March 26, 2002
1. “These people do this from time to time”
Thank you, Jerry. It is, of course, a great honor to be here at the Holocaust Museum, which is doing more than any other single institution in the United States, maybe even in the world, to try to bring the promise of “Never Again” to life. The Committee on Conscience is incredibly important in that regard in creating the museum as an institution that cares for living people and looks out for their welfare as well as remembering the dead.
I’d like to begin by reading you something and telling you a story. It’s a story about a day in history, April 8, 1994, which was two days into what we now know of as the Rwandan genocide. The Rwandan genocide would be a killing spree that would exceed that of the Nazis in pace and rival that of the Nazis intent; that is, it was a holistically-oriented killing campaign with the explicit purpose of wiping out Tutsi life from the earth.
On April 8th in the New York Times there were reports of as many as 10,000 people killed in Kigali alone. Kigali was the capital of Rwanda. This was Hutu militants and militia and government officials and soldiers teaming up again to orchestrate this plan and to kill these Tutsi. The US Embassy officials who were present on the ground in Kigali reported back almost hourly about the scope of the violence on the ground.
They did not use the word "genocide" in these early days. They did, however, describe both war, the resumption of war between conventional armed forces, and the systematic attempt to eradicate the Tutsi populace. The language both orally communicated on the telephone and then also through cables was every Tutsi is vulnerable. So it was a pretty descriptive and adequately accurate account of what the perpetrators were up to very early on.
It meant that if you had a Tutsi ethnic identity card and were identified as having one, and everybody was being stopped and asked for their identity card, you were dead and this was clear.
Again, they didn’t use the language of genocide. They certainly didn’t prognosticate about 800,000 dying. They did not have the benefit that we have now of hindsight. But they were really quite accurate even in the early days at seeing that one of the things that was going on, a central part of the campaign, was the systematic eradication of an ethnic group.
What I want to read to you from is actually from this town. It is something that took place on April 8th and it’s a press conference in which Prudence Bushnell, who was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, was wheeled out by Michael McCurry, the State Department’s spokesperson, to talk to the Washington press corps about what was unfolding in Rwanda.
Keep in mind, again, that the New York Times and the Washington Post are covering the story. The coverage is not perfect. There’s a lot of talk of tribes and a little bit of confusion between the war that’s going on and the atrocities, not yet again the genocide, but for the most part the Washington press corps is quite ignorant. Bushnell is taken out before them to help clarify what the ethnic dynamic on the ground is and, more crucially, to talk about the fate of the American citizens who were present in Kigali and who were vulnerable.
That, understandably, is the first concern of the US government when events like this occur. What about the American personnel who are put there in a sense by the flag, by the President, by the country? You’ve got to get them out, look out for them first.
As Prudence Bushnell now years later reflects on that press conference in which the journalists were asking her everything from is it Hutu killing Tutsi or "Tutu" killing "Hutsi," to how many Americans are there, where are they, how are they going to be evacuated. Bushnell now reflects on her reckoning in that press conference and she says: "I felt very strongly that my first obligation was to the Americans. I was sorry about the Rwandans, of course, but my job was to get our folks out. Then again you have to remember people didn’t know then that it was a genocide. What I was told was look, Prudence, these people do this from time to time." These people do this from time to time. Then she says, "We thought we’d be right back."
This was the mentality of somebody who actually cared -- one could almost say more than anyone else in the US government. There were a few people who really owned this day to day, and Bushnell was one of them, especially for the first month. She really cared about the Rwandans.
She had been to Rwanda so when she read about these casualty statistics they had a human face. They weren’t just abstract figures, which is very important. Very few officials in the US government had ever met a Rwandan. She knew them, she had just visited, and she had people in her mind when she read about Tutsis being murdered. She had actual Tutsis that she had met in her mind. But, "These people do this from time to time."
One of the features of genocide that we will come across and I will talk about is the extent to which the places where genocide happens tend to be places where ethnic polarization, ethnic violence, has occurred in the past, perhaps not on the genocidal scale or with genocidal intent but where the persecution of minorities and what becomes later known as tribal killing has occurred, and so it’s bracketable. It’s dismissible as recurrent in the early stages. Part of the challenge is to expedite the learning curve such that people see that something qualitatively and quantitatively different is going on and that it isn’t just these people doing it from time to time but it’s something extraordinary and special.
Having said that, part of the other challenge is not to make genocide the threshold for concern such that we wait to see the qualitative and quantitative distinction of what is being committed before we engage diplomatically, politically, and indeed potentially militarily.
Bushnell leaves the podium on April 8th, two days into what we now know as the genocide and Mike McCurry takes her place. He doesn’t talk about Rwanda. He knows nothing about Rwanda at that time, as, again, very few people in Washington do. He also doesn’t pause to utter any kind of transition before he goes on to criticize foreign governments for failing to screen the film Schindler’s List.
So he takes her place at the podium and begins to criticize these foreign governments. I hadn’t even been aware that governments had been refusing to screen the film. At the time this was news to me in reviewing the transcripts but McCurry, again right after Bushnell, when as many as 10,000 are dead in the capital of Rwanda alone, he goes immediately into talking about Schindler’s List. He says, "This film movingly portrays the 20th century’s most horrible catastrophe and it shows that even in the midst of genocide one individual can make a difference." He says that it is essential that the film be shown worldwide because, "The most effective way to avoid the recurrence of genocidal tragedy is to ensure that past acts of genocide are never forgotten."
He gets it. He’s on board. He wants to stop genocide. He, like many of the two million people a year who come through this building are committed abstractly to the idea that remembering is both a precondition and a service toward preventing and suppressing and punishing. This is what McCurry believes two days into the genocide. I am sure that a month later, when bodies are shown on the nightly news clogging the Kigara River if you would have asked him about why screening Schindler’s List was important he would have said exactly the same thing.
2. Introducing the book: the gap between promise and genuine commitments
My book is an effort to understand how it is that so many individuals who really believe in the promise of “Never Again” and who if pressed would even say when asked to define what “Never Again” means would say not that it means never again should genocide happen, which is something that one could interpret it as meaning, but rather that they actually see it as meaning never again will we stand idly by and let genocide happen. There are individuals in the US government, there are individuals in this room, individuals in this museum, in this city, around the world, who believe that they should be active in the face of genocide.
Yet when genocide confronts us in real time, when we see the early signs and the kinds of numbers or the kind of description of intent, the alarm bells don’t go off or if they go off we feel so disempowered either within the bureaucracy or on the outside of it that we don’t ring them. We don’t summon the reserve of outrage and retrospective remorse available to us.
What I tried to do in this book and what I will continue to try to do is to understand how we close that gap between the promise and the genuine commitments. Not the slogan of “Never Again,” but the self-perception of individuals in this country and in our government that they would behave in certain ways, the gap between that and their behavior in real time when they are confronted by systematic atrocity.
The book begins at the beginning of the century with what was then known as the race murder of Armenians, the Turkish destruction of the Armenian population, in which somewhere between 700,000 and 1.5 million Armenians were killed through individual acts of murder and wholesale executions in downtown city squares and also through starvation and disease inflicted upon people who were deported from their homes en masse.
I begin with the Armenian genocide. I look at the Holocaust and much of what has been so ably documented in this museum, the failure to bomb the train tracks, the failure to leaflet the German people and tell them what was being done to the Jews, the failure even to denounce the systematic extermination of a European minority, the failure to expand refugee quotas, failure, failure, failure.
We will argue unfortunately only in the abstract about what any of those steps would have achieved for the Jews. We have no way of knowing if any lives would have been saved or if, as some said at the time, it would have expedited the killing. It’s hard to imagine how much more expeditious it could have been but there is an argument always that drawing attention to genocide or to systematic atrocity actually enrages the perpetrator and makes them more likely to speed up their mischief. I find that quite hard to believe but it is an argument that we will never be able to settle because it’s very hard to prove counter-factuals when measures aren’t tried.
One of the things I wanted to understand was the extent of the post-Holocaust awareness, the liberation of the camps, and the commitments that were made in a public fashion by American political leaders in subsequent generations. It actually took about 20 years before people in this country actually began to speak of the Holocaust as a singular event apart from the tragedy and destruction of the war.
I wanted to see the extent to which individuals within the US government were in fact motivated by Holocaust awareness and remembrance and so the bulk of the book is really focused on the post- Holocaust period, specifically Pol Pot’s destruction of the Cambodian people. Two million ethnic Khmers were murdered between 1975 and ’79. There it’s not actually a textbook case of genocide because most of the violence is targeted on members of the same ethnic group but it was systematically targeting a group because of characteristics that were for the most part beyond people’s control. So if you wore eyeglasses or if your hands indicated that you might have lead a city life, an urban life, or an educated life, and by “educated” I mean a high school education, that was grounds for murder. That was a death warrant.
I look at the Iraqi case, which is now becoming fashionable to talk about. Actually, I was about to say “again” but in fact it’s becoming fashionable to talk about it for the first time in any serious way. By the Iraqi case, I refer to Saddam Hussein’s gassing and destruction of the Kurds in 1987 and 1988. Many of you may have seen Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece in The New Yorker. My book deals with that at great length, not just about what Saddam did to the Kurds with these chemical poisons, although I do get into that in some detail in the willful, really criminal, sinister form of killing that the genocide took, that is, knowing the effect that these chemicals had on people’s skins, I mean, that singeing, burning, set of conniptions that were produced in these victims. That is certainly worth describing and I do describe it.
What I was intrigued by was the extent to which given the graphic nature of the atrocity, much more concrete and vivid in the gruesomeness of the form of killing, how it was that we not only didn’t denounce it as it happened even though the cables were coming back documenting the debriefing of the refugees who had made it into Turkey and into Iran and even though it was documented in the Washington Post and in the New York Times in considerable detail -- but how it was that we actually maintained our alliance with Saddam in this period. We were giving him a billion dollars a year in agricultural and manufacturing credits that he was using to buy American farm and industrial goods.
The notion, again, that we were not going to intervene militarily to stop Hussein, it seems to me, is unquestionable. We did view Iran as our principal enemy in that region at that time, but that we would continue to service the regime while these kinds of crimes were being committed seemed worth inquiring about.
The other cases I look at are, of course, Rwanda and the war in Bosnia and specifically the extermination of the Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in July of 1995. What I do in an effort to understand, again, this gap between self-perception and behavior is I interviewed somewhere around 300 US officials or those who were very close to them, influencing them. I do a press content analysis both of the reportage that’s coming out of these countries in question or coming out of the regions abutting them and of a press analysis of the editorial board attention to these questions because that’s a very good indicator of perceptions of relevance inside the Beltway. Indeed often it takes editorial board attention to get the troops, that is the journalistic troops, deployed to the regions such that the facts can be accentuated, daily, at least in a prominent place in the paper.
I was able to work with the National Security Archive who had secured the declassification of thousands of pages of US government documents. One of the people that I worked with is actually here, William Ferroggiaro, who runs their Rwanda project. If any of you have seen my study of Rwanda, an article on the subject published in the Atlantic Monthly in September, much of what you reacted to was the sterility of the government’s language as it gave an account of why it wasn’t doing everything from radio jamming to even denunciation of the genocide, to even use of the “G” word.
I owe my own ability to draw on those documents to the tireless efforts of Will and the other folks at the National Security Archive as they relentlessly pester the US government to release these documents. I should say people ask a lot, and I’m sure they asked Will and they certainly asked me: Why would the Clinton administration release these documents?
The instinctive reflexive response of the people with the black magic marker is normally to excise huge chunks of these documents and preventing us from reading what’s going on. I think the response was in light of the fact that most of the requests that are coming in are on sins of commission, that is, maybe crimes that were committed in Latin America either by CIA-backed or American allies of other kinds. I think the reaction to Will’s earlier request was one of well, at least in this case we didn’t do anything. We didn’t do anything so what’s the harm?
Well, that’s why the paper trail is so essential to telling the story to really understand what the arguments are for doing nothing as things that seem so vivid in retrospect are being processed at the time. So I really owe a tremendous debt to the National Security Archive.
3. Bystanders and Upstanders
That’s the book and the project. What I want to do here now is talk about two aspects of the book. The book, as you could tell already, is a book about bystanding. What I’m going to do is just talk a little bit about Rwanda and the lessons that it tells us for the patterns in bystanding. Then, I’m going to talk about the good news and the hope that this seven- year project that has not been terribly easy or a whole lot of fun for many stages, but the hope and my privilege in telling this story is that we are also in a country that is blessed again and again with “upstanders,” and not just bystanders but people who take this promise very seriously and who have acted upon the commitments that they made to themselves in the interest of trying to move the behemoth of the US government.
It was not easy and most of the time they did not succeed at the time in getting that which they proposed. However, without them I think you would have seen policies throughout the century that more closely resembled that toward the Turkish destruction of the Armenians. That is, without people owning the legacy of the Holocaust and urging their colleagues to live up these promises and pledges I don’t think you would have seen the ball moved down the field, which is actually one of the things you can see over the course of the 20th century.
The prosecution or the indictment of a sitting head of state for genocide or for massive crimes against humanity was unthinkable earlier in the century. The sovereignty shield was such. The military intervention in a sovereign state in Kosovo or in Bosnia, finally in August or September of 1995, was, for that matter, unthinkable.
One has to look at these tales of these upstanders and look at how subtly and despite feeling like they were colossal failures and despite indeed torpedoing their own careers because most of them were marginalized within the systems for taking the stance that they took, many of them have ended up divorced or dateless in their personal lives, but also it is just not a good career move to own genocide when it happens and they have all ended up paying tremendous professional sacrifices.
I should also say by allowing in, by admitting that genocide is going on, by not exercising some of the devices which I’ll talk about, the devices for denial and avoidance, there’s also a huge emotional and psychological and personal price that is paid by these people. Almost regardless of the fact that they are sanctioned deleteriously in their careers there’s also the fact that it just sucks to wake up in the morning when you get it, when you’re open to understanding, and indeed internalizing and, God forbid, owning the atrocities that are being committed halfway around the world.
So I’m going to talk about bystanding and about upstanding and both are crucial, I think, to understanding if we’re going to think about how we can do better.
4. Rwanda and General Romeo Dallaire
First of all, bystanding. I want to use the Rwanda case to talk about patterns in the US response that we see across time. Four months ahead of the genocide in Rwanda, the UN commander there, General Romeo Dallaire, now notoriously sent a fax to Kofi Annan, who was then the head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York, making two claims. Dallaire, a Canadian, this was his first mission, his first time serving in Africa, he didn’t know Rwanda well but he’d been a relatively quick study. He’d been on the ground for about three months full-time, and he and his team had cultivated an informant, and the informant had told him these two things.
One was that the Rwandan militias were arming at a fierce rate, that machetes were on their way in, that grenades and munitions were piling into the country. He had word that the informant had said that they could exterminate at a rate of a thousand in 20 minutes -- a thousand Tutsi could be killed in 20 minutes.
The second claim Dallaire made in this cable was that the militants who were against the peace process that was trying to create some power sharing for Hutu and Tutsi had learned from Somalia that the best way to cause a UN mission to unravel was to target the white guys, to target the Western peacekeepers. There was explicit language in the cable about the awareness on the part of the extremists that killing at least ten Belgians would be a recipe for a UN withdrawal.
Dallaire obviously wasn’t actually asking for permission to respond to these two problematic features of his existence on the ground. He was simply informing the head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations that he was going to go and obviously, naturally, disarm the militia. That had to be done if these weapons caches were proliferating around the country. It was his job, even with his small number of forces.
At that time he had only about 1800 forces. He would eventually ramp up to 2500 by April, which is when the genocide would begin. But even with that small number it was obvious to him that to allow these two trends and these two mind sets to persist would be fatal both to Rwandans eventually and to the UN mission and to UN credibility.
So he simply said, I’m going to go and do the disarmament, as you would expect. There was an eruption from New York. I’m not sure that this has been well captured. My feeling when I began this investigation was that probably what had happened is that this fax had rolled off the fax machine, found its way into a stack, and that people had been busy with Bosnia on that day or with Somalia because there was a troop patrol going there from Somalia. But in fact in doing some reporting on this I’ve come to realize that there was a real fight.
So there was, to use a lawyer’s term, mens rea on the part of officials within the DPKO, that is, the two scenarios. One was that of the status quo, not even the status quo but the sense of ever worsening deterioration, and the other was the scenario of confrontation. Their feeling, and it was very explicit, was that the United States would not tolerate a policy of confrontation.
This is important. I tell this story in service of just making an observation about early warning phases. The first observation is that even when you warn the warnings read as hypothetical, they can rarely warn explicitly of genocide with any kind of certainty or inevitability. What they can do is what Dallaire did, send what I think was a magnificent cable, which is to say we have vivid detail in the following direction which does not bode well. That is, they don’t get in the business of generating the is-it or isn’t-it debate or will-it or won’t-it-be debate. They simply state the empirics and I think that’s very important.
When people argue that there wasn’t explicit warning of genocide, well, that’s true. But there was an explicit red flag about a genocidal intent, exterminationary intent. A very strict definition of genocide would have you worried about what was going on there. That is, if you believed genocide was only extermination and not other forms of destruction you still had grounds to be worried. But early warning tends to be relegated to the low levels and not to make its way up the chain: one, because it usually doesn’t have sirens attached that say genocide, genocide, genocide nor would it be terribly constructive if it did. And two, because genocidal warnings tend to be emitted from countries that are off the beaten path from that which is considered vital to any of the major powers.
There’s a structural problem with places genocide happens, Cambodia, Kurdistan, Rwanda, a great example, Burundi now, even Sudan, a little less so now that there’s a political constituency of sorts for caring about Sudan. But there’s a way in which as a result of this there is self-censorship that goes on in many places, and this point about self-censorship I think will recur. It’s very important.
There is self-censorship on the part of bureaucrats who decide what their bosses will want to hear and the assumption, whether at DPKO or the desk officer level in the US government, was that nobody wanted to hear about Rwanda, that the only reason we were even sending peacekeepers there was that we thought it could be a UN winner. If you’re about to tell me, Romeo, that it’s going to be another UN loser after we’ve had UNTAC and we’ve had UNPROFOR and we’ve had UNISOM in effect going down the toilet that is definitely not what they want to hear. If they hear that it will just cause them to pull out all together. They don’t care about Rwanda per se.
The other point about warning, and this I’ll get to really, I think, vividly toward the end, is that not only are the countries where genocide happens not structurally already on the map in and of themselves at a high level, but no president has ever made genocide an a priori foreign policy concern.
Every president has made remembering the Holocaust a primary concern of their administration and his own remembrance up to a point, but nobody’s ever issued a presidential decision directive or made a public address saying: Not on my watch. It’s not going to happen. I’m sorry, it’s happened before, and we’ve learned some things, but you in the bureaucracy should be signaled that mere atrocity is enough to warrant high-level attention and that genocide, if it should come to that, is not something that I’m going to permit, which might mean actually sending military troops, which I don’t want to do. So you’ve got to capture it at an earlier stage and prevent me from doing that which none of us want to do. We don’t want to take that risk. It’s not what US troops are here for. They’re here to protect American security, especially now. We’re doing the whole war on terrorism thing. We don’t have the resources but, you know what? We’re not allowing genocide so if it comes to that we are going to either rally troops from other nations or ourselves participate in stopping it. I don’t want to get there. Thus when the flags go up I want to respond to the flags. I want to cut it off at an earlier stage. I want to do prevention.
No president’s done that and thus prevention is always going to be the last thing when individuals within systems are doing triage with their lives in figuring out how to spend their days. So the absence of executive leadership around the issue of genocide or, if you don’t want to use that word, massive crimes against humanity, but making atrocity prevention a tenet of US foreign policy priority such that people in the system take seriously those warnings and believe that others above them care, I think it’s very important.
The other point about internalizing constraints I just want to make about the UN. They did not respond appropriately to this cable. If they had to do it again I would hope that what they would do, and I think this is the lesson of the Brahimi report [Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations]is that they wouldn’t internalize the constraint that the United States places on UN behavior. They would externalize it.
They would say you know what, our commander on the ground thinks that we need to behave in a certain way. We think probably that the member states, most notably the most powerful member state, don’t want to go along with that. But we’re not going to internalize that mind set. We’re going to draw attention to the fact that these are the needs of the commander on the ground, and these are the warning signs. We’re going to leak this cable -- because, boy, is it graphic -- to the Washington Post or the New York Times and maybe the editorial boards will take hold.
I’m not sure they would have, by the way, as I think the subsequent record indicates, but at least DPKO could look back and say we did what we could. They would have gone before the Security Council and said here are our needs, a thousand every 20 minutes, and we Belgians, we peacekeepers, are becoming a target. Let’s respond to that and if we’re not going to respond let’s shine the spotlight where it belongs and that isn’t in the UN Secretariat necessarily.
5. Too much warning?
The other point about warning, and I don’t want to go on about this, is that there is a sense among those who do care about the Rwandas of the world that there is almost too much warning. The very knowledge that the atrocities were going to unfold or that they had unfolded in the past dulls the imagination a little bit even among those who are most concerned. You saw this in the Bosnia case as well. Everyone looks back and says we should have known from Dubrovnik and Vukovar what the Serbs were capable of doing in service of their aims. Yes, we did, and not only that. US diplomats who work the Bosnia front, even at a higher level because the Yugoslav did secure higher-level policy attention, they describe the arrival of the Bosnian war and the violence, the exceptional bloodiness of that war and the atrocities committed there, as a war and a genocide almost that arrived on schedule. They had been waiting for it.
It was as if they said, okay, we know it’s going to explode and they had seen that there was no response to Dubrovnik at a high level or to Vukovar and again their expectations as to what their bosses and the President wanted to do and hear were thus downgraded.
There wasn’t that moment of epiphany, an ’oh, my God, this is different. There are concentration camps in Europe.’ There was a little bit of that when the television images were broadcast, but we knew about the camps long before the television images but the response was almost: ’yeah, well, that’s what they would do. I know the Serbs. Look what they did in Vukovar.’
Similarly when you have the reports, it’s hard to believe this but as I understand it many of the low-level officials on the Rwanda beat, one of the African-oriented officials in the US government, had a sense on the basis of the violence that had been allowed in Burundi that these people do this from time to time. That’s not just about these people or these tribes or whatever. It’s also about what out government is willing to tolerate in a specific region so there are very low expectations.
6. A continuum of intervention
Once genocide starts the extraordinary feature of the response across time in the Rwanda case and in so many of the others -- with the exception of Bosnia -- is not that we don’t send US troops. I happen to find that unfortunate. I happen to believe that this is actually something that our military could be enlisted to do great good in service of, suppressing genocide when it’s gone too far, but I may be in the minority on that. I don’t know. We’ve never had a national conversation. But what I found shocking was not that we didn’t do that. Again, in the Rwanda case it was never discussed ever. It was never weighed as an option to send US troops. All of our revisionism, though, we should have sent 5,000, we should have, I think, but it was never debated.
There was not a single cabinet-level meeting on Rwanda at all, which brings me to this point: the shocking thing is not the nonmilitary intervention. It is the noninvolvement. It is that we do virtually nothing along a continuum of intervention from very soft sanctions on the soft side to robust send-in-the-Marines military intervention.
What are some of the things that I have in mind? Well, let me use Rwanda as an example for some of the things that might have been done as 8,000 people a day were being murdered for 100 days.
You could have had a cabinet-level meeting for starters where you discuss the tools that I’m going to mention. You discuss the variety of sanctions that one might have contemplated. You didn’t. This did not get the President’s attention. It was not presented to him when the issue came up and it came up as far as I can tell only a few times in the President’s presence. It always came up incidental to discussions about Somalia and Haiti and Bosnia, which were going on at the same time, so it was the poor cousin of those already poor relatives. There were no high-level meetings such that you would then get creative about what could be done.
You could have denounced. You could have gotten the President or even some mid-level officials to use the “G” word quite early. Human Rights Watch began calling for this and some senior officials at the UN began calling for this, by two weeks into the killing. Prior to that, again, there was some confusion. Genocide happens almost always under the cover of war and there are usually two accounts of events that are available to you, to see war or to see genocide.
I think the fact that it took a week even with the body counts escalating to distinguish these two forms of violence for people who didn’t know Rwanda and had no experience in the region. Maybe that’s forgivable but when senior officials are calling for the use of genocide and when human rights organizations that do not use this term lightly and those as professional as Human Rights Watch are calling for the term it’s time potentially to think about using the term.
Instead, the US response was to avoid the “G” word at all costs, I mean, do anything in their power not to use the “G” word for fear of causing a political spike of interest or indeed for triggering obligations that they thought had been made in the US ratification of the genocide convention.
We didn’t do the denunciation thing. The President never spoke out really publicly on it. He issued one radio statement but it was virtually meaningless and it was all about stopping the violence. It wasn’t about stopping the genocide.
We could have threatened prosecution. The international tribunal at the Hague had just been set up. You could have imagined again some creative diplomat saying, maybe if these kinds of killings are going on there we could use the potential, at least the shadow or the footsteps, of a potential court, ad hoc court, as a way of trying to deter these perpetrators.
We could have expelled the genocidal regime from the United Nations with our allies on the Security Council and urged them to go home. That is, when a regime commits these kinds of atrocities they should go home and inhabit the country that they are causing to commit these crimes. Instead, this man was allowed to stand up throughout the genocide well toward the end of May and make specious claims about what was going on in his country, claims that were known to be specious. In fact no Western representatives stood up and challenged these claims. The only ones who did were the Nigerians and the Czechs and that doesn’t have quite the same weight as an American denunciation.
We could have closed the Rwandan embassy in Washington and there are bilateral things that we might have done. When it became clear that Rwandan hate radio was a tool not only for propagating hate and exterminatory propaganda, demonizing the Tutsi and so on, but also a logistic vehicle for broadcasting the names and addresses of potential victims and indeed the license plate numbers of cars that were traveling with Tutsi hidden within them. At that point we could have used technical assets that at that time only we possessed to jam Rwandan hate radio. It may not have held for very long. It may have been up and running the very next day but we would have caused it to go off the air for one day and maybe one car that had a license plate that was broadcast that day on the air might have made it to its destination. Who knows? Again, none of these things were tried.
It could be that it actually would have a tremendous effect because one of the features of genocide that I find very, very striking that I hadn’t really thought about, and maybe you all have, is that very few perpetrators of genocide have ever killed before. They’ve never done this before. Every day they’re looking left and looking right and deciding how far they want to go and how far they need to go. What’s so unfortunate about failing to act along this continuum is that we don’t change the incentive structure. We don’t even give them a normative legitimation of their instinct and most of them I’m sure in the early days have the instinct of killing, that much I know, killing’s not a good thing even if it is of a cockroach. Even that is actually quite difficult to do for many people. They aren’t challenged and indeed they’re often pressed by people who have discrete interest in committing these crimes into service in a genocidal plot.
We could have dealt with arms embargos and in that case it would have been imposing an arms embargo early, again potentially in the preventive phase or at least right when the killing began, and we would have had to have been discriminatory in who we were preventing from receiving arms because part of the problem is that our fetishizing -- pardon the phrase -- of neutrality in the face of genocide means that we’re reluctant to take sides and reluctant to decide who the good guys are and who the victims are.
With an arms embargo you have to be very careful because if it you impose it across the board you actually can often freeze in place imbalances in armaments, which is what happened in the former Yugoslavia. So there if you were thinking creatively in the tool kit you would have been thinking about lifting an embargo. In Rwanda you would think about imposing one. It depends. There are lots of things that you could think about doing.
You could have thought about safe areas, not on the Srebrenica model, I hope, but where you actually back up a relatively small UN or international presence on the ground with the threat of air power from above. NATO planes are scary. They are really scary. I was in Bosnia during the war there for a couple of years and it was incredible to see these plans flying overhead and the roar that they made and the way the Serbs and others would freeze in their tracks. Unfortunately, what they were doing was monitoring so eventually that presence lost its deterrent force because it was clear they weren’t drop anything within them on the people who were shelling innocent people. Who knows what would have happened in Rwanda if you’d suddenly had overflights?
Now, there’s a danger in thinking about this continuum and it’s a danger that policymakers recognize which is that of the slippery slope. But there are very few US governments who are not comprised of individuals who have the capacity of stopping. They can make decisions every day as to how far they can go. The fact that it becomes difficult once you’ve diagnosed a genocide not to intervene militarily is a political problem that they think that they will have. But I can imagine, if that’s their concern, that once you go a little bit you have to go the whole way. First, I agree and you should try out these options and if you need to go the whole way, you need to go the whole way but, secondly, there are all kinds of the ways. They have the bully pulpit at their disposal and unfortunately they haven’t been bully enough in the face of genocide.
I think that they underestimate their capacity to make their own decisions. They do it quite deliberately because the potential risks of getting involved exceed the non-cost of staying uninvolved.
7. U.S. response to Rwanda
That’s the next point I want to make about Rwanda. The US response to the genocide in Rwanda, the executive response, so that of the State Department and the White House, occurred in front of a backdrop that can’t be overstated, and that is the society-wide silence in the face of this genocide. There was silence on Capitol Hill for the most part until really toward the end of May. The Congressional Black Caucus, which was very active at the time over Haiti, very effective I should add over Haiti, was busy with Haiti and really did very little. I don’t think it’s fair to place a burden on the Congressional Black Caucus, because, as Holly Burkhalter likes to say, there are the results of a pretty sizeable Congressional white caucus that didn’t do much, either. We are bigger. But there was no kind of elite constituency on Capitol Hill that mobilized immediately.
Indeed for those who were humanitarian and really cared about peacekeeping and even about Africa there was a sense that if you threw in good peacekeepers after bad, that you would undermine forever the humanitarian project. I mean “forever” being till next year, the way that policy people think. But actually to throw in more peacekeepers to give Dallaire the reinforcements that he was pleading for once the killing began would have actually been a recipe for disaster, that was mission creep in service of a mandate and a mission that was untenable. Because we weren’t willing to go all the way, to go part of the way and to begin along the continuum was actually just going to make people very squeamish on humanitarianism in general so there was a lot of restraint and self-censorship.
Editorial boards, absence. Total revisionism now in the way that we think about where the press was. I mean, the press was present and not always in Rwanda proper but there at the border and certainly the information was there in public sources for people who wanted it. The cable traffic, again, that Will has gotten declassified does really speak to an awareness of the kind of slaughter that’s going on prior to the evacuation of the US officials, which does happen a week into the genocide.
But the editorial boards, there are a couple of articles published in the Washington Post and the New York Times but they’re laments. I mean, there’s a sadness about what’s going on in Rwanda, a sense of tragedy which is also used, interestingly, as a device -- the sense of this kind of tragedy and even genocide happening was used as a way of summoning enthusiasm for a rapid reaction force for use in the future. I think it is in a Washington Post article that says that this underscores the importance of having a rapid reaction force. And so we’re fighting the fights that we want to fight on the backs of the Rwandans.
A structural problem with genocide, another one, and there are many as it’s totally over-determined, is that ethnic groups that you might hope would be mobilizable in real time tend to get created by genocide. So if you think about the Armenian community in this country one of the reasons its ranks have swelled so much is what the Turks did in 1915. Similar to the Jewish community here, which was not terribly active, wasn’t a community as such, really, during the Holocaust but now is much more active and there is a link with the colossal crime that was committed.
Even the Kurds, the little Kurds, they have an office now in Washington. They had nothing during the Anfal campaign when Saddam was gassing them, so they now have a way of becoming pests that they didn’t have back when they were trying to mobilize enthusiasm for action.
Final point in terms of this society-wide silence, and you can’t overstate it, is our allies, no pressure. If anything they were leading the charge to get away as quickly as possible. In the French case, they were backing the genocidaire in the Rwanda story. The Belgiums had peacekeepers on the ground, did pull out when they were there and actually saw the bodies stacked up like a cord of wood, and they got out. They did come to Washington first, however, and say we basically will either stay if we get reinforcements or we’re going to leave and the United States said well, we’ll leave and in fact the most shameful aspect of the US relationships to Rwanda really of that time was, again, not that it didn’t send its troops and not even that it didn’t do all of these things. It’s that it demanded the UN peacekeepers be withdrawn who were there.
On April 21st the United Nations Security Council in perhaps its most shameful hour in the 20th century voted to shave the UN presence in Rwanda by 90 percent. This meant that any Tutsi who had gathered at UN collection points, at so-called safe spots or so-perceived safe spots, throughout the country were in a position where peacekeepers were leaving through one gate and the militants and the militia were entering through the other. They had relied on the promise not that the United Nations made, frankly, not just that the baby blue flag made because none of us in this room may have a wistful identification with that flag but that’s not our flag, but it was the promise that the member states made when they sent these peacekeepers there in the first place, which is that they are staying and they’re there and that they’re going to enforce the mandate. They left and they left on US behest. The US then also went on to block future deployment of other troops.
8. Justifying inaction
The devices that people use in the face of genocide, I’ll just run through them quickly in order to ease the dissonance that I described that Mike McCurry did not experience as he made the nonlink between Rwanda and Schindler’s List. There is a way that you take shelter in imperfect information and the information is always imperfect from places like this. US intelligence assets withdraw. They do not reinforce. When a crisis unfolds embassy personnel being withdrawn just as one example.
We do not seek out additional information earnestly, our government, that is, in the face of these kinds of atrocities. Indeed we run from information that is inconvenient because it presents us with policy choices that we fundamentally don’t want to make.
If there’s a choice between choosing the war in view of what’s going on and pursuing a cease-fire or a negotiation, which diplomats are trained to pursue and are quite good at in the cases that warrant it, or seeing it as genocide, denouncing it, and beginning along that continuum there is a preference for war and, again, a recurrent sheltering in the unknowability for sure of what is going on, body counts being a good example of the debates over body counts.
There’s also a crucial sheltering in the futility of proposed options. Everything will not work apart from military intervention and because we can’t do that then we’re stuck talking about radio jamming. But would it really work? Would radio jamming really deter a perpetrator? Would a mere denunciation by the President really have an effect?
Unfortunately we don’t know. In fact even if that had been done we wouldn’t know because we can’t prove that which has been deterred but we certainly would like to look back and say that we had tried at least those measures. But the way that we tell ourselves that we’re doing all we can is to say that the things that are proposed simply would have no effect on the behavior of the perpetrators.
As I made the point earlier, there is a claim that they will have perverse consequences. It will just make the perpetrator more angry, and this was the claim with Peter Galbraith’s and Claiborne Pell’s efforts to impose economic sanctions against Saddam when he was gassing the Kurds. The claim of the State Department was, believe or not, but he’ll use more gas if we cut off these manufacturing and agricultural credits. An amazing set of rationalizations.
In any event, a resistance, another shelter, is to resist using the “G” word. No sitting President has used the word “genocide” to describe atrocities unfolding. The exception is Jimmy Carter very, very late in 1978, and he just uses the language of “genocidal tragedy.” But this is amazing. The President did use the “G” word to describe a fear of what might be occurring in Kosovo after the US was already involved. So you can see the obvious awareness of the political umph that the term has so when you’re in already and you’re trying to mobilize political support you use the word; when you’re trying to avoid engagement you don’t.
Finally there is a tendency to point to public apathy, to take shelter in public disinterest and in this society-wide silence. That is a factor, it’s a crucial factor. I’ll talk about it as I give you the conclusion of all this, but it’s also an alibi in a sense because, of course, in foreign policy it’s very rare that the public rises up and claims a particular form of interventionism of any kind, even on behalf of trade.
To ask the grassroots to speak for the Rwandans in real time is -- I think it’s just to beg the question. While it would have done a tremendous good if that had happened because it would have agenda-set, it would have forced the administration at a high level to respond, ultimately the power that the administration has again and again from Armenia forward to characterize the images that are coming. When you see bodies clogging the Kigara River today you see genocide. But when you saw them at the beginning of May on the nightly news it was as easy to see civil war and it was as easy because the President’s top advisors and the people who were appearing every now and then to talk about what was going on were characterizing events of civil war. So it puts an awful burden on the public to sort through the spin and then to demand that their leaders behave in a certain way. I do think it’s an alibi but again we do have to deal with the political constituency issue.
9. Why it keeps happening
Now, I promised I was going to talk about the upstanders. I’d like to talk about them in the question-and-answer period if you’re interested because I think they’re very important. But I want to close in two ways. The first is to give you an example of one upstander and how it can work when it works, that is, how you can successfully change the calculus of US administrators. The second, which actually I’ll do first, is to give you just an overall summary in a sense of why it is that it keeps happening, because it’s related to the story that I want to tell you to close.
There are two accounts that we confront again and again as to why the United States doesn’t stop genocide in a particular case. Indeed now that I’ve looked at it as a whole -- I’m not quite sure why this was true but nobody had put all the cases together in one place -- but I’m sure that the same accounts would work if we were talking generally about why we didn’t stop genocide.
But certainly in the specific cases the responses have been, number one, we didn’t know. From the beginning we knew; that is, we knew that members of particular ethnic groups were being systematically murdered. Whether that knowledge was that it would be 800,000 or that it would be a million Armenians or how many it was or that it would be genocide and that it would meet everybody’s criteria for genocide is another question but we knew numbers, good approximation of numbers.
There were 145 stories in the New York Times in 1915 about the race murder of the Armenians in open sources. Never mind Henry Morganthau’s extraordinary classified cables that made it to Washington daily. We knew.
Now, Clinton, the former President, had an interesting an important adaption although we didn’t know in his Rwanda apology and that was: we didn’t fully appreciate. “We didn’t fully appreciate the depth and the speed of the unimaginable terror which engulfed you.” We didn’t fully appreciate. We can’t do we didn’t know because of this building. You can’t do we didn’t know any more. It’s just too much of a cliché of the Holocaust, we didn’t know but or we knew but we didn’t comprehend or we knew a little bit or we knew information but it wasn’t knowledge. There are so many ways of talking about a continuum of knowledge. We didn’t fully appreciate is Clintonian in that it’s a little bit like we didn’t inhale, we didn’t have sexual relations with that woman. It’s very carefully parsed, factually accurate, probably, account of what happened but it begs the question.
The reason we don’t fully appreciate and that our advisors are not banging down our door is that we send signals every day about what it is we do appreciate and what it is we do want to hear about. Those signals were censored in the aftermath of Somalia but they were sent more generically in how the President was responding to atrocities in Bosnia, which he was much more prepared to say that he cared about but he still didn’t want to go there.
It’s understandable if not forgivable that his closest advisors thought that he didn’t want to go to Rwanda, at all, and that he wouldn’t want to be bothered, and that North Korea’s pulling out of the nonproliferation treaty and MFN in China and the things that he did care about and had signaled his appreciation for would be the things that they would bother him with. So we didn’t fully appreciate doesn’t do it for me, either though it is important because I do think knowledge is on a continuum. We’ve all had that experience of reading about people dying and it’s the glazed-eye effect and then the knee-buckling knowledge that sometimes we acquire for weird reasons, serendipitous reasons, often, who our taxi driver was on a given day or what country we happened to visit on a backpacking trip or something.
For knowledge to become actionable is actually very tricky, so “we didn’t fully appreciate” -- there’s something there -- but you have to create incentives for appreciation.
The second account is we couldn’t have done much. I don’t want to get into that too much but I think that the record of US interventions when they have come, belated and soft as they have tended to be, is extraordinary, the good that we have managed to do. We have done harm. There is no question. I’m sure we’ll talk about it. But we have done tremendous good. Operation Provide Comfort repatriated more than a million Kurds. When the Kurds became a strategic problem for Turkey later and when the US had already invested its credibility in fighting the Gulf War in 1991 we aided the repatriation and we aided the Kurds. We did not do that in 1987 or ’88 but we did it well and they went home. At least in the short term we did it well.
Bosnia when we intervened we brought the war there to a close. Basically within two weeks the war was over and then the Dayton peace followed. Our leadership of that negotiation process changed the negotiation process. When it wasn’t Vance Owen but when it was Holbrooke and Christopher there in person with the President behind them it’s a wholly different kind of negotiation with the threat of force as an equalizer again also behind it.
It isn’t that we didn’t know and it isn’t that we couldn’t do much and I’m happy to flesh out either of those if you want because my account here is a little insufficient but we didn’t stop genocide as a country again and again and again because we didn’t want to. We wanted genocide stopped, of course, but we didn’t want to do that which was required to stop it, which is the same thing. We didn’t want to take the emotional, political, and indeed potentially military risk to stop the systematic destruction of groups.
I want to close with a story that I’ve been promising which is an example of when we did want to and why we wanted to. The climatic scene of the book is President Bill Clinton on the putting green after the fall at Srebrenica and after the Rwandan genocide and after just about everything else in the century, but he’s on the putting green with his numbers 2 and 3 on the National Security Council, Sandy Berger and Nancy Soderberg. He’s reacting to the fall of Srebrenica but not directly to the killing of the Muslims which I think he really did care about, the systematic murder of every Muslim man and boy, it should be added, that ended up in Bosnian Serb General Mladic’s custody.
It wasn’t that that he was responding to in the moment. It was the political fallout from that and it was enormous. Bosnia, because it was Europe, because the diplomats who worked the beat had more of the courage of their convictions than the African diplomats, frankly, than people who worked the Africa beat and self-censored much more. The Europeans were on the fast track at the State Department so when they were outraged they spoke up. They worked the dissent channel. They quit, more resignations over Bosnia than over Vietnam, shockingly, amazing, heroically.
But these dissenters were also legitimated every day by the editorial boards, by the press. The New York Times, remember, they gave it full-page coverage, two pages, full page, throughout the war with a little box updating, I mean, real ownership of this for three and a half years, and Bob Dole and a number of other people on Capitol Hill really owned this. They owned it consistently.
Dole did not make this a partisan issue. He had had an Armenian doctor who had cared for him as he recovered from his war injury. That mattered. He took a Congressional trip in 1989 to Kosovo and watched some Serb goons beat up some Albanians who had come out just to give the “V” sign and to praise America for its first visit to Kosovo. The image of the Serb people with the truncheons and the tear gas mattered. When he read about Vukovar and Dubrovnik it mattered. He criticized the Bush administration as he had the Clinton administration. He was joined. He was in cluttered company, it might be said, relative to the other genocides on Capitol Hill by everyone from Frank McClosky, the mumbling congressman from Indiana who had voted with the Clinton administration 90 percent of the time and became the conscience of the House of Representatives and was voted out of office as a result of the stand that he took and now he’s taking Serbo-Croatian at a university in Indiana. That’s another story.
Biden, Lieberman, these are people who stand a stand consistently -- but what happened after Srebrenica? It just became untenable for the President. It was a bombardment. It was what the Serbs were doing to the Muslims in Sarajevo at the time. It was daily. It was a deluge. It was unanswerable and, more crucially, it was paired with a piece of law, a piece of legislation, which was that Bob Dole after three and a half years of himself mumbling and bumbling and building slowly a constituency on Capitol Hill for this unilaterally lifted the arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims, thereby triggering a European withdrawal or at least the threat of it. I should say, the European peacekeepers were present during the war there and they had been there and they hadn’t done a terrific job but they probably saved some lives, at least, in delivering humanitarian aid. But they had said if the arms embargo is lifted we’re out of there and you know what, our NATO ally, you’re helping. You’re helping.
The President had agreed so when Dole succeeded by a veto-proof margin in lifting the arms embargo he put the President in an untenable position. His government was lifting this arms embargo, leveling the killing field, as Douglas Hurd used to say, and he was in a position where instead of saving the Muslims he was going to get involved, his troops were potentially going to get involved, in a humiliating extraction mission where all the safe areas were going to fall, it was clear. The Muslim incremental defense had been proven a myth with Srebrenica.
The scene that I describe on the putting green that has been described by others as well, which is just extraordinary, testifies to what can happen when there are political costs to doing nothing. Bob Dole’s the only upstander of the century, and Bob Dole, by the way, got Iraq incredibly wrong. Rwanda, I mean, he went on television when the Americans had been evacuated and he said well, the Americans are out. As far as I’m concerned that should be the end of it. That was Dole on Rwanda but he got Bosnia so right, and he created a political cost for the President both again by triggering this domino effect and creating the shadow of a potentially bloody US intervention on the eve of an election but also by humiliating the President by making foreign policy on Capitol Hill.
By being a presidential challenger that only helps that it was Clinton’s likely challenger in the election who was doing it, and he was the leader of the free world in that moment. At least that was the perception. So the scene on the putting green is Clinton screaming, swearing, expletives flying left and right, and he says you understand, I’m getting creamed. I am getting creamed. We have got to stop the violence. We have got to stop the killing. I am getting creamed.
Now, never mind the Bosnians, right, but it mattered because there was a cost and because he cared. He did care. But caring isn’t enough. You have to be willing to incur risks on behalf of that concern and, as I said, what then unfolded was US leadership for the first time in that three-and-a-half-year war and the conclusion of that war.
So we have got to do more. It would be nice if we saw executive leadership, enlightened leadership, on behalf of genocide prevention, which we have not seen, as I said, but if not those of us on the outside have to change the calculus and have to create steeper and quicker political costs to doing nothing.