Bill Clinton May Be Sorry, but the President Made the Right Choice
Facing a large group of Rwandans gathered at the Kigali airport, many maimed survivors of the genocidal brutality that swept over the small sub-Saharan nation in 1994, President Clinton all but apologized that the United States and the international community had failed to react firmly and swiftly to stop attacks by ethnic Hutus against the minority Tutsi tribe. It is understandable that, standing in Africa’s version of the “killing fields,” Bill Clinton the man would feel such powerful, emotional regret. But given the military and political risks that would have been required to halt a bloody civil war in a distant place well below the horizon of American strategic interests, Bill Clinton the president has little to apologize for.
The carnage in Rwanda erupted shortly after a mysterious plane crash killed President Juvenal Habyarimana on April 6, 1994. A well-organized campaign began immediately by the Hutu-dominated government resulting in the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis. In response, the Tutsis’ Rwandan Patriotic Front attacked toward Kigali, reigniting a civil war that had been calmed through efforts of the Organization of African States and the United Nations the year before. The conflict ended three months later with the RPF controlling the capital, the Rwandan Army pushed into eastern Zaire, 800,000 Hutus and Tutsis dead, 2 million in refugee camps outside Rwanda and 1 million internally displaced. By any standard, the episode was an offense to human decency.
There were calls in the international community for a multilateral intervention to stop the murderous conflict. U.S. officials opposed declaring the actions of the Hutus to be “genocide,” a step that would have mandated international intervention. This step and the refusal to send additional forces to back up the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda apparently are what Clinton expressed such an enormous degree of contrition for. Nonetheless, there was little he could have done.
First, when it comes to providing external, stabilizing forces in sub-Saharan Africa, the burden has traditionally fallen to France and Belgium. As the former colonial masters of the region, Paris and Brussels retain major residual interests there and have the most detailed expertise about the population and local politics. The U.N. force in place in the spring of 1994, commanded by Canadian Major Gen. Romeo Dallaire, contained roughly 2,500 troops. When the killings began, among the first casualties were the Rwandan prime minister and her bodyguard of 10 Belgian peacekeepers. They were hacked to death. Brussels immediately withdrew its contingent from the U.N. force. This was a clear assessment by a NATO ally of the dangers that Washington could hardly have ignored.
Second, American public opinion was running against such action following events in Somalia the previous October. After having lost 19 Army Rangers in a gun battle in Mogadishu, supporting what was to have been a humanitarian effort to relieve local suffering, the public was in no mood for another African intervention, especially one involving the United Nations.
Finally, the scope of the operation would have been enormous. Rwanda is a nation about the size of Maryland whose 7 million people live in one of sub-Saharan Africa’s highest population densities. Experience suggests that a force of at least 38,000, the equivalent of an Army corps, would have been required. Supplying a force even half this size is a huge undertaking, not to mention the logistics required to deal with the needs of the local population for food, clean water and medicine. Since there were not enough airplanes or airfields to support the operation with airlift alone, a ground supply route would have been necessary. From Mombasa, Kenya, the closest port, an enormous number of trucks would have had to carry supplies over unimproved roads a distance equal to that from Washington to Kansas City.
Meanwhile, the crisis in Haiti was growing and culminated in September 1994 when 20,000 American troops landed on the island, removing the military junta. Haiti also has a population of 7 million, but is only 700 miles from Miami and can easily be reached and supplied by the U.S. Navy. Simultaneously, conditions in Bosnia were continuing to deteriorate and plans were being refined for a possible intervention there, one finally executed with another 20,000 troops in December 1995.
President Clinton is quoted in the Pentagon’s 1996 annual report as saying, “America cannot and must not be the world’s policeman.” The administration has established detailed criteria for the use of force including public support, the intention of “like-minded nations” to contribute forces, the existence of “defined objectives” and the willingness “to commit sufficient forces” to achieve them. In Rwanda, despite the horror of what was happening and its insult to the values of the American people, there was little that the president could reasonably--or responsibly--have done.
When the situation stabilized, the U.S. airlifted in substantial humanitarian aid and a force to guard the airfield and aid distribution centers. Bill Clinton no doubt regrets what happened in Rwanda and is personally pained by the stories of the survivors who lived through it. But President Clinton made the right strategic choice. There was little else he could or should have done.