Friday, April 11, 2014

Two Decades After

“Karasira described how Hutu militiamen surrounded the school, but were blocked from entering by their fear of the Belgians. Imagine our panic, he said, when one afternoon the Belgian soldiers packed up to leave. The Tutsis, including men and women and children, begged them to stay. ‘I remember one of us asking them to give us few guns so they could protect ourselves, but still they refused,’ Venuste says. Some even asked the peacekeepers to shoot them to avoid a worse death at the hands of the militias, but the soldiers drove off.”
NPR’s Gregory Warner in a retrospective of the Rwandan genocide, 6 April

Twenty years ago this week the genocide in Rwanda began.

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana along with the head of the Rwandan military and other prominent figures was shot down. A struggle to fill the sudden power vacuum ensued, and Col. Théoneste Bagosora emerged as the de facto head of the military. The next day Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana (next in line of political succession) was killed by the presidential guard. Ten Belgian peacekeepers who had been accompanying her were tortured and hacked to death with machetes. Bagosora advised the remaining Belgians to leave the country, as word was being spread that they were the ones who shot down the president’s plane.

France and Belgium organized evacuations. At the time American soldiers were located 125 miles south of the Rwandan capital, across the border in Burundi. They did not intervene as a bloody civil war began, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 800,000 civilian Tutsis in less than three months. The United Nations would later conclude that as few as 5,000 soldiers deployed at the outset could have prevented the slaughter.

Bill Clinton has said that his greatest regret of his presidency is that he did not intervene in the Rwandan genocide. I’m sure he is sincere in his heart when he says that, but I wonder if, in the innermost recesses of his personal thoughts, his brain agrees.

As they say, hindsight is 20/20. Of course, knowing what we know now, any leader would willingly go back in time, if possible, and prevent the slaughter. In the moment, though, things are never that clear. The politically masterful Clinton surely knows—even knowing what he knows now—that putting American lives at risk in a part of the world most Americans know or care little about could have been political suicide. One thing about the wily Clinton, when he used military force—whether bombing the Balkans or enforcing no-fly zones in Iraq or making Iraqi regime change official U.S. policy—he was always careful to make sure there was negligible risk of Americans coming home in body bags.

Here’s the main political problem with preventing a genocide. If you actually succeed in preventing it, you will get no credit because, if the genocide doesn’t happen, no one will ever know about it. Paradoxically, there is actually more political gain in being seen to be dealing with a clear and present problem than in trying to talk about a problem that was prevented and never happened. Sending troops into Rwanda in 1994 might well have avoided the massacres but, if that had happened, all people might remember about it today might be the numbers of U.S. ground troops that were sacrificed—especially things in Rwanda continued to be a mess.

We can play the what-if game all day if we want. What if the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein from power prevented something even worse than the Iraqi war from playing out? Even if the expected WMD stockpiles were not found, Hussein’s previous use of WMD and his nuclear ambitions were well established. Or what about Syria? There was international outrage over Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in his country’s civil war, but could it have been even worse if Israel had not taken out Syria’s nuclear reactor in Deir ez-Zor in 2007?

There is no way to answer questions like these for sure. Pundits and partisans are quite safe in discounting any and all atrocities that never happened when making their political arguments.

One thing that is certain, however, is that, if future tragedies like the Rwandan genocide are to be prevented, it will only happen when leaders are willing to risk their personal popularity and maybe even their political careers to make it happen.

No comments:

Post a Comment