Just about every day, George W. Bush or his acolytes lie about why his administration is about to attack Iraq. Often these distortions are preposterous. An obvious example is Mr. Bush's dismissal of the United Nations as irrelevant because other Security Council members refuse to buckle under to U.S. demands. In fact, it's the United States that's done most to undermine the UN in the recent past, not least by withholding hundreds of millions of dollars that it's owed in dues.
But there are depths even Mr. Bush shouldn't be allowed to plumb without rebuttal. This week, his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, reached these limits. Pouring contempt on the UN's record of inaction, Mr. Fleischer said on Monday that, "from the moral point of view, as the world witnessed in Rwanda . . . the UN Security Council will have failed to act once again." In a literal sense, he is dead right; the Security Council did fail miserably in 1994. But his insinuation distorts what happened. With the ninth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide only weeks away, certain truths mustn't become casualties of U.S. spin doctors.
To begin, Mr. Fleischer should review an interview between ABC's Sam Donaldson and Mr. Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign. When Mr. Donaldson asked him what he would do if "God forbid, another Rwanda should take place," Mr. Bush replied: "We should not send our troops to stop ethnic cleansing and genocide outside our strategic interests. . . . I would not send the United States troops into Rwanda."
Second, as Mr. Fleischer must surely know, the Security Council failed to intervene in Rwanda because Washington opposed any such intervention. This was the stance pushed by UN ambassador Madeleine Albright on behalf of the Clinton administration, and the position of Republicans in Congress. A rare moment of U.S. political consensus allowed a clique of Rwandan extremists to orchestrate one of the classical cases of genocide in the 20th century, annihilating some 800,000 Tutsis and thousands of moderate Hutus.
To highlight today's moral irony, America's efforts to prevent the Security Council from intervening in Rwanda was fervently seconded by none other than Britain, then led by John Major. No wonder the world cringes when Tony Blair makes "the moral case" for invading Iraq and when Mr. Fleischer uses the phrase "the moral point of view."
Let me stress that none of this is either esoteric or in dispute. Bill Clinton himself later went to Rwanda and publicly apologized for his failure to act, although he blamed his ignorance for his inaction. He was lying. The truth has been thoroughly documented. A 1999 TV documentary by BBC/PBS featured senior U.S. officials acknowledging that the administration had known exactly what was happening in Rwanda throughout the months of the genocide and deliberately chose to allow it to happen. A report I wrote the following year expanded the evidence, and a knockout blow was delivered last year in Samantha Power's formidable study, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.
It is true that many others abandoned Rwanda as well, most notably those passionate opponents of the impending war against Iraq: France and the Roman Catholic Church. Both, with unparalleled influence within Rwanda, could very possibly have stopped the genocide before it began. Neither even tried.
But once the genocide was launched, the U.S. role at the Security Council was decisive. America alone possessed the influence and the resources to mobilize the kind of military force that General Romeo Dallaire, sitting in Rwanda commanding a puny UN military mission, repeatedly begged for. Coming as it did only months after the humiliating deaths of 18 U.S. Rangers in Somalia, with the Republicans denouncing the folly of foreign interventions, Mr. Clinton wasn't prepared to risk losing a single vote over a mere genocide. For domestic political reasons, his administration repeatedly made sure that the Security Council delivered no reinforcements to the UN mission, even going so far as to sabotage attempts to do so. As a result, during the entire 100 days of slaughter, not a single extra soldier or bullet arrived in Rwanda to help Gen. Dallaire stop the slaughter.
The world, led by the Americans, abandoned Rwanda at its time of peril. In all decency, the least we can expect now is that Mr. Bush doesn't compound the betrayal by invoking the genocide to justify his own unjust war.
Gerald Caplan is the author of Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide, the report of the international panel of eminent persons that investigated the 1994 slaughter in Rwanda.
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