Ghosts of Rwanda

From the very start, the United States resisted intervention in Rwanda because of national interests, higher priorities, and domestic and bureaucratic politics. Moreover, during the three months of killing, the U.S. blocked several opportunities, short of intervention, that could have diminished the slaughter. Here are excerpts from interviews with Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell; John Shattuck, assistant secretary of state for human rights; Alison des Forges, Human Rights Watch; George Moose, assistant secretary of state for Africa; Madeleine Albright, U.N. ambassador; General Romeo Dallaire, U.N. force commander in Rwanda; and Michael Sheehan, peacekeeping adviser to Madeleine Albright. These excerpts are drawn from the extended FRONTLINE interviews.

Samantha power
  Author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide

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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. …

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."

Michael sheehan
  Peacekeeping Adviser to Madeleine Albright

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They all looked for the U.S., but I argued that not only Americans had the capability to fly a battalion or two into Kigali. There were at least half a dozen of the countries in the world that would have lead such an effort. But they were looking for the U.S. to go back into Rwanda at that time, and I think that had been a very, very difficult political decision for the United States to make at that time.

And I can tell you, having remembered very clearly, there was no one within the United States political spectrum in that period that was calling for an American-led intervention -- no one in the Congress, no one in the executive branch, no one in the military, no one in the press. There was almost a silence on that issue at the time. It was only later, mid-May and later, as the horrors came into full view, that there were a rush of people, volunteering that [the] Americans should have guided an operation in there. But I can tell you, in late April and early May, in terms of the serious political leadership within the executive branch or in the Congress, there was no big advocates for taking U.S. forces that were basically steaming out of the port of Mogadishu at that same time and reinserting them into central Africa in a very, very unstable situation.

There was concern about the humanitarian situation. There was great concern about that, and there was talk about mounting a humanitarian operation in the south. And that was being discussed by members of the Pentagon with me [and] with military officials in the U.N. about the safe areas in the southern part of Rwanda. Eventually that type of operation was mounted and the U.S. did lead that humanitarian operation into eastern Congo and western Rwanda and that zone where we set up a massive humanitarian operation. But this was really later, after the massive killings had already been perpetrated.

John shattuck
  Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights

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[In the] middle of May, the State Department mood, as you describe, is pretty grim.

Well, mid-May was probably the nadir of 1994, which itself was in many ways the worst year in the Clinton administration, certainly on foreign policy. By then, we really did have a political crisis on human rights and trade in China. The president was about to take a huge hit on human rights because of his change in position in China, whereby he basically authorized an extension of the "most favored nation" trading status with China without any human rights conditions which he had imposed a year earlier.

So that really cut the legs out from under the human rights assistant secretary as well as, at least at that stage, within the administration more generally. I think later on we recovered significantly. Bosnia was in one of its real crisis modes. The Europeans and the Americans were kind of arguing about whether to have more peacekeepers, in the case of the Europeans, or more air strikes, in the case of the Americans. The Europeans didn't want to authorize American air strikes for fear that it would endanger their troops, and U.S. was not about to authorize any troops for Bosnia.

So it was a terrible stalemate there, and the Bosnia situation just kept getting worse. [And] thousands and thousands of Haitian boat people [were] taking to the high seas and trying to get away from Haiti. The policy was slowly being changed at that point, but it hadn't been changed yet.

Then, of course, there's Rwanda, which I think for anyone who had any sense of human rights and human catastrophe, they had to think that was the worst thing going on in the world at that time, and nothing was being done about it. So the mood was not only grim, but very much resigned, if you will, to something overwhelming happening in Africa that was not being dealt with by the United States or any other country. I don't want to just keep pointing a finger at the U.S. -- the international community as a whole failed the Rwandan people.

Did you ever have a conversation with Warren Christopher about Rwanda?

I never had a conversation with Warren Christopher about Rwanda at that stage. There was no occasion when there was a Rwanda meeting. He had sort of delegated this to [Strobe] Talbott and to [Peter] Tarnoff, whom I had many conversations with. But I did not have a conversation with Christopher about it.

Did anyone [at that stage] talk to him about it later?

I think later, I did -- certainly reflected on how terrible I thought the situation was. He was, of course, being battered over Bosnia, because he was taking the position that nothing really could be done about Bosnia. I think it was he actually who called Bosnia the "problem from hell," and I didn't believe that a lot could be done about Bosnia. …

But it's been described to me that he really [was] not … interested in the policies about Rwanda.

Yes, I think that's true. I think he tended to take issues and farm them out, and this was one that he farmed out. He kept the Middle East and China for himself at that stage, and there were other issues I'm sure that he was deeply involved in. As secretary of state, he had to make sure that somebody was paying attention, and there were people paying attention. …

Any other principals that you ever discussed this with at the time?

[Sandy] Berger, certainly, though Berger's not a principal, of course. I had a couple of conversations with Tony Lake. I think Tony was depressed about the fact that there was no one pushing from the outside for action on Rwanda. There were a few human rights groups, to be sure, and they were heroic, although even they were somewhat late to arrive at the conclusion that this was a genocide. I did have a couple of conversations with him.

Was there anybody, as far as you know -- Lake or anyone else within the administration -- [that] tried to make the case at a higher level for more accurate--

That I don't know. My position in the spring of 1994 was weakened by the controversies that I was involved in in Haiti and China, so I didn't have any direct access to the president on this.

General Romeo Dallaire
  U.N. Force Commander in Rwanda

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How do you feel now when you hear U.S. senior officials -- Clinton, Albright, others -- talk about Rwanda? Of course Clinton went and apologized--

He didn't apologize.

Well, it was couched as an apology.

No, no. He went to reinforce the blackmail on the Rwandans. … When he was there in '98, he said, "Oh, I didn't know. We didn't realize." I've got all those quotes and stuff, which are outright lies. They knew, it was there as information, and it is evident that that information was either at his level or stopped within the structures. But the Americans knew what was going on inside there, and to go and excuse yourself -- the Belgians did the same thing -- in front of these people. The Americans scuttled any initiative to bring about a force to be able to save hundreds of thousands. How can they look at this guy and accept an apology?

But worse than that is that the Rwandans need American money. They need Belgian money to reconstitute themselves. What option do they have regarding Clinton coming in there and trying to excuse himself? Throw him out? No. Embarrass him? They gave him a bit of a hard time, but that was insignificant to what was deserved. These great leaders who go to these countries and ask for excuses, that's sort of like trying to get rid of the blood on their hands. Really what they're doing is imposing that on those people, blackmailing them to accept these apologies, so that it satisfies the people back home that we brought closure. "I went there and in humble statements I demonstrated that we had failed and that we are sorry about it." Bullshit. I have no time for any such actions. There is no respect of the people. I mean it's crass to actually be able to go there and say that. …

Alison des Forges
  Human Rights Watch

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… I think, in fairness to the people from the International Operations division, we have to say that they were perhaps interested primarily in preserving the possibility of a future U.N. peacekeeping operation for some situation where they thought U.S. interests would really be at stake. They didn't see that for Rwanda, and so they saw only an enormous risk.

What they wanted to avoid at all costs was taking the risk for Rwanda, which in the end might not be worth the effort, from their point of view. So it was perhaps not just hard-heartedness, indifference, racism -- all of those things which one could easily accuse them of. But it was perhaps also, I would hope -- maybe it's too idealistic -- but I hope maybe also a concern for preserving some freedom of action vis--vis the U.N. in the future that led them to take this very hard line against involvement in Rwanda.

madeline albright
  U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.

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The tragedy in Rwanda was so quick, that I am not sure there was time for a major voice in it. Also, again, I think what's important is to see it within the context of the other things that were happening.

Somalia, and watching Americans be dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, was a searing event. Trying to figure out how to deal with the results of that, the lessons learned, and then the lessons don't apply exactly to another situation -- I think it was a very troubling time, in terms of decision making generally.

But the thing that I think one has to keep in mind is that the decisions being made were not being made because people weren't interested or were cold blooded or brutal or didn't care. It's that the information wasn't there, and the wherewithal wasn't there to do it. For those people to judge what happened on the basis of what we know now, versus what we knew then, I think is not fair.

If the information had been there, do you think, given the pressures of Congress and--

I think it would have been possible to make a stronger argument, because I do think that American decision makers and the American people are very concerned about humanitarian disasters and are willing to do something about it. Our problem is more that we don't stay long enough to finish the job, but not that we are not deeply moved by great tragedy.

So I think if there had been more, clearer information, I think it certainly would have made the argument stronger. Whether we would have been able to get there fast enough -- there's so many hypotheticals in this, because just to mount an operation takes time, just to pull together the troops and the airlift and the equipment. Easier said than done. I think that's what many people don't understand -- you can't just all of a sudden parachute in and make a huge difference in something that is this massive.

It was a terrible time and I've been over it so many times. You know, one wishes that there had been things [done], but I'm not sure there could have been.

Mark Doyle
  BBC World Service

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There was even a point … when African countries offered [more] soldiers, and all they needed was a few trucks and some airlift to get them in. The Americans even refused to do that. … The British government and the American government -- who send their politicians to Kigali and cry over the gravesites -- these are the same countries that refused to send soldiers to stop it happening, when they knew it was happening, not just because I was telling them that it was happening. … They deliberately tried to stop countries [from] sending troops to the U.N., and started manufacturing a plan, where the Americans in particular said the most important thing to do is to get some soldiers around the borders of Rwanda to save the refugees.

Well, hell, was that the most important thing? It was completely the opposite of what was required. What was required was to have soldiers in the middle in Kigali in each town, each football stadium. Broadly speaking, that was Dallaire's plan -- to have soldiers at football stadiums to protect people. I think it was a doable plan. He just didn't have enough soldiers. I'm sure a few thousand extra soldiers could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Why didn't it happen?

Because they were Africans, I think. How many peacekeepers were there in Bosnia, Kosovo, [the] former Yugoslavia? There were a lot. In Rwanda, there were a couple of hundred poorly equipped U.N. [soldiers] without armored personnel carriers, without a proper military field hospital, without proper logistics supply from Copenhagen and Nairobi and these places where the U.N. do their operations.

So I don't think there can be any doubt that if hundreds of thousands of Europeans or Americans were being killed in the way that Rwandans were being killed -- do you think the world would not have intervened? I think it's because they were Africans.

george moose
  Assistant Secretary of State for Africa

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One theory I've heard is that people at the highest levels … allowed this issue to be dealt with at the Pru Bushnell [deputy ass't secretary of state for African affairs], 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.

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posted april 1, 2004

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