No sooner had I returned from the twentieth anniversary commemorations of the Rwandan genocide in Kigali than I saw Howard French’s assault on the man universally credited with stopping the mass killings, President Paul Kagame.
In his Wall Street Journal op-ed (“How Rwanda’s Paul Kagame Exploits US Guilt,” 19 April 2014) French brings us an unoriginal rehash of all the Monday-morning quarterbacks convinced they could have done a much better job of bringing Rwanda back from the brink after the fastest genocide in history.
I am mystified by French’s efforts to obscure these truths and, as Jew who has watched the growing trend of Holocaust denial, I am even more troubled. When I was in Kigali I told President Kagame that if he was not careful in 10 years’ time the world would say there was no genocide, but merely ethnic strife. He responded, “10 years? It’s happening already today.” As outrageous as it would be to describe the Armenian, Cambodian, Jewish or Bosnian genocides as occurring without agency, the Rwandan genocide is no different. There were good guys and really, really bad guys. And despite all French’s efforts to obfuscate the truth, Kagame is the acknowledged hero of the plot.
French contends that America’s guilt over its inaction to stop the genocide causes our government today to overlook alleged crimes of the Kagame government. It does not occur to French that the reason the US is very friendly toward Rwanda is because Americans are amazed that in a continent marked by war, starvation and corruption Rwanda has the fastest-growing economy, the highest immunization rates, a celebrated war on corruption and, as any visitor can witness, is a model for racial harmony and integration? While traveling through Rwanda I was amazed to see the entire country shut down at 2 p.m. each day during the annual genocide remembrance week, to sit outdoors in groups of a few hundred to talk through ethnic differences and foster reconciliation so that such violence never repeats itself. I have never seen anything of its kind, not even in Israel or the United States.
French is a downer, a profound cynic and pessimist whose prejudices against Kagame would deny him even this astonishing achievement. In a world filled with mass murderers like Bashar Assad and Kim Jong-Un, who continues to starve his people to death, French eviscerates any pretension to objectivity when he says, quoting a Belgian scholar, that Kagame is “probably the worst war criminal in office today.” But any objective observer who drives through the pristine and immaculate roads of Rwanda will conclude that Kagame has exceeded any expectation the world would have had for a country that in 1994 had so many bodies in its rivers that the waters actually ceased to flow.
That is not to say the president is perfect. It is to say that before we hurl accusations against a man who witnessed the world’s abandonment of his people to machetes and axes, we ought to be somewhat understanding of his aggressive security policies that ensure his people are never subject to extermination again. As Yogi Berra famously said, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”
Writers like French find it easy to condemn countries like Rwanda or Israel for taking the fight to their enemies rather than continuing to be sitting ducks. Would French really advise Kagame to leave the murderers who perpetrated the genocide right on his border in Congo? Would he tell Kagame to rely on international assurances and the United Nations to protect his people, the same UN that categorically refused to allow its commander, General Romeo Dallaire, to disarm the Hutu militias and who evacuated most of its peace-keepers just as soon as the genocide began? I claim no expertise in the ongoing travails of Congo.
But French loses all credibility when he lays all the country’s suffering at Rwanda’s door. Congo, well before Rwanda’s incursion, was ruled by the ruthless dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, a violent autocrat who ran a kleptocracy, amassing vast personal wealth, and who was seen as an archetypal African dictator. After the Tutsi genocide, the main body of perpetrators fled to, and were granted sanctuary in Congo.
Surely even the biggest critic would cut Kagame some slack when they imagine some two million Rwandan refugees still camped across the border under the command and control of the former genocidal government.
Congo’s government openly collaborated with the FDLR, which is on the US terror list.
Most venomous of all is French’s assertion that Rwanda’s incursions into Congo was the result of “Rwanda’s pursuit of coldblooded ethnic revenge.” Such unsubstantiated conjecture would turn the tables and make the man who stopped the genocide, Paul Kagame, into the only true génocidaire, and reminds me of former Pink Floyd front-man Roger Water’s claim that Israel is now the Nazis.
French wishes his readers to believe that the current Rwandan government is just as guilty of “genocide” as its predecessor, making victims into villains. This unfortunate moral equivalence is something of which we Jews have learned all too well as Israel is regularly and falsely accused of being an apartheid state, even as it affords its 1.5 million Arab citizens equal rights to every Israeli and more rights than any Arab nation on earth.
Legitimate criticism of the Rwandan government is important. The US government is pressing President Kagame for greater press freedoms and allowing for greater political opposition. There are troubling allegations of select opposition leaders and even journalists who have been murdered. Kagame’s defenders argue that there is no evidence linking his government with these deaths.
I raised these subjects with President Kagame on more than one occasion. I told him that as the only man alive to have stopped a genocide he is a hero to me and countless millions the world over. He must remain so and make morality and democracy the cornerstone of his policies amid the legitimate need to protect his people against so many that wish them harm. A man whose country has suffered indiscriminate slaughter has a special responsibility to uphold human rights and stop all abuse.
But the US lecturing Kagame would no doubt carry more weight if Rwanda did not feel itself being subject to double standards, as the world’s sole superpower pursues a policy of inaction in Syria, North Korea and the Central African Republic, where millions continue to die with barely an American objection.
The author is the international best-selling author of 30 books and in May will publish Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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