Bill Clinton has called Rwanda one of the greatest regrets of his presidency. Had the United States and the world intervened earlier, experts contend, some 300,000 people might have been saved from the 1994 genocide in the small central African country.
For more than 25 years, members of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy team have been asked about whether they harbor similar remorse over inaction during the Rwandan civil war, including the president’s then-special assistant and senior director for African affairs, Susan Rice, who is now under consideration by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as his running mate.
The episode was among the bloodiest of the post-World War II era. From April to July 1994, an estimated 800,000 people lost their lives in a deliberate killing campaign overseen by the Hutu-led government and several paramilitary organizations against the Tutsi minority. Journalist Samantha Power, later an Obama administration diplomat, described the events as “the fastest, most efficient killing spree of the 20th century” in a September 2001 article in the Atlantic, “Bystanders to Genocide.”
In 1994 and in the years after, Western analysts argued many of the deaths were preventable had the U.S., the United Nations, and others taken military action.
Years after the conflict permanently scarred Rwanda, Rice received stinging criticism over her role from Power, later her successor as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during President Barack Obama’s second term, when Rice joined the White House as national security adviser.
In 2001, Power suggested Rice let political considerations overshadow humanitarian concerns.
“If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?” Rice reportedly asked her colleagues on the National Security Council, leaving many of them “stunned,” Power wrote.
The Clinton administration was reticent to describe what was happening in Rwanda at the time as a “genocide,” which would have compelled a Western response. The events in Rwanda came months after America’s withdrawal of troops from another African nation and in the broader context of the early post-Cold War years, in which the Clinton administration pledged to focus on domestic affairs rather than a more precarious “policeman of the world” role abroad.
“In Somalia, where violence among clans led to mass starvation, an initially successful effort to provide relief ended in tragedy when two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in 1993,” the PBS program, The American Experience , said about the Clinton presidency. “The memory of this tragedy was influential in persuading U.S. policymakers not to intervene in the genocide that occurred in Rwanda the following spring.”
Military and intelligence officials said they were prepared and willing to intervene.
“Having the vantage of hindsight and what I knew at the time, had I known about what the White House was thinking, I would have been incensed. What I remember very vividly was listening to policy people at the time saying, ‘We don’t know what’s going on. We don’t know if it’s a genocide.’ And I was like, ‘Are you blind? Have you seen the bodies on the news?'” retired U.S. Army Col. Chris Wyatt, who served eight tours in Africa and was deployed during the Rwandan civil war, told the Washington Examiner.
“I’m very disappointed, and it seems clear from my perspective that because of the Somali situation, the Clinton administration was reluctant to get involved in Africa again,” Wyatt said.
Rice has since denied questioning about whether to label the Hutu-led bloodshed in Rwanda as a “genocide.” She has given contradictory statements on whether she harbors guilt over the indiscriminate slaying of the Rwandan Tutsis.
In 2010, Rice said the experience made her take a vow to “come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required” should she ever work in government again and was faced with another instance of ethnic cleansing.
But two years later, Rice brushed aside the notion that she feels responsible. In an interview with the New Republic, she said, “To suggest that I’m repenting for [Rwanda] or that I’m haunted by that or that I don’t sleep at night because of that or that every policy I’ve implemented subsequently is driven by that is garbage.”
Rice did not respond to an interview request by the Washington Examiner.
One former intelligence officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of the content in the interview, told the Washington Examiner that the military had prepared a plan to jam radios in Rwanda using a single aircraft. Much of the genocide carried out by the Hutus was coordinated via FM channels, and officials believed that jamming the channels could at least temporarily halt the killings with virtually no risk to service members.
“The government said it was too expensive. It’s absolutely shameful they didn’t do that,” the former intelligence officer said, adding that he didn’t buy the government’s rationale for not going forward with the mission. “It would have made a big difference. The way that the genocide happened was it was broadcast on the radio every day.”
As the civil war in Rwanda ended and Paul Kagame took power in 2000, the conflict had expanded into Congo. There, Kagame ordered Rwandan military forces to invade and back rebel groups looking to overthrow the government. At the end of the Second Congo War, millions had died either through conflict or starvation and disease.
Meanwhile, Rice and Kagame developed a close relationship that would continue when she joined the Obama administration in 2009 as ambassador to the U.N. During the early years of President George W. Bush’s administration, Rice worked as a private consultant for the Rwandan government, despite strong evidence that Kagame and his underlings had committed numerous human rights violations.
“Today, Paul Kagame is still in power, still supported by the United States, and some of the other Western nations, and obviously, there are lots of questions about his commitment to human rights. It’s clear, at this point in time, that there are people concerned within Rwanda with how he is ruling,” said Mark McPhail, an Indiana University researcher and a witness for the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda . “We’ve dissociated ourselves from historical responsibility about what happened in Rwanda [and Congo].”
By 2012, Rice’s deference to Kagame had garnered the attention of U.N. officials who began speaking out against her support. Rice has repeatedly denied any inappropriate relationship between her and Kagame.
For some involved in the Rwanda situation at the time, it will always be an opportunity lost.
“We couldn’t have saved all those people, but a lot of those people didn’t have to die. And look what happened. Those Kagame’s killers went into the Congo and repeated their behavior,” Wyatt said. “Millions of people have died due to our policy, and the geopolitical ramifications are still felt to this day.”
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