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photo of powerGhosts of Rwanda
samantha power

She is the author of A Problem from Hell, a book on America's responses to the major genocides of the 20th century for which Power won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. She currently is executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University's Kennedy School. In this interview, she discusses how those who shaped U.S. policy did know about the scale of the killing in the early weeks, but that the policy objective of the U.S. from the start was non-intervention in Rwanda. She also details the "variety of policy tools" short of U.S. intervention that America could have applied that might have diminished the killing. And finally, she discusses the lessons of Rwanda and the great failure of the Clinton administration. "No amount of Clintonian leadership may have carried U.S. troops [intervention] through the Congress; they may be right about that. But at least you want to be able to look back and say, 'We did everything short of a thing that we couldn't achieve.' Instead, they have to look back and say, 'We did nothing short of a thing that we couldn't have achieved.'" This interview was conducted on Dec. 16, 2003.

Can you talk about the U.S. officials who were involved in the decision making process surrounding Rwanda, and where they came from?

… I think what makes the U.S. response so chilling, for anybody who's gone back and looked at it, is that these are precisely the people you would have wanted in those jobs at that time. If you go almost person by person, you would say here are people who are not realists in the sort of Henry Kissinger tradition, and who believe that American power should only be harnessed on behalf of America's vital economic and security interest.

Perhaps ... [the example of] the Clinton administration has alerted those who have come since in government that this will not go away You will in fact be remembered for whether you stand up to genocide.

… But we didn't have those people in government. We had people who actually believed in both the possibility and the desirability of harnessing American power for good. Bill Clinton was a president who had campaigned in the election against George Bush, Sr., on the basis of intervening in the Balkans and putting an end to the concentration camps there -- using air strikes to suppress the genocide. …

Tony Lake is not only somebody who had resigned [his position in] the U.S. government -- in his case, over the bombing of Cambodia -- to protest a past inhumane policy. But he is someone who is deeply reflective about the ways in which humanitarian considerations or, literally, human lives can be excluded from high-level policy discussions when it matters. I mean, that's a rare breed. …

So when it comes to the president, and at least his top foreign policy adviser, you really couldn't have asked for more. I don't think that one could really make the same claims about the Pentagon. … The Pentagon not only is itself steeped in a post-Vietnam, a realist mindset; I mean, not only did the Pentagon believe indeed that American troops should only be deployed for interests that are deemed vital to Americans, but, of course, the Pentagon was coming off the tragedy in Somalia.

So the combination of both Vietnam, realism, the belief that only vital national interests are what should move American foreign policy and Somalia meant that there was an ingrained resistance to doing anything that might result long-term in deploying U.S. troops to a country that wasn't intrinsically in America's vital interests.

Can you talk about the context to that September 1993 speech, when President Clinton goes to the General Assembly and gives that speech -- part of it which is about "The U.N. must learn to say no. …"

I think, with the end of the Cold War, there was a real sense of promise around the future of peacekeeping, the future of multilateralism, the possibility of great power politics again being oriented to parts of the world that had traditionally been neglected, or had been seen as pawns in the Cold War game. …

So you saw, by late 1993, that you had a tiny little U.N. peacekeeping office in New York and people talking all the time about the U.N. -- "Why doesn't the U.N. do this/ Why doesn't the U.N. do that?" … And within the U.N. Secretariat, there is an office for peacekeeping. …

… By September 1993, this tiny little office within this independent Secretariat was manning 17 peacekeeping missions and responsible for logistics and operational developments for 70,000 troops in places as diverse as Cambodia, Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda. …

… Then the other thing you have is, all of those missions going very, very badly. … In Bosnia, by September 1993, you had around 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers there. You'll recall the scenes out of the Balkans -- actually this would be later than 1993 -- of peacekeepers chained to lampposts and being used as human shields against NATO air strikes; peacekeepers insisting that that humanitarian aid be allowed to get through to people in need and the Serbs, in the case of the former Yugoslavia, saying, "Well, humanitarian aid can get through. But we're going to take 70 percent," and the peacekeepers knowing that the member states aren't willing to make war to get food to starving people. … So this whole issue of trying to maintain neutrality … trying to keep both sides happy-- ...

… But this is the debate that people are having internationally and in this country -- do we want to put [in] people with blue berets and limited mandates, knowing again that they're not backed by much member state desire to do all that much? Do we want to keep sticking them in harm's way? Because we're realizing, first of all, we're raising the expectations of people on the ground that these peacekeepers are going to be there to actually change the status quo on the ground, when, in fact, what they're really there to do is get the issue off the front pages of the newspaper and freeze the situation.

There's also a recognition it's incredibly expensive; really, really expensive, and, of course, the United States is charged with paying a third of the peacekeeping budget. So in this country, right around fall of 1993, there's this realization that it's actually very, very easy for a U.S. diplomat in New York to sign off on a peacekeeping mission, I mean, because it's a good thing. Who can be against trying to improve the lives of civilians in Cambodia and ensuring that elections takes place, or who can be against trying to mitigate the carnage in Bosnia?

But the Congress isn't really part of that debate as to what to sign off on. The next thing, of course, it's the Congress, and the people charged with appropriating the foreign aid budget who are stuck with the bill, or a third of the bill.

So the combination of the perception of weakness and neutrality in the face of atrocity, dashed hopes on the part of civilians, a belief that maybe even, in some situations, peacekeepers could do more harm than good, and the costs mean that, in this country, peacekeeping had become a very, very dirty word.

I think President Clinton goes to the United Nations and he says, "Well, how can I make clear that we're actually in control of this process and … how can we kind of put the genie back in the bottle and try to be a little more systematic as we go forward?" So that's when he famously says, "The United Nations has got to learn to say 'No.'"

Now I find the statement intensely problematic, because it was the Security Council -- of which the United States was by far the most influential member, the driving force on the Security Council -- that was creating these peacekeeping missions. So again, the notion that there is this independent United Nations that were sending Swedes and Brits and Ghanaians into harm's way, and that the United States were suddenly left footing the bill, is a deeply flawed understanding of what had actually happened. But the speech is a reflection of his desire to signal to the Congress and to the American people that there was a new kind of tough Democratic Party kind of thinking about internationalism, the United Nations and peacekeeping.

Then Rwanda happens. Again, can you explain the context around that decision to send in peacekeepers?

Clinton makes his speech. It is the following month [October 1993] that American soldiers had to go back [to Somalia], because the U.N. peacekeepers who were there, the Pakistanis, got into trouble. … So U.S. soldiers are deployed to basically rescue a floundering U.N. peacekeeping mission … and famously, they get entangled. The mission begins to spiral out of control, and that culminates in Oct, 3, 1993 -- a month after President Clinton's speech, where he'd already called upon the United Nations to learn to say no.

The president goes on television within 48 hours of the [Mogadishu, Somalia,] firefight, and he says we're coming home. … At the same time, at the United Nations Security Council, a vote is being held to deploy a new batch of peacekeepers to Rwanda.

Now, how can it be that he's given his speech just a couple of weeks before in the United Nations, saying "We've got to learn to say 'No,'" and he's extracting his forces from Somalia and basically acknowledging defeat -- a humiliating defeat from the standpoint certainly of the military -- and yet at the same time, his administration is going along with the deployment of more troops [to Rwanda]?

Well, it turns out, behind the scenes, that U.S. officials -- despite their caution and their desire not to foot the bill for very many more of these peacekeeping missions that seem inevitably to go awry, inevitably to last longer than people say they will, inevitably to be more costly in terms of human life, peacekeeper life -- in spite of all of that, they come to believe that Rwanda can be a U.N. winner. So … they get convinced that it [Rwanda] can actually be the antidote to the impression that all peacekeeping missions go bad, that it can be the real success story. I mean, here it's so much better than Bosnia.

Explain why Rwanda appeared better than the situation in Bosnia.

In Bosnia, you have one party, the Bosnian Serbs backed by Serbia, still intent on cleansing the entire country of non-Serbs. It's a hostile environment, and there is no peace.

But Rwanda's totally different. There's been an agreement that has been signed in Arusha. It seems like it has the assent of both sides. There's no evidence that the hard-liners necessarily are going to get in the way; or if there is evidence, nobody went and tracked it down. That evidence would certainly have been available to people.

But partly because of French enthusiasm, partly because of a desperation to find one U.N. mission that will actually go right … they said, "Let's go for it. Let's make this one work, and then we'll be able to go back to Congress and say, 'It actually is worth it.'"

Again, I think the fact-finding was sporadic, at best. … They didn't ask the hard questions about what mandate would be needed to equip these peacekeepers who were being sent in potentially to harm's way; not what seemed like harm's way at that time, but to something that could easily deteriorate. What would you need to give them to ensure that they could guard against that kind of worst-case scenario? None of that worst-case scenario thinking got done, because part of deciding to go meant assuming that it wouldn't go bad and that it could be done on the cheap. … The entire edifice of the mission hinges on nothing going wrong, and on peace continuing into the future.

But you hear that, "Oh, America was committed to the Arusha peace process."

… I don't think anybody senior within the Clinton administration had given the Arusha peace process much thought. I would be surprised if anybody on the Cabinet would have been able to tell you what the ethnic breakdown in Rwanda was between Hutu and Tutsi, for instance, or how this Arusha peace process even started and what the outcome is.

It just wasn't an issue that was going to occupy the already-preoccupied U.S. foreign policy officials. They were very busy at this point figuring out how to get out of Somalia, figuring out how to get into Haiti, figuring out what on earth to do about Bosnia, determining whether to give to the Chinese most-favored-nation status, determining what to do about North Korea and a potential nuclear weapons war. I mean, there was a lot going on.

The people who manned the Rwanda portfolio were Africanists. They included people like the ambassador and his staff in Rwanda. Certainly somebody who was in the Africa Bureau at the State Department obviously would have needed some basic familiarity with this. But one of the things that one sees when the genocide starts is how little institutional self-esteem the Africanists have in the U.S. government. I think this is a crucial part of the story about the U.S. response.

It is crucial in revisiting the story of how the United States responded to Rwanda to look at the lack of self-esteem, institutionally, that the Africa specialists had within the U.S. government. They had been so accustomed to not making the grade, in terms of their issues not being seen as a vital interest intrinsically, geographically.

The Burundi atrocities that had occurred in 1993 -- maybe 50,000 people killed in Burundi -- nobody ever made a documentary about why the U.S. never did anything about [that]. I think from their standpoint, they had no expectation once the killing started in Rwanda that either the response or the shame over a non-response would be any different. From their standpoint, it's Africans dying, and that has not ranked in U.S. foreign policy-making. …

… So I think that's one factor -- a lack of confidence that the subject would be taken seriously. Then part of it was a lack of familiarity with playing with the big boys, a lack of experience in working the bureaucracy and in putting something on the policy radar; figuring how to leak, how to use the media; how to resign; taking yourself and your own emotions and ethics seriously enough and believing that you matter enough as an individual that something like a resignation would actually cause anybody to care.

But I think most of the people that you talk to who worked the Africa portfolio, that especially worked full time on Rwanda, will tell you that they thought about resigning. Then they thought, "I bet I wouldn't even make page eight, 27, of the New York Times. Who would care?"

That was their thinking. If you contrast, for instance, the behavior of those who cared most about Rwanda with those in the State Department who cared most about Bosnia, who were in the European Bureau and who would have been more on the fast track in terms of careers, diplomatically-- I mean, when you go to the European Bureau, that'ss a sign that the department is taking you seriously, and they think that you should manage issues that are important to senior policy-makers; they were resigning left and right. There were more resignations over Bosnia than there were over Vietnam. …

The genocide. Can you talk about the chain of events? The Belgians were killed. …

The murder of the Belgians triggered two important responses in Washington. The first was a recognition that this was Somalia all over again. … It was a sense of "Oh, oh, this is how it starts for the Americans. … Inevitably the world will ultimately turn to the United States in the hopes of a rescue." So one reaction to the killing of the Belgians is, "Yikes, if they stay and they continue to get embroiled in this kind of carnage, it is only a matter of time before our NATO ally turns to us and asks us to rescue. We've been down that path before, and we don't want anything to do with it."

The second [reaction] was a tendency to say, "OK, this is their former colony. They [the Belgians] know something about this ethnic dynamic, and they've given up their men to this cause. We're going to defer to their instincts on what the right thing to do is."

Now this is, of course, rule number one when you yourself don't want to do something about crises -- you say, "Oh, well, there happens to be somebody uniquely positioned with particular expertise," But in this instance, it happened to be true.

The people in the Belgian foreign ministry had thought far more about the Arusha process, about the peacekeeping deployment and now, of course, about the atrocities, than anybody at a high level in the U.S. government. So the Belgians independently decided that they're going to do one or two things. They're either going to expand their presence and make war and fight to the death on this -- something that very few people in the Belgian government wanted to do -- or they're going to withdraw altogether; they're not going to incrementally throw good troops after bad.

So the Belgian foreign minister gets in touch with Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Christopher had no prior meaningful involvement with Rwanda in the early stage of the genocide. According to somebody who was in his office, he pulled down an atlas in order to determine exactly where Rwanda was in central Africa. So this was a place he'd never visited, never thought of visiting.

Christopher's response was extremely deferential. He communicated that there was no appetite at all for escalation, and that the United States, in light of the congressional appetite, and in light of the reluctance to be involved in peacekeeping at all, would not send troops to Rwanda; that it was just out of the question that the United States was going to be part of some kind of civil war suppression force -- because that's how they were framing the crisis at the time. The Belgian minister said, "Well, then we're going to pull out. Will you cover us?" And Christopher gave his assent.

What then happened was that an action memo was prepared, which had the United States -- which of course has a permanent seat on the Security Council -- going to the U.N., and demanding that the peacekeepers who were in place in Rwanda be withdrawn -- all of them. That was the action item that was circulated after the conversation with the Belgian foreign minister. .

Now the reasons for this again are obvious. One, if peacekeepers are not present in Rwanda, U.S. troops cannot be called upon to rescue them when they get into trouble. Two, the Belgians are looking for cover to get out. If they withdraw alone, what does that mean for national pride? Does it look like they're being singularly cowardly, while African nations that are much more poorly trained and equipped would stick it out? That wouldn't look good.

So the idea was, "Let us just close down the mission. After all, the circumstances in which we deployed these troops have changed so drastically that there's no conceivable argument that there is now a peace to keep in this country."

Nobody at this point is talking about genocide, even though the evidence is plentiful that people are being targeted on ethnic grounds and that the bodies are really starting to pile up in the streets. But they are framing it as a breakdown in the Arusha peace process -- civil war, and no peace to keep.

So this action item circulates and it is passed along. It goes through the White House, through the National Security Council. It is specifically I think handled by Richard Clarke and Susan Rice, who are in charge of multilateral affairs and peacekeeping.

… It is hard to imagine that Clarke and Rice would have acted without at least an implicit understanding that this was what was desired by their bosses, both in terms of Anthony Lake and in terms of the president. This action memo goes to Madeleine Albright, who's the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. She, as far as I can tell, acts upon the memo; goes to the Security Council, presents the U.S. position, and is bombarded by criticism and by outrage that this can be the response to what are already estimated to be tens of thousands of Rwandan deaths. [And] there was nobody there who was criticizing the withdrawal proposal, who themselves presented a viable alternative at that point. Albright hears this response and she says, "Ah, you know this is not good. I hadn't anticipated this."

She calls Richard Clarke, and they end up in a screaming match. I think it's something that's deeply etched in her memory. He also remembers the conversation. From his standpoint, it's very clear there's no presidential or political leadership overriding the presumption that American troops should not be deployed to advance a American finite national interest, and that U.N. troops should only remain in place or be deployed when we have assurances that they can get the job done.

So for him, it would require an overriding order in order to think differently about what should be done here. From her perspective, she's actually getting the political flak from the African countries. So she says, "No, no, no, no, we can't withdraw fully. It would just signal that we don't care about Rwanda. We can't do that. It just politically would be very, very damaging." And he said, "We must," and she says, "We can't," and they end up fighting on the phone. The fight is not about whether to send U.S. troops to Rwanda -- it's not even contemplated.

… There is no serious conversation held for the duration of the genocide about whether the United States should go and risk its troops to stop this thing. So the fight is not about that. The fight is simply about how to withdraw the U.N. peacekeepers, how many to withdraw and what the function of those peacekeepers should be who remain in place. That is the extent of the dissent at the highest level of the U.S. government about this genocide. That's it -- that phone call. That's the extent of the emotion.

The result is that Madeleine Albright wins a compromise of sorts, which is that a runt force is to be preserved in Rwanda. That force is to number 450. This means that General Dallaire gets permission to remain with so few troops that he stands almost no chance of actually performing meaningful rescue. But he does have to remain, and this is very much in accordance with his desire at the time to remain. But it puts the moral hazard so plainly on the backs of those who are tasked to wait it out, and effectively tasked to watch simply for the sake of showing the world that we haven't turned our backs on Rwanda. Nobody in New York could have believed that this force would deter the violence.

Let me ask you now about the Rwandan Working Group, these mid-level officials, and the number of meetings and the level at which they were held, and how it was vindication that nothing was going to happen. Who are these people?

The U.N. Security Council resolution is passed on April 21. Almost immediately, there's a recognition that this is a disastrous choice -- that the killing is just escalating. The pleas to use the word "genocide" and the mounting evidence, which has been considerable all along -- that this is [a] systematic targeting effort to exterminate the Tutsi population -- it's overwhelming.

So almost in the next breath, after they said, "Aye," and voted for withdrawing the peacekeepers, the Americans and the others on the Security Council and in the Secretariat as well-- The peacekeeping office began scratching their heads and asking, "OK, what do we do now?"

Now again, there's no appetite and no consideration of an American military intervention in Rwanda. But there is a desire to think about the configuration of the peacekeeping presence on the ground. Of course, General Dallaire is there, urging his superiors to send reinforcements. He's willing to make war to try to stop this thing, but he knows he doesn't have anywhere near the resources that he would need to do it.

So what ends up happening is, very soon after the Security Council resolution, a group of Washington experts who would have in their portfolio either peacekeeping or contingency U.S. military planning or Rwanda or central Africa start to come together. The goal is to figure out, "OK, how do we either send in reinforcements -- reinforcements that will be supplied by other countries? How do we protect refugees or just internally displaced people who've already gathered at U.N. positions that are going to be manned now by just a few U.N. observers?"

These meetings take place regularly. I think that there was a feeling by those who were involved that there was a great urgency and a great commitment. But they were laboring in purgatory, because there had been no political signal from above that this was a priority to the president of the United States.

So ultimately, no matter what they came up with, whether it was the [plan] where you were going to have peacekeepers coming in from neighboring countries and actually trying to meet up with the refugees who were in flight; or whether you're talking about radio jamming, which was proposed to try to suppress these hateful broadcasts that were not only stirring people up into killing, but also broadcasting the names and the addresses and the license plate numbers of Tutsi who had managed to escape to that point--

So they were brainstorming. But ultimately they were going to meet a clog at a higher level, inevitably. Because again, the lesson of Somalia and the whole experience with mission creep-- That is, what begins as a small, soft U.S. intervention, whether in terms of something as seemingly innocuous as radio jamming, or in terms of, let's say, ferrying troops from other countries into the region, begin small. But the mindset of Washington at that point inevitably-- It ends big: You can't dip your toe into tragedies of this magnitude.

So this is again the thinking at the higher level -- better not to dip your toe in at all. Thus, while a number of options for intermediary steps were put on the table, ultimately they never had the political capital that they needed to cut through the red tape. So radio jamming gets debated, and the response is, "Well, you know, if we actually jam hate radio, it violates freedom of speech."

Can you talk about Prudence Bushnell and her situation?

Prudence Bushnell, I think, is the embodiment of the spirited, well-meaning, determined U.S. policy-maker who wants to get something done, and who's stuck in a bureaucracy where it is very clear that her higher-ups are very, very leery of even the smallest form of involvement. So the cognitive and moral dissonance that she's experiencing in this period, I think, must be excruciating and profound, because imagine, if she's smart-- She's very smart, and she knows that it's all a routine; it's a way of feeling like you're doing something, staying busy, feeling constructive and getting excited about ideas and half-measures; and they are half-measures.

So even in terms of what you're proposing, you have the dissonance of knowing-- We're talking about radio jamming in the face of the murder of hundreds of thousands of people. … Then there's also knowing that even talking about radio jamming, there's a clog-up; that you're not going to get very far.

Her notebooks from that period are shattering, in a way, in terms of the human condition and in terms of the nature of bureaucracy. I remember on one of the pages of her notebooks -- you know, those little government sort of pads that people use -- she had a list of things that she needed to do. It said, "Call George Moose, arrange video teleconferencing." Then as a reminder to herself -- and it wasn't meant at all facetiously -- she had as number three, "Stop the massacres," meaning not that she was going to go and stop the massacres, but that had to be the fundamental content of everything she did for the day. But imagine putting "Stop the massacres" on your to-do list in the morning, and then going home at night and knowing that it was still there. Excruciating.

Where were you during April 1994?

I'm relieved to be able to say I was in Bosnia, yes.

Was Rwanda a big issue for you while in the press corps in Bosnia?

I was in Bosnia when the genocide started. I was a freelance journalist there, trying to interest my editors in what I thought was the most pressing set of atrocities of our time. One of the U.N. safe areas in Bosnia was coming under attack at precisely the time Rwanda was reaching its peak. I found myself arguing with my editors about the space that they were giving me, because it was of course shrinking, as Rwanda competed with Bosnia for copy space and column inches. In my mind at that time, in Sarajevo and traveling around former Yugoslavia, I just thought, "How could you possibly be deflecting attention from a genocide to an ethnic conflict? Hasn't it been happening for centuries [in Rwanda]? Hutu, Tutsi -- who can keep it straight?"

I was a poster child for what was wrong with the American reaction to the carnage. I suppose I tried to tell myself that I had something of an alibi -- that I was at least focused on one genocide of our time. But it's not much of an alibi. I was in the group of people who … I just didn't look and didn't focus. I read the stories; it seemed very confusing.

What kind of job did the press do in covering Rwanda?

Having gone back over the press record, I think that what you see is a learning curve. The early reports out of Rwanda describe ancient hatreds and a lot of confusion about whether it's Hutu killing Tutsi or Tutsi killing Hutu. I think a lot of the ignorance reflected in some of those early reports stems from the fact that so few of the reporters who were tasked to cover Rwanda had ever been there before, so they hadn't developed sources that they could trust. They were very dependent on official proclamations and portrayals.

Again, it's sad that this is so, but journalists-- We do tend to put stock in state proclamations and so on, or at least to give them a platform. We feel that, in the interest of even-handedness, you know the state says this and the rebels say this. So this kind of intrinsic desire not to cross lines and not to take sides has us almost looking to say, "On one day, the Hutu did this and the Tutsi did this, because it's war," which you can do. I think that's the flavor of the early reporting. But it changed.

With regard to the early reporting, when one talks to policy-makers, they will say "Well, the press certainly wasn't calling for any intervention. The editorials weren't there." …

I think the inadequacies in the reporting actually cured themselves quite quickly with the evacuation of foreign nationals and the testimony of people who had actually been there and seen the bodies. Keep in mind that a lot of the reporters were of course submitting stories from outside of Rwanda in the first week. So once some of them had managed to get inside, I think the reporting improved.

But what never improved was that which is actually the most important, and that's the editorial accent mark that newspapers in particular can place on their journalists reporting. There was only one major editorial in the New York Times, one major editorial in the Washington Post for the entire duration of this genocide. These editorial were editorials that lamented the carnage, that used the word "genocide" even to describe the carnage, but that never dared to suggest that the United States be involved in stopping it. Again, they were occupying the land that Prudence Bushnell and others within the bureaucracy were occupying -- the desire to stay relevant politically, and to be an advocate within the realm of the possible.

The very people who can push the policy agenda were muted and self-censored, so that they don't want to put an editorial in that says the United States should go in and stop genocide and actually think about pulling together a rapid reaction force. … They don't want to do that, because they don't want to be seen as being outliers from what is doable and possible.

Thus everything stays exactly where it is, so everybody sort of anguishes about this carnage and even calls it by its rightful name. But ultimately, [it] doesn't draw the president's divided attention, I suppose, at that time, to the fact that this is what his presidency will be remembered for, and that this will be the thing that he regrets more than any other event, any other crisis that occurred for the entire eight years he sat in the White House.

That neither his advisers nor the editorial boards … alerted him to that fact doesn't excuse him of not having realized that himself. After all, the body counts were not only in his daily intelligence briefs, but were in the newspaper every day. But it is important to note that the executive branch's decision paralleled that of the rest of society. There was no noise clamoring for anything other than radio jamming from the rest of us.

After the U.N. mission had been largely decapitated in late April, one of the plans that got traction was to have the United States kind of adopt a country. The U.S. would help transport in the troops and even equip, in some instances, countries that wanted to provide troops, but didn't have the resources to make them combat-ready.

One of the plans was to send reinforcements to General Dallaire and to have those reinforcements come from African countries. So Don Steinberg … and some individuals within the State Department who had contacts with other people in African ministries began soliciting contributions to this peacekeeping force. The U.S. offer was to supply equipment, to help transport some of these troops, if that's what was required.

There were some takers provisionally. However, the U.S. was very frustrated, because they felt that many of the takers were making exorbitant demands and using the U.S. appetite for doing this in-between kind of intervention -- using that as a way of kind of cashing out and getting the tanks they've always wanted and the uniforms they've always wanted, and so on.

So I think the United States grew very, very frustrated with their encounters with other African countries. But there were a few who, in the end … satisfied the U.S. Unfortunately, the planning operated at a snail's pace. It was business as usual in terms of pace of the negotiations. You would never have guessed, I would imagine, sitting in one of those meetings, that 8,000 people a day were being killed.

… But I think it would have been a real test of the U.S. willingness to help equip and transport, if in fact the Africans had in a way called America's bluff. I don't know whether this would have actually ever left the gate. Certainly there were a lot of well-meaning people within the U.S. government who convinced themselves that it would, and who worked very, very hard to make it happen.

[But] it would have triggered, again, memories of Somalia and what had gone wrong, and that if America puts them in-country, doesn't America have to get them out of country? And doesn't America have to defend them in some ways against mission breakdown? Of course, the large political mantra that was floating around Washington and all of the corridors, even as the details were being ironed out-- The mantra was, "Don't Americanize the genocide."

So again, we'll never know whether, if Nigeria and Senegal and others had come forward in the early days of genocide and said, "Here, we're ready, we want your help." We'll never know really what the U.S. response would have been, and whether we would have been willing to put our pilots in harm's way. I mean, it's not easy to ferry troops into genocidal countries; that's a risk. But it never came to that.

That's interesting. Because for something radically different to happen, it would have required a senior U.S. official to sort of own the issue of genocide, and that never happened. Can you talk about that?

There're a variety of policy tools short of U.S. intervention that actually could have been applied and that might well have deterred a serious amount of killing. Again, we will never know whether denouncing the perpetrators in the early days of the genocide and declaring that we were going to set up a tribunal to prosecute them; or freezing their assets, so they understood that there wasn't going to be any bounty on the other side of this; or patrolling from the skies and trying to deter just by our presence; or really earnestly going to African countries in the early days rather than waiting two or three weeks-- Just so many things that could have been done that weren't done.

It wasn't that they weren't contemplated, and it wasn't that there weren't people within the U.S. government really earnestly trying to cut through the red tape and to make them happen. But for even the mildest of those measures to have been carried out, it would have required high-level ownership of the genocide and of the U.S. response. It would have required somebody above a kind of State Department assistant secretary level, preferably somebody of a Cabinet-level post, who simply made it their business to put the issue in front of the president, to put the issue and even the moral stakes in front of his or her colleagues in Cabinet-level meetings, in principals' committee meetings.

It would have required personal risk, putting your career on the line, being associated forever with, yes, a loser, as it were. I mean a loser in the sense that there's nothing geopolitically to be gained by getting involved with this, and only risks on the horizon -- and indeed, no risks at all or no costs at all foreseeable, anyway, of staying uninvolved for you or for the United States. No one's going to remember who made what decision around the Rwandan genocide. Omissions never get remembered.

So nobody owned it. Thus all of these kind of floating proposals about denunciation and freezing of assets and radio jamming and partnership with African countries -- they floated earnestly in the ether, and they never got the engine behind them that they would have required. I mean, Prudence Bushnell and others did denounce publicly, and it may even have done some good. The hotel owner in Kigali claims that Bushnell's phone calls to the perpetrators, mentioning the hotel and the people inside, are probably what deterred an attack on the hotel, and that's incredible. … It's a rare instance.

But imagine if the president had taken his profound political capital and charisma, and if it had been him going to African countries, urging them to send troops, saying, "Hey, look, there's a division of labor on this earth. The United States is involved in Haiti now. We were involved in Somalia. This is one we're not going to be involved. We're not going to be boots on the grounds. … But the fact that we're not going to put boots on the ground doesn't disqualify us from exerting leadership." The really profound mistake was to think that if U.S. troops are taken off the table, or if they never even go near the table … then that somehow disqualifies the United States from playing a prominent leadership role.

Well, no, of course it should demand [the president's] attention. Of course the Cabinet should have met around the clock on this question, no matter what else they were handling. If they weren't going to put U.S. troops on the ground, if they didn't think they could carry that in the Congress, it may well not have been the matter. No amount of Clintonian leadership may have carried U.S. troops through the Congress; they may be right about that. But at least you want to be able to look back and say, "We did everything short of a thing that we couldn't achieve." Instead, they have to look back and say, "We did nothing short of a thing that we couldn't have achieved."

What are your own views on that lack of leadership?

In interviewing 60 U.S. officials about their roles in this tragedy -- or their non-roles -- maybe the thing that held me back in terms of judgement or outrage was my own fear that I, too, would have gotten it wrong; that I, too, would have either been too much of coward to put my whole being on the line, maybe in Rwanda. What would I have done, who would I have saved, what would I have risked for these people? Or that I would have been so determined to be practical. … That I would have inhabited that land of the possible that was so attractive to people, that kind of earnest, vaguely creative-at-times effort not to be too far afield from where the president and his senior advisers were -- to stay relevant, to be in that land of possibility -- yet that I would have totally missed the singular epic moral cataclysm of our time.

That would be my fear -- that I would have been buried in the details and trying to be so constructive that I would have just gotten totally wrong, ultimately, in terms of outcomes and what was demanded.

Now that I have spent all these years looking at these questions, I hope that at least I would [have been] able to disable my rationalizations, because I'm just too familiar with them from having interviewed so many people, and seeing the stories that they told themselves. But I'm sure that the first time out, if I had been in that situation, that those rationalizations would have been extremely tempting. I just hope again that I would have been able to see the forest from the trees and the weeds that they consoled themselves by inhabiting.

How much confidence do you have that, if it happened again -- not in Rwanda per se, but the next time a crisis like this happens -- would the response be any different?

The president has expressed his profound regret for allowing the genocide. An internal investigation was commissioned by Sandy Berger, Tony Lake's successor as national security adviser, on how it happened, bureaucratically. But there have been no congressional investigations, no public reckoning, no institutional lesson learning that has come out of this.

The only lesson I think that has been learned that I'm aware of is that actually it turns out people will remember, more than you think, when you allow genocide, especially if it's of this scale. So to some extent, that's a kind of a footstep effect if you will, in the future, in that it's just a little more awareness that names can be named of bystanders; that sins of omission will eventually, belatedly, get dissected by the press or whoever.

But in terms of what is actually required to move the machine of the U.S. government, there are two things. [First], top-down leadership by an American president, not simply visiting a Holocaust museum, and saying "Never again" as a slogan once a year -- which is what successive American presidents have done -- but meaning it, and saying, "It's not going to happen on my watch." Issuing a presidential decision directive, signaling the bureaucracy that, career-wise, "There's a price to be paid if you're in a bureau and you allow this not to come to my attention. … You're not going to pay a price if you do the right thing. You'll pay a price if you do nothing or the wrong thing." …

But the one lesson of this period is that American leadership is indispensable, even when American troops are not going to be at the front line of the suppressive mechanism. A lot of the planning has to go on proactively. You can't wait until the plane has been shot down and the machetes are out and being sharpened; you just can't. There are too many human variables, congressional issues, logistical operational obstacles to rapid deployment. If you're serious, it's now, and we haven't seen that kind of top-down commitment.

The second way, of course, that a response could come about that would be very different would be if the rest of us on the outside succeeded somehow in creating the impression that there is actually a political price to be paid for doing nothing about genocide. We could play into this calculus that is long-standing -- the calculus that says things that benefit the American people will go uncritically received; things that harm the American people or harm American lives, American soldiers, that cost money, are risky. We could pay a price for doing something risky; we will not pay a price for doing nothing.

We have to change that calculus. That requires the mobilization of opinion leaders, the recognition that it's not enough simply to be passively in favor of a value-driven U.S. foreign policy, but that you actually have to be loudly in favor of that. You have to actually pick up the phone. When Tony Lake met with Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch just two weeks into the genocide -- an incredible event for a human rights monitor from Rwanda, who was an expert on Rwanda, to be meeting with the national security adviser of the United States -- he put it to her very simply. He said, "Look, I hear you, I hear about radio jamming. I hear about denunciation. I hear about your list, and duly noted. But you have got to make noise. The phones are not ringing."

Unfortunately, I don't think we have either the top-down leadership or an improved capacity to make noise quickly. All we have achieved since the Rwandan genocide is alerted the victims and the survivors that we feel badly about what was allowed. Perhaps … the Clinton administration has alerted those who have come since in government, that this will not go away; that the one place you will pay a price will not be at the polls, it will not be in the election, but it will be in posterity. It will be in your legacy. You will in fact be remembered for whether you stand up to genocide.

Finally, what about the intellectual basis for humanitarian intervention? Where are we on that today?

There was a time when the view in international circles was that there should be no interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign estate. This was the attitude that disabled American diplomats back in 1915 from even commenting on the Armenian genocide. We've passed that point. I mean, the debate has long since moved on. Now the issue is not whether you're entitled as a diplomat to criticize your host government or to criticize an ally even, or a foe, on the basis of their human rights record.

The debate now is how far can and should you go, which tools in the toolkit that is available to statesmen should be deployed at what point. When does "mere ethnic cleansing" become wholesale genocide? There are those who believe that merely deporting people doesn't warrant military intervention, and yet genocide does. But it's very hard to define those lines. Genocide certainly can be achieved when you destroy the group as such when you wipe out a presence, which usually involves killing, raping and deportation. So I think there's still a lot of confusion in kind about where the lines should be drawn, about when military force is warranted.

But one of the lessons of history is that, if you're having the debate of whether the g-word should be applied or whether military intervention is appropriate, you are in the red zone. It is time to call the Cabinet together and decide what we can do. It is time to consult with your allies, time to urgently get on the phone or get on a plane and talk to the neighbors surrounding a country in crises like this. It's not the time to take refuge in semantics or in the inescapable reality that there are no bright line rules in foreign policy.

So much of what will be done will be determined on the basis of whether there is a domestic and international constituency. But that doesn't mean you take refuge in the absence of a groundswell, in the absence of a protest on the Mall in Washington. What you do is you lead the American people, you lead the cause; you get as far as you can go, because the stakes are high enough to warrant it.

I think we have progressed in the sense that what was once unthinkable - namely, military intervention in the face of genocide -- is now totally thinkable. It just very rarely is going to be done, barring again the re-conceiving of what foreign policy is for -- that it's not simply about getting involved abroad unilaterally when your own vital national interests are at stake; but it's recognizing that the welfare of distant strangers is important. … A world that avoids not only stopping genocide militarily, but that avoids even owning it, is not a world that is going to be safe or at all hospitable for the United States, either.

These things matter intrinsically, because of the human stakes, and they actually matter long-term for America and its role in the world. I think the hope is, anyway, that with Sept. 11 and with some of the events that have occurred since, that there might be some recognition that there's no such thing as mere genocide -- that it has tremendous bearing for the kind of global rules of the road that are essential for our ability to persist in this world.

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posted april 1, 2004

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