In just 12 weeks, the world will commemorate the 10th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. That somber thought was on my mind as my friend, the distinguished African-American journalist Peter Noel, took me the other night for a tour of Harlem. We passed by Bill Clinton’s office and Peter told me how significant crowds, nearly all African-American, await the arrival most mornings of the man dubbed “America’s first black president.”
That description – originally coined in 1998 by black Nobel laureate Toni Morrison – as well as the African-American rapture for Bill Clinton is nothing short of astonishing. Calling Clinton the first black president is as ridiculous as referring to Franklin Roosevelt as the first Jewish president. Roosevelt did many great things as president. But saving Jews from the Holocaust was certainly not one of them. Likewise, whatever good Clinton did as leader of the free world, saving the blacks of Rwanda was at the very bottom of the list.
The Rwandan genocide of Tutsis by Hutus happened at a rate even quicker than the liquidation of Jews at the hands of the Germans. The best estimate is that 800,000 were killed in a hundred days, which translates to 334 murders per hour, or about six murders per minute. Most of these were low-tech executions by machete. Tens of thousands of others were horribly maimed, but did not die.
As Phillip Gourevitch explains in his definitive account of the Rwandan genocide, “We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We will Be Killed with Our Families,” President Clinton, still haunted by the murder of American soldiers in Somalia, chose to do absolutely nothing in Rwanda. Worse, his administration obstructed the efforts of other nations to stop the slaughter.
On April 21, 1994, the Canadian United Nations commander in Rwanda, Gen. Romeo Dallaire, declared that he required only 5,000 troops to bring the genocide to a rapid halt. In addition, a single bombing run against the RTLM Hutu Power radio-transmitting antenna would have made it impossible for the Hutus to coordinate their genocide. But on the very same day, the Security Council – with the Clinton administration’s blessing – ordered the U.N. force under Dallaire reduced by 90 percent to a skeleton staff of 270 troops who would powerlessly witness the slaughter to come.
This in turn was influenced by Presidential Decision Directive 25, which “amounted to a checklist of reasons to avoid American involvement in U.N. peacekeeping missions,” even though Dallaire did not seek American troops and the mission was not peacekeeping, but genocide prevention. Indeed, Madeleine Albright, the American ambassador to the United Nations, opposed leaving even this tiny U.N. force. She also pressured other countries “to duck, as the death toll leapt from thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands … the absolute low point in her career as a stateswoman.”
Finally, eight African nations, fed-up with American inaction, agreed to send in an intervention force to stop the slaughter provided that the United States would lend them 50 armored personal carriers. The Clinton administration decided it would lease rather than lend the armor for a price of $15 million. The carriers sat on a runway in Germany while the United Nations pleaded for a $5 million reduction as the genocidal inferno raged.
The story only gets worse from there, with the Clinton State Department refusing to label the Rwanda horrors a genocide because of the 1948 Genocide Convention that would have obligated the United States to intervene.
I have noticed that the past few years have seen a gradual erosion of my once considerable affection for President Clinton. I have endeavored to understand why. The Monica Lewinsky story was not the cause. As a relationship counselor, I have witnessed other essentially decent men who have been unfaithful to their wives. Less so was it Clinton’s refusal to protect the United States amid continued provocation from al-Qaida, because, while I condemn his virtual inaction, the case can still be made that only a cataclysm the magnitude of Sept. 11 could have fully awakened the United States to the threat of international terrorism.
Rather, upon reflection, I have been able to identify the precise time and cause that Bill Clinton began to so shrivel in my eyes. It was when President Bush brought the American hammer down, first in Afghanistan obliterating the women-beating Taliban, and then in Iraq, where Saddam’s genocidal assassins were sent early to their graves. Witnessing such humanitarian and heroic action, I was able to compare Clinton’s indifference with the decisiveness of a leader who finally gave meaning to the words “Never again.”
Paul O’ Neill, President Bush’s first treasury secretary, attacked his former boss recently by alleging that the Bush administration began planning an invasion of Iraq just 10 days after taking office. I hope this is true. Hearing it makes me respect President Bush even more. How can one not stand in awe of a man who, offered the levers of power, determined that finally, in the third Christian millennium, a message would be sent to the despots of the world that they would no longer prowl the earth with impunity, and that the hand of justice would reach far across the earth and sink them into a spider hole.
Watching the formerly insolent and now scared and frightened Moammar Gadhafi meekly ratify the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty this week gave me hope that in this new world, presided over by a determined global leader, justice was growing larger even as the bullies of the past were growing smaller. How sad and tragic that a two-term American president is shrinking along with them.