In April 1993, the new president of the United States dedicated the new Holocaust Museum in Washington. Clinton said: “The evil represented in this museum is incontestable, but as we are its witness, so must we remain its adversary in the world in which we live.”
On January 26, 1999, after watching Frontline‘s “The Triumph of Evil,” a report on the holocaust in Rwanda, John Koch of The Boston Globe wrote about how that PBS program contrasted “Clinton’s platitudes [at the Holocaust Museum] and a view of the serene Potomac with footage of Hutus methodically dismembering their victims [the Tutsis], some of whom were still alive.”
Parts of that scalding Frontline program originated with the BBC, but Frontline producers Mike Robinson and Ben Loeterman added new material focusing on America’s lethal refusal to prevent— and later stop— the killing in Rwanda.
On camera, James Woods, deputy assistant secretary at the Defense Department from 1986 to 1994, says: “In the spring of ’93, when the Clinton administration came in, we were asked to develop lists of what we thought would be serious crises this administration might face . . . I put Rwanda on the list, but I received guidance from higher authorities: ‘If something happens in Rwanda-Burundi, we don’t care.
” ‘Take it off the list. United States national interest is not involved, and you know, we can’t put all these silly humanitarian interests on lists— unlike important problems like the Middle East, North Korea. . . . ‘ ”
Before 1993, the Hutu majority in Rwanda had long nurtured a deep resentment against the Tutsi minority who had been, under Belgian rule, the country’s aristocracy, subjugating the Hutu underclass.
After independence in the late 1950s, the Hutus seized power and oppressed the Tutsis. Following a civil war, the Hutus agreed to share power with the Tutsis, but, the pact was doomed because Hutu hatred of their former overlords was too deep.
Before the killings started, Kofi Annan (then in charge of the UN’s peacekeeping mission and now UN secretary general) was told that the Hutus were piling up weapons and that the UN forces there could seize those weapons. Annan refused to give the order— although many lives could have been saved.
UN commanders in Rwanda also told Kofi Annan that an order had been given to register all Tutsis in Kigali, the nation’s capital. They were to be exterminated. Still, the UN did not act.
Belgium tried to at least get the UN to increase the peacekeeping forces in Rwanda, but failed. As Alan Kuperman pointed out in the December 29, 1998, Washington Post:
“The United States blocked this final effort to bolster the peacekeepers prior to the genocide. . . . Washington was acting on Clinton’s new peacekeeping policy (eventually codified as Presidential Decision Directive 25), drafted in the wake of U.S. casualties in Somalia in October 1993.”
As Philip Gourevitch reports in his book, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), Clinton ordered in that presidential directive that America avoid being involved in UN peace missions— and urged that the United States should persuade other nations not to get involved in any peacekeeping missions that the United States didn’t want to join.
The genocide began. As early as the end of April 1994, Frontline revealed, a secret State Department intelligence report called the killings genocide.
On Frontline, Tony Marley, a consultant at the State Department in 1994, says that a Clinton administration official cautioned him that in view of the coming congressional elections, the Democrats could lose votes if Clinton “admitted that genocide was taking place in Rwanda and was seen to do nothing about it. . . . It indicated to me that the calculation was based on whether or not there was popular pressure to take action— rather than taking action because it was the right thing to do.”
William Jefferson Clinton survives because of his close— often daily— attention to polls telling him the popular thing to do.
Frontline‘s narrator on “The Triumph of Evil”:
“The objective reality of what was happening in Rwanda couldn’t be kept quiet forever. Rwanda’s dead had begun to float downstream into the outside world. The country was literally overflowing with corpses.”
At one point, Tony Marley recommended that, at least, American military radio equipment could be used to jam Hutu radio transmissions, which were urging that not a single Tutsi be left alive. (“All Tutsis will perish! They will disappear from the earth.”)
Marley’s suggestion was turned down. “In fact,” Marley told Frontline, “one lawyer from the Pentagon made the argument that [jamming the Hutu radio] would be contrary to the United States constitutional protection of freedom of the press and freedom of speech.”
The Clinton administration had presented the Hutu assassins with our First Amendment to get the president off the hook.
In his book, Philip Gourevitch tells of a conversation at a bar in Rwanda’s capital city with an American intelligence officer:
“I hear you’re interested in genocide,” the American said. “Do you know what genocide is? A cheese sandwich. Write it down. Genocide is a cheese sandwich.
“What does anyone care about a cheese sandwich? Genocide, genocide, genocide. Cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich. Who gives a shit? Did you see a crime committed against you? Hey, just a million Rwandans [were massacred]. The international Geneva Convention [which provides for humane treatment of prisoners] makes a nice wrapping for a cheese sandwich.”
And Clinton ate it. You can’t blame Ken Starr for that.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 2, 1999