for rejecting General Dallaire's appeals for reinforcement and the "tortured debate" over using the word genocide. In one of the many examples of bureaucratic inertia and self-serving caution that marked America's response, Moose talks about the "truly shameful episode" where U.S. officials rejected a plan to jam the extremists' hate radio broadcasts "because of some legal nicety about international radio conventions. And then the [50 armored personnel carriers] thing… We spent so much time wrangling about who was going to pay for refurbishing them, … for transporting them. It's sort of bureaucracy at its very worst, and we couldn't break through that." This interview was conducted on Nov. 21, 2003.

[How was the Rwanda conflict viewed in 1994?]

It's ironic, in a way, that the preoccupation at the time in that part of the continent was not Rwanda; it was Burundi. We were [told that] the meeting on April 5 and April 6 that the two presidents had attended in Dar es Salaam was convened primarily to talk about the situation in Burundi, which people were very fearful was about to explode. We had been, and continue to be engaged in activities which arguably have made a difference, in terms of at least keeping a lid on and preventing the worst kind of outbreak of violence.

On the occasions on which [Rwanda] was discussed at the deputies [level], it was not the main event. But, again, in retrospect, there were things that we, at my level, could and should have done to say, We need help. We need some guidance decision, and somebody to break the bureaucratic logjam.

So Rwanda is different. It's different because of the scale and the magnitude of the disaster. It's different because we were there; we were involved. We did have the possibility of seeing things and understanding things in a different way, and had we done so, it is conceivable that we might have been able to do something different.

The Arusha agreement-- What was your feeling about what was going on?

It was a hope there was a possibility that we could avert what I think many of us thought would otherwise be a major disaster. You had a situation where you had exiled Tutsis, who'd been mostly living in Uganda for decades, who began to develop a very serious military capability, who were determined that they were going to go back and re-take their country. They had begun launching attacks outside from Uganda as early as 1990. There was a major assault in early 1993.

The governments in the region were mightily concerned. They argued with us that [they] should be involved in this process. The French were very much concerned as well. They wanted us very much to be supportive of this process, but the signing of the peace agreement at least seemed to offer a prospect that we could avert what would otherwise have been a major military conflict, with all the attendant consequences inside Rwanda.

I think it's important to understand there were a lot of other things going on at the time; but notwithstanding all those other things, we were heavily invested in supporting the Arusha process. The day before the downing of the plane which killed the two presidents, I happened to be in Kampala meeting with [Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) General] Paul Kagame. We were trying to resolve the last remaining issues as to the participation and the proposed transitional government. We were arguing about whether one particular group, one of the extremist Hutu groups -- certainly in the eyes of the RPF -- whether it should have a place in the government.

But that's where I was on April 5. I got on a plane the next morning, and I flew from Kampala to Nairobi, and then on to Mogadishu, where we had another major disaster in the making. [I] spent the day in Mogadishu, flew back to Nairobi that evening, and got immediately on a plane to head back to Washington.

When I got off in the plane in Cairo on the morning of April 7, I was told that I had to urgently call my deputy … in Washington. She informed me of the downing of the plane, and her concerns about what might happen as a consequence. …

We were very much involved, in primarily a supportive role, in the Rwandan peace process. We did see [it] as a situation, which if not dealt with, had great potential; not only for Rwanda, but the entire region. Therefore we needed to make an effort to try to be supportive. That's what we were doing. That was our guidance. That was our instruction, not just from me, but from much more senior people in the administration. …

It is certainly true that there were concerns at the National Security Council (NSC) and certain parts of the State Department, the Defense Department and elsewhere about adding yet another major peacekeeping operation to a very long list of peacekeeping operations we had in Africa alone. At the time, we had five major peacekeeping operations in some state of array or disarray. …

There was a lot going on, and there were concerns -- certainly not only in the administration, but in the Congress -- about when and where was it all going to end. Why were we obliged to be involved in or supportive of all these missions? That was very much palpably part of the context in which we were discussing all of these things.

I think in the case of Rwanda, part of the thing reason it made a difference was the French were very insistent that we be supportive of this operation. There was -- if not directly, at least indirectly -- some bargaining going on, because we wanted them to be supportive of an operation in Liberia, which was important to us. … But yes, there were questions asked, [such as], does it need to be that large? Can it be scaled back? Can it be effective with fewer troops? That was part of the dialogue.

Were they concerned about just cost and the burden for the U.S.?

[It was] a burden about cost, a question about how you justify and rationalize all this to the appropriators and the committees on the Hill, many of whom didn't think we needed to be there at all. …

The Belgians [sent troops to Rwanda]. What was the concern there?

Given the history and the fact that in the eyes of many in the region -- and certainly in Rwanda -- the Belgians were viewed as being responsible, at least in part, for the Tutsi dynasty in Rwanda, [and] they were not perceived as being necessarily impartial between Tutsis and Hutus. … But there clearly was a need for a capable force to provide the peace for this operation. The Belgians, I think partly out of their sense of historical responsibility [and] desire to make this thing work, [decided] to step forward, and you certainly can't fault them for that. …

Do you recall meeting [U.N. Force Commander General Romeo] Dallaire?

I do. I just don't recall exactly the circumstances, but I do recall going to New York during that period when he was preparing to go out. But I couldn't tell you exactly when we first met.

Where does the U.N. commander fit in your scope?

He would be somebody with whom I would normally have contact. In terms of that level of people, the U.N. special representative would be one, and then the force commander would be the other. I guess I would say, though, [that I] recall several other major operations going on at the same time. Pru Bushnell [said], "I'm busy doing this; can you take this one?" But she was principally responsible for that [along with] the director of our Office for Central Africa at the time. It was Pru, I recall, who did go out to Rwanda in the run-up to the events of April. Subsequently, afterwards, she went back out several times, both to Rwanda and to Burundi.

Do you recall ever talking to Kofi Annan?

No, not specifically about this. That would have been a level above my concern, the folks who normally would have been doing business with Kofi, though I know him. … It's just that that was not the normal contact.

In October you'd met [Rwandan President Juvenal] Habyarimana.

I don't know that I remember a whole lot about it, except to say that even then there were serious concerns about whether the parties were seriously committed to this process -- on both sides -- because there was concern that the RPF was playing for time; and that eventually, if they saw an advantage, they would break out of the constraints of the peace agreement and move on Kigali.

But certainly we were also concerned about what was happening inside Rwanda, and whether President Habyarimana was seriously committed to this. You have to go back for some time, because well before I came on the scene, there had been efforts going back to the late 1980s, recognizing there was an impending problem here, to get Habyarimana to think seriously about how he was going to reconcile with the exiled Tutsis, who were becoming an increasingly strong factor. So we were concerned.

The notion was that we were going to put it to him, [and] that for us to be able to support this, he needed to assure us that he was committed to making this work and to honoring the terms of the agreement, [and that], moreover, he was going to move the process forward. Because even though there had been an agreement in principle, the steps that were to take place leading up to the installation of the transitional government hadn't been resolved -- for example, the question of who was actually going to be participating in the government -- and they remained unresolved right up until April 6.

You wanted to get a sense of his view about the peace process?

From our perspective, we were already committed. We thought we had a commitment from the administration to go ahead and support this. But we wanted some assurance that, in fact, he was equally committed to holding up his end of the bargain.

Did he give you that assurance?

My recollection is that he said the right things. He made the right noises. He assured us that he wanted this to go forward, that it was important for him to have this peace agreement. My recollection is that actually he wanted us to start moving even earlier on the deployment of the force. But in any event, what he said to us clearly indicated that at least verbally he was committed to making this thing work. …

In mid-January, [what were] the signs coming out of Rwanda?

My actual direct involvement in this was somewhat episodic during that period, because I was doing other things. One of the other things we were doing during that period was trying, to the best of our ability, [to] ensure that we were supporting the transition in South Africa. So I was doing a lot of traveling on that. I know I was probably in Angola a couple of times during that period, as well, so that again, I was not involved day to day and following the actual development of events in Rwanda. That said, I think we were all concerned about a number of indications we were getting about violence or threats of violence inside Rwanda.

But I think many of us believed, first and foremost, that it was right to try to complete this negotiation, because if we didn't succeed in completing that negotiation, then what would happen is that you would have a resumption of the RPF's move towards Kigali by force. That would set in motion a whole series of events.

So there was a feeling, a belief that what we needed to do most urgently was to complete this negotiation and get the force deployed, and that once it was deployed, that would help to manage or help us manage and everybody else manage what was happening then in Kigali. That was also predicated on an assumption that indeed the government and the government forces were committed to seeing that the agreement was going to be implemented.

So I think it was not that I was unaware or that others were unaware that there were increasing problems in Kigali and elsewhere inside Rwanda. But I think many of us believed -- I think, in retrospect, somewhat erroneously -- that the solution to that was get the deal done and get the forces deployed, and that would be the way to manage the difficulties that we were finding in Kigali. …

At the end of January, you had some meetings in Paris. I think the Belgians might have been there.

It's quite conceivable, because we were having tri-laterals at the time, mainly on Zaire, but obviously we were talking about all of Central Africa. So it is quite conceivable that during that period I would have been meeting with my French and Belgian counterparts.

Does anything stand out from that time?

… I don't have any recollection of that, and I think I would have remembered that. Again, much of our conversation at the time -- not that Rwanda was not important -- but much of our conversations were really about Zaire. There was a grave concern about Zaire. We had a situation in the preceding six or eight months in which more than half a million people had been displaced inside central and southern Zaire, [and] growing signs of ethnic tensions there as well, and a real concern that Zaire was going to come apart at the seams. So that was another distraction.

In terms of U.S. policy influence in Africa, where did Rwanda fit?

I have to say it was not the first order of priority in terms of our policies. It was there because, number one, the regional players, some of them very good friends of ours, were concerned -- Uganda and Tanzania in particular. It was there because the French were concerned. It was there because we also recognized that, if this situation were allowed to get out of hand, then we would have a real catastrophe. I think it was also there because there was concern about what the impact would be on Zaire. So there were a lot of other reasons that made Rwanda of interest to us, but it honestly was not [a] first-tier issue for us at the time.

Second tier?

Maybe third. There were a lot of tiers in this.

The meeting on April 5 with General Dallaire.

I do recall that one of the issues that came from President Habyarimana and his side was an insistence on including certain elements in the transitional government. … One was a committee Pour La Defence de la Revolution, and [there were other] groups [that] were [also] extremist Hutu groups. But Habyarimana was saying that if he was not able to include them, then that was going to be a problem for him.

So part of the conversation I was having with Kagame was about whether he would accept their participation in the government. It was quite clear he thought that these guys were beyond the pale -- and as it turned out, they were -- and that he was extremely resistant to countenancing their participation, their inclusion in the government. But that was one of the major sticking points on whether or not we were going to get this agreement to establish the transitional government. …

Pru Bushnell said, around that time she thought, in retrospect, that the U.S. government was so invested in that peace process that it was almost unthinkable to turn back.

I think it's fair to say that we were very much invested in this, and that a lot of people had committed to it. But again, if you step back and look at it objectively and say, "What's the alternative if we don't make this peace process work?" then we go back to status quo ante, which is we've got an increasingly powerful Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Force [that has] determined that they're going to get back to Kigali one way or another.

So yes, we were heavily invested. The absence [of] some way of reconciling these two forces-- We were going to have a disaster with a different kind of a character with perhaps some of the same consequences, so I think we were right to focus on that part of it.

Where we erred seriously was not understanding better the dynamic that was taking place inside of Rwanda, and the motives and the intentions of the Hutu extremist groups. Had we understood that, I think our approach might have been very different.

But it's also interesting to speculate. Had we understood fully just how fragile that situation was and just how shallow the commitment to a peace deal was, [that] raises a serious question about whether we would have agreed to the deployment of a peacekeeping force, because the premise was not valid; there would have been no peace to keep. There were other things that we could have done, like the kinds of things we were doing in Burundi at the time, and indeed which we continue to do today. But it would have been a very different approach from deploying a peacekeeping force. …

Dallaire says he was furious. He still feels now the international community, and the U.N. in particular, was falling into a trap.

I have to say when I left my meeting with Kagame in Kampala, I was having some of the same doubts. I mean, he made a very forceful case as to why [the extremist Hutus] should not be allowed in any government, and it was hard frankly to disagree with him. [But] I don't know if other things hadn't intervened when I got back to Washington [that I] would have raised this question and said, "We need to revisit this." I think I might have precisely because Kagame and his colleagues had made such a strong case as to as to why these were folks not to be trusted. …

But he pressed this particular issue.

Well, we were pressing him initially, and I recall we had asked for the meeting precisely to say, "Why can't you do this? Because we want to get on with the peace process." Yes, in that sense, you're right -- we were very heavily invested in this, and he was quite firm in saying, "Sorry, this is not one that is in our interest to do."

You got a sense that he was not going to budge?

That's certainly the sense I came away with after our meetings in Kampala, [Uganda]. … I came away with the feeling that maybe this wasn't such a good deal and maybe we've got to revisit this. But again, there was never an opportunity to actually follow up on that thought.

Does that make you question the advice you were getting?

I think we couldn't have had a better team there, and I think all of us -- that certainly includes our U.S. team, and I think everybody else -- and a lot of folks who had a lot closer experience, more knowledge of Rwanda than we did, failed to see that lesson as well -- the French, the Belgians, the U.N. folks and others. What can I say? I can't fault them for what they were trying to do at the time.

Some Rwandans have raised questions about Ambassador [David] Rawson's objectivity. Do you want to address that?

I really have never had any reason to question his objectivity. I think what David admits to is what we all admit to. So there were things going on that we did not give due consideration and weight to; that to the extent that we interpreted or tried to analyze those events, we all saw that as an aspect of the effort we were making on the peace process; and that, if you could only get the peace process done, then you would have, number one, a U.N. presence there, [and] you'd have the wherewithal to support what we thought was a genuine government commitment to dealing with these issues. You'd have been in a very different situation. Again, in retrospect, we were wrong; a lot of other people were wrong too.

So you found out about the plane [carrying the Rwandan and Burundian presidents] being shot down while you were stopping over in Cairo? … What was going through your mind?

Well, a lot of things-- … Should I stay in the region, should I go to Paris or Brussels, or should I come home? Eventually we all agreed that it'd be better for me to come back to Washington. But she was quite aware of the potential consequences here and what might follow, and so we knew we had a serious problem, even [on] the morning of April 7.

Not genocide?

No. But clearly … with all the other forces at play in Kigali, and many which we knew were not supportive of the peace process, any number of things could happen as a result of that.

What was your gut feeling about what the RPF would do?

The concern I think was that the RPF might see [the plane crash] as an effort to sabotage the peace process and therefore say, "OK, well, we'll go back to plan A," which … [was to] get there by force.

Take Kigali by force?

[That] is what they decided to do -- and did.

The Americans' decision to evacuate [Rwanda]-- How did that come about?

I don't even know if it was a decision. It was understood that, given what had happened that day, we would be crazy to leave our people exposed in Kigali. My sense is that it was understood the first thing we were going to have to do was get folks out of there.

But U.S. embassies stay open in chaotic situations sometimes.

… We had a situation where, as Joyce Leader I'm sure described in gory detail, the prime minister lived right next door to her. [On the day she was killed, the prime minister] crossed over the wall into Leader's compound for shelter, was not able to do so, went [to] another U.N. compound somewhere in the neighborhood, and eventually was caught there and killed there. [Unidentified enemy] troops actually broke into Joyce's house and actually fired up into the ceiling, as I recall, because they thought that there might be people hiding up in there, [as in] Belgian troops.

If these guys are wandering around and have the audacity and the ruthlessness to lynch [the prime minister and] 10 Belgian troops [who were protecting the prime minister], what assurances do we have that our people are going to be safe in that situation? So I think it was a foregone conclusion for us that this was just not a situation where we had sufficient confidence. We were [not] going to leave our people exposed and on the ground, and the only question was, how do you get them out [of] there? Ultimately, as you know, they went overland to Burundi, [and] there was a lot of debate about that [and] about how to do it. But I don't think there was any question about whether to do it. …

Closing the embassy-- Would that decision be made at the secretary level?

I'm sure it was eventually signed off by the secretary. …

I'm not clear whether it was a top-down--?

No, I don't think so. I think it was understood by us that we did not wish to leave our people in that situation. We were not going to do it if we can figure out how to do it, and the only question was what's the best way to do this. One of the great debates at the time was whether or not we should pre-position U.S. forces in Burundi as part of an effort to evacuate them. The concern was that the situation in Burundi was so fragile that the mere presence of U.S. forces could trigger something there. That's how bad the situation in Burundi was. Eventually I think we did at least get the authorization to do that, but ultimately, happily it was not necessary. We didn't need to use those forces. …

So you were hearing reports from Joyce and others [once you're back in Washington.] It must have been pretty horrific.

Yes. Joyce's situation in particular, I think, got everybody's attention. …

Was it the right thing to do [for the U.S. to begin pulling out]?

I believe that it was, because I think otherwise we could well have seen-- I mean, if there is no respect for the lives of peacekeepers, there was no assurance whatsoever that, simply by virtue of the fact that we were American people, [the killers] were going to leave us alone.

Were you aware of a request by [U.S. Embassy Officer] Laura Lane and others there to stay?

Yes, I do recall there was the notion that, yes, maybe we could stay behind; maybe we could do something. But then you have to say, "With what do you create a safe haven?" If the Belgian troops could not defend and protect the prime minister from a ruthless attack, what were unarmed Americans bearing a flag going to do?

On the political level, the deadline to sort things out or else the RPF were going to start fighting again-- Was that communicated to you?

I don't know how we learned that [the RPF would fight the Interahamwe], but it was not a surprise. … Once this killing started, once there was a threat to the RPF contingent in Kigali … you had the two parts of this problem. You had the problem of the confrontation between the government and the RPF, and [you had] the internal problem [of the Interahamwe killing the Tutsis].

But they fed each other. One of the things clearly that was feeding the paranoia and the demagoguery of the Hutu extremists was the prospect that the Tutsis and the RPF were going to be in Kigali, whether by force or peacefully. So once the killings started, the RPF were bound and determined that they were going to do everything in their power to get to Kigali to try to save their people.

That is why -- and I think rightly -- we continued to talk about [brokering] a cease-fire, because [as] long as that pressure was coming from outside, the feeling was that [we] were feeding the paranoia and the totally unjustified reactions on the part of Hutu extremists inside the country. To a certain extent, that's true. But I can't fault Kagame for doing what he was doing. He was doing what he felt was absolutely necessary to try to save some of his people. …

What was the impact [of this escalating situation on the U.N. troops]?

It, more than anything else, brought home the fact that this was not the situation that we thought we were going to be dealing with. We thought this whole thing was premised on a political agreement [and] a commitment on both sides to respect that agreement. … What folks signed up [for] was a peacekeeping operation in a "permissive environment," where you had parties who were committed to working with you to maintain that peace, and that clearly was no longer the case. That event, more than anything else, illustrated it.

Now, again, the famous Dallaire message -- which I don't recall seeing -- said one of the things that the extremists intend to do is to attack the Belgians, precisely to precipitate their departure and the collapse of the whole process. But even if I'd known that, I'm not sure it would have changed anything. The fact of the matter is they attacked these guys; they killed them ruthlessly, and if they were prepared to do it once, was anybody prepared to offer an assurance that it would not happen again? The fact is that that incident changed the entire calculation about what kind of a situation we were in and what kind of forces we were up against.

That led to the position that the U.S. took about withdrawing?


Where did that instruction come from?

It came from Washington. I'm sure that that's the kind of thing that somebody senior had to sign off on. But, anyway, I had a very good working relationship with the Belgian Foreign Minister at the time, again because we spent a lot of time talking about [a problem in] Zaire. I recall in that period having a conversation with him [on the] telephone. It's very hard following that incident to look him in the eye in a manner of words and say, "You have an obligation to keep your forces there on the ground, notwithstanding the danger they find themselves in."

If you think back a few months about what happened to our troops in Mogadishu, I certainly was not one to argue that the Belgians should be pressed or obliged to stay in Kigali and Rwanda in a situation that they just frankly had not signed up for. So there's a different aspect to that in the question of, should there have been a suggestion or call for all the troops then to leave, or should we simply have said, "All right, fine, Belgium, if you want to go-- ." But quite clearly the Belgians wanted to have a cover of having others leave as well, and we yielded to that request. In retrospect, I wonder if that was the right thing to do.

Did they ask for that?

My recollection is that they wanted us to support a request for the complete withdrawal, so that they would not be alone in withdrawing their troops from Rwanda.

How was that requested?

The decisive conversation was probably a conversation [involving Secretary of State] Warren Christopher.

The Security Council-- There was an effort to try to do something.

There was an effort to walk it back almost immediately. Dallaire was sending in messages saying, "We can't do this. We can't abandon people who are looking to us to help protect them, and we can't just pull out and run." So eventually the compromise was that he was allowed to retain about 260, 270 troops.

But people were certainly aware of the implications both ways, the implications of pulling people out as well as the implications of leaving people there. [The] implications of leaving people there were you were leaving a bunch of very lightly armed troops exposed to God knew what. The pure implications of pulling people out were that you were leaving a whole bunch of people in the lurch, although as a practical matter people were rightly questioning, what could this force do to prevent the catastrophe that everybody, by that time, saw coming?

What were you advising [to Warren Christopher]?

We were counseling the secretary not to oppose the Belgian request to get the hell out of there. We knew what the implications of that would be. I was not the only voice in here, but I certainly didn't feel that we were in a position to demand the Belgians keep their forces there after what happened.

Once the magnitude of what was going on became clear, once Dallaire made clear his view that he could stay there, that the risks from his perspective were tolerable, and that [they had] a sense that in various ways they could make a difference, they did [stay there], although there were some terrible tragedies there where people looked to the U.N. for protection and didn't find it.

Again, it's the problem of putting people in impossible situations. But once that realization set in, there were certainly many on my team who said, "Look, we've got to figure out some kind of response to this, and we need to figure out a way to try to bolster the U.N. presence in Rwanda." … That was the voice from my bureau, although it was a difficult case to make.

An effort to hatch some kind of African force-- Some people have mentioned it was the images of bodies floating down the river.

…My wife accompanied John Shattuck when John went out to Burundi, mainly, but they also flew over the river and looked down. That was an image that got a lot of people's attention. … The Africans were rightly saying, "We don't understand why there isn't more of a reaction and more of a response to this." I think that was some of the conversation that we had in South Africa when the vice president was there. …

[But what about] this effort to get an African force?

I think the government -- as governments are -- was somewhat divided. But the fact was, we had Africans telling us that they were prepared to do this, and that there were a number of us who felt if they're prepared to do this, then let's support them. Dallaire, by that time, had shown that he could be there and do some things, and that he was not as concerned as [we] were about his security or survivability.

I recall having conversations during that period with [Ghanaian President] Jerry Rawlings, and the Ghanaians were one of the first to step forward and say they'd be prepared to send troops. Their troops are very good, and certainly were at the time. Then we got into long haggles about how we were going to prepare them and equip them and the [Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs)] and a lot of other things, which was one of the most shameful moments in this whole process. But nevertheless, I think the fact that you had Africans questioning why their response was [not] more vigorous, that you had Africans wanting to step forward that in those circumstances-- It only made sense to try to do what we could to facilitate their ability to make a difference in that situation.

Vice President Gore presented -- what?

I don't recall. I'm not sure whether we initiated this conversation, or whether the South Africans initiated the conversation, or whether it was one of those things that mutually we all knew that there was this disaster going on, and [we wondered] what could we do about it. The question was, if there are African forces there willing to do this, would you support their going in? Again, the details of that conversation, I don't pretend right now to recollect.

Why wasn't there an African force?

I think the elements simply weren't there; they just hadn't come together. These were going to be decisions of every individual African government. It wasn't for the South Africans to make the decision that they were going to [put together a force for all of Africa]. …

It wasn't just the U.S. that didn't want to send troops?

… I think anybody looking at the situation would have to ask, "Is this a situation that I want to put my people in?" So there was no great rush here. Early on, there was a concern, because the Tanzanians said that they were going to go in and take care of this. Well, we all thought frankly the Tanzanians seriously overestimated their own capabilities and underestimated the situation they would be getting themselves into. So we were actively discouraging them from doing what had been a sort of unilateral intervention. …

[But] we didn't have a long list of takers for this mission. … [Then] it took an awful long time to eventually assemble the forces, African and other[wise]. … One of the things it says is many of these militaries -- not only in Africa but elsewhere -- however willing they may be, they are not equipped, trained, prepared to move into that kind of a situation. …

It was made very clear to Dallaire [that] the RPF was not going to support an intervention force?

There was the discussion about whether, if you deployed troops into Kigali, you could find ways to have them fan out and either rescue people or bring them into safe centers. Then [there was] the counterproposal, which you are well aware of -- to do it along the borders and set up safe havens -- which eventually went nowhere. The RPF concern was that, whatever the intention was, the practical effect of inserting a force into Rwanda would be to get in their way and, at the same time, not to be in a position to afford any meaningful assistance to the people who were being slaughtered. …

In May, there was a new U.N. resolution including an arms embargo on the whole country, including the RPF. What's the thinking behind that?

I think it was the same logic. We were focusing on the whole peace process here. [There was] the concern that, somehow or other, you needed to constrain the actions on both sides. There were a lot of people at the time who thought the arms embargo was kind of a meaningless thing, that it would have little, if any, impact on the ground, because the people who were carrying out [the] slaughter on the one side either had all the arms they needed, or weren't conducting the massacres in that way. Second, the RPF was not seriously going to be affected by anything we might do at the Security Council. It sort of fell into the category of, what can you do? Well, you can impose an arms embargo. …

Let me just ask you now about this term "genocide." …

… I do recall an awful lot of debate and discussion in the department about when and under what circumstances we could say that genocide was taking place in Rwanda. I think one of the most shameful failures that certainly rises right to the top -- the fact that it took us so long to come to what should have been a fairly obvious conclusion. I understand all the concerns, and many of us are not lawyers. We don't walk around with copies of the Genocide Convention in our pockets, and most of us were coming to it for the very first time. But, nevertheless, I think the fact that we dithered and were not able to make that determination was one of the shameful features of our handling of the Rwandan situation. …

So why didn't you say it?

Because of this tortured debate, first and foremost, over the facts, and secondly, over what obligations might flow [from there]. There was concern. It is ludicrous, in retrospect, that the discussion was about how might we be viewed if we declared that there is genocide and then we are not in a position -- not ready, or willing, or able -- to do anything about it. The fact of the matter was it was there, and the fact that we didn't say so was already tarnishing our credibility and our capacity to do something about it. …

You used the word "shameful" about the APCs.

Yes, because we spent so much time wrangling about who was going to pay for them, who was going to pay for refurbishing them, who was going to transport them, who was going to pay for the transport, [and] who was going to pay for the training of the Ghanaians so that they could use them. Again, it's sort of bureaucracy at its very worst, and at our level, we couldn't break through that. Somebody else would have had to intervene to say, "This is nonsense. Get on with it. Do it."

And that was coming from -- where?

It's coming from our colleagues at the Pentagon, and it's what they are paid to do. They are paid to say, "All right, who's going to sign on the dotted line?" as to the cost of all these items. Some of us argued that we'd already paid for them, because they would have gone to Somalia in the first place, as I recall. I can't remember where they were coming from.

But the point is that it's the kind of bureaucratic gridlock that often happens. But in this situation, [it] shouldn't have been allowed to happen. Something, somebody should have stepped in to say that this issue was far too important, "We'll worry about the cost later." But we weren't in a position to do that.

You talked to the guys at the Pentagon and they said, "Look, this is what we're paid to do."

Exactly. I'm not faulting them. They were doing exactly what they were paid to do. It's not for them to say, "We're going to waive all of these conditions." They've got rules and regulations that [they] have to apply. Somebody else would have had to [make changes].

Somebody else, being--?

Somebody else higher up, either in their hierarchy or at the White House.

What was the message coming from higher up?

Well, I don't know. I think I can fault myself here and say perhaps we should have been more aggressive in making sure this issue should have got bucked up to the higher-ups, and perhaps forced a resolution or decision. But as I said, this was allowed to go on far longer than it should have or needed to before getting resolved.

… There's the working group, and I know Bushnell was deeply involved in that. … She said [they] had a lot of meetings. But I now realize that the number of meetings that [they] had, and the level at which they were being held was an indication that nothing was really--

I think I would have to agree with her. Again, certainly there were things we should have done to say that this needs to be bucked up to another level, that it needs to be considered by the so-called "deputies committee" meetings at the NSC, if not by the principals themselves. My recollection is that the occasions on which it was discussed at the deputies [committee], it was not the main event. It was done as part of discussion of other truly pressing issues. But, again, in retrospect, there were things that we, at my level, could and should have done to say, "We need help. We need some guidance, direction and decision, and somebody to break the bureaucratic logjam."

Did you discuss Rwanda with Secretary [Christopher]?

I can certainly recall a couple of conversations on the genocide issue with [the] secretary in his office, but my memories of 10 years ago are not easy to recollect. Certainly it was the subject at [Deputy Secretary of State] Strobe [Talbott's] morning meetings whenever I was there or whenever Pru was there. Almost inevitably, the subject of Rwanda would come up.

So it was there. We were constantly updating people. We were letting people know where we were, what we were dealing with, what issues we were wrestling with. It's not as though it didn't get raised or-- But I think again, there were probably ways in which we could have raised it more pointedly and more aggressively in order to say, "We really need help in resolving some of these issues."

I mean, the other truly shameful episode was the whole failure to do anything about Radio Mille Collines, [the radio station inciting the violence]. When I think back upon it, those are the three things that come to mind. It was the decision on whether to call it genocide. It was the Mille Collines radio decision, which [was] truly atrocious that we weren't able to do something because of some legal nicety about international radio conventions. Then, the APC thing [was] sort of emblematic, symptomatic of the difficulties we were having in doing what we said we wanted to do -- namely, be supportive of those countries that were prepared to commit to this operation.

Just how engaged were Talbott and Bushnell in Rwanda?

I would have to say, in honesty, not deeply engaged. I wouldn't say they were holding themselves aloof. Certainly that's not Strobe's style. It's not his inclination. I'm sure he probably said to me, and to Pru and others, "If you need my help, come and see me." Perhaps we weren't as aggressive in pursuing that invitation as we should have been.

And the secretary?

Less involved, although he certainly was involved in this whole discussion on the genocide issue, as he would be, given his legal background. …

One theory I've heard is that people at the highest levels … allowed this issue to be dealt with at [the] Pru Bushnell, [the president's adviser for Africa] Donald Steinberg level, precisely because they didn't want to get involved.

Perhaps. But again, in fairness, I think one has to sit back and look at what the landscape looked like at that time. I don't exactly know where we were on Haiti, but it wasn't a good place. I know exactly where we were in [the former Yugoslavia], but it wasn't a very good place. There were a lot of things that certainly deserved as much attention, if not more attention than Rwanda.

How about you personally? How involved were you?

Involved. Certainly involved. But I was involved in several other things, as well. I was back in South Africa in May. I was there in April as part of an observer mission in the run-up to the elections [and] back again for the inauguration. We were very heavily invested in South Africa, and I think for good reason.

Were you in Rwanda, in particular, during the genocide?

I have recollections of going to Rwanda, certainly [of] meeting with Kagame after he was there. [I] probably would have been [there in] early July. Don't hold me to that date. But certainly I was involved. But Pru, again, [and I had] an understanding we had a division of labor and a division of responsibilities. Pru had Rwanda, for better or worse.

She says one of her regrets is she didn't buck her chain of command.

Yes. I think all of us felt that one. We probably should have tried harder.

Take more risks?

And [took] more risks.

What does it tell you about the institution, in the way the U.S. government [takes] risks? …

In some senses, we were taking risks in a lot of places. We were doing some risky things in a lot of places, and we were committing the U.S. government both in its name and in its resources to a lot of things -- in Liberia, in Angola, and lots of other places. I won't say the people were jumping all over us and telling us [what] not to do. But I think by the same token, everybody was very conscious of the fact that there was serious aversion -- not only in the administration, but in the Congress -- to what they saw as our growing, uncontrolled, unrestrained involvement in all kinds of things, all over the place.

Again, we had nine peace operations, just if you count the U.N. ones, going on simultaneously in 1994. Five of them were in Africa, and two of them weren't doing too well. So I think we were all extremely conscious of that reality, and almost certainly, in consequence, curbed our own expectations. …

The lessons that you take from this, personally and officially?

One of the lessons -- and I think it's a lesson that a lot of us learned during that period, although it's a lesson as time passes [that] maybe is less poignant, salient -- the first lesson is that there's a correlation between your instruments, your tools, and your willingness and your will to use them. One of the things that severely constrained us in Rwanda is we didn't have the tools. We didn't have a collection of ready, willing and able forces that could be deployed in a relatively short period of time to respond to this kind of crisis. Hence the effort to try and figure out how we could support [and] stand up African forces to do this. …

I know that some people viewed that as a way to avoid responsibly on the part of the United States, by saying, "We'll let the Africans take care of their problems," although I frankly do believe that, if in fact you had capable African forces in whom you had some confidence, [that] increased the likelihood that we would be going to go in with them in situations such as Rwanda.

But I'm not sure we've really learned that lesson. The U.N. report, the inquiry of 1999, came out with a whole list of recommendations. I think if you went back and looked at how well and how thoroughly those recommendations had been implemented, you would find we're probably not in much better shape today than we were back in 1994.

I do recall looking at the U.N. web site to see who had actually signed up to be part of those so-called rapid reaction, rapid deployment force, and I recall there were only two countries on that list. That's not the fault of the U.N. only. It's the fault of all of us, all the member states, because only if you've got member states who are not only supporting, but are actually willing to take the lead to do this will it happen. So I don't have the sense that there's any great enthusiasm in the current administration either for the effort to build the capacities of other troops.

And it was not just African. There were other things going on at the time in Europe, and elsewhere as well, or in the capacity of the United Nations either to manage or organize these kinds of operations. I guess -- back to the other point -- I have personally been very wary of invoking that expression "Never again," because to do so implies that you have changed something; you have done something; you've created something -- a modality, a mechanism, an instrument -- that will allow you credibly to say that, "We will not allow this to happen ever again." And I don't think we're there.

But the other part of this -- and this is a more difficult one for me, and I've thought about this a lot … I'm not really sure that we have in fact learned, or internalized or acted on the lessons of what in fact we would need to do in order to at least be in a better position to deal with something like Rwanda in the future. I'm not sure that, were we confronted with a similar situation today, that we would be any better prepared to respond to it, let alone prevent it, than we were back in 1994.

But there's another part of that which I've wrestled with, and that is the other aspect of "Never again" is that you have some understanding of why what happened in Rwanda happened. I haven't read all the literature, but nothing that I've read to date has helped me to understand how it was possible for people who had lived with each other, who were neighbors, who had intermarried, to systematically go about the destruction of an entire ethnic group.

We could even debate whether in fact it is a separate ethnic group, given the history. It's not comparable to the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. It's not comparable to Cambodia, where you had governments and government instrumentalities both instigating but also actually carrying this out. In this case, you had people who, admittedly, had been manipulated and provoked into actions. But still, these were neighbors killing neighbors.

I do recall, for example, reading some of the most chilling accounts. One I recall very well [was] of a man who stood by -- had no choice but to stand by -- as his own relatives came in and killed his wife, who was a Tutsi, but he was powerless to stop that from happening. In another situation, a woman was set upon her neighbor and her neighbor's children with a machete, while she carried her own child on her back.

It's very hard to understand what kind of a psychosis there is that makes it possible for people to behave in that way. I think that until, and unless, we have some understanding of what happened, it's very hard to say that we know how to prevent it from happening it again, or even recognizing it when we see it again.

I do think one of the major problems we had in Rwanda was -- for me, certainly -- an inability to imagine that what happened was possible -- that you could actually see nearly a million people massacred, not by some military machine, but by neighbors killing neighbors, and to have it happen in the space of three months.

So that's a far more difficult lesson, I think. Again, from my own perspective, until one can better understand and explain what happened there, it's very hard to say, "We are in a position to ensure that it's not going to happen again."

Does that mean that once it began, there really there was little the outside world could do to stop it?

I think frankly that our major mistakes were the mistakes we made before it started. Had we recognized better, had we understood better, had we analyzed more correctly what was going on beforehand, we might have been able to make a difference. By April 6, I think we were severely limited in what we could have done to actually preventing this from going the way it went. …

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posted april 1, 2004

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