Twenty years ago this week, machete-wielding militias of the Hutu tribe in Rwanda were carrying out nationwide massacres of members of the country’s ethnic minority, the Tutsis. Detailed information about the genocide began reaching the West almost as soon as it started.
This has always been an uncomfortable truth for those in the Clinton administration who were responsible for matters of state, global affairs and human rights. To his great credit, president Bill Clinton has acknowledged that America’s silence during the genocide in Rwanda was one of the failures of his presidency. Others in his administration, however, have been neither as honorable nor as forthcoming.
Newly released cables about the 1994 genocide flatly contradict previous accounts by some of those officials, and the refusal of the Obama White House to declassify additional documents hasn’t helped clear up this moral morass. The fact that some of the Clinton-era figures involved in this episode now work in the Obama administration adds yet another troubling layer to this unfolding story.
Three days after the mass killings started, frontpage newspaper articles cited Red Cross eyewitnesses who reported that “tens of thousands” had already been murdered, with corpses piled “in the houses, in the streets, everywhere.” Separately, the Clinton White House was receiving detailed intelligence about the murders from its diplomats and other sources on the scene.
Yet, as Samantha Power reported in her book, A Problem from Hell
, a Defense Department memo revealed that the State Department was “worried” that acknowledging the genocide “could commit [the US] to actually ‘do something.’” Susan Rice, then director of Africa Affairs for the National Security Council, asked her colleagues: “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] elections?” Rice’s remark briefly attracted public attention in 2012 when she was nominated by President Barack Obama to serve as his national security adviser. When asked, she claimed not to recall having made this statement, and then added that had she done so it would have been “inappropriate.”
Try “appalling.” And the convenient memory lapse sounds unconvincing.
The new release of some 300 cables between the US and other governments as the genocide raged raises new questions about the response of senior American officials. The cables concern the United Nations peacekeeping force stationed in Rwanda.
After 10 members of the force were murdered, some of the participating nations wanted to cut and run – even though that meant leaving the Tutsis without any protection and granting the Hutus a green light to hack the Tutsis to death.
Former secretary of state Madeline Albright, who was America’s ambassador to the United Nations at the time, was a pivotal figure in these discussions. Later, in her autobiography and in media interviews, Albright blamed the State Department and the National Security Council for urging withdrawal of UN forces. But the newly released cables tell a very different version of events.
On April 12, 1994, ambassador Albright sent a cable to the State Department urging that the US take the lead in advocating a withdrawal of all the peacekeepers except for “a skeletal staff.” Albright wasn’t thinking about rescue; she was identifying a “window of opportunity” for UN forces to escape through an airport still under Belgian and French control.
Secretary of state Warren Christopher, heeding Albright’s advice, threw his support behind the withdrawal proposal and the UN Security Council voted to pull out all but 273 of the peacekeepers.
Over the next three months, in full view of an indifferent international community, Hutu death squads slaughtered 800,00 Tutsis.
This is not, however, just another sad story about the abandonment of a far-away people in a distant land. With the release of these cables, this is now the story of a cover-up involving prominent government figures – one, in fact, who holds a senior position in the Obama administration.
Albright, although retired from government, remains an influential elder stateswoman of diplomatic affairs and is said to serve as an unofficial foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton. Incredibly, Albright was chosen to co-chair a Genocide Prevention Task Force in 2007.
Of even greater concern is the role of Rice, who is now chief national security adviser to the president.
At the time of the genocide, Rice worked directly under Richard A. Clarke, the National Security Council official who argued most vehemently for the US to stay out of Rwanda and to withdraw the UN forces. But aside from her unfortunate statement in which she drew a moral equivalence between saving Rwandan lives and winning congressional elections, what else did she know and say? Rice has in the past year served as a lightning rod for criticism over her statements concerning the 2012 attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya. And more recently she described returned prisoner of war Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who apparently deserted his post, as having served with “honor and distinction.”
The Obama administration may have good reason not to declassify internal White House e-mails from 1994 regarding America’s response to the genocide in Rwanda: when Rice speaks, her employers often end up looking foolish.
Moral failure in the face of genocide is surely not new. The path to every genocide, it seems, is paved by the inaction of government officials with their self-serving rationales for not rescuing those who could otherwise be saved. It is no consolation that these recent disclosures about America’s failure to intervene in Rwanda place it in the derelict company of other nations that likewise stood by. Yes, it’s a sad story, but worst of all – it’s an old one.
Thane Rosenblum is a novelist and senior fellow at New York University, teaches human rights and has written widely on Holocaust-related themes.