Bill Clinton's reputation continues to crumble - opinion

Bill Clinton's reputation began to crumble after the Rwanda genocide of 1994 and has only dropped from there.

 Former US President Bill Clinton delivers a speech during the 20th anniversary of the Deployment of NATO Troops in Kosovo in Pristina, Kosovo June 12, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/FLORION GOGA/FILE PHOTO)
Former US President Bill Clinton delivers a speech during the 20th anniversary of the Deployment of NATO Troops in Kosovo in Pristina, Kosovo June 12, 2019.

Bill Clinton recently recovered from a urinary tract infection that led to hospitalization. I was glad to see him on the mend and we wish him good health and long life.

His reputation, however, continues to crumble, and one wonders if he’ll ever climb out of his basement rating as one of America’s most repudiated presidents.

For the past few weeks, the American FX TV network has aired a much-discussed series called Impeachment which revisits the entire sordid tale of Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Once seen as a home-wrecker, Lewinsky has made great strides over the past two decades to radically improve her image and become a champion fighting online bullying. Clinton, by contrast, has watched his reputation rapidly decline, especially in the age of #MeToo. The last thing Clinton needed was this TV series which portrays him as a man bereft of scruple or discipline.

The truth, however, is that Clinton’s legacy was not tarnished by Lewinsky – a private matter – so much as by his abominable failure to take any action in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide.

 FORMER US president Bill Clinton observes a moment of silence at an open mass grave of Rwandan genocide victims at a memorial in Kigali in 2005. (credit: ARTHUR ASIIMWE/REUTERS) FORMER US president Bill Clinton observes a moment of silence at an open mass grave of Rwandan genocide victims at a memorial in Kigali in 2005. (credit: ARTHUR ASIIMWE/REUTERS)

Clinton is a quintessential progressive – someone who wants to believe in the goodness of people and refuses to hate anyone. His inability to summon a real hatred for evil – a fact demonstrated throughout the morally vacuous years of his presidency – was directly responsible for his culpable inaction in the face of the Rwandan genocide.

While helpless African Tutsis were being slaughtered by their Hutu neighbors at a rate of 333 per hour over a three-month period, the most powerful man on earth refused utterly to intervene. As is well documented by Samantha Power in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell, he never even convened his national security team or met with his senior advisers to discuss the crisis. Apparently, he was afraid that by condemning it he would be obligated to send in American troops. He even refused to block Hutu radio transmissions that orchestrated the massacres. 

The Rwandan genocide was unique in the annals of modern mass murder insofar as the world had no excuse not to intervene. The Ottoman Turks’ slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians took place during the fog of World War I. Franklin Roosevelt’s failure to save six million European Jews was excused by the primary goal of defeating the Nazis. The Khmer Rouge’s extermination of one-third of Cambodia’s seven million citizens was done in a country sealed off from the rest of the world, thus granting the Western powers a plausible excuse for their inaction. Yes, they probably knew. But they pretended not to. 

And where was the United Nations, the organization meant to bring about world peace, during the Rwanda massacre? The UN peacekeeping commander on the ground, Gen. Roméo Dallaire of Canada, one of the few true heroes of this otherwise cowardly tale, informed the world of both the preparations for mass murder as well as every development once the genocide was in full swing. In Dallaire’s extraordinary and haunting book Shake Hands with the Devil, you feel his undisguised hatred for the Hutu killers. 

Dallaire is that rare breed of man who is not afraid to hate what is truly evil. He is not afraid to call the murderers “devils,” as in the title of his book. But the Kofi Annans and Bill Clintons who brought a professional humanitarian detachment to this obscene crime against humanity sat back and did nothing.

Annan, as global head of the UN peacekeepers, sent two now-infamous cables to Dallaire ordering him to stand down and not interfere. At the Rwandan genocide museum in Kigali, the telegrams are prominently displayed as you enter the complex, which also houses the graves of more than 200,000 people. 

In fact, Clinton obstructed efforts to intervene. His administration robbed Dallaire of any ability to protect the unarmed men, women and children of Rwanda by demanding the total withdrawal of all 2,500 UN peacekeepers, only later allowing a skeletal force of 270 in response to pressure from African nations.

Madeleine Albright, then the American ambassador to the UN, opposed leaving even this tiny force. She also pressured other countries, according to Philip Gourevitch in We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, “to duck, as the death toll leaped from thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.” He said it “was the absolute low point in her career as a stateswoman.” The effect was to signal both the Rwandan people and the Hutu militias that the West cared nothing for African lives. 

Truly these so-called humanitarians are people who only love humanity in the abstract. Real flesh and blood human beings are apparently beneath their concern. 

Power, who would later succeed Susan Rice as America’s UN ambassador, referred to Rice and her Clinton administration colleagues as bystanders to genocide.

On an interagency teleconference call in April 1994, Rice, who now occupies a prominent role in the Biden administration, was reported to have said, “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?”

This was an astonishing statement. Power records the perplexed and embarrassed looks on the faces of her colleagues who heard her make the remark. But Rice did not stop there. She then joined former national security advisor Anthony Lake and former secretaries of state, Madeline Albright and Warren Christopher, in a coordinated effort to impede UN intervention – and minimize public opposition to American inaction – by removing words like “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” from all government communications on the subject. 

I do not think I’m overstating it when I say that the Clinton administration’s response to the Rwandan genocide constitutes one of the most shameful moments in American foreign policy. Not only did the United States refuse to intervene, but, to quote The New York Times, “It also used its considerable power to discourage other Western powers from intervening. At the height of the carnage, when Belgium lost 10 peacekeepers, the United States demanded a total United Nations withdrawal. Some African countries objected, and eventually, Washington settled for a severe cutback in the 2,500-man United Nations force.” 

In the end, eight African nations agreed to send in troops to stop the slaughter, provided the US would lend them 50 armored personnel carriers. The Clinton administration decided it would lease rather than lend the trucks – at a price of $15 million. The carriers sat on a runway in Germany while the UN pleaded for a $5m. reduction as the genocidal inferno raged. 

I WISH I could say Clinton’s response to the Rwandan genocide was his only failure. But he may be the only president in American history who stood on the sidelines of three genocides.

During the period of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, his administration again watched from a distance while Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered in Srebrenica. He repeated this mistake when the Serbs cleansed Kosovo Albanians. And to think that the moral failing most people associate with Clinton is having had sex with an intern. 

In the case of Bosnia, the US did finally intervene in August 1995 after four years of massacres. As in Rwanda, the failure was not the United States’ alone but also, once again, the UN’s. What happened?

Unlike the meager UN force sent to Rwanda, the UN Protection Force in Bosnia (UNPROFOR) had a force of 20,000 men. It faced a quandary, one that shouldn’t have been a dilemma for an institution committed to stamping out evil. If UNPROFOR intervened to protect the Muslims from the Serbs, it would forfeit the peacekeepers’ credibility as impartial observers. But if it remained neutral, the ethnic cleansing would intensify as the Serbs moved into areas the international community had insisted should be “safe.” 

The US, which had done nothing for four years, now wanted UNPROFOR to engage the Serbs or at least allow NATO airstrikes to protect the “safe” areas. The feckless Europeans, who had sent troops to join UNPROFOR, not surprisingly wanted the force to stick to humanitarian activities.

Ivo Daalder, who served on Clinton’s National Security Council staff, noted that when nearly 400 peacekeepers were taken hostage following airstrikes in May 1995, the UN and troop-contributing countries concluded NATO airstrikes did more harm than good and that UNPROFOR should stick to “traditional peacekeeping principles.” As in Rwanda, this essentially gave the Serbs the green light to ethnically cleanse “their territory” of Muslims and Croats.

Clinton finally decided to intervene in part because of the upcoming election. (As with many politicians, it seems that self-interest was a greater motivator than upholding fundamental American and humanitarian values.) The Serbs had to be shown that there would be a high cost if they refused to negotiate an end to the fighting, and that meant the use of military force. Ultimately, it was a prolonged NATO bombing campaign led by the United States that forced the Serbs to the bargaining table where the Dayton Accords were signed. The peace was enforced by 60,000 US and NATO forces. 

Three years later, Clinton was faced with the question of whether to respond to ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. The Serbs, led by the war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, killed 1,500 Albanians and displaced 230,000–270,000 in a concerted effort to change the ethnic composition of Kosovo through expulsion and mass murder. 

On March 24, 1999, NATO began operations to avoid “an even crueler and costlier war”; “to prevent a wider war in Europe;” and to “seriously damage the Serbian military’s capacity to harm the people of Kosovo.” This time, Clinton finally decided to act, which just proves that it’s never too late to do the right thing, even after many years of doing the wrong thing.

But for those watching Impeachment and concluding that Clinton disgraced his presidency by having sex with an intern in the Oval Office, I remind them that the personal failures of leaders are just that, personal. But failures of policy that costs the lives of millions of people will never be forgiven by history.

The writer’s new book, Kosher Hate: How to Fight Jew-Hatred, Racism and Bigotry, will be published on November 16. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.